Swedenborg himself made
attempt to found a church organization. He seems to have assumed that the doctrines would permeate
the old church denominations, whose members would drop their false
beliefs (the vicarious atonement, salvation by faith alone, and so on)
and would redirect their worship to the glorified Lord Jesus Christ as
their only God. To this end he sent copies of his writings to the
Anglican bishops and other leading clergy. Or maybe he felt that his
duty ended with the publishing of the books, and that he could safely
leave it to his readers to work (under providence) in the building of
whatever church organization might be needed for the people of the New
Note: Current links and addresses for New Church organizations can be found on the Swedenborg Foundation list.
In his own country, Sweden, the state Lutheran Church was so deeply entrenched that there was little hope of conversion to the new theology. Two professors at Gothenburg, Drs. Beyer and Rosen, who openly advocated Swedenborg's doctrines, were tried for heresy and forbidden to teach them. After Swedenborg's death, some of the Swedish nobility formed a society to study his principles, but they so mixed them up with mesmerism, spiritualism, alchemy and magic, that the whole movement got out of hand and collapsed. The three outstanding figures were the brothers August and C. F. Nordenskjold and Carl Berns Wadstrom. They broke away from the main body, and devoted themselves to collecting, copying and translating Swedenborg's manuscripts. At that time the issue of African slavery was very much in the air, and Swedenborg's favorable references to the genius of the African people encouraged Wadstrom to become an ardent abolitionist. (He has been called the "Father of the Anti-Slavery Movement.") It was his life-long dream, which he never actually fulfilled, to establish a New Church colony in West Africa.
Swedenborgians were to be found in Germany, France, Russia and elsewhere, mostly among the upper classes; but only in England and the United States did large numbers of people become adherents to the New Church.
In Manchester, England, an Anglican clergyman named Rev. John Clowes (pronounced "Clues") became an enthusiastic convert in 1773, one year after Swedenborg's death. He translated many of the writings into English, preached and wrote voluminously about them, and organized study groups among workers in the cotton mills all over industrial Lancashire. (His group at Whitefield, founded in 1778 and now the Radcliffe Society, claims to be the oldest existing New-Church group in the world.) Clowes was summoned before his bishop and tried for heresy, but was acquitted and allowed to continue in his church, St. John's, Manchester, until his death in 1831. This confirmed Clowes in his belief that the New Church would develop within the framework of the old church organizations, a belief shared by many ardent Swedenborgians, called "non-separatists," down to the present day. (One thinks, for example, of Helen Keller, who wrote a good introduction to the New Church, My Religion, but who never joined an organization.)
In 1782, a young printer in London, Robert Hindmarsh, became an enthusiastic convert. The following year he put an advertisement in a newspaper, as a result of which six people met at a London coffee house near St. Paul's Cathedral, and decided to form a New-Church society. Things went so well with them that by 1787 they felt the time was ripe to establish a separate church denomination, to be called The Church of the New Jerusalem, with its own ordained ministry. John Clowes was against this move, and traveled all the way from Manchester by coach (200 miles) to try to dissuade them; but, though they respected his judgment, they could not follow his advice. They rented a chapel in Great East Cheap, London. Robert Hindmarsh himself prepared a liturgy or service book; his father, James Hindmarsh, formerly a Methodist preacher with John Wesley, was ordained a New-Church minister by the laying-on of hands, and public worship according to the tenets of the New Church began on January 27, 1788, the centenary of Swedenborg's birth (January 29, 1688).
Other congregations soon sprang up in London and elsewhere in Britain. After Clowe's death, many of his study groups became church societies, which explains why the New Church is so strong in the Manchester area. A general conference met in London in 1789; and, with two short breaks, annual conferences have been held regularly in various cities of Great Britain every year down to the present day. The General Conference of the New Church was recognized by Act of Parliament in 1821. It was given Articles of Incorporation in 1872, and was made a Trust Corporation in 1926.
On the European continent there are or have been societies in Sweden, Denmark, France, Switzerland, Austria, Germany and Italy, also on the Island of Jersey, and isolated members elsewhere.
The Swedenborg Society was founded in England in 1810 to translate and foster interest in Swedenborg's writings, and publish them below cost. Its catalog includes over a hundred titles in English; also Latin reprints, and translations into twenty foreign languages. Its address is the same as that of The General Conference and New Church Press: 20-21 Bloomsbury Way, London WC 1 A 2TH.
The New Church College was founded in Islington, London, in 1845. It was transferred to Woodford Green, Essex, in 1930, and now occupies premises in Radcliffe, near Manchester. Here candidates receive training for the New Church ministry. Special courses are also provided for laity.
Lord Thomas Fairfax had taken a copy of Swedenborg's Principia with him to the old colony of Virginia in 1746. One of his sons, Bryan Fairfax, became an Episcopal clergyman, minister of Christ Church, Alexandria, and was deeply influenced by the writings; another son, Ferdinand, founded the New-Church society in Washington, D.C. It is almost certain that the Fairfax family discussed the doctrines with their neighbor, George Washington.
The link with the London society came with James Glen, one of the five who answered Hindmarsh's original newspaper ad. He crossed to America in 1784 on his way to settle on a sugar plantation in Demerara, British Guiana. Landing at Philadelphia, he delivered two lectures on the science of correspondences, which attracted the attention of a printer, Francis Bailey. He also left some of Swedenborg books, which were sold by public auction, each acting as a silent missionary in somebody's home. Soon Francis Bailey was holding meetings of a group of converts and was publishing New Church books, including the first American edition of True Christian Religion. In 1816, a temple was built for the growing group, financed by William Schlatter, grandson of "Old Parson Schlatter" who had brought a copy of one of Swedenborg's books over from England as a textbook for teaching Latin!
The first New Church congregation to be formed in the U.S.A. was at Baltimore in 1792, the moving spirit being the Rev. James Wilmer, an Episcopal minister from England. Unfortunately his group fell to pieces through experimentation with mesmerism (hypnotism), and Wilmer resigned. All efforts to get things going again were unsuccessful, until 1798 when Rev. John Hargrove appeared on the scene. A former Methodist minister, he was reordained into the New Church by the laying on of hands by ten laymen, the first New Church ordination in the New World. He placed the Baltimore Society on a proper footing, and their church building was dedicated in 1800, the first in America. In 1801 the Baltimore members sent a copy of True Christian Religion to the new president, Thomas Jefferson, who was so impressed that he invited the Rev. John Hargrove to preach in the rotunda of the Capitol in the newly-built city of Washington, before the president and congress. The subject of his sermon was "The Leading Doctrines of the New Jerusalem Church." Moreover, he was later invited to preach again!
The New Church group in New York City was founded in 1805 by Edward Riley from England. Services were held in his house, and by 1811 the group had become a society. In 1816 the "Association of the City of New York" was established, and in 1821 a temple was built on Pearl Street.
It was in New England, however, that the New Church came to full blossom. The seeds were first sown by a well-to-do Episcopal clergyman named Rev. William Hill, who had become a Swedenborgian convert in England, but remained all his life a "nonseparatist." He frequently visited the U.S.A. and in 1794 settled for a while near Boston, where he preached the doctrines in various Episcopal churches, making many converts to the New Church, including Rev. Noah Worcester and his sons Samuel and Thomas. Thomas was a student at Harvard University Divinity School. He interested the rest of his class there, most of whom later became New-Church ministers or leading laymen. In 1818, a Society was organized, with Tom Worcester as leader. He was ordained in 1828 and served the society faithfully for fifty years until his death in 1878. In order that he might he paid a full-time salary, which no other New-Church minister had hitherto been paid, the tithing system was introduced. The Bowdoin Street church was built in 1844, and 1,300 people attended its dedication.
The Boston Society always attracted members of high intellectual caliber and distinguished professional men. Among them were two well-known musicians, George James Webb and his nephew William Mason, founders of the Boston Academy of Music; these introduced an entirely new quality into the music of the New Church. The Society gained much prestige in the literary and philosophical world of New England. Emerson delivered his famous lecture on "Swedenborg the Mystic," and Henry James, Sr., wrote a major work, The Secret of Swedenborg.
It was one of the large family of Worcesters, Rev. Joseph Worcester, who established the now well-known Lyon Street church in San Francisco. He was minister at San Francisco for half a century, though Rev. John Doughty has the distinction of being the first Swedenborgian minister in California.
In the Middle West, an English naval man named Adam Hurdus founded the society in Cincinnati in 1811, attracting Indians and settlers to his house for services by means of an organ which he had built with his own hands. A colony of Swiss immigrants in Ohio were provided with a New Church chaplain. And, as is well known, a picturesque New Churchman, Jonathan Chapman ("Johnny Appleseed") traveled barefoot ahead of the pioneer settlements, planting apple orchards for sale, and spreading the writings of Swedenborg wherever he went, literally, chapter by chapter torn from the books! And so we could go on, showing how the New Church spread and grew throughout the States, as the States themselves spread and grew.
In Canada, some English New Churchmen, settling in Halifax, Nova Scotia, had held services in their homes back in 1790, but nothing much came of this. In 1830, a group met in a log cabin near Toronto; and there was also a thriving German-speaking society at Berlin, Ontario (now Kitchener), which built its own church in 1842. The Montreal society was founded in 1861, and the following year the Canada Association was formed that joined up with the New Church Convention in the U.S.A. There is a thriving society and church in Edmonton, Alberta, and a smaller one in Vancouver, B.C..
Going back a little, the General Convention of the New Jerusalem had been meeting annually in various centers since 1817. It was incorporated under the laws of the State of Illinois in 1861. It now consists of 15 "Associations"—the Association, not the Society, being its basic unit. The Associations were defined geographically, and were given complete freedom of self government.
This freedom of self-government led to a serious split towards the end of the 19th century. The leaders of the Pennsylvania Association were becoming impressed by the divine authority of Swedenborg's writings, which they regarded as part of the Word of God, the "Third Testament." From the writings they gained the opinion that the democratic form of church government was disorderly, so they installed the Rev. W. H. Benade as bishop, with the Pennsylvania Association as his diocese. Eventually this became an independent body, called The General Church of Pennsylvania. Seven years later, in 1897, the new organization was reformed by Bishop W. F. Pendleton as The General Church of the New Jerusalem. Land was bought in Huntingdon Valley, 15 miles north of Philadelphia, and buildings were put up for their academy. Interested New-Church families began to move into the area, which became a New-Church Community known as Bryn Athyn. During the years 1913-1919, a magnificent cathedral was erected in their midst, with money provided by the late John Pitcairn and his family.
Thriving General-Church societies also exist in Chicago, Detroit, Glenview, Pittsburgh, Kitchener, Toronto, London, Colchester, Durban, South Africa, and other centers. The Durban Society has a mission in Zululand.
Mention must be made of the Swedenborg Foundation, Inc. This was originally established as the American Swedenborg Printing and Publishing Society in 1850, and took its present name in 1928. Its work and scope are similar to those of the Swedenborg Society in London.
The Convention New Church Theological School was originally situated
in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1881. It has since changed its name and
location to the Swedenborgian House of Studies at the Pacific School of
Religion, in Berkeley, California.
Turning to Australia, we find that a number of New-Church families began to emigrate to the Australian "Colonies" in the early years of the 19th century, especially to the capital cities (then mere isolated villages) Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth. Naturally they held meetings in their homes for doctrinal study and worship, and some of these eventually developed into New Church societies.
The earliest to be established was in Adelaide in 1847. This developed from meetings held since 1844 in the home of Jacob Pitman, brother to that ardent Swedenborgian, Sir Isaac Pitman, of Bath, England.
Melbourne came next. Several New-Church friends from Glasgow, Scotland had decided to emigrate to Australia in 1843 and had taken with them a complete set of Swedenborg's writings. They began meeting together as soon as they arrived, and founded the present Melbourne Society ten years later, in 1853.
House meetings were held in Sydney (the largest of the five towns) back in 1851, but the present society was not established until 1876. Some dissidents from the Sydney Society formed the General Church group at Hurstville in 1905.
Brisbane had a society in 1863, but this lapsed after only four years. It was revived in 1872.
Perth came last in the field. There had been a few New-Church members in Western Australia back in the 1880s, but no organized meetings were held until 1903, when two members from Sydney and Brisbane organized regular worship in a private house. The present Perth Society was founded in 1928.
Robert Hampton, a New Churchman from London, emigrated to New Zealand in 1854. He distributed Swedenborgian literature, and, together with his friend, James Batty, spread the doctrines throughout the Islands. A society was established in 1865, but this did not last for more than two or three years. The present society in Auckland was founded in 1883.
One of Jacob Pitman's original New-Church colleagues in Adelaide was an Englishman named George H. Poole. In 1846 (at the suggestion of Sir Isaac Pitman in England), Poole made a missionary journey to the tropical island of Mauritius, a French-speaking British colony in the Indian Ocean. He worked there for three years with little obvious success, making only three converts! However, his efforts were not in vain, for one of them, Louis Michel, devoted the rest of his life to publicizing the church. Michel was fortunate in gaining the support of the wealthy "sugar baron," Edmond de Chazal, who became a dedicated Swedenborgian. It was through his influence, and that of the de Chazal family, that the Society of the Church of the New Jerusalem in Mauritius came into existence and was legally recognized in 1877. Despite keen opposition and harassment from rival religious bodies (Catholic, Moslem, Hindu, Chinese Buddhist, Tamil, etc.), the Swedenborgian movement in Mauritius grew rapidly, and now they have two strong churches, one at Curepipe in the center of the island, and the other at Port Louis, the busy capital on the Northwest coast.
A New Churchman named Edward Jenner Jerram is known to have been living in Cape Town back in 1838. Other immigrants soon joined him, as can be seen from Arthur Rabone's book, The Records of a Pioneer Family (published by Struik in 1966). A Swedenborgian magazine, The Eastern Star was being published in Graham's Town from 1848, while a New Church Society was established in Graaf Reinet from 1859 until 1872. There is now a large and influential Society of the General Church in Durban, with associates scattered throughout the Republic, and a small group in Cape Town.
But the most spectacular New-Church development in South Africa (indeed, the whole world!) has been among the Bantu peoples. It owes its origin to an African, David William Mooki, who purchased an old copy of Swedenborg's True Christian Religion from a second-hand book stall outside a furniture shop in Krugersdorp, Transvaal, in 1909. As a result of reading this difficult volume, and without knowledge of the existence of any New Church organization, D.W. Mooki founded what he called "The New Church of Africa" in 1911. Eventually he contacted the British Conference, which adopted the movement as "The New Church (Native) Mission in South Africa" in 1917. Under a succession of superintendents (including the present writer) the mission grew to about 20,000 members, thus becoming by far the largest New Church organization in the world. It now enjoys complete autonomy as an independent body, called "The New Church of Southern Africa." Its first black superintendent, the Rev. Obed S.D. Mooki, who is the distinguished son of the original founder, entered the spiritual world in 1990 after a long and successful tenure during which the membership of the church continued to skyrocket.
There is also a large New Church body in Nigeria, West Africa, founded by a Gold-Coast man, Africanus Mensah, in 1935. It flourished remarkably for many years, sponsored by the General Conference in Britain, but suffered severely from the effects of the Biafra civil war. It is now independent as "The New Church in West Africa."