Swedenborg, Emanuel

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Swedenborg, Emanuel (1688-1772): Swedish Theologian.

Emanuel Swedenborg rose from an early career as an eminent Swedish minerologist and scientist to become the premiere Swedish theologian of the 18th century. Though his mystic visions and rigorously detailed religious opinions have led to his obscurity in the contemporary world, he is arguably the most influential Swede in eighteenth century European history.

Swedenborg was born of Jespier Swedberg, a chaplain who became professor of theology at Uppsala university, and later Bishop of Skara, at which time the family was ennobled and their name changed to Swedenborg. Emmanuel Swedenborg was well educated, and after graduating from Uppsala university, he began extensive European travels. His studies led to the publication, in 1716, of the first Swedish scientific journal, Daedalus Hyperboreus, for which he received the attention and praise of King Charles XII. Swedenborg was subsequently appointed as an Assessor of the Board of Mines, where his duties were to oversee mining activities and advance the Swedish mining industry. His travels and studies in this pursuit led to multiple scientific publications, though eventually his attention was devoted less toward mining, and more towards scientific and eventually theological pursuits. In 1740, he published a work on anatomy, The Economy of the Animal Kingdom, and, in 1745, more abstract works, including The Animal Kingdom, and The Worship and Love of God.

Swedenborg’s writings underwent their most significant transformation in 1744-1745, after several mystical visions. His later works were all informed by continuing, and supposed daily, conversations with angels and spirits. In 1747, he took leave of the Board of Mines, and began a publishing career in Europe, where the community was more receptive to his works than his native Sweden. In 1758, he published several works, including Heaven and Hell, and The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine. Continuing to publish until the end of his life, Swedenborg died in 1772 in London, and his body was later returned to Sweden.

Though he wrote primarily in Latin, English translations spread his writings throughout Europe and the United States, and posthumously he continued to gain many disciples. Though attacked and condemned by conservative religious readers, and by figures such as Blake, William and the influential Kant, Immanuel, Swedenborg had many admirers, including Honoré de Balzac, Charles Baudelaire, Johnny Chapman (a.k.a. Appleseed), Ralph Waldo Emerson, Helen Keller, and Edgar Allan Poe.

Despite the influence Swedenborg may have enjoyed, he is a relatively obscure figure today. However, in the eighteenth century, several churches were founded in the name of Swedenborgianism, and though these early organizations suffered persecution in the form of heresy trials, churches devoted to a Swedenborgian version of Christianity survive today, including the General Convention of the New Jerusalem, and other subsequent splinter groups in multiple countries. These churches, along with the prodigious amount of scholarship Swedenborg produced, remain a testament to his popularity and vision.

Further Reading:

Inge Jonsson, Emanuel Swedenborg, 1971.

Steven Zani

Lamar University