The Use of Dreams and Visions in Preparing for the Lord’s Second Coming

Dreams, Vision and Sleep 5

The Use of Dreams and Visions in Preparing for the Lord’s Second Coming

by Rev. Frederick L. Schnarr

When we examine the organized Writings of the second coming – and by that we mean those works which were specifically written and prepared for publication, thus excluding the “Journal of Dreams” and such works as The Word Explained and the Spiritual Diary – we find that visions and dreams have very little place. We do not mean by this that there is no instruction in the Writings concerning visions and dreams, for there is a great deal; but it is instruction rather than accounts of Swedenborg’s experiences.

It is not our intent here to consider what the Writings teach about the use and nature of visions and dreams in the past or the present. We would merely note that if one is to have any understanding of how the Word of the Lord was formed through the ages, he must study and understand the nature and function of visions and dreams. Visions and dreams were the principal means of revelation in the Most Ancient Church. How important they have been in the formation of revelation since that time is evident from both the Old and the New Testaments. Much of the Old Testament consists of visions and dreams or stories relating to them, and in a lesser degree the same is true of the New Testament.

Now before we enter into our subject, we would just point out the general difference between a dream and a vision as given in the Writings. Dreams occur while the corporeal of man is asleep, that is, his body with its natural senses. Visions occur when the body is awake, (AC 1882-84, 600; DP 134; Lord 52; AR 36) not only the natural body, but the spiritual body as well, so that man sees and hears things relating to the spiritual world. (AC 1975) Please understand, this is only a general definition; there are many types of dreams and visions, and many various states relating thereto. But this will have to suffice for our purposes here.

When we think of the style of the Writings, of the many descriptions of the life after death – of Swedenborg talking with spirits, angels and devils; of representations seen; of episodes witnessed, such as the Last judgment – we might think of the Writings as being filled with dreams and visions. And yet the Writings are explicit in their distinction between the nature of dreams and visions, and the nature of Swedenborg’s experience in the spiritual world. We read in Continuation Concerning the Last Judgment:


“It has pleased the Lord to open for me the eyes of my spirit, and to keep them open now for nineteen years; it has been given me to see the things which are in the spiritual world, and also to describe them. I can affirm that they are not visions, but things seen in all wakefulness.” (CLJ 35)

Even from 1745 to 1747, when Swedenborg was being introduced into the things of the spiritual world, he was clearly aware that he was in a state different from that of previous prophets and scribes of Divine revelation. He wrote at this time in the Word Explained, “In a certain manner I have been intromitted into heaven itself, not merely as to the mind, but also as it were with the whole body, or with the sense of the body, and that too when I was awake.” (WE 475)

Throughout the later Writings we find the same teaching repeated. “Whenever I have talked with angels face to face, I have been with them in their abodes. . . This occurred when my inner sight was opened, and I was fully awake.” (HH 184)

“All things which I have seen in the heavens have been seen by the sight of the spirit; and I was then in a similar state of wakefulness to that in which I was when they were not seen.” (AE 53)

“These things which I saw and heard, I saw and heard in the wakefulness of my body, and at the same time of my spirit; for the Lord has so united my spirit to my body, that I am in both at the same time.”(AR 484; cf. CL 1, TCR 851)

Finally, we would quote from an experience Swedenborg had with an angelic instructor. A general discussion had just concluded in an angelic society concerning the nature of the soul. The group then broke up into little informal gatherings and continued their discourse on the subject.

Seeing them from my lodging I came into the spirit, and in the spirit I went out to them; and I approached the chief teacher, who lately had proposed the question concerning the soul.

When he saw me he said, “Who are you? I wondered, when I saw you approaching in the way, that now you came into my sight and the next moment passed out of sight, or that at one moment you were visible to me and suddenly became invisible. You certainly are not in our state of life.”

To this I answered, smiling, “I am not a player of tricks, nor one who changes himself; but am an alternate, now in your light, now in your shade, and thus foreign and also native.”

At this the chief teacher looked at me and said, “You say strange and amazing things. Tell me who you are.”

I said, “I am in the world in which you were, and from which you departed, which is called the natural world; and I also am in the world to which you came and in which you are, which is called the spiritual world. I am therefore in a natural state, and at the same time in a spiritual state; in the natural state with men on earth, and in the spiritual state with you; and when I am in the natural state I am not visible to you, but when in the spiritual state I am visible. That I am so has been given by the Lord. To you, O enlightened man, it is known that the man of the natural world does not see the man of the spiritual world, nor the reverse; therefore when I let my spirit down into the body, I was not visible to you, and when I raised it out of the body I became visible.” (CL 326)

That Swedenborg was prepared to be in this dual state for the purpose of serving the Lord in the giving of a new revelation, was called by the angels “a miracle of miracles.” (AC 1880:3)

We have spoken at some length of the fact that Swedenborg’s experiences in the spiritual world were not in a state of vision or dream but in full wakefulness of mind and body, because this is pertinent to seeing how utterly different was his state and use as a revelator from that of all prophets, scribes, and disciples of past revelations. This, as well as Swedenborg’s special preparation through science and philosophy, is what made it possible for Swedenborg to receive the teachings of the second coming with rational understanding.

Only against this background of instruction concerning Swedenborg’s special state can we see in proper focus the place and nature of Swedenborg’s dreams and visions; and let us be clear, he did have dreams and visions. They served a special use at a particular time in his preparation. But let us regard their historic development with Swedenborg.

While it is true that Swedenborg was prepared for his mission from infancy by the Lord, he was not aware of this preparation until he was in his middle fifties. Before this time no unusual dreams or visions are recorded. His political, economic, scientific, and early philosophic writings speak little of religious topics. Later, after his spiritual eyes had been opened, Swedenborg did refer to the early preparation he had had for developing a special tacit breathing, which was to make possible his early dreams and visions, and finally his full wakefulness in the spiritual world.

Of this he writes in the Spiritual Diary,



I was thus during many years, from the period of childhood, introduced into such respirations, especially by means of absorbing speculations, in which the breathing seems to become quiescent, as otherwise the intense study of truth is scarcely possible. Afterwards, when heaven was opened to me, and I was enabled to converse with spirits, I sometimes scarcely breathed by inspiration at all for the space of a short hour, and merely drew in enough of air to keep up the process of thinking. Thus was I introduced by the Lord into interior respirations. I have also observed again and again, that when I was passing into a state of sleep, my respiration was almost taken away, so that I would awake and catch my breath. When I observe nothing of the kind, I continue to write and think, and am not aware of my respiration being arrested, unless I reflect upon it. This I may say has happened in instances innumerable. Nor was I at such times able to observe the various changes, because I did not reflect upon them. The design of all this was, that every kind of state, every kind of sphere, and every kind of society, particularly the more interior, might find in my own a fit representation, which should come into play without any reflection on my part, and that thus a medium of intercourse might be afforded with spirits and angels. (SD 3464)

It was not until 1736 when Swedenborg was on a trip in Europe that he began to have his first unusual experiences. As he was in Amsterdam beginning his work, The Economy o f the Animal Kingdom, he fell into a brief swoon. Following this time, he began to have vague and confused dreams. What these dreams were we do not know.  (Swedenborg’s heirs wrote that a manuscript volume containing “descriptions of Swedenborg’s dreams during the years 1736, 1737 . . . were removed from the volume and in the safekeeping of the family.”) We do not know how important Swedenborg considered them. For seven years, from 1736 to 1743, nothing of unusual import is described by Swedenborg. (While this statement is true there is one sentence written in 1740 that might lead to various interpretations. It is the last sentence at the end of an essay of two pages, Corpuscular Philosophy in Brief. He says, “These things are true because I have the sign.”) During this time he was engaged in his studies and writings on anatomy and psychology. He wrote his works on the Cerebrum (Codex 65), The Economy of the Animal Kingdom, The Fibre, the Rational Psychology, and most of The Brain. During this time Swedenborg traveled much and kept a journal of his travels – the places he visited and the people and things he saw.

In 1739 Swedenborg’s Itinerarium stops. His heirs removed for “safekeeping” some leaves at the end of his journal, and it is presumed that these dealt with some dreams he might have experienced. (Docu. II, p. 130) He later notes that while occupied with the writing of a certain work (probably one of the series of The Animal Kingdom on which he was engaged in 1742-1743) . . . “hardly a day passed by for several months, in which a flame was not seen by me, as visibly as the flame of a household hearth; at the same time, this was a sign of approbation.”(WE 6905)

The sign of a flame Swedenborg mentions a number of times; it seems to have been an introductory vision. (SD 2951)

From late in 1743, Swedenborg’s dreams became so regular that he commenced to be disturbed. He started his record – what is now called the Journal of Dreams – at the close of 1743, but the first dream actually recorded occurred in March, 1744. Two leaves are torn from the journal. This was probably done by Swedenborg himself because, before resuming his journal in March of 1744, he listed brief, one-sentence references to what they had been. A few examples of the references to this missing section read:

“In Venice, concerning the beautiful palace.”

“In Leipzig, concerning him who lay in boiling water.” “Concerning the manservant who wanted to go off on a journey.”

“My joys in the night. I wondered at myself at not having any longer anything of the working of my own honor, so that I found a sensation thereof; at not being inclined to the sex as I had been in all my days.” (Docu. 11, p. 147, 148)

Obviously, Swedenborg at this time had no clear idea of the use of these dreams, unless they referred to the books he was preparing for publication. But in December of 1743 Swedenborg had another vision. In letters to friends in later years he wrote:

“. . . [the Lord] manifested Himself in Person before me, His servant, and sent me to do this work. This took place in the year 1743; and afterwards He opened the sight of my spirit, and thus introduced me into the spiritual world, granting me … to speak with angels and spirits….” (Docu. II, p. 387)

In another letter Swedenborg says it was sometime after this appearance that his spiritual sight was opened. And this is so obvious from Swedenborg’s experiences in his dreams recorded during 1744. For there we see the man being prepared for his high office through many, various temptations. However, certainly after 1743, when the Lord appeared to him, Swedenborg thought of everything that happened to him as being in some way preparatory for some unusual Divine work, although he was not yet clear as to what that work would be. In April of 1744 he writes: “I perceive that I had received a talent for the promotion of God’s glory:

I saw that all had worked together to this end; and that the Spirit had been with me from my youth for this very purpose.” (Docu. II, p. 187)

At this time Swedenborg saw that he would have to leave off the study of natural things and turn his attention to spiritual things. He wrote:

All this represents that I must employ my remaining time in writing upon higher subjects, and not upon worldly things, which are far below; indeed, that I must write about what concerns the very center of all, and what concerns Christ. May God be so gracious as to enlighten me respecting my duty; for I am still in some obscurity as to the direction whither I am to turn. (Docu. II, p. 191)

Swedenborg’s dreams which he recorded in his Journal throughout the year 1744 indicate the various uses these dreams served in Swedenborg’s preparation. They were a means of causing Swedenborg to examine himself, and to shun and order those things present with him from the loves of self and the world. They were a means of establishing communication with the states and spheres of the spiritual world. And finally, they were a means of introducing him to the knowledge of representatives and significatives.

Up to this time, Swedenborg had been wonderfully prepared through the study of science and philosophy to receive and understand truths concerning higher things. Swedenborg thought of himself as a learned man. He had great concern for his reputation in learned society, and he was plagued with many disorderly and interior passions such as undue pride, self-intelligence, and conceit. Before Swedenborg could serve as a complete and trusted servant of the Lord, he had to be led to reject and repel those inclinations of his character which would make it impossible for him to fulfill the use of revelator. He had to come to place himself fully under the Lord’s protection and look to the Lord as the only source of all truly good and heavenly things. Unlike the prophets and disciples of old, the servant of the Lord’s second coming could not serve the Lord as a means of conveying Divine truths unless he freely saw and willed to serve such a use. In the dreams that Swedenborg experienced at this time we see the means whereby he was so prepared.

In the Journal of Dreams we find Swedenborg’s soul laid bare. We see him wrestling with his temptations. In one dream he states:

I saw a bookshop, and immediately the thought struck me that my work would have more effect than that of others; yet I checked myself at once; for one serves another, and our Lord has more than a thousand ways by which to prepare a man, so that each and every book must be left to its own merits, as a means near or remote, according to the rational condition of every man. Still arrogance at once crops up; may God control it, for the power is in His hands.(Docu. II, p. 166)

Earlier in the Journal he could write of his state:

While I was in the spirit, I thought and strove by thought to attain a knowledge of how to avoid – all that was impure; I noticed, however, that this intruded itself from the ground of the love of self, on all occasions whenever anything was reflected upon; as, for instance, when anyone did not regard me according to my own estimation of myself, I thought, Oh, if you only knew what grace I have, you would act differently; this then was not only impure, but originated in the love of self. At last I found this out, and entreated God’s forgiveness, and I then wished that others also might have the same grace, as they perhaps either have had or will have. From this I observed clearly that there was still in me that same pernicious apple which has not yet been converted, and which is Adam’s root and his hereditary sin. Yes, and an infinite number of other roots of sin remain in me. (Docu. II, p. 165)

Sometimes Swedenborg would reflect upon a subject, and then later dream of it in a representative dream. Sometimes he would dream first, and then with some obscure idea of its meaning, he would reflect upon the signification of the dream. At this time Swedenborg was just coming into the idea that his dreams were significative. As yet he saw nothing clearly relating to the heavens or any part of the spiritual world. This would not commence for three more years – and when it did, it would not be in dreams, but in open and waking presence in the spiritual world.

During the period of his Journal dreams, Swedenborg also had many visions, besides the two we have already mentioned. Sometimes he would fall into a dream, then awake from the dream, and remain in a vision. Or sometimes a vision would come without the presence of a dream, but as it were in a trance or swoon of the body. At such times Swedenborg would see spirits as men, sometimes doing different things, sometimes talking.

It is clear that the dreams and visions, such as Swedenborg had at this time, served the use of introducing him into foreign states that were new to him, or of changing a state. Indeed, this use, particularly of dreams, continued up through the time of the writing of the early Arcana Coelestia in 1748 and 1749. Knowledge of certain societies of hell, for example, could not be given to Swedenborg through open communication, because their state was far removed from Swedenborg’s conscious life; also at this time, they could have caused Swedenborg harm. Such was the case, for example, with the antediluvian hells – to know the nature of these hells, Swedenborg was caused to fall asleep, and in his sleep as in a dream he felt the horrible sphere of their presence and the nature of their desires to destroy him. (AC 1270) Upon awakening he saw them, but then they fled. This was not a representative dream, such as we have mentioned before; it was a real dream of actual states. In most ancient times, such dreams were common – but then, of course, they were mostly of angelic societies. However, this use of dreams with Swedenborg was unusual, and became unnecessary after Swedenborg had become a full-time inhabitant of both worlds.

Towards the end of 1744 Swedenborg experienced his first open, waking discourse with inhabitants of the spiritual world. At this time he was writing his concluding anatomical study The Five Senses, and beginning his work, the Worship and Love of God. As he worked on writing about the senses he noticed that he began to be aware of the sensations of the other world. For example, he dreamt of wine in a dream, and upon awakening actually smelled wine. Or, once while writing he saw a fly walking across the page, the fly being not of this world. (Docu. II, p. 206 Sens. 492) The first time a spirit addressed him while he was fully conscious came, he notes, in September of 1744 in the following manner: “Before I slept, I was strongly in thoughts concerning that which I had in hand to write; then it was said to me, ‘Shut thy mouth or I strike thee!’ I saw then one sitting on a piece of ice, and I was afraid.” (Docu. II, p. 207)

Writing about this in 1749 Swedenborg says:

Before it was opened to me to speak with spirits, I had been in the opinion that no spirit or angel could ever understand and perceive my thought, these being within me. . . Then it once happened that a spirit knew what I was thinking, for he spoke with me in a few words, at which I was amazed, especially at the fact that spirits could know my thoughts. (SD 4390)

After this time the use of dreams and visions decreased, while that of open discourse with spiritual beings increased. In April of 1745, when the Lord appeared to Swedenborg and told him that he was to be the servant of the Lord’s second coming, Swedenborg entered from the preparatory state in reference to his character to the preparatory state in reference to instruction – the instruction in heavenly doctrines and spiritual truths which were to form the context of the second advent. Swedenborg settled down at once to study the Old Testament and the New Testament in their original languages, and gradually began an exposition of the Scriptures, called the Word Explained. At this time he writes: “The kingdom of God was first shown me in the repose of sleep, but afterwards sometimes in the middle of the day, or in a time of wakefulness, so that I perceived it most clearly with the very sense itself.” (WE 541)

While working on the Word Explained, wherein Swedenborg grasps only occasionally the spiritual sense of a part of the Scriptures, he also commences to record his waking experiences in the spiritual world. This record is the Spiritual Diary, begun as inserts in the Word Explained in November, 1745. It records the experiences which were to constitute the final preparation for Swedenborg’s office of revelator. The nature of the Spiritual Diary is utterly different from that of the Journal of Dreams – although the two are often confused. In the Journal of Dreams we find Swedenborg experiencing certain terrorizing and incomprehensible, or dimly comprehensible, visions and dreams. We see Swedenborg constantly reflecting on his own state and upon his ability or shortcomings. In the Diary we find Swedenborg recording the events and states of the spiritual world more as a traveler in a foreign country. Truly, some of the things he witnesses and records are not clear to Swedenborg, and many of them are unpleasant, depicting states of evil. But still they are utterly different; they are no longer dreams and visions. Swedenborg not only sees and hears spirits, but speaks with them. And we see nothing of Swedenborg’s personal trials and tribulations therein. When writing the Diary he starts a section by saying “When I was in the company of spirits,” or “This morning it was shown to me how,” or “I was conducted into” such and such a place, or “It was told me from heaven by a living voice,” and so on.

With the beginning of the writing of the Arcana Coelestia in 1748, questions of uncertainty, and all the preparatory use of dreams and visions, came to an end. As we noted, the dreams and visions which Swedenborg experienced while serving as a revelator were of a different nature; they were not preparatory. The few which the Writings describe were used to allow Swedenborg to experience the state of the prophets of old, for example, so that those states could be revealed. The same was true when he experienced the kind of dreams they had in the Most Ancient Church. Indeed, these teachings also confirm how completely different and distinct was Swedenborg’s state as a revelator from that of all former prophets and revelators.

Dreams and visions were a means, and a necessary means, of preparing Swedenborg for his great use. But let us be clear, they are not the means whereby the second coming was made. The clarity of Swedenborg’s wakeful state may be seen all through the Writings. In preparing to describe something about heaven, for example, he will say, “On a certain morning I looked up into heaven,” (CL 42) or “As I was going home from the school of wisdom I saw in the way an angel.” (CL 151) The some thing is true of the descriptions of hell, such as “It has been granted me to enter some of the infernal workhouses”; (AR 153) no dreams, no visions, but full wakefulness of mind and body living in both worlds at the same time.

We would close with the following statement made by Swedenborg a few months before his death in 1772, and after he had lived twenty-seven years of such experience in both worlds at the same time: “The manifestation of the Lord, and intromission into the spiritual world, surpasses all miracles. This has not been granted to any one since the creation, as it has been to me. The men of the golden age, indeed, conversed with the angels; but it was not granted to them in any other than natural light; but to me it is granted to be in both spiritual and natural light at the same time. By this means it has been granted to me to see the wonderful things of heaven, to be together with the angels like one of them, and at the same time to draw forth truths in light, and thus to perceive and teach them; consequently to be led by the Lord.” (Inv. 52)

New Church Life 1980;100:487-496

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