The supreme divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ is the leading theme of The True Christian Religion. For fifteen hundred years, Swedenborg says, this teaching has been lost sight of in the Church, and it is again to be restored. The Christian Church has passed through several stages from infancy to extreme old age. When the primitive Church was in its infancy, while the Apostles lived and preached repentance throughout the world, there had been no thought of a trinity of persons in the Deity. But now, when the Church is at its end, scarcely a remnant of the true faith survives. Men proclaim one God with their lips, but there are three gods in the thoughts of their mind. This has come to pass because the Divine Trinity has been divided into three persons, each of whom is God and Lord. Consequently the mind and the lips, that is, the thought and the speech are at variance-with the result that no God at all is acknowledged!
The idea of God having been thus rent asunder, it is Swedenborg's purpose to present an orderly treatment of the Trinity, so that what has been rent asunder may again be made whole. For the Trinity dwells in the Lord God the Saviour Jesus Christ, like soul, body and operation in man.
In his first chapter, on God the Creator, Swedenborg takes up those sublime topics which he had promised to treat as early as 1763 but which, as he explained to Dr. Beyer, would have demanded too great an elevation of thought if treated alone, namely: the Infinity of God, His Immensity and Eternity, Omnipotence, Omniscience and Omnipresence.
By the Lord the Redeemer, he says, is meant Jehovah God in the Human which He assumed in order to redeem mankind. The Holy Spirit is explained to be the Divine Operation that proceeds from the One God. It is Divine Truth going forth from the Lord, especially in the Word. The Holy Spirit is of the same essence as the Word, just as what goes forth from a man - his acts, his thoughts - are one with the essence of the man himself. It is this Spirit that reforms man and regenerates him, that purifies and saves him.
The True Christian Religion proceeds to a discussion of the Sacred Scriptures, the Ten Commandments, and the doctrines that lead to salvation. By Faith the Apostles understood faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. This is the faith Paul referred to when he wrote his much quoted and greatly misunderstood passage: "Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law." (Rom. III, 28). By "works of the law" Paul did not mean the Decalogue but the ritualistic observances of the Mosaic law (nos. 338, 339). No faith is real unless conjoined with charity, for it consists not only in doing well, but also in willing well to the neighbor. The common belief is that. charity is nothing else than giving to the poor, relieving the needy, and so forth, and these acts are considered meritorious. Charity, however, is genuine only in so far as a man has conquered the loves of self and the world, for no man can do good until he has put away his evils.
The orthodox teaching had it that, in spiritual things, man is like a stock or a stone, or a pillar of salt.
Entirely contrary to this was Swedenborg's new teaching that man's regeneration depends upon his freedom of choice. To deprive man of spiritual freedom, Swedenborg said, would be like taking away the wheels from a machine or the fans from a windmill or the sails from a ship, for the life of man's spirit consists in his free choice in spiritual things. "The angels weep when they but hear it said that this freedom is denied by many ministers of the church at this day . . . But, my friend, shun evil and do good and believe in the Lord from all your heart and with all your soul, and the Lord will love you and will give you the love of doing and the faith to believe . . . " No one can be reformed except in a state of liberty and rationality (nos. 482, 484).
The doctrine of predestination has come into the church as a consequence of the erroneous teaching that man is saved by grace or good pleasure. "Could anything more cruel be believed of God than that some of the human race are damned by predestination? For would it not be a cruel creed that the Lord, who is love itself, should desire a multitude to be born for hell, or that myriads of myriads shall be born doomed, that is devils and satans? ... This is an offspring of the faith of the present church. The faith of the New Church abhors it as a monster." (no. 486)
Repentance, Reformation and Regeneration are treated in subsequent chapters. As man is born with an inclination to evils of every kind, and as no one can be saved unless he repents of his evils, everyone must examine himself, recognize his sins, pray to the Lord and begin a new life (nos. 520, 528). Unless he does this he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God (no. 572).
The two sacraments, Baptism and the Holy Supper, are the most holy things of worship because they correspond to regeneration and salvation. Baptism, however, does not confer salvation, being merely a sign that man may be washed from his sins and thus be saved. The Holy Supper also is a sign that he who comes to it worthily is conjoined with the Lord and introduced- among those who constitute His Body, that is those who believe in Him and do His will (no. 725).
Swedenborg tells that there appeared to him one day a magnificent temple whose walls were "continuous windows of crystal." Within lay the open Word whose radiance illumined the pulpit. In the center stood a golden cherub holding in his hand a turning sword. The temple signified the New Church; the opened Book signified the revelation of the internal sense of the Word; the cherub was the sense of its letter which can be turned in adaptation to various teachings. The inscription above the temple door read:
"which signified that now it is permitted to enter intellectually into the mysteries of faith." (no. 508)
Concerning the Second Coming of the Lord, he says:
* * * * *
Swedenborg arrived in London early in September, 1771. He took a hackney coach and directed the coachman to drive to Mr. Shearsmith's in Great Bath Street, where he had stayed before. It happened just then that Shearsmith was going out on business, and Swedenborg caught sight of him in the street; so, leaning out of the coach window he called out,
"That is he! That is he!"
The coach stopped and Mr. Shearsmith turned around and recognized his former lodger, whom he assisted to alight and led into the house. When Swedenborg told him that he had come to lodge with him again, Shearsmith regretfully informed him that the rooms were now occupied by a family.
"But I will go upstairs and ask them if they will quit the lodgings to make room for you," he said. He returned with the news that they were willing to accommodate him and, wonderful to relate, the family moved out at once, without further ado, giving up their apartment to a perfect stranger!
The Shearsmiths regarded Swedenborg as not merely a lodger but a friend and a real blessing to their home, a holy man, favored of God. The Baron, as he was always called in England, appreciated the kindliness of these gentle people, for he himself was friendly and unpretentious. He required almost no attention. Nothing could be simpler than his fare when at home - a roll with some hot milk for dinner - and even some of this usually remained for the children to finish. However, he enjoyed a dish of eels, or an occasional pigeon pie, but he never ate any supper and usually retired early to bed. Time meant nothing to him. If he felt like writing he might continue all night, and perhaps sleep round the clock. No one must disturb him at any time. That was all he asked and the Shearsmiths gladly complied.
The maid, Elizabeth, who was devoted to the venerable gentleman, relates that once his snuffbox spilled on the carpet and he requested her to shake it out, an operation that usually occasioned considerable sneezing. She would have been glad to do it, but this was Sunday. When reminded of that fact Swedenborg said that then it could very well wait.
"To a good man like the Baron every day of his life was a Sabbath," was Shearsmith's answer to a pietistic gentleman who once objected that Swedenborg could be no good Christian since he did not attend church regularly.
Shearsmith was completely convinced that his guest could converse with the spirits of the departed. This, at first, had startled and perturbed him, but in time he came to look upon it as "a Divine instinct" working on the Baron's mind. "I think he was chosen for some extraordinary work," is how he expressed it. Swedenborg's manner, behavior, and life appeared to him to be "much after the manner and life the apostles led ... There was something very sincere and innocent in his countenance."
The Baron would often stand in the doorway between his two rooms and speak, just as if holding a conversation with another person, although no one else was to be seen. These conversations, lasting for an hour or more, would usually be held toward two or three o'clock in the morning. Shearsmith, overawed, could not understand what Swedenborg was saying, as it was in an unknown tongue, but he got the impression that it had to do with the Second Coming of Christ and the establishment of a new church. It was this that made people refer to his guest as "the New Jerusalem gentleman."
Swedenborg worked at the round folding table in the center of his living room that lay heaped with manuscripts to which he was constantly adding pages. When Mr. Ferelius visited him with the pastor of the Danish church, he was seated at work on a paper which demonstrated from the writings of the apostles that the Lord was the only true God. The Hebrew Bible lay open before him, that and the Latin version constituting his entire library. Pointing to a place opposite, Swedenborg told his visitor that recently the apostle Peter had been with him and stood there.
"Not long ago all the apostles were with me, indeed they often visit me.
Upon being asked why no one else beside himself had the privilege of talking with spirits, Swedenborg answered that everyone was able to have it, now as in Old Testament times, the only hindrance being that at the present time men are so carnally minded.
One of the Swedish friends, Consul Christopher Springer, speaks in his testimony about Swedenborg's "rich endowments from God." He astounded the politician with his detailed information concerning the state of his deceased friends and enemies in the other life, telling all about Springer's secret dealings with them. It was almost incredible!
One of Springer's inveterate opponents had been Count Claes Ekeblad, the "Hat" leader, who was involved in the political rupture that brought about Springer's downfall and banishment. On one occasion Ekeblad had provoked Springer, to draw his sword upon him, but they had made up their quarrel and each one promised the other never to mention the occurrence as long as they lived. On another occasion Ekeblad attempted to offer Springer a bribe of 10,000 rixdollars which he had indignantly refused.
Count Ekeblad died in October, 1771, and Swedenborg related to his friend how he had met him in the world of spirits where all their secret transactions were revealed.
"Continue to merit his reproaches. Depart not from the good way, either for honors or for money ... and you will prosper," was Swedenborg's advice to Springer.
From his "acquaintances in the spirit world" Swedenborg had learned much about the secret negotiations that took place nine years before, when Springer had been engaged by the English government to mediate the peace between Sweden and Prussia, much to the chagrin of the "Hats" who desired the war to continue to a successful conclusion. (See p. 300). He praised Springer for his conduct on that occasion, and even specified the three high personages whose services Springer made use of at the time, a thing that had remained a profound secret among the negotiators.
How was it possible for Swedenborg to obtain such information, and who had disclosed to him these things? Springer asked.
"Who informed me about your affair with Count Claes Ekeblad?" Swedenborg answered. "You cannot deny that what I have told you is true."
Swedenborg later told Springer that Ekeblad, their one-time adversary in politics, was not so bad a man as they had thought him, after all, for he was then preparing for heaven.
In these days Swedenborg admitted fewer visitors than during his former stay with the Shearsmiths. But, as usual, when parting, he went downstairs with them and bowed politely at the door, lifting his velvet cap.
He was much occupied with translations of his works into English, and was often visited by a man whom he employed as translator. His most intimate friend, the Rev. Thomas Hartley, frequently stayed for hours, carrying on long conversations with him in Latin. Both Hartley and Messiter were working on translations of the Latin writings, supplying their English editions with prefaces recommending the books to the public. After publishing his rendition On Influx, Hartley finished a translation of Heaven and Hell which Mr. Cookworthy had begun.
Shortly before Christmas in 1771 Swedenborg suffered a stroke which confined him to his bed for some three weeks in a state of unconsciousness, unable to speak. He took no food during the whole of this time excepting a little tea and cold water and once a little red currant jelly. He told his friend Springer that during this illness his spiritual sight was for a time withdrawn, the greatest tribulation he had ever had to bear. It was like an unendurable blindness and he had felt a horrible sense of depression. But after several days he recovered his internal sight and was happy and comforted again. It was the last of his trials.
His English friends had been greatly distressed over the Baron's failing health and depressed state of mind. Early in February Hartley wrote to Shearsmith, asking whether his guest "sits up and is cheerful; if he is in any way of recovering his strength, and in general how affected by his disorder; for his valuable life and health is a matter of great consequence. I am well satisfied that nothing is wanting on your part and that of your good wife."
Springer had asked Swedenborg when he thought the New Jerusalem, or New Church of God, would manifest itself. To which Swedenborg answered that no mortal, nor even the highest angel, could predict the time, as God alone knew it. "Read the Book of Revelation, XXI, 2. and Zechariah XIV, 19," he said, "and you will see that the New Jerusalem will undoubtedly manifest itself to all on the earth."
We wonder, as the aged seer lay there, whether he reflected now upon that other time when he had been seized with a disease nearly deadly, his head so heavily weighed down with the severity of the pain that he thought his end had come. That was in 1765 while he was explaining the eleventh chapter of the Apocalypse about the Two Witnesses that prophesied in sackcloth, standing like two olive-trees, two candlesticks, before the God of the earth. He, too, had stood like a candlestick, testifying to God. "The spiritual sense of the Word has been disclosed by the Lord through me ... This surpasses all the revelations which have hitherto been made since the creation of the world," he said in the last of his writings.
Was Swedenborg convinced that he had made his revelations about the true Christian religion so clear, so plain, that they could be accepted as true by any reader? Or was there needed another witness in order that the things he had recorded might stand out as reliable?
"The testimony of two men is true. If I bear witness of myself, my witness is not true ... There is another that beareth witness of me," Jesus had said of His mission. (John V, 31-38). What was this second witness, in Swedenborg's case, if not a heavenly enlightenment in the mind of the reader who sees the teachings of religion as consistent with all that he recognizes as good? This is suggested by a conversation reported by a man who called on Swedenborg shortly after his arrival in London in September.
The Rev. Francis Okely was a deacon in the Moravian church and a friend of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism.
Okely had become acquainted with Swedenborg's works as early as 1768, and was quite impressed with the teachings, recognizing many of them as important truths. But he confessed his inability to understand The True Christian Religion.
Swedenborg told him, coolly and deliberately, that he could not understand the work without divine illumination. After the interview Okely wrote to John Wesley expressing doubts about Swedenborg, doubts which were shared by Wesley, who had himself taken up some of the theological works for serious consideration, writing afterward in his journal: "He [Swedenborg] is one of the most ingenious, lively, entertaining madmen that ever set pen on paper. But his waking dreams are so wild, so far remote both from Scripture and common sense that one might as easily swallow the stories of Tom Thumb or Jack the Giant Killer."
Some time in February John Wesley received a startling note from the Swedish seer:
When this letter arrived, Wesley was engaged in a conference with some of his ministers before setting out on a revivalist tour over the country. Among them was the Rev. Samuel Smith whose report of the incident (including the letter) is the sole basis for the story. Swedenborg's letter, says Mr. Smith, astonished Wesley very much. He read it to the assembled ministers, frankly acknowledging that he had indeed been taken with a strong desire to converse with Swedenborg, but "How he came to know it I have not an idea, as I never told any creature that I had such a desire," Mr. Wesley is reported to have said.
Wesley wrote an answer to Swedenborg's note, explaining that he was just then closely occupied in preparing for a six months' journey, but would give himself the pleasure of waiting upon Mr. Swedenborg soon after his return to London.
To this Swedenborg is said to have replied that the visit proposed by Mr. Wesley would then be too late, as he was to enter the world of spirits on the twenty-ninth of the next month, never more to return.
Elizabeth Reynolds also reported that, three weeks before he died, Swedenborg predicted the exact date of his death. She stated that "he was as pleased as if he were going to have a holiday, and go to some merrymaking."
Mr. Hartley was happy, on his last visit, to be told that Swedenborg was again comforted with the society of angels. In the presence of Dr. Messiter, he then solemnly besought him to declare whether all that he had written was strictly true or whether any part, or parts, were to be excepted.
"I have written nothing but the truth," Swedenborg replied with some warmth, "as you will have more and more confirmed to you all the days of your life, provided you keep close to the Lord and faithfully serve Him alone by shunning evils of all kinds as sins against Him and diligently searching His Word which from beginning to end bears incontestable witness to the truth of the doctrines I have delivered to the world."
Hartley returned home from London, about a day's journey. Soon afterward he heard that, as Swedenborg was nearing his end, he expressed a desire to see him again. Something, however, occurred to prevent this visit, a matter of regret to Mr. Hartley ever after.
Swedenborg was attended during his illness by Dr. Messiter and by Dr. Hampe, a Hanoverian physician who had been preceptor to the Prince of Wales. The doctors considered his case as not within the reach of medicine and therefore prescribed nothing but one bottle of drops which their patient promptly refused to take.
The last time Messiter visited his friend he took home with him a manuscript of seventy-two large pages. Swedenborg later inquired after the paper and seemed distressed to find it missing. It was his very last work, The Coronis, or Appendix to the True Christian Religion. By some accident - which the doctor could never afterward explain- one half of the precious paper was mislaid and lost! The remainder was printed some years later at the expense of a Swedish nobleman, Baron Augustus Nordenskiöld. Only Nordenskiöld's copy now remains of the text of Coronis, a doctrinal history of all the successive Churches. The lost portions dealt with the Christian and the New Christian Church. Some of the missing material was later recovered in the form of notes that were posthumously published.
Two days before Swedenborg's death another friend called to see him, Eric Bergström, the landlord of the King's Arms Tavern. He told Bergström that since it had pleased God to take away the use of his arm by a palsy, his body was good for nothing but to be put into the ground.
Mr. Bergstrom then asked him whether he would take the Sacrament, and someone present proposed sending for the Rev. Aaron Mathesius, officiating minister of the Swedish Church. But Swedenborg declined to take the Sacrament from this man, because Pastor Mathesius had spread abroad a report that the Assessor was out of his mind.
Bergström then asked him if he should bring the other minister, Pastor Ferelius, who had visited him several times during his illness.
"Do," he said.
When Bergström returned with the Swedish minister Swedenborg received him with a cheerful smile.
"Be welcome, reverend Sir! God has now delivered me from the evil spirits with whom I have had to struggle for several days. Now the good spirits have come back again!"
"Have you an idea that you are going to die?" Ferelius asked him, and Swedenborg replied,
Then, in preparation for the Communion, Ferelius put the same query to him that Mr. Hartley had made on a previous occasion, but in a slightly different form. Ferelius observed that in as much as quite a number of people thought that his sole purpose in giving out his new theological system had been to make a name for himself, Swedenborg would do well, if that were so, to deny either the whole or part of what he had presented.
Upon hearing these words he half rose in his bed and, placing his sound hand upon his breast said, with great earnestness:
"As truly as you see me before your eyes, so true is everything that I have written; and I could have said more had it been permitted. When you enter eternity you will see everything, and then you and I shall have much to talk about."
Ferelius then asked him whether he was willing to receive the Lord's Supper.
He replied, "With thankfulness." He added that, being a member of the other world, he did not need this sacrament, still, he would take it in order to show the close relation which exists between the church above and the church here below. Swedenborg then reassured himself that Ferelius understood his teachings on the subject of the Holy Supper. The minister then asked him whether he acknowledged himself a sinner.
Said Swedenborg, "Certainly, as long as I carry about this sinful body."
Then, with much devotion, folding his hands and uncovering his head, he recited the confession of sins, and was ready to receive the Sacrament. He told the minister "to pronounce the blessing and leave the rest of the form to him, as he knew very well what it meant and was."
This Ferelius did. In token of gratitude for his attention, Swedenborg presented him with one of the few remaining sets of his large work Arcana Coelestia, advising him to adhere to the doctrines of the New Jerusalem "without minding the opposition he would probably encounter from men in general and from his colleague Aaron Mathesius in particular."
This was the Friday before Swedenborg's death. Mr. Shearsmith was sure of the date, because he had noted it down when making a memorandum on the cost of the communion wine.755
The afternoon of March 29 - the predicted day - Mrs. Shearsmith and Elizabeth were seated at his bedside. It was the close of a peaceful springtime Sabbath. In a little while the bells of London would be calling the people to vespers, muffling the evening symphony of the birds in Clerkenwell green.
Swedenborg heard the clock strike and asked what time it was. When they answered, "Five o'clock," he said:
"That is good. I thank you. God bless you!" He heaved a gentle sigh and tranquilly expired.
The Lord's Servant had completed his mission and departed this world. On the table lay the pen that had run so far and ploughed so deeply. Beside it lay an unfinished paper:
"An Invitation to the New Church addressed to the whole Christian world, and an exhortation that men should go and meet the Lord . . . Hereafter they are not to be called the Evangelical, the Reformed, and still less Lutherans and Calvinists, but Christians."