By Tisa M. Anders, MDiv, PhD
People grieve in a variety of ways. As such, different techniques and strategies are needed. Lydia Maria Child (1802–1880) provides one such approach. Maria, an author and activist in nineteenth-century America, turned to Emanuel Swedenborg’s understandings of the afterlife. She sought to bring comfort to herself and her readership when family and friends passed away. Swedenborg’s ideas and her interpretation of them gave her peace about their current whereabouts as well as hope for future, spiritual reunions. She wanted to impart the same security and serenity to others. Due to her notoriety as one of the most well-known authors of her time, when Maria Child wrote, people read and people listened. Her words of comfort flew across the nation.[i]
Maria chose Swedenborgianism in the early 1820s when she joined the Boston New Church. She experienced Swedenborg’s ideas as a breath of fresh, theological air. The fellowship of Maria’s congregation along with the theological feeding of her mind and spirit in that early decade provided the strong foundation for her next fifty years of reform work. While she left the congregation and denomination in 1828, Swedenborgian philosophy remained with her until her own death in 1880.
The tenacity of her Swedenborgian beliefs can be seen in several letters where she talked about the afterlife. In an 1870 correspondence to long-time friend Lucy Osgood, she spoke eloquently of what she hoped would be in store for her in heaven. She interspersed Swedenborg’s ideas throughout the communiqué:
Swedenborg says we dwell in houses in the other world. . . . If so, I intend to speak for a home copied after yours; the modern paper with its golden gleams, the old centenarian cats, and all. But I think there will be no need of having one built; for I shall carry it inside of my soul, and shall only need to have the subjective become objective, which Swedenborg describes as a frequent occurrence there.[ii]
Additional aspects of the afterlife soothed her: “It is a comfort to believe that when we pass into another sphere of being, if anything remains of us, it must be the inmost. If so, my life hereafter will be love of beauty and love of use . . .”[iii]
In another missive, Maria even speculated about what kind of spirit she would make! She called upon Swedenborgian theology to guide her ponderings:
What sort of Spirit I shall make, I cannot conjecture; but I know enough for my good; for I know that the more humble and the more useful I try to be here, the wiser I shall be there. These words of Swedenborg are always present with me: “The wiser the angels are, the more innocent they are; and the more innocent they are, the more they appear to themselves as infants.”[iv]
She used these understandings as the content of her public pieces and personal letters of empathy and sympathy when loved ones died. To begin, in a popular book of her essays, one article’s primary purpose was to console families who had lost infants. In the opening lines, she explained:
You say you have the most intense longing to form some distinct idea of the present existence of the dear babe you have lost; and therefore urge me to explain what are Swedenborg’s teachings concerning the future life; particularly the state of those who die in infancy. The information, even if it has any weight with you, will not soothe the grief of mere natural affection, or satisfy any selfish craving of the heart. But if all thoughts of self are merged in the wish for your child’s spiritual welfare, a belief in Swedenborg’s testimony would make you happy.[v]
She then discussed Swedenborg’s ideas of heavenly babies:
We are told that infants who die, enter the other world as infants. As they had here only the rudiments of capacity to become men, so they have there the rudiments of capacity to become angels. . . . [F]or not being encumbered with a material body, . . . they can act at once from their souls, and thus walk and speak without practice. . . . As soon as their souls leave the body, they are folded in the arms of angels . . .[vi]
When friend and fellow abolitionist Parke Godwin and his wife’s baby died in 1860, Maria sent her condolences. In that letter, she quoted several paragraphs from Swedenborg regarding his beliefs about infants, innocence, and the heavenly realm.[vii]
In a letter of sympathy to dear friend Sarah Shaw at the death of her son Colonel Robert Shaw during the Civil War, Maria sympathetically penned:
If the report be true, may our Heavenly Father sustain you under this heavy sorrow. Severe as the blow must be, it is not altogether without consolations. If your beautiful and brave boy has died, he died nobly in the defence of great principles, and has gone to join the glorious army of martyrs; and how much more sacred and dear to memory is such a life and such a death, than a life spent in self-indulgence, gradually impairing the health, and weakening the mental powers. Your darling Robert made the most of the powers and advantages God had given him, by consecrating them to the defence of freedom and humanity. Such a son in the spirit-world is worth ten living here for themselves only.[viii]
Colonel Shaw led one of the first all-black troops with white officers in the Civil War. In that same letter to his mother, Maria reminded Mrs. Shaw that she and her son would one day see each other again in heaven: “You will meet him a serene angel, endowed with larger vision, and better understanding why it is that we are doomed to suffer here.”[ix] Thirteen years later in 1876, Maria again spoke of Colonel Shaw’s other-worldly demeanor to his mother: “I thought of you, as I read the article [on spiritualism], and imagined how it would rejoice your loving soul to have the light of the spiritual world beam into your room, and reveal Robert, just as he is now.”[x]
A colleague of Maria’s reviewed the collection of essays mentioned above which contained the article on Swedenborgianism, babies, and heaven. He opined: “The prominent feature of Mrs. Child is hopefulness.” That is precisely what she had in mind when calling upon Swedenborg’s ideas of the afterlife. In people’s devastating times of grief, she desired to give them comfort and hope.
Tisa M. Anders is active in the National Coalition of Independent Scholars, the Founder and CEO of Writing the World, LLC, a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and the author of a forthcoming book to be published by the Swedenborg Foundation on Lydia Maria Child’s spiritual life.
[i] Maria’s personal letters as well as one of her public essays are included in this article. The abolitionists’ personal correspondence often was posted in their newspapers. Additionally, several volumes of her correspondence have been published over the years, including one during her lifetime. Thus, Maria’s letters frequently made their way beyond the original intended recipient.
[ii] CC, 73–1939, LMC to Lucy Osgood, 13 April 1870.
[iii] SL, 489, LMC to Eliza Scudder, 6 February 1870.
[iv] CC, 45–1219, LMC to [Lucy Searle], 15 May 1860.
[v] LNY2, 202, LETTER XXII, “Swedenborg’s Views of the Future Life. The Doctrine of Correspondence. Spiritual Correspondences of Music.”
[vi] LNY2, 203–4.
[vii] CC, 44–1204, LMC to [Parke Godwin], 7 March 1860.
[viii] SL, 433–4, LMC to Sarah Shaw, 25 July 1863.
[ix] SL, 433–4, LMC to Sarah Shaw, 25 July 1863.
[x] CC, 86–2261, LMC to [Sarah Blake (Sturgis) Shaw], 27 January 1876.
Sources and Further Reading
Anders, Tisa M. “Religion and Advocacy Politics in the Career of L. Maria Child.” PhD diss., University of Denver/Iliff School of Theology, 2002.
_________. Never Stifling the Voice of Conscience: L. Maria Child’s Spiritual Journey. West Chester, Pennsylvania: Swedenborg Foundation (forthcoming).
Child, L. Maria. Letters from New York, Second Series. New York: C.S. Francis & Co., 1845. In Notes, referenced as LNY2.
Holland, Patricia G., Milton Meltzer, and Francine Krasno, eds. The Collected Correspondence of Lydia Maria Child, 1817–1880. Millwood, New York: Kraus Microform, 1980. In Notes, referenced as CC; and Maria Child referenced as LMC.
Karcher, Carolyn. The First Women in the Republic: A Cultural Biography of Lydia Maria Child. Durham: Duke University Press, 1994.
Meltzer, Milton and Patricia G. Holland, eds. Lydia Maria Child: Selected Letters, 1817–1880. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1982. In Notes, referenced as SL; and Maria Child referenced as LMC.
Poole, Susan Flagg. Lost Legacy: Inspiring Women of Nineteenth-Century America. West Chester, Pennsylvania: Chyrsalis Books, 1999.
Swedenborg, Emanuel. Heaven and Hell. Translated by George F. Dole. West Chester, Pennsylvania: Swedenborg Foundation, 1976.
Woofenden, Louise. “Over the River.” CHRYSALIS: Journal of the Swedenborg Foundation 1, Issue 2 (Summer 1986): 122, 129.