The Swedenborg epic

Table of Contents


Epilog - Immortal and Mortal Remains

Swedenborg's body lay in state at the home of Mr. Burkhard, the clerk of the Swedish Ulrika Eleonora Church on Princes Square. The burial took place on Sunday, April 5, 1772, at four o'clock, the service being conducted in Swedish by Pastor Ferelius - his last official act before returning to Sweden. The choir sang an anthem as Swedenborg's body, enclosed in three coffins (one of them of lead), was lowered into a vault under the altar. The church was filled.

After the funeral, in accordance with Swedish custom, a dinner was served at Mr. Burkhard's house in Radcliffe Highway. The attending physicians, Doctors Hampe and Messiter, were there, an official of the Swedish legation, named Charles Lindegren, and also, undoubtedly, Consul Christopher Springer and innkeeper Erik Bergström, with the Swedish pastors, Arvid Ferelius and Aaron Mathesius.

Wigmaker Shearsmith also attended the dinner and afterward reported that there had been much talk about the Baron's strange visions.[757] Not everyone believed in them. A dispute arose between Dr. Messiter and one of the clergymen - obviously Mathesius - concerning the possibility of communication with the dead. The guests were divided into two parties, one for, the other against the seer whose burial they had just witnessed. The group was, in fact, a perfect epitome of the various ways in which Baron Swedenborg was regarded. To many "the New Jerusalem Gentleman" was a benign and harmless visionary. To a few he stood out as a dangerous menace to the established church, and it was with a sigh of relief that they had interred the old scholar whose peculiar writings they fully expected would likewise die a natural death. This view was held by Pastor Mathesius.

Dr. Messiter was one of those who regarded Swedenborg as the most marvelous mortal that ever had lived, the special messenger of Christ, and the herald of a new dispensation; a man into whose hands had been entrusted a divine revelation of inestimable importance. He believed that Swedenborg had verily communed with the spirits of the dead; that he had witnessed the fulfillment of the Last Judgment, and that he had left, in his books, a testament of Divine truth for the upbuilding of the Kingdom of God on earth.

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Swedenborg's accounts were settled and his few personal belongings taken in charge by Mr. Lindegren, who usually attended to the Baron's finances. In an open chest in his room lay a purse containing three guineas,: from which the aged Baron used to take out whatever he needed for his expenses. He always gave everyone whatever he asked for his services, putting little value on money. In his pocketbook were found five Swedish banknotes amounting to 2,140 dalers in copper.

Lindegren sealed all the remaining papers in a brown paper parcel and sent them with Swedenborg's signet ring and other valuables to Stockholm by Captain Fox in the Nancy. In a letter to the Stockholm agents he mentions also that he is sending some clothes and linen "not that they are of much value but because he thought the family would wish to own something that the worthy man had worn." (London, July 18, 1772).

A gold-knobbed cane was left in Mr. Shearsmith's possession. The two brown-leather volumes of Swedenborg's Bible, so diligently used and full of his marginal notes, were presented to Mr. Ferelius.[758]

A certain bundle of personal letters Mr. Shearsmith is said to have burned as being no longer of any use to anybody - among them letters from Voltaire, Rousseau, and other less prominent persons!

Swedenborg left no will. Lindegren had often suggested it to the Baron but he refused to be bothered. "Let those who are to have it take it, according to the Swedish law," was his answer. As Swedenborg's brother Jesper had died before Emanuel, the valuables left in Stockholm were delivered on July 16, 1772, to the husband of Jesper's third daughter.[759]

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The story of Swedenborg does not end with the interment of his body. The deep influence of his teachings is a subject too wide for the limited scope of a biography, but a few words may be added regarding what happened immediately after his death.

Leading magazines in England, Germany and Sweden, both popular and learned, carried notices of the death of the famous Baron Swedenborg. He was already known to the readers of The Gentleman's Magazine and the Monthly Magazine, which had published reviews of his works.[760]

When the news of Swedenborg's death reached John Wesley, the Methodist leader was in the neighborhood of Liverpool, visiting his friend Richard Houghton, Esq., a pious gentleman who had been favorably impressed with Swedenborg's teachings and who exchanged letters on that subject with the Rev. Thomas Hartley. Evidently Wesley's mind was then under a rather powerful influence working in Swedenborg's favor, for Houghton repeats a significant comment that Wesley then made: "We may now burn all our books on theology. God has sent us a teacher from heaven, and in the doctrines of Swedenborg we may learn all that is necessary for us to know."

In view of subsequent events one might almost take this extreme statement for sarcasm were it not for the fact that Mr. Houghton repeated it to a friend of his to induce him to read the writings of the inspired Swede. The friend was the Rev. John Clowes, rector of St. John's, Manchester, whose acceptance of Swedenborg was preceded by a supernatural experience.[761] (Appendix G.) Clowes later became a powerful leader in the spread of the new teachings.

The Liverpool incident must have occurred early in April, 1772, thus within six weeks after Wesley is said to have received Swedenborg's extraordinary communication announcing the day of his death. Of course the man's actual death on the day predicted would have been a startling argument in favor of his claims to supernatural knowledge. Shortly afterward, however, came an equally clear proof of another of Swedenborg's claims, his assertion, namely, that miracles do not convince anyone.[762] For, as we shall see, Mr. Wesley was able to throw off all favorable influences as soon as he found that Swedenborg's teachings militated against his inner convictions.

The Swedenborgian movement grew steadily in England from a few isolated believers to small groups, the first being formed in Manchester, where the Rev. John Clowes was busily spreading the new doctrines in his own Church of England parish without meeting with serious opposition - a fine tribute to the degree of freedom that existed in the Established Church as contrasted with the Lutheran churches in Sweden and Germany, where the new teachings had met with such violent opposition. Small wonder that Mr. Clowes, all his life, was a strong advocate of non-separation of the New Church from the former denominations of the Christian church, defending the view that the new light would permeate the old established order.

The distinctiveness of the New Church, on the other hand, was the chief conviction of another stalwart champion, Robert Hindmarsh of London. Many of the first leaders there, notably Robert and his father, the Rev. James Hindmarsh, came from the Methodist fold. Robert Hindmarsh was only nineteen or twenty when a Quaker friend had loaned him a copy of Heaven and Hell, a book which he at once recognized as being "of heavenly origin." He lost no time in searching out three or four other interested readers and organizing meetings in his home and theirs. Among these was the gifted Wesleyan preacher, Rev. Samuel Smith.

This led Wesley to examine Swedenborg's works more carefully and he now found that Heaven and Hell contained many sentiments that were essentially and dangerously wrong, the affirmation, for instance, that "God is only one Person." Swedenborg's ideas of heaven Wesley found "low, grovelling, and just suited to a Mohammedan paradise." His ideas of hell, on the other hand, left nothing terrible in it. "First he quenches the unquenchable fire, assuring us that there is no fire there ... and secondly he informs us that all the damned enjoy their favorite pleasures . . . " What a disastrous effect such teachings must have! He wished "those pious men, Mr. Clowes and Mr. Cookworthy, would calmly consider these things before they usher into the world any more of this madman's dreams."[763]

In his Arminian Magazine for January, 1781, and 1783, Wesley then proceeded to publish "an authentic account of the very great man," given to him by Swedenborg's own countryman-who is none other than the inimical Pastor Mathesius! This scandalous piece described Swedenborg as having suffered an attack of insanity during his stay with the Moravian Brockmer "in 1743" (meaning, of course, 1744). One evening, says Mathesius, Swedenborg was found to be insane, proclaimed himself to be the Messiah, undressed and rolled himself in the mud, and threw pocketsful of money to the crowd, and much more to the same effect.76 All this was an unmitigated falsehood so completely refuted by investigators immediately afterward that it is unnecessary here to go into the details of the scandalous charge aimed at discrediting the famous author and discouraging his followers.[765] (See pp. 189, 190, 311).

It was just during the year 1744, while Swedenborg lived in London, that he had experienced the remarkable psychic changes recorded in his Journal o f Dreams, and this could undoubtedly have been accompanied by extraordinary demonstrations. But that his mind, far from being deranged, was thereby clarified and uplifted to supernal heights, is witnessed by his brilliant anatomical writings and his sublime Worship and Love of God, composed during the very period in question.

It is not surprising that, as a consequence of the false charges against Swedenborg, a rumor arose in Holland that "Swedenborg, a few hours before his death, had retracted all he had written." In order to destroy this vicious rumor, Robert Hindmarsh called on Mr. Shearsmith and requested him candidly to state whether there was any foundation for the report in question. 766

Richard Shearsmith and his second wife - the former Elizabeth Reynolds who had waited on Swedenborg during his last illness - assured the gentlemen, in the most emphatic terms, that the report was entirely fictitious and must have originated in some malicious person. The Shearsmiths thereupon, in the presence of the Lord Mayor of London, willingly signed an affidavit concerning the last days of their lodger, refuting the false and groundless report from Holland.[767] Fifteen years after his first article, in 1796, Wesley repeated his false accusations in a form still more explicit and extreme. Mathesius' memory had apparently been sharpened by the lapse of time![768] Thomas Hartley, Benedict Chastanier, and two others then undertook an investigation of the charges. Their report completely vindicates Swedenborg's own assertion that no unusual demeanor was ever noticed by the people who surrounded him.

The investigators found that Swedenborg may indeed have been ill once during his stay in London, but this was in 1749, thus five years later than the year in question, after he had finished the first volume of the Arcana Coelestia. It was quite possibly on the advice of his London physician that he spent the winter at Aix-la-Chapelle, the celebrated watering place in Germany. (See p. 236). But while he was in Aix, Swedenborg wrote the second volume of the Arcana, sending the pages to his London publisher as they were ready. No mental aberration was ever noticed by the people who surrounded him at this time, as he himself remarks. Two years after experiencing his extraordinary illumination (1745), he had resumed his work on the Board of Mines without his fellow officials observing the slightest change in his normal behavior. That a Swedish preacher should dare to proclaim - thirty-six years later - that Assessor Swedenborg had then been insane, seems unbelievable until one considers the fact that the unhappy Pastor Mathesius himself actually was seized with lunacy in 1783, while officiating in the Swedish church in London, and about to commence his sermon. This is verified by Mr. Bergström and Mr. Springer.[769] They cited, in this connection, the classical example of Hippocrates' saying about a philosopher (whom the dissolute Athenians pronounced insane, because they resented his teachings) : "it was not the philosopher but the Athenians who were mad!"

The Wesley story, when critically examined, breaks down completely, as it is full of inconsistencies and contradictions. Comments Dr. R. L. Tafel:

It would seem that if a charge of insanity cannot be proved against a man during his lifetime, and if his contemporaries see in such a charge a mere persecution, it is more than preposterous, nay it is downright malevolent and wicked, to attempt to raise this charge against him after his death. But such has been the fate of Swedenborg. . . . What are we to think of an insane man who for nearly eighteen years carefully conceals his insanity from the gaze of everybody, so that not the slightest suspicion is raised against him?[770]

This charge has nevertheless served the detractors of Swedenborg for derogatory material ever since it was invented, a hundred and seventy years ago!

Through an advertisement in the public papers, the energetic Robert Hindmarsh collected together all those in London who were interested in studying the writings of Swedenborg. They formed a "Society for promoting the Heavenly Doctrines of the New Jerusalem." On January 27, 1788, divine worship was instituted in a hired hall in Great East Cheap where Robert's father, the Rev. James Hindmarsh, preached a sermon to a crowded audience. The society published many of Swedenborg's writings in English and issued a periodical called The New Magazine of Knowledge. Robert Hindmarsh is best known for his work, The Rise and Progress of the New Jerusalem Church.

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In Sweden all the newspapers carried notices of Swedenborg's death, and the Academy of Sciences called on Councillor of Mines Samuel Sadels to write a Eulogy in honor of their departed member. Sandel's address was delivered in the Great Hall of the House of Nobles on October 7, 1772. It expressed the deep affection and high regard in which the scientist and seer had always been held, and supplies much of our information about his personal life.[771]

Some years elapsed before any outstanding leaders of the new movement developed in Swedenborg's homeland. The best authority on Swedenborg's "later works" was perhaps, the late assessor's intimate friend, former Prime Minister Count Anders von Höpken. When called upon for his estimate of Swedenborg, he made the statement, quoted earlier (See Foreword), that in his opinion his late friend was without doubt the most learned man in the country, who had been led by degrees from the study of anatomy to the realm of spiritual things in a series of logical steps.

It was to von Höpken that Christian Tuxen - urged on probably by Swedenborg's own statement concerning the converts to his doctrines - turned, with the entreaty "that he instruct him and his wife in Swedenborg's system and act as their guide."

"Never in my life have I been more surprised," wrote von Höpken, "nor have I laughed more, nor been more nonplussed." (Ulfasa, May 17, 1772.)[772] The idea of being appointed Swedenborg's successor was a role the elderly statesman could not contemplate with anything but amusement. He continued to study Swedenborg, however, and in his later letters says that he found in these works "a simplicity, gradation, and spirit such as the work of God in nature everywhere proves and exhibits; for whatever man creates is complicated, labored and subject to vicissitude." (Stockholm, July 6, 1781.) "I have been convinced of the truth of Swedenborg's doctrine, from these things in particular . . . " mentioning his arguments for the unity of God, his doctrine of discrete degrees, and the fact that the Biblical narrative of creation is unexplainable without assuming that the Word has an internal sense.[773] (Appendix H.)

Von Höpken was one of the men who, in 1786, joined Charles Frederick Nordenski6ld and Charles Bernard Wadstr6m, the noted abolitionist, in creating the first organization in Sweden devoted to promoting Swedenborg's doctrines - the "Exegetic and Philanthropic Society," which numbered some 150 members, many of them distinguished nobles such as Count Claes Ekeblad and the entomologist Baron Leonard Gyllenhaal. At least one of their meetings was attended by the crown prince, afterward King Gustavus IV. Their Collections for Philanthropists[774] published many of Swedenborg's letters for the first time.

This organization came to a speedy end, however, through its involvement in French and German movements devoted to animal magnetism, Mesmerism and gold-making, bringing the cause of Swedenborgianism into ridicule and disgrace.[775] It was succeeded by another society, "Pro Fide et Charitate," among whose members were the husbands of the Rev. Arvid Ferelius' three daughters. These and Dean Anders Knös, Mme. Frederika Ehrenborg, Baron Leonard Gyllenhaal, and Pastor Pehr Hemming Odhner - married to a descendant of Dr. Beyer - were scholarly, ardent souls, intent on real spiritual development. Many of their descendants today are members of the New Church.[776]

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It is interesting to note how differently the Swedenborgian movement took hold in different countries. In England it had crystallized around the issue of ecclesiastical organization-whether to separate from the State Church, as advocated by Hindmarsh, or to adopt nonseparation as advocated by Clowes. In Sweden the distinct issue which came very early to the fore was not on the point of organization but on doctrinal interpretation: What was the nature of Swedenborg's inspiration and how should his revelations be regarded?

Charles Frederick Nordenskiöld put this question to his various correspondents in Sweden and elsewhere. An answer came to him in February, 1782, from the Marquis de Thomé in Berlin: "The doctrine of Swedenborg is not his. If I thought it was his and not the Lord's I should not adopt it but reject it. I am the disciple of Christ, not of Swedenborg." [777]

Doctor Beyer, asked for his opinion, answered that Swedenborg's "internal sense" is the Word Itself and the Holy in the Word. "This has been dictated to the Assessor from heaven just as the Word in the letter was dictated to the Apostles, and therefor it produces immediate communication with heaven."

One of those regarded by the little group of believers in Sweden as most enlightened was Christian Johansen of Eskilstuna, to whom also was put this question which had "caused dissention to arise in the church." His answer was:

"Everyone may consider the New Doctrine as he pleases, as the Lord's Divine Word or as Doctrine from the Word, if only he lives according to it."

Out of this discussion there naturally arose the question of the manuscripts that Swedenborg left behind. If these things were a divine revelation, it was necessary to preserve for posterity everything that Swedenborg had written. Charles Frederick Nordenskiöld and his brother felt this responsibility, and we are largely indebted to their diligence for the work of preservation. Augustus first turned his attention to the Academy of Sciences. When the box containing Swedenborg's papers arrived from England, two bishops among the heirs had desired to throw them into the fire, he tells us, "but God provided that this should not take place." One of the bishops was undoubtedly Filenius whose wish was frustrated by the decision of the family to bequeath the manuscripts to the Royal Academy of Sciences, taking care first to remove from Swedenborg's diaries certain pages recording his earliest dreams. Nordenskiöld obtained permission from the Academy to have the loose sheets bound in volumes at his own expense.

Among the manuscripts left to the Academy were the Spiritual Diary, the first draft of Arcana Coelestia and the whole of the unpublished work Apocalypse Explained, in two drafts. Augustus Nordenskiöld had some of the unpublished texts copied "by young Johansen, the one man in Stockholm who could read the original Latin." In 1783 Charles Frederick Nordenskiöld, having heard that there was in London a society formed for the purpose of printing Swedenborg's works, took the Johansen copies and some of the originals - notably the manuscript of Apocalypse Explained - with him to England where that work was subsequently printed at the expense of Mr. Henry Peckitt. While the manuscript was in Mr. Peckitt's possession a fire broke out and it had an almost miraculous escape.[777a] (See Appendix I)

When the abolishionist Wadström, intent on his plans for a New Church colony in Africa, arrived in London in 1788, he brought with him a second installment of the Swedenborg manuscripts, including most of The Spiritual Diary. He left these papers in the hands of the French surgeon, Benedict Chastanier, a zealous propagandist for the new doctrines, who was, however, unsuccessful in his attempt to get the Diary published. When Chastanier, old and poverty stricken, perished of cold on a bitter winter night, near Edinburgh, the precious Diaries had fallen into the hands of various gentlemen and for a time were lost sight of. The Swedenborg Society, however, after a lapse of sixty years, recovered them and returned them, with the previously borrowed manuscripts, to the Swedish Academy of Sciences. Dr. J.F. Immanuel Tafel had in the meantime printed the original text of the Diary in Tübingen. It was after this that the Academy passed the resolution in the future never to allow any of the manuscripts of Swedenborg to leave their Library.

In the course of years, through the diligence of various organizations in America and England, and by the agency of Rudolf Leonard Tafel, Alfred Henry Stroh, Alfred Acton, and others, every extant written word of Swedenborg has been preserved in exact reproduction by different methods: photolithographing, phototyping, and photostating.

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When the little church on Princes Square, where Swedenborg was buried, had at length to be torn down to make way for greater London, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences set afoot a plan to bring Swedenborg's remains home to his native land. Three places competed for the honor of enshrining the ashes of Sweden's illustrious son: Stockholm, Varnhem Cloister, and Upsala. On April 7, 1908, the coffin of Emanuel Swedenborg left England under stately ceremonies and was carried on board the cruiser Fylgia which the Swedish government had sent.

On May 18, with solemn rites, the casket was deposited in Upsala Cathedral near that of Swedenborg's famous contemporary, Carl Linnaeus. A procession through the college town-holiday-decked in flags from the station to the church-was led by members of the Swedenborg family followed by representatives of numerous organizations. The students proceeded up the aisle singing, and dipped their banners in deference as they passed the casket covered with wreaths from societies and individuals at home and abroad. Commemorative poems were read in Latin and Swedish and the Archbishop gave his laudatory address from the pulpit which just before had been decorated by a group of small children - in graceful tribute to Swedenborg's affection for the young![778]

Rivaling this festive occasion was the dedication to Emanuel Swedenborg, two years later, of a magnificent granite sarcophagus made at the expense of the Swedish government. This took place at the celebration of the 200th jubilee of the Upsala Scientific Society, of which the youthful Emanuel had been an early member. The occasion was graced by the presence of the Swedish King and Queen. A Latin ode, composed in commemoration of the removal from England of Swedenborg's remains, expresses the reverence many felt for his remarkable life and work.[779] A translation of it is here presented:

To thine own land alone, O greatest Swede,
We yield thy bones, as thy own land today
Recalls thee. How can song of ours display
The giant labors of thy mind, or plead
Each honor due, to celebrate indeed
Such genius? Thus we grieve. Would we essay
To master heavenly mysteries, or stray
Through Nature's inner chambers? If thou lead,
The way is lighted well. But hark! For now
The trumpet blares; sails fill; the frigate starts;
"Farewell!" resounds from fast-receding shore;
To thy paternal home now mayest thou
Return, revered apostle; in our hearts
Thy praise remains immortal evermore.

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