Originally published in the Swedenborg Foundation’s newsletter Logos, in the winter of 2006.
By Stuart Shotwell, Managing Editor, New Century Edition
Swedenborg published the first volume of what is certainly his richest trove of spiritual treasures, Arcana Coelestia, or Secrets of Heaven, in September 1749. Around the beginning of November, a letter was sent to him, apparently from his London printer, advising him that the sales had been very poor. Though we do not have the letter itself, we have a note concerning it that appears in §4422 of his diary:
“I received a letter to the effect that not more than four copies had been sold within two months. When this fact was made known to the angels, they were actually surprised; but they observed that it must be left to the providence of the Lord, which is such that it compels no one.”
Undaunted, and doubtless consoling himself with the thought that the Lord’s providence would unfold in its own good time, he continued work on Secrets of Heaven through an eighth volume, which was published in 1756.
Time confirmed his trust. It is not known how many copies of Secrets of Heaven were sold and how many were given away, but it seems that they all eventually found some kind of home and were put to use. Many of those that were sold in England became the seeds of the New Church movement there. Some crossed the ocean to the Americas. Some were offered to libraries; for example, the Bodleian Library at Oxford has a copy “sent by the author unknown.” Some sets Swedenborg gave to various Swedish church officials—for example, Bishop Charles Frederic Menander (1712–1786), Bishop Engelbert Halenius (1700–1767), and Pastor Olof Celsius (1716–1794). In 1766, Swedenborg scouted up copies at a bookseller’s in London in order to complete a set for his friend Dr. Gabriel Beyer (1720–1779) and to forward another set through Beyer to Bishop Eric Lamberg (1719–1780).
By 1771 it seemed to be impossible for even the author to find a set. In that year Ludwig IX, the Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt (1719–1790), contacted Swedenborg and asked about acquiring Secrets of Heaven. Unfortunately, Swedenborg had to beg off sending Ludwig a copy, saying:
“It is no longer to be found; for all the copies, both those in England and those in Holland, have been sold. I know that some persons in Sweden have it. I will write to two of them and ask whether they are willing to sell it for a price.”
One of those “persons in Sweden” was Bishop Lamberg, who had by then proven to be a bitter enemy to Swedenborg’s teachings. It is indicative of Swedenborg’s perfect assurance in his mission that he boldly wrote to a man who had denounced the new theology and asked him to send back Secrets of Heaven for the use of a potential believer. (It seems unlikely that the bishop complied.)
Soon after his communication with the Landgrave, Swedenborg went to London, where he was destined to end his days on earth. On the last occasion when he received the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, it was performed privately for him by Arvid Ferelius (1725– 1793), a Swedish minister resident in London. In gratitude for this service, which Swedenborg certainly knew to be his last such sacrament, he gave Ferelius a set of Secrets of Heaven. It is Ferelius who gives us our final sales report on the work: he wrote that at that time “only nine copies remained unsold”; these were to be sent to Holland, presumably to buyers or booksellers there. It is not impossible that one copy was intended for the Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt.
Where did these last copies come from? We can only surmise that in his final days Swedenborg happened on a cache of unsold sets at some London bookseller’s—and promptly sent them onwards into the world.
For today’s publishers of Swedenborg, the lesson in this little history of the sales of Secrets of Heaven is not far to seek. Swedenborg was not deterred by small initial sales. He waited for providence to act in its own time. Volume by volume, set by set, Secrets of Heaven went out into the world and did its work.
Swedenborg did not, however, assume that relying on providence meant that his own active effort to boost sales was not required. He refashioned his message into new “products” —including the vivid descriptions of Heaven and Hell, the serene discourse of Divine Love and Wisdom, the plain talk of Divine Providence, and the bold challenges to conventional belief in True Christianity.
The Swedenborg Foundation is, in a sense, following the same plan. Its core mission has been to continue the publication of Secrets of Heaven and the other theological works of Swedenborg, a purpose to which it has adhered confidently for over 150 years.
As was the case in the initial years of Swedenborg’s publishing, for much of the Foundation’s history the sales of Swedenborg’s works were slow. As recently as the 1990s, some titles sold only sixty copies a year. However, with the publication of the first five volumes of the New Century Edition series of Swedenborg’s works (NCE) starting in 2000, sales have increased dramatically. In these first years of the new century, over 20,000 hardcover and paperback NCE volumes have been sold, and the electronic versions (available at www.newcenturyedition.org) have been downloaded over 30,000 times. The Foundation anticipates steadily increasing sales as further NCE volumes are published—and more titles are indeed on the way. Next to appear will be the NCE flagship: the first volume of Secrets of Heaven.
Again following Swedenborg’s lead, the Foundation plans to offer the theo-logical works in a variety of forms, like the very portable Afterlife: A Guided Tour of Heaven and Its Wonders, a recent publication based on the NCE version of Heaven and Hell. In the case of Secrets of Heaven, its groundbreaking first chapter will also appear as an independent, attention-getting pamphlet.
The angels noted that no one is compelled to look into Swedenborg’s writings. But as the long sales history of Secrets of Heaven shows, his writings are destined to find readers all the same. And that is something the angels would not be surprised to hear.
In this passage from the beginning of §4422 of Swedenborg’s diary of spiritual experiences, the author’s quiet confidence is striking: the new knowledge reaching the world “through him” is to be accepted only voluntarily. In particular, the heading of the section, which is Swedenborg’s own, points to the manner in which this acceptance will take place, rather than its end result. As is often the case in diary entries made solely for the writer’s personal use, the style is terse and elliptical.
How It Will Come about That Many People Will Accept What Is Being Written through Me
“I received a letter to the effect that not more than four copies had been sold within two months. When this fact was made known to the angels, they were actually surprised; but they observed that it must be left to the providence of the Lord, which is such that it compels no one—which could have been the case, except that it is not fitting that any should read it before those who are in a state of faith.
This principle is known from the Lord’s coming into the world. He too could have compelled the faith-less to believe him and his words, but he compels no one. Likewise in regard to the apostles who came after him. All the same, people were found who believed, because they were in a state of faith, and the apostles were in fact sent to [find] them.”