Snapshot: Swedenborgianism

You may not have heard of Emmanuel Swedenborg, but in his lifetime and for quite some time afterwards he was a man of renown. He was an 18th century genius, likely on par with Leonardo da Vinci. He was born in Sweden in 1688, the son of a Lutheran pastor. Early in life he was noted for great achievements in math, science and engineering. In 1724 he was appointed to a prominent government position on the Swedish Board of Mines.

But then in 1743 things began to change. Swedenborg began to have strange dreams and visions. He believed that ancient sages and religious figures were appearing to him. He supposedly had conversations with Jesus, Moses and other biblical figures. He went on spiritual journeys to heaven and hell. Angels reportedly showed him great spiritual truths. He also developed psychic powers, especially clairvoyance. Out of these visions he developed a unique brand of religious philosophy. This included a prophecy that there was coming a new era of universal spiritual understanding, which he called the New Jerusalem.

He was eventually excommunicated from the Lutheran Church on charges of heresy. He left Sweden and died in London in 1772. However, his many books lived on. Men of letters in the 18th century considered it de rigueur to study his works—e.g. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. His writings strongly influenced 19th century spiritual movements, such as Transcendentalism, Spiritualism and New Thought. There are several religious groups that carry on his teachings, including the New Church and the Church of the New Jerusalem. Devout Swedenborgians of the past include John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, and Helen Keller. Although the actual membership of any of the Swedenborgian churches is relatively small, his teachings has consistently been influential in intellectual circles.

Swedenborg rejected traditional Christian doctrine of God. He claimed to believe in the Trinity, but his version is actually a form of modalism. He viewed the orthodox idea of one God in three person as being tri-theistic. Jesus won salvation for us through His sinless life and moral victory over the devil. He rejected the idea of Christ’s substitutionary atonement, thinking this was a foolish concept. His teachings on the spirit world paved the way for Spiritualism and similar cults. One of his key theories concerns the concept of correspondences. In his visions, he believed he saw there were parallels between the realities of the spirit world and this life. He was essentially Gnostic in his sharp distinction between the spirit and the flesh. He rejected the bodily resurrection, believing that our spiritual existence in the afterlife is what is truly meant by “resurrection.”

Basic Teachings

God: There is one God, who manifests himself in three ways. The Holy Spirit is not a person.
Christ: Jesus is divine, but he is not a distinct Person of the Godhead. Jesus is the Trinity.
Salvation: Jesus set us an example in his sinless life. There is no substitutionary atonement. We achieve salvation by our moral choices. Any person in any religion can be saved.
Bible & Authority: The Bible is inspired, but Swedenborg’s revelations supersede the biblical revelation.
Afterlife: At death humans lay aside their material bodies and become either angels or demons, based on their moral life here on earth. There is no bodily resurrection.

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