Why Was Swedenborg Chosen?

Swedenborg emphasizes in his writings that most people aren’t able to know anything about the spiritual world, let alone see it. However, this knowledge was granted to him by the Lord so that he may share it with the rest of the world. But why Swedenborg? Does he give any hints in his writings about why he was chosen to have such a responsibility? This question came up recently in the Swedenborg Foundation’s Watching & Reading Swedenborg Facebook group, and below, Rev. Dr. James F. Lawrence and John Connolly tackle the topic. 

Swedenborg describes the extraordinary change in consciousness, or spiritual sight, that he was undergoing as being a result of his calling to take on a new mission.

The things represented spiritually by the acts of life do not come to the knowledge of the men themselves unless this be the good pleasure of God Messiah. Sometimes it occurs a long time afterward, as was also the case with me. . . . At the time I did not perceive what the acts of my life involved, but afterward I was instructed concerning some of them, nay, concerning a number; and from these I could at last plainly see that the tenor of Divine Providence has ruled the acts of my life from my very youth, and has so governed them that I might finally come to the present end; that thus, by means of the knowledge of natural things, I might be able to understand those things which lie more interiorly within the Word of God Messiah, and so . . . might serve as an instrument for opening them.[1]

In the earliest days of this transformation, he writes in marvel about his daily “second sight”; and for the rest of his life, he often wrote and spoke to others about it. For example, the Rev. F. Okely, who was acquainted with Swedenborg, wrote in a letter to the Rev. J. Wesley that

[Swedenborg] spoke with all the coolness and deliberation you might expect from any, the most sober and rational man. Yet what he said was out of my sphere of intelligence, when he related his sight of, and daily conversation in, the world of spirits, with which he declared himself better acquainted than with this.[2]

However, there are no extant records in his or others’ words that have him saying why he was chosen for the special role of bringing forth the inner sense of the Word and all the spiritual theology and teachings that were shaped through that sense. In her well-known biographical account, devoted Swedenborgian Cyriel Odhner Sigstedt states quite plainly that

by [Swedenborg’s] remarkable vision of April, 1745, the meaning of his life had been explained to him and his sadness had been turned into joy, his disquietude into comforting assurance. A commission had been given him by the Lord. What specific commands he received during the quarter hour of his divine inauguration we do not know. What we do know is that immediately afterward Swedenborg entered upon an exhaustive study of the Sacred Scriptures and that this fully engaged him for the next three years.[3]

In fact, as it would be an uncharacteristic self-aggrandizement for him to speak about himself in this way, it is not surprising that we have no such record.

The thought occurred to Swedenborg that there might be those who would take him for a holy man and not only venerate him as such but even adore him as a saint. This would be an enormous sin. Earnestly he entreated the Lord that he might have no part in so great a sin. Christ alone is to be adored. He himself was unworthy more than others, and his sins were greater than those of others, coming from a deeper source. “This much have I now learned, in regard to what is spiritual, that there is nothing for it but to humble oneself . . . the Holy Spirit taught me this but I, in my stupid understanding, had neglected humility, which is the foundation of everything.”[4]

In the absence of any definitive word from Swedenborg himself, over the years students of his writings have speculated as to why he, rather than someone else, was chosen. Their theories have generally been based on recognizing a combination of three attributes that deeply mark Swedenborg’s character.

The first was his exceptional intellectual capability for having the insight needed to embark upon the colossal task that lay before him. Swedenborg’s historically noteworthy talents in natural science, which were highlighted by his being able to see the next stage of understanding, make up the heart of why he holds a long list of documented “firsts” in inventions and scientific theories that later would be proven as theorems. While Swedenborg was humble in his self-portrayal, he did offer an explanation for his transition from philosopher[5] to mystic:

From being a philosopher I have been chosen [because] spiritual things which are being revealed at the present day may be taught and understood naturally and rationally: for spiritual truths have a correspondence with natural truths, because in these they terminate, and upon these they rest. . . . There is a correspondence of all spiritual things with all things of man, as well as with all things of the earth. . . . For this reason I was introduced by the Lord first into the natural sciences, and thus prepared; and, indeed, from the year 1710 to 1744, when heaven was opened to me. Every one also is led by means of natural things to spiritual things; for man is born natural; by education he is made moral, and afterwards by regeneration from the Lord he becomes spiritual.[6]

The second quality of note was his legendary stamina. As a lifelong bachelor known for his immense productivity and singular devotion to the quest for understanding the nature of things, Swedenborg had the resilience to see his work through. Before it was all over, he produced something close to 20,000 pages of published and unpublished writings.

The third attribute centers on the quality of his integrity and his devotion to God. There are no marks of scandal or any trace of improper behavior in his long public career or in the memoirs of his extensive social network. And long before being given his commission in 1745, Swedenborg had devoted himself to working toward a body of knowledge that would help an increasingly disbelieving intelligentsia accept that God is real, that God is entirely good, and that God has a purpose for everyone.

Swedenborg’s own words on our triune human nature might shed some light on the above assessment of his character:

Our general essential components are our soul, our body, and the things we do. These three components combine to make one essence, as you can see from the fact that one component comes from and exists for the other in an unbroken chain. We begin from our soul. . . . Our soul not only initiates but also sequentially produces the features of our body. Then there are the things we do, which come from both our soul and our body. Because one of these components produces another, and therefore the subsequent components are grafted onto and connected to those that came before them, it follows that these three components share one essence. This is why they are called the three essential components.[7]

Without Swedenborg’s three qualities of perception, perseverance, and integrity, the magnificent body of work that sees through to a new Christianity, to an all-encompassing picture of the cosmos and the spiritual worlds that permeate it, and to the divine love and wisdom that holds it all here for us would not have been attainable. In his address given at the 200th anniversary celebration of the publication of Arcana Caelestia in London on June 21, 1949, the Right Rev. Alfred Acton declared the following:

There have been many men who have claimed to be revelators, but most if not all of these men have received their revelation by a dictation of some sort, and have at once proclaimed their mission and promulgated their so-called revelation. In this respect Swedenborg was unique—for it was three years from the time of his call before he put his pen to paper to write the first of those works that mark the Second Coming of the Lord. In those three years he laboured; he wrote thousands of pages of manuscript; he read the Bible through and through many times; he wrote and indexed his experiences in the spiritual world, and he studied and mastered the Hebrew language. These three years constitute the last stage of Swedenborg’s preparation for his mission as Revelator. Such preparation would not have been necessary for a dictated revelation, but for a rational revelation it was indispensable. . . .

The Writings were not dictated to Swedenborg. The Lord did not dictate to him as He dictated to the Prophets of the Old Testament. The revealed truths did not come to him in the form of words and sentences. They came to him in the form of inspiration from within. The nature of Swedenborg’s inspiration was perception—perception such as it was in the Golden Age when men, undefiled by the evils of the proprium, perceived the presence of God in the kingdom of nature. Swedenborg wrote the words of our Revelation as of himself, but he wrote from Divine inspiration. That inspiration, however, differed from the inspiration of the men of the Golden Age, in that the perception of spiritual and celestial truths which he had from inspiration could clothe itself with corresponding philosophical, rational, and scientific truths.[8]

Rev. Dr. James F. Lawrence is Dean of the Center for Swedenborgian Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. In addition to Swedenborgian studies and ministry practices, he also teaches courses in Christian Spirituality and New Religious Movements. John Connolly is the editor at the Swedenborg Foundation.

Notes

[1] Swedenborg, The Word Explained §2532.

[2] Document 278, “The Rev. F. Okely on Swedenborg,” in R. L. Tafel, Documents Concerning the Life and Character of Emanuel Swedenborg, vol. 2, part 2 (London: Swedenborg Society, 1877), 696.

[3] Cyriel Odhner Sigstedt, The Swedenborg Epic (New York: Bookman Associates, 1952), 203.

[4] Sigstedt, Swedenborg Epic, 186.

[5] By broadening the very parameters of what it means to be a philosopher, though, one might gain a better sense of Swedenborg’s own understanding of the nature of that discipline:

The term Philosopher includes much more than we generally associate with it. It means not merely to describe the man who has an onsight regarding the organic laws of nature, or who has a thorough insight of the mechanism of this world, or whatever in this world is subject to the laws of geometry, or which is capable of being apprehended by experience, assisted by reason and culture. By a philosopher we mean a man who, by various processes of culture, experience, and spiritual greatness, is able to arrive at the real causes, and the knowledge of those effects in the mechanical world which are invisible and remote from the senses; and who, standing on some central platform of perception, is capable of reasoning from the first principles or causes to effects in nature;—who can scan the whole objective universe, and demonstrate that it is the expressed and defined effect of a grand subjective cosmos lying under, around, and above it. A philosopher, in one word, is a man who has his intellect intromitted into the world of causes, and who reasons from spirit to matter, and from cause to effect; and who, in the depths of his being, venerates Deity, and intellectually loves to trace the operations of Divine love in the laws, plans, and phenomena of universe. Philosophy is the comprehensive term for everything which man can know, love, and feel. The whole of philosophy may be summarily formulated thus:—A knowledge of external bodies or mechanical laws in nature; of mental faculties and possibilities; and of moral obligations and spiritual relationship to Deity. The first embraces all natural and objective philosophy; the second, moral and mental philosophy; and the third, spiritual and subjective philosophy and theosophy.

Swedenborg stands before the world’s eye as the illustrious exponent of the state, capacity, and varied power of perception which belong to this threefold realm of thought. He is differenced from great minds by reason of a new and organic development of brain, whence arise other faculties and uses than those which pertain to the past or present history of philosophic greatness. He had a varied knowledge of nature and her laws; and yet, as will be shown, he is superior to, and essentially different from, our highest natural philosophers, by the translation—or rather intromission—of his intellectual powers into the world of causes, and by his necessary perception of streams from their fountain sources, and of natural phenomena from spiritual realities. Mundane creation was to him the effigy of a superhuman realm. His mind was a Jacob’s ladder, by which he rose to the high cause-world, and interpreted the language of earth by the laws of heaven. Other philosophers have been content to rest in the seen and temporal—in the natural and corporeal; but Swedenborg rose to the heights where he discerned with unclouded vision the power which moves the worlds of matter and mind. Men of the old philosophical school thought in one plane, and that the natural and corporeal; the higher spaces and planes of their being were inert. However spacious and broad in the natural degrees of their minds, they narrowed as they rose, like pyramids, and tapered off at last into nothingness and air. (From “Emanuel Swedenborg, as a Philosopher, Metaphysician, and Theologian” by the Rev. Dr. G. B. Porteous, delivered in the Guildhall, Bath, December 8th, 1862; reported by Mr. Isaac Pitman, Inventor of Phonography, and reprinted from Pitman’s Popular Lecturer and Reader.)

[6] Document 232, “Second Letter of Emanuel Swedenborg to F. C. Oetinger,” in R. L. Tafel, Documents Concerning the Life and Character of Emanuel Swedenborg, vol. 2, part 1 (London: Swedenborg Society, 1877), 256–57.

[7] Swedenborg, True Christianity §166.

[8] Alfred Acton, Swedenborg’s Preparation, Transactions Number Five (London: Swedenborg Society, 1951), 5–6, 52–53. In his introduction to The Word Explained, Acton puts it very succinctly:  “Swedenborg was prepared by the study of philosophy to think rationally; by a life of Christianity to think wisely; and by genuine humility to submit his will to the Word of God” (An Introduction to the Word Explained, 145). 

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