How Usefulness Became a Cornerstone Swedenborgian Spiritual Growth Method

When Wilson Van Dusen’s 1981 Uses: A Way of Personal and Spiritual Growth was republished as a pamphlet, it rapidly progressed into a runaway favorite in all quarters of Swedenborgiana. Without doubt, Uses is the most beloved short work in Swedenborgian spirituality of the last half-century. Though the terms “uses” and “doctrine of use” held a discernible position in historical Swedenborgian discourse, “usefulness” staked out new prominence in practical Swedenborgian spirituality. Analysis of terminology usage in Swedenborgian publishing history via article and book titles dating to the late eighteenth century bears this out.


Swedenborg never features the term “uses” or “usefulness” in book, chapter, or section titles within works. Potts’s six-volume The Swedenborg Concordance (comprehensive with respect to ideas but not to total examples) presents 206 instances of the term “uses” (Latin = usus) in works that Swedenborg took to press and 52 cases in posthumously published works. It appears that Swedenborg explored publishing a separate volume prominently featuring “uses” from the looks of an unpublished notebook composed during 1761 that was discovered in his papers after his death. In that notebook, Swedenborg frames use as an integral component of a functional Trinity along with love and wisdom: love works through wisdom to produce a useful end.[1] He elected instead to incorporate this perspective in the 1763 Divine Love and Wisdom where “uses” is shaped for several pages in part IV.

Early Swedenborgian Discourse on “Uses” Primarily as a Metaphysical Concept

The first era of Swedenborgian discussion on uses largely emphasizes its philosophical and metaphysical foundations. A few articles in The Intellectual Repository, the longest running early Swedenborgian journal, shape the initial conversation on uses near the end of the eighteenth century, which continues in a very modest number of articles throughout the nineteenth century. The only two books on the topic both appear well over a century after Swedenborg’s last work: they are slender volumes comprised entirely of selected passages from the Swedish sage, though both contain short introductions.[2] Of the two, B. F. Barrett’s treatment will prove instrumental for Van Dusen.

The extant discourse on “uses” throughout the first 120 years of Swedenborgian publishing is quite modest compared with the avalanche devoted to other major themes in Swedenborgian spirituality: correspondences in biblical interpretation; the oneness of the Trinity; a gradualist regeneration in contrast to immediate salvation by conversion or confession; the nature of the afterlife; the laws of divine providence; the true nature of faith; the Last Judgment; and eschatology in general. For example, of the eight most widely used overview volumes in Swedenborgian thought from the late nineteenth century up through the splash made by Van Dusen’s essay, seven do not even mention “uses” as a topic.[3] In two overviews published after Van Dusen’s essay, both include “uses” as a Swedenborgian category.[4]

Yet the distinctive theory of “uses” was in play in the organized Swedenborgian movements before Van Dusen, and the Swede’s thoughts on the metaphysics of uses penetrated somewhat deeply into serious philosophical currents. Swedenborg is distinctive for seeking a metaphysics to house theology: he wants a cosmos that works as functionally as would any mechanical science, his earliest love. Usefulness—or empirical results—plays a striking role of necessity for Swedenborg’s theological universe: the only reason why anything exists is that it provides a use. Its ability to be concretely functional is the reason for its existence. John Haller, in his most recent blog offering (“What Do American Pragmatism, Swedenborg, and Zen Hold in Common?”), provides compelling evidence for the importance of Swedenborg’s philosophy of uses in the development of American Pragmatism in the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries via Emerson, James, and Peirce.[5]

Additionally, in discussing this matter with a number of Swedenborgians while researching this blog offering, some testify that a functional understanding of “uses” in spiritual living was common, even if the published discourse is scanty. Overall, it seems just to conclude that Swedenborg’s so-called “doctrine of use” played a serious if understated role in Swedenborgian discourse before Wilson Van Dusen’s revitalization (and some would say transformation) of it in the latter twentieth century.

The Story behind Van Dusen’s “Uses” Essay

The Californian’s development of a spiritual growth method anchored in usefulness dramatically changed the role of uses in contemporary Swedenborgian practice, and the story of Van Dusen’s late adult entrance into Swedenborgian thought is worth telling. Growing up in a non-religious household, he yet fondly regarded his spiritualist grandmother. She had pulled him aside one day when he was still a young lad and pointed to the set of ruddy gilded volumes adorning her mantle. In an earnest tone that long remained with him, she averred that everything important to know in life was in those books. She was leaving them to him as a very special legacy. His parents, however, had other ideas. Deeming the literature inappropriate for their son, they disposed of the books following her death a few years later.

Van Dusen was crestfallen, but over time the memory faded. Decades passed, and he matured into a psychologist of some reputation, both as a clinician and as an author in the emerging human potential movement. One day when he was nearly fifty years of age, he was browsing in a used San Francisco bookshop and spied a set of the very same books his grandmother had left to him. Bearing the series titleThe Swedenborg Library and published serially from 1875–1881, the twelve volumes present some two dozen themes central to Swedenborg’s theological works. In them, he found the world his grandmother had promised, and he did not cease its exploration for the next three decades.[6]

The volumes present Swedenborg in Swedenborg’s own words, but they grouped selected passages edited by Benjamin Fisk Barrett, a prolific nineteenth-century author who became a favorite figure for Van Dusen. When visiting a Swedenborgian library, he found catalogued right next to the impressive twelve-volume set by Barrett a little-read, single, small tome published five years later. It was yet another selected-passages approach to shaping Swedenborgian spirituality, one not covered in the earlier series: ends and uses. He read in Barrett’s preface, “This is a doctrine of supreme moment—so regarded by angels in heaven; and no thoughtful person can fail to recognize its practical value, nor to see that it contains the very core and substance of the Christian religion. Yet no such doctrine is to be found in any creeds and treatises in Christendom prior to its announcement by the distinguished Swede.”

Ends and Uses delivered a new insight to the already well-regarded human potential psychologist who was immersed in discerning methods and practices for personal transformation. His popular book, The Natural Depth in Man, had described spiritual growth methods then coming to the fore in the human potential movement: dream interpretation, meditation, depth journaling, accessing higher states of consciousness, and techniques for practical mysticism. In “uses,” Van Dusen spied potential for framing an effective spiritual growth method in Swedenborg’s spiritual philosophy that was not yet well grasped. He asserts in the opening paragraph of his now classic work, “The range and power of this method have been largely overlooked by students of Swedenborg’s writings.”

Today, usefulness rivals “correspondences” as the most popular spirituality concept in Swedenborgianism—and its prominent place is quite directly owed to the success Van Dusen had in shaping the personal spiritual growth method he believed had been overlooked. He is remembered fondly for his attendance in the summer of 1977 at the Pennsylvania Swedenborgian summer family camp, Laurel, and his program of organizing everyone into small tasks for close observance in their use for the whole. He wanted people not only to have clear consciousness of how all uses large and small serve the commonweal in empowering ways but also to be conscious of the delights of goodness arising through uses, both for the ones who produce them and for those who benefit from them.

After that, Van Dusen went to work on the reverberant essay that would dramatically affect Swedenborgian spirituality, publishing “Personal Spiritual Development through Uses” in an academic journal during the following year.[7] The piece went viral, so to speak, with numerous Swedenborg Foundation printings beginning in 1981 and continuing into the present.

The World within Van Dusen’s “Uses” Essay

The explanation of how Van Dusen’s essay lifted the “doctrine of use” from a moderately deployed philosophical concept into a frontline spirituality concept lies in his success at framing the topic as a spiritual practice for everyday living and as a path toward vibrant living. Interestingly, he spends about half the essay on the metaphysical foundations of the concept. As a phenomenological psychologist, he was as interested in theory and empiricism as were William James and Emerson. The essay identifies “use” as central to the creation and to human life; and following Swedenborg’s own analysis, Van Dusen patiently explains that use is the function that creates existence: if bereft of any use, there is no force in being.

Also like Swedenborg, who put more time and effort into anatomical studies of all scientific endeavors with the possible exception of metallurgy, the essay focuses on the human body as the most powerful illustration of how “uses” holds the whole together. The power of the whole can only operate through a myriad of efficient interactive uses, which explains why Swedenborg likens the human form to the most elemental structure of the cosmos and claims it should be viewed as the Divine-Human One (see Divine Love and Wisdom §21). Heaven itself functions with dynamic “correctness” through myriad contributors who know how to be useful, and the result is a whole community that has the same force of being as does a unified body.

Seeing that the effects of usefulness are joy and bliss in both social and personal ways, Van Dusen had an “ah ha!” insight for a way to ground “everyday” spiritual growth: simply focus on what is useful in small and large ways. This plain framing became the doorway for an accessible and immensely popular “way” of doing spiritual formation. The essay offers several, well, “useful” angles on the practice of it. One angle is starting with a current love and paying attention to how it can be honed in some way to provide uses to others—somewhat like finding ways to turn your hobby into a career, but the method can be employed on much smaller scales as well. When successful, one increases joy and delight for others and for oneself simultaneously.

Another angle is noticing motivations in the uses one already provides. If we see that we are more focused on what we get out of a use, we can begin training ourselves to focus on those who are supposed to receive benefits from that use. Van Dusen contrasts the inner life of a “sales-oriented” salesperson to a “customer-oriented” salesperson and concludes that the two are as different as hell and heaven. Another angle, unsurprising to find in a psychologist, is Van Dusen’s emphasis on self-care: top usefulness can endure only through a healthy self. So he prioritizes being of use to oneself and enjoying pleasurable things to rejuvenate. In his conclusion, he decides that being useful is true worship.

Taken in historical perspective, Van Dusen provided a breakthrough on how “uses” infused Swedenborgian metaphysics and spirituality. He identified the potential of a spiritual growth method from scattered mentions throughout Swedenborg’s writings and shaped a skillful and even profound philosophy of the good life.

[1] The notebook carries no title, but The Doctrine of Use was affixed to its posthumously published form 140 years later in 1901.

[2] See Ends and Uses, ed. B. F. Barrett (Philadelphia: Swedenborg Publishing Association, 1887) and The Useful Life: A Crown to the Simple Life, ed. John Bigelow (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906).

[3] See Parsons, Outlines of the Religion and Philosophy of Swedenborg, 1893; Buss, What the New Church Teaches, 1897; Ager, The Path of Life, 1913; Smyth and Wunsch, The Gist of Swedenborg, 1920; Pendleton, Topics from the Writings, 1928; Spalding, An Introduction to Swedenborg’s Religious Thought, 1966; Synnestvedt, The Essential Swedenborg, 1970; Wunsch, Outlines of Swedenborg’s Teachings, 1975.

[4] See Stanley, Emanuel Swedenborg: Essential Readings, 1988; Kirven, A Concise Overview of Swedenborg’s Theology, 2003.

[5] See also Armi Värilä, The Swedenborgian Background of William James’ Philosophy (Helsinki : Suomalainen tiedenkatemia, 1977).

[6] When Van Dusen’s library and personal papers were bequeathed to the library and archives at the Center for Swedenborgian Studies in Berkeley, the only item held back by his family was this beloved set of books. It is of further interest that his donated library included an obscure booklet, The Doctrine of Use, from a 1969 talk given in London by a Swedenborgian minister, Rev. Björn A. H. Boyesen.

[7] Wilson Van Dusen, “Personal Development through Uses,” Studia Swedenborgiana 3:2 (June 1978): 3–18.

Further Reading

Boyesen, Björn A. H. The Doctrine of Use. London: Swedenborg Society, 1969.

Swedenborg, Emanuel. Divine Love and Wisdom, trans. George F. Dole. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 2008. The original work is Sapientia angelica de divino amore (Amsterdam, 1763). Part IV contains the lengthiest single discussion of uses in Swedenborg’s published works.

_____. Ends and Uses. Selected passages edited and introduced by B. F. Barrett. Philadelphia: Swedenborg Publishing Association, 1887.

_____. The Usefule Life: A Crown to the Simple Life. Selected passages edited and introduced by John Bigelow. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906.

_____. The Doctrine of Use, trans. and introduced E. C. Mongredien. London: Swedenborg Society, 1944.

Van Dusen, Wilson. The Natural Depth in Man. New York: Harper and Row, 1972.

_____. The Presence of Other Worlds: The Psychological/Spiritual Findings of Emanuel Swedenborg. New York: Harper and Row, 1974.

_____. Uses: A Way of Personal and Spiritual Growth. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 1981, 1983, 2003, 2016.

_____. The Country of Spirit: Selected Essays, ed. James Lawrence. San Francisco: J. Appleseed & Co., 1992.

Blog Post written by:
James F. Lawrence
Dean of CSS, Faculty Associate in Spirituality and Director of the Doctor of Ministry Program at Pacific School of Religion