Friday, March 29, 2024

Today, on the Christian History Almanac, we examine the curious (and heterodox) life and work of Emmanuel Swedenborg.

It is the 29th of March 2024. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac, brought to you by 1517 at; I’m Dan van Voorhis.


A blessed Good Friday if you are observing it- I will note that we have an older show on the history of Good Friday and its traditions around the world that can be found with a Google search (with almost 1700 shows we are still trying to figure out how best to make them easily accessible).

And so instead, it’s Friday and we’re going to get a little weird- the story of a very curious character and movement in and then adjacent to the church in Sweden and America.

Let me start by asking you a question, “what do Hellen Keller, Johnny Appleseed, William Blake, and Robert Frost have in common?” Answer: they were all associated with the Church of the New Jerusalem, sometimes called the  New Church or the Swedenborgians after Emmanuel Swedenborg- one of the most accomplished, famous, brilliant and later eccentric theologian in Sweden in the 18th century.

Emmanuel was born in 1688 in Stockholm. He lost his mother and brother by the time he was eight and was raised by his father, Jesper, a popular preacher, chaplain, and professor. Jesper would remarry a wealthy widow, and when she died, Emmanuel and Jesper each received half of her estate- this meant Emmanuel could live a privileged life not concerned with work. He would spend ten years, from the age of 11 to 21, at the University of Uppsala studying the natural sciences and philosophies of the nascent Enlightenment. But he knew that many works and figures had not made their way to Sweden. And so, in 1709, he took his first trip across Europe. He was intrigued by advancements in mathematics and wrote the first book on Algebra in Swedish. He played with the ideas of Locke and Descartes, attempting a synthesis of their two schools. His notebooks are filled with questions and hypotheses about the way the world works with drawings of crude machines resembling submarines and airplanes- for this and more, he would be seen as the DaVinci of Sweden.

Back home he was made the assessor to the Royal Board of Mines by the king himself. For the next 30 years he would work on, among other things, better means of mining metal.

His next trip across Europe came in 1721, when he picked up dead and wrote about natural philosophy and chemistry.

And then, one of the great mysteries of Emmanuel Swedenborg- he doesn’t write anything for a decade.

The next time we hear of him is in 1733. He is once again abroad and has published a three-volume work on philosophy at Leipzig. By 1735, he begins to write a little more introspectively on the nature of the soul and its relation to the universe and creator.

And then, in 1744, things got weird. He claims that on April 7th, 1744, he was met in a dream by Christ, who rebuked him for his pride and worldliness. This would be published in his Journal of Dreams. He then gave up all of his work in philosophy, mining, and mechanics to take up theology. He would write 30 volumes of theology- most of them published in London as he was afraid the Swedish authorities would destroy them on account of blasphemy laws. Because, well… they went beyond the boundaries of even the most generous orthodoxy. He claimed to have been met again, this time not in a dream, by Jesus. He learned that the second coming was Christ’s message to him and his subsequent visions of the afterlife. 1758’s “Heaven and Hell” is a travelogue, Dante-style, through the afterlife. He also wrote extensively on the Bible with interpretations so allegorical it would make Origen blush. He rejected the Nicene Creed and taught a kind of modalism- the trinitarian heresy that sees God as one but appears in three different modes.

He is of note for Christian history not so much as one who veered into heterodoxy. We have plenty of those, but rather as an early father of the radical restorationists. These are those 18th and 19th-century prophets, often coming out of Protestant churches, who believe the church has lost its way and needs to “get back” to an original version of the faith. There are some restorationist churches that are thoroughly creedal and others that, in their “restoring,” find new authorities in new texts and prophets.

Emmanuel Swedenborg would have a special role in this not just due to his dates but rather because of his fame as a philosopher and natural scientist. His early works carried an authority that would spawn a church and a movement after his death- it is worth noting that he himself never founded a church or preached, but his works, later published, birthed the movement that bears his name. And with Swedenborg, we appropriately have a strange story from his last year- a friend asked if they could meet up in a few months. Emmanuel claimed that he could not, as he was to die the next month on this, the 29th of March in 1772. Born in 1688, Emmanuel Swedenborg was 84 years old.


The last word for today is from the daily lectionary for today from Hebrews 4:

14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 29th of March 2024, brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man who prefers the Swedish theologian Bo Giertz and the Swedish chef on the Muppets- he is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who enjoys both Abba and Ace of Base- I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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