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Swedenborg's Written Revelation: The Dynamics of Reception

Panel Chair: Jane Williams-Hogan | Thursday, August 27, 3:30-5:30 p.m. | Venue

Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) was a Swedish scientist, philosopher and a civil servant who claimed he was called in 1745 to write and publish a new Christian theology. His first work was published in 1749, his last in 1771. The focus of this revelation was to open the Bible’s internal or spiritual meaning. Like the scientific penetration of nature, this unveiling of the literal meaning of scripture was to provide a rational understanding of the mysteries of faith. He did not found a religion but widely distributed his works to be discovered by people of faith. It was clear that these books called to people because a church organization was founded in London, in 1787, by individuals who had never personally known Swedenborg. This panel seeks to explore the dynamics of the process of reception of a written revelation, both positive and negative.

Jane Williams-Hogan

The Call of Charismatic Books: Swedenborg, Artists, Writers, and Spiritual Seekers

Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) wrote and published a new Christian revelation from 1749-1771. He never founded a church. One was established, however, in England in 1787 by individuals who felt called to regularize access to the “charisma” of these books. For a time, the artist and poet, William Blake (1757-1826) was a member of the first congregation. John Flaxman (1755-1826), the sculptor, was also attracted to the message of Swedenborg, as were many other artists, writers, and spiritual seekers in Europe, the Americas, and eventually from around the world in the nineteenth and succeeding centuries. This paper will examine the nature of Swedenborg’s spiritual works, their “charisma” and, why they have attracted and continue to attract exceptionally creative and reflective individuals to explore them.

Bernhard Lang

Swedenborg and Dickens: Traces of Swedenborg's Influence in a Christmas Carol

In Charles Dickens’s famous novel A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story for Christmas (1843), Mr Scrooge meets and converses with four spirits of which one is identified as Scrooge’s business partner who has died not long ago. The meeting with spirits is a central theme in the writings of Swedenborg whose book on Heaven and Hell was widely read in Victorian Britain. Dickens himself owned a copy, sent to him by the Swedenborg Society of London in 1841. In his letter of acknowledgment (September 9, 1841), Dickens writes that this book “will not go unread.” The paper scrutinizes the novel for traces of Swedenborg’s influence.

Devin Zuber

Reading Literature as Religion, or Religion as Literature: Swedenborg and a Post-secular Age

Beyond the Swedenborgian church movement which emerged after Swedenborg’s death, a number of Romantic writers and artists came to use Swedenborg’s writings as aids for enchanting their various aesthetic projects: locating in his theology concepts that allowed them to “spiritualize” the work of the poet or painter. This talk explores how two such American figures, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry James Sr., read Swedenborg “literarily” (not literally), and colored their views of the aesthetic as a spiritual office—ones that ultimately came to supplant the institutional authority of the church. If James and Emerson could be said to have appropriated Swedenborg as a “post-Christian” figure, how might their idiosyncratic readings of Swedenborg function as post-secular? Some of the recent discussions around post-secularity occasioned by Charles Taylor and Hent de Vries can find, I argue, a corollary in James and Emerson’s transpositions of Swedenborgian theology into literary aesthetics.

Tiina Mahlamaki

Swedenborg's Reception within Anthroposophy: The Case of the Finish Artist Kersti Bergroth

My paper will discuss the influence of Emanuel Swedenborg on a Finnish female author, Kersti Bergroth (1886–1975) through one of Bergroth’s novel Eläviä ja kuolleita (The Living and the Dead; 1945). Bergroth was a prolific author with an Anthroposophical bent and an admirer of German Idealism. In this particular novel Bergroth refers explicitly to Swedenborg and the story discloses a number of Swedenborgian themes: the doctrine of correspondences; a world divided into material, spiritual, and divine realms; and communication with the spirits of the dead. As Bergroth was an active member of the Anthroposophical movement, I will also consider the route, spread, and place of Swedenborg’s ideas within Anthroposophy and Theosophy in the 20th century.


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