Originally published in the Swedenborg Foundation’s newsletter Logos, in the spring of 2005.
By Olle Hjern
Last winter’s issue of Logos featured a story about the New Century Edition’s forthcoming companion volume of essays, Scribe of Heaven: Swedenborg’s Life, Work, and Impact. Olle Hjern, the Stockholm pastor of the Lord’s New Church Which Is Nova Hierosolyma, contributed an essay for the volume, titled “The Influence of Emanuel Swedenborg in Scandinavia.” Here are three paragraphs from that essay, highlighting aspects of Swedenborg’s impact on philanthropic pursuits in Sweden. Of particular interest is Hjern’s discussion of the impetus Swedenborg’s teachings gave to Swedish ecumenicism—the promotion of religious unity.
In general, the Swedenborgians of Sweden were confirmed abolitionists and organized themselves to implement their beliefs. In 1787, the naturalist Anders Sparrman (1748–1820) and Carl Bernhard Wadström (1746–1799), one of the founding members of the Exegetic and Philanthropic Society, visited Mezurado (present-day Monrovia, Liberia) and began to propagate the idea of the district serving as a haven for liberated slaves. Under the leadership of Wadström, and in conjunction with August Nordenskjöld (1754–1792) and English abolitionists, Swedenborgians actually did found a colony at Sierra Leone in West Africa. Though it held much promise, it survived only for a brief time. Others worked without the benefit of such organizations; for example, Governor Salomon Maurits von Rajalin (1757–1825), an acknowledged Swedenborgian, tried unsuccessfully to end reliance on the slavery system in the Swedish West Indian colony of St. Barthélemy.
Swedenborgian theology supported women, too, in philanthropic endeavor. Frederika Bremer (1801–1865) found two aspects of Swedenborg’s writings particularly influential: his emphasis on the importance of being of use to one’s neighbor, and his insistence that women should be free of domination by men. She traveled to America, most likely drawn to Swedenborgian contacts in New England; later the same interest took her to London. In America she studied social relationships, focusing on slavery and the preparation for the emigration of liberated slaves to Liberia in West Africa.
Although, strictly speaking, ecumenicism may not be considered a component of philanthropy, it springs from the same source. Swedenborgians have contributed to striking advances in ecumenicism, following their leader’s belief that the particular form of worship is not important, so long as the worshipper has the intention to live morally and do good. The World’s Parliament of Religions of 1893, initiated by Swedenborgians in Chicago, had immediate consequences in Sweden. On the initiative of New Church minister Albert Björck (1856–1938), a close collaboration began among Björck, the Jewish rabbi Gottlieb Klein (1852–1914), the liberal Christian scholar S. A. (Samuel Andreas) Fries (1867–1914), and the young minister and student of religions Nathan Söderblom (1836–1931). The result was a congress that took place in Stockholm in 1897. Björck and Söderblom, who were close friends, formed an organization that can be said to have been the beginning of the movement for a religious dialog and ecumenicism as a whole within Sweden.