The Swedenborg epic

Table of Contents



Chapter 1 - The Child Emanuel

In Sweden, Candlemas Day, the second of February, was a holiday on which the women carried candles to church, a custom dating back to olden times, in commemoration of the Virgin's purification and Christ's presentation at the temple. In 1688 it was a double holiday, and the burghers of Stockholm were aroused from their morning sleep by the sound of cannon fire to remind them that, at the royal palace, the infant princess was to be baptized and given the name Ulrika Eleonora. There would be stirring parades and stately dinners, and the citizenry would spend long hours in chilly churches, singing hymns and listening to long-drawn-out sermons exhorting them to piety and benevolence.

In front of the palace the bridge over the swift-flowing Norrström led to the Church of St. Jakob. Also in this parish a baptism was in preparation, for here, not far from Gustavus Adolphus Square, in the home of the regimental chaplain Jesper Swedberg and his wife Sara Behm, another baby awaited christening. Not for him did the cannon roar, although the Swedberg infant, their third child, who was to be given the name Emanuel, was destined to become a very famous man. He was born in Stockholm on Sunday, January 29, a day now widely celebrated in commemoration of Emanuel Swedenborg.[1]

Much more importance was attached to the celebration of a baptism in those days than now, and the ceremony was given great dignity. Usually three godfathers and three godmothers were chosen solemnly to insure that the child would be brought up in the Christian religion. Church records of Swedenborg's baptism indicate that the ceremony was performed by Pastor Matthias Wagner, and that one of the six sponsors was the royal councillor Nordenhielm, tutor to the prince who later became king as Charles XII. The older Swedberg children, Albert four, and Anna, two years of age, must have attended the baptism with their young aunt Ingrid Behm, their cousin Johan Moraeus, and their tall, dark-complexioned father. It is unlikely that the mother of the four-day infant could have been present for, by decree, the rite had to be administered in the church, probably before the early morning service. When Pastor Wagner was ready to begin, the infant - arrayed, we suppose, in a long, richly embroidered christening robe - was carried in by Maria Sylvia, the pastor's wife and foremost woman sponsor.[2]

Then began the ritual which bears some resemblance to the exorcisms of an earlier day. Addressing the infant, the minister recited:

"Emanuel, do you renounce the devil?"

"Yea," answered the godfathers and godmothers, in his behalf.

"And all his works?" "Yea."

"And all his being?" "Yea."

"And all his being?" "Yea."

"Do you believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth?" "Yea."

"Do you believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, Our Lord, Who is begotten of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, tormented by Pontius Pilate, crucified, dead and buried, descended down into hell, on the third day risen again from the dead, ascended into the heavens, sitting upon the right hand of God the Father Almighty, to come again from thence to judge the quick and the dead?" "Yea."

"Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, a Christian church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the flesh, and the life everlasting?" "Yea."

"Will you be baptized?" "Yea."

Then the minister asked for the name of the child and, touching him three times with holy water, pronounced:

"I baptize thee, Emanuel, in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen."

Wrote his father, at a later date: "My son Emanuel's name means 'God with us,' to continually remind him of that particular holy and hidden union in which, through faith, we remain with our gracious and merciful God; that He is with us, and in us and we are with Him and in Him..."[3]

* * * * *

Emanuel's life-work was to call for a strong physique, and this his inheritance provided. His father, Jesper Swedberg, came of Dalecarlian farmers and miners, a stock whose independence and fearlessness had twice saved the country from her enemies. Jesper's father, Daniel Isaacsson, owned a share in a long-abandoned copper mine which had been reopened and worked by new and improved methods of ore extraction, yielding a fortune to its owners. Owing to this sudden rise to prosperity, Isaacsson had been able to send his son Jesper to the Swedish universities for training in theology. He took the name Swedberg from the ancestral homestead, a picturesque little country place near Fahlun, called "Sveden." [Pronounced sväden, it meant originally a tract cleared by fire, derived from the word svedja, to bum.] (Appendix A.)

Jesper's first appointment had been as chaplain to the king's horse guards, where his interest in encouraging the soldiers to learn to read won the king's approval. Charles XI openly admired his chaplain's fearlessness and hearty pronouncements from God's Word, no matter whose toes were stepped on. Pious he was, but piety in those days was a common commodity, and Jesper Swedberg was more than pious. He opposed the current idea that godliness consisted in mere pious observances. Real faith, he insisted, was inseparable from an active life of usefulness, otherwise "brain-faith," as he put it, would become "devil-faith." He deplored the lax morality of his day and denounced it wherever found, whether among the noble sinners of the court or the humble sinners of the streets. This enthusiasm for reform met much resistance.

"You have many enemies," observed His Majesty one day to his chaplain.

"A servant of the Lord who hasn't such, is not worth much," was Swedberg's characteristic reply.

During those early days in Stockholm the young clergyman met and married Sara, the daughter of a wealthy mine owner, Assessor Albrecht Behm. Six months after the wedding Jesper bade farewell to his eighteen-year-old bride and set out for a ten-month tour of the Continent to complete his education, and to enhance his prospects of usefulness- a customary procedure in those days, facilitated in Jesper's case by his wife's ample fortune.

Gentle, sweet-faced Sara Behm, Emanuel's mother, was a woman of character. Born a rich man's daughter, in a frivolous age, she nevertheless cultivated simplicity in dress and was of a serious turn of mind She pleased her husband greatly by refusing to submit to the current fashion of wearing the elaborate fontange, or headdress, which Swedberg publicly denounced as a foolish display of vanity. Sara was gracious and friendly in disposition and known for her charitable deeds.

Stockholm must have left some impressions on a child who lived his first four years in the city. The river rushed swiftly by, bringing down the waters of Lake Mälar to the sea, and many fishermen lined its banks, dipping their long poles into the rapids to bring up nets teeming with tiny fishes. Barges crowded with iron and lumber from Baltic ports and white-winged schooners came and departed for faraway harbors such as Liverpool and Bremen. Vehicles carrying fine ladies and gentlemen rolled over the cobblestones in the square. More important, perhaps, to children, was the steep slope behind St. Jakob's Church which provided them with excellent sledding.

In the spring of 1692 the family moved to the country, Jesper Swedberg having been appointed pastor to the parish of Vingåker. But within a year the King promoted him to the professorship of theology at Upsala University, and not long afterward made him rector and dean of the Cathedral. So the family moved again, this time to the ancient cradle of learning on the rolling plains of Upland, some thirty-nine miles from Stockholm. And here a new life began for the child Emanuel.

Happiness and harmony followed the Swedbergs to Upsala. The new rector built himself a large stone house in the central square of the town and provided it with a fine garden. "Not the least work was done, not a single stone was raised, with a troubled heart," he says, "but all with cheer and gladness. No angry cry was heard, no harsh words, bickering, or oaths."

The Swedberg mansion, however, was soon destroyed by fire- the fate of so many buildings of that day. It was immediately rebuilt, and when the house was finished, Swedberg dedicated it by giving a party not for the gentlefolk of the town, but for the poor of the parish. His wife and children waited upon them and the feast of charity ended with songs of thanksgiving and mutual blessings.

There was plenty of work to be done in this scholastic vineyard, and Dean Swedberg led a strenuous life. But he was a tireless worker and found time between his many duties to revise the Swedish Bible. However, the jealousy of the other members of the committee, so he says, prevented its publication. Nothing needed alteration in the old Bible version but the spelling, they stubbornly insisted.

After that Swedberg, himself a composer of many fine hymns, spent both time and money on improving the old hymn-book. But this work, too, came to grief, largely due to the objections of some clergymen who were offended at not having been consulted. They charged the dean with heresy and even with wanting to introduce a new religion, perhaps because he addressed the Savior as the Son of Man and not only as the Son of God. The whole edition was confiscated.

The environment of this college town and the atmosphere of the rector's house, constantly visited by learned men and pompous committees, where Sundays and holidays were entirely taken up with church-going and religious observances, must have deeply affected the growing mind of the boy. Whatever may have been the faults of Swedenborg's [Throughout this work he will be generally referred to as Swedenborg, the name that became his at the time of the family's ennoblement in 1719, although up to that time his name was Swedberg. See p. 58.] father (and the signs of egotism are not few in his thousand-page Autobiography) as an educator he was warm and friendly, believing that the best results are not achieved with lashes, but with games and contests to arouse the interest of the scholars- a modern approach. The students liked him.

Of the youth of very few men do we have such intimate information as we have about Emanuel Swedenborg's earliest years. From his own later comments and from contemporary chronicles, it would seem that a special pattern shaped both his physical and psychical life. In a letter looking back on his early youth he says:

From my fourth to my tenth year I was constantly engaged in thought upon God, salvation, and the spiritual diseases of men; and several times I revealed things at which my father and mother wondered ... From my sixth to my twelfth year I used to delight in conversing with clergymen about faith, and that the life of faith is love...[4]

His faculty for keen observation - characteristic of the mature scholar - was manifested in infancy. The boy became aware of a relationship between his thinking and his breathing, a fact of basic importance for his later supersensory consciousness. He accustomed himself to holding his breath for a long time, during morning and evening prayers. He found that when he tried to make the rhythm of his breathing correspond with the beating of his heart, his thought-life became almost dormant. As he looked back on his early life Swedenborg regarded such practices as indispensable preparation for those profound abstractions of the mind beyond corporeal planes which later had such astonishing results.

His first known handwriting occurs as an autograph on a medical treatise, probably given him by his uncle, Johan Moraeus, who lived in the rector's home and served as tutor to the children while pursuing his medical studies. Probably owing to Moraeus, Swedenborg very early became interested in the wonders of the human body.[5]

These years were marked by some of the terrible crop failures that the people of Sweden ever so often endured, with consequent widespread famine. In April, 1692, a severe cold spell caused much damage, and in the autumn it rained so constantly that the harvest was spoiled. The next year's crop was ruined by spring snowfall and summer drought. In 1694-5 an unusually bitter winter threatened the existence of the poor, and people filled their empty stomachs with bark, leaves, or roots. Wolves, driven down onto the farms by hunger, even attacked the peasants in their cottages.[6] For the victims of these calamities Sara Behm had a tender heart, and she generously planned a poorhouse to be built by her private funds. Her own family was now a large one. After Emanuel, six more children had been born to the Swedbergs, making nine in all: Albert, Anna, Emanuel, Hedwig, Daniel, Eliezer, Catharina, Jesper, and Margareta.

Tragedy then fell upon the household. Sara Behm died of a fever on the seventeenth day of June, 1696, and ten days later Albert, a youth of rare endowments, succumbed to the same illness. He was buried beside his mother in the nave of the cathedral. A number of funeral orations were published and a special silver spoon was issued, bearing a skull and crossbones. One of these is preserved in the Northern Museum in Stockholm, where also hangs a portrait of Swedenborg's mother.[7]

The lad of eight years had lost both his mother and elder brother. Some time after the death of Sara Behm, Dean Swedberg married a wealthy widow of great good nature and insight. This stepmother, Sara Bergia, was devoted to Emanuel.

to Chapter 2