Swedenborg's Life & Legacy

Memorial plaque at the former location of Emanuel Swedenborg’s house at Hornsgatan on Södermalm, Stockholm.
Memorial plaque at the former location of Emanuel Swedenborg’s house at Hornsgatan on Södermalm, Stockholm.

Swedenborg’s life (1688—1772) could be said to span the breadth of the Enlightenment, and in many ways the tenor of his later theology also anticipates fundamental characteristics of the subsequent Romantic era. At the time of his death in London, his work had attracted only a small handful of readers and followers. By 1789, when the separatist Swedenborgian church movement first formed, his work was beginning to be enthusiastically promulgated by artists such as William Blake and John Flaxman.

Swedenborg’s crypt in Uppsala Cathedral, Sweden

Swedenborg’s historical and cultural reception has always been broader and more diffuse than the church polities that have explicitly taken up his project of a new Christianity; in contrast to the Christian movements that followed Swedenborg’s contemporary eighteenth-century theological reformers, such as John Wesley or Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, Swedenborgian denominations have remained numerically quite small. Nevertheless, many of Swedenborg’s ideas came to influence the aesthetics of a number of prominent poets and painters on both sides of the Atlantic—from Charles Baudelaire to George Inness—and further fed into esoteric spiritual currents that lay outside of mainstream culture. This became acutely the case within the highly pluralistic context of the United States during the nineteenth century, where Swedenborgian ideas made definitive contributions to the emergence of Spiritualism and New Thought, as well as to alternative medicinal paradigms in homeopathy and osteopathy. Continuing into the twentieth century, the universalist and inclusive dimensions of Swedenborg’s theosophy helped generate critical interreligious movements and comparative religious dialogue, beginning with the first World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago, in 1893, and in the subsequent work of D.T. Suzuki, Henri Corbin, and the Sufi painter Ivan Aguéli (Sheikh ‘Abd al-Hādī ‘Aqīlī).

Select Bibliography

Haller, John S. Swedenborg, Mesmer, and the Mind/Body Connection: The Roots of Complementary Medicine.  West Chester: Swedenborg Foundation, 2010

McNeilly, Stephen, editor. Philosophy, Literature, Mysticism: An Anthology of Essays on the Thought and Influence of Emanuel Swedenborg.  London: Swedenborg Society, 2014)=.

Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro. Swedenborg: Buddha of the North.  West Chester: Swedenborg Foundation, 1996.

Versluis, Arthur. The Esoteric Origins of the American Renaissance.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Wessel, Viveca. “Ivan Aguéli—‘Abdalhādī” in Ivan Aguéli, 17—51, edited by Hans Henrik Brummer.  Stockholm: Atlantis, 2006.

Wilkinson, Lynn. The Dream of an Absolute Language: Emanuel Swedenborg and French Literary Culture.  Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.