Depending on one’s definition, Swedenborgianism has been described as everything from that of a cult to that of the one true religion. The history of Swedenborgianism can be traced to England, where Emanuel Swedenborg had gone to see his works through the press and distribute them to those folks who could read Latin. Groups who had read his works and were anxious to spread Swedenborg’s teachings and organized reading societies and wound up translating the original works from Latin for publication. Eventually the issue of separatism arose, and in 1787 a group of followers formally established the Church of the New Jerusalem as an independent religious body. By the following year, the church claimed twelve members in the first London society.
It was in 1784 that James Glen, an English owner of a South American plantation was en route to the United States and was introduced to Swedenborg through a copy of Heaven and Hell. Glen introduced the works to America. He gave an open lecture on Swedenborg’s teachings at a bookstore in Philadelphia that attracted public attention and inspired many new readers who were later to become important leaders in what was called the American Swedenborgian movement.
By the early 1800s, the first Swedenborgian church structure had been built, the first periodical on Swedenborg’s teachings published, and President Thomas Jefferson invited one John Hargrove of the Baltimore congregation of Swedenborgianism to preach in the Capitol rotunda before Congress.
The spread of Swedenborgian beliefs across America was also furthered by missionaries who came into contact with settlers that were heading west. The best-known missionary is noted primarily for another aspect of his travels. In 1822, here’s what a church committee had to say regarding this “unusual missionary.”
“One very extraordinary missionary continued to exert, for the spread of divine truth, his modest and humble efforts, which would put the most zealous member to blush. We now allude to Mr. John Chapman, from whom we are in the habit of hearing frequently. His temporal employment consists in preceding the settlements, and sowing nurseries of fruit trees, which he avows to be pursued for the chief purpose of giving him an opportunity of spreading the doctrines throughout the western country.”
The convert, John Chapman, is better known here in the States as Johnny Appleseed. In addition to his sowing of seeds in the Midwestern wilderness, Johnny Appleseed carried with him all of the Swedenborgian publications he could get his hands on and distributed them whenever the opportunity arose.
At the same time as Chapman’s apple trees were blossoming, so were mid-nineteenth century intellectual and social movements in America and Swedenborgianism proved to be an influence despite its relatively small size in comparison to other organized churches and religions. Despite these small numbers, the Swedenborgians, had a profound effect on the American intellectual atmosphere.
Early Americans such as Ralph Waldo Emerson were so impressed by Swedenborg’s writings that he included many of their beliefs into his writings. When his essay “Nature” was published anonymously, many credited it as the work of Swedenborgians . This was because its main theme of the idea of nature as the symbol of the soul mirrored that of the Swedenborgian concept of “correspondence.” Emerson incorporated Swedenborgian terms in his writings and made over eighty references to Swedenborg’s works. He went so far as to publish an essay, “Swedenborg, or the Mystic,” which clearly indicated his appreciation for Swedenborg’s philosophical position.
The Transcendentalist movement shared many of the philosophical beliefs that characterized Swedenborgianism, even though few Transcendentalists embraced the concept of a organized church. The most visible of these shared interests was the idea of a utopian community. Followers of both philosophical schools were involved with numerous of the utopian settlements organized in the 1800s.
In addition to Emerson, other Transcendentalists such as Amos Bronson Alcott, and Henry James expressed an affinity for Swedenborgianism, Many other artists and writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries revealed his influence and referred to him in their works. Among these are William Blake, Edgar Allan Poe, Honore de Balzac, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
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