The life of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) was steeped simultaneously in the rational world of the physical sciences and a deep Christian faith. He lived during the height of the Enlightenment, a period when intellectuals rejected dogmatic religious teachings in favor of science and reason, and his theology reflects a long struggle to understand the world of spirit through investigation of the physical world. Ultimately, that struggle was resolved when (as he described it) his spiritual senses were opened and he began to interact directly with the denizens of heaven, hell, and the world of spirits between. Although his theological writings are based on experiences and visions that may seem unbelievable to a modern audience—as they did to many of Swedenborg’s contemporaries—he writes with full awareness of how difficult his accounts may be to accept. In keeping with his early scholarly training, he presents his ideas in a logical order, drawing examples from everyday life as proof of the truth of his words, inviting readers to judge for themselves.
Born Emanuel Swedberg in Stockholm, Sweden, on January 29, 1688, he was the second son of Jesper Swedberg, a pastor in Sweden’s Lutheran state church. At the age of eleven Emanuel entered the University of Uppsala, where his father was a professor. Although Jesper left the university to become bishop of Skara a few years later, Emanuel remained at Uppsala, completing his studies in 1709. As was customary for wealthy young Swedish men of his time, he then journeyed abroad to expand on what he had learned. His first stop was England—a worldwide center of learning and a major maritime power—where he studied the observational techniques of royal astronomer John Flamsteed (1646–1719) and traveled in the same intellectual circles as luminaries like Sir Isaac Newton (1643–1727) and Edmund Halley (1656–1742). Emanuel also studied geology, botany, zoology, and the mechanical sciences under a number of scholars, inventors, and mechanics, later continuing those studies in Amsterdam and Paris.
When he returned to Sweden more than five years later, he worked as an assistant to Swedish inventor Christopher Polhem (1661–1751). As a result of the association, Emanuel was introduced to Sweden’s King Charles XII (1682–1718), who was impressed with Emanuel’s intellect and arranged for him to be given a position at the Board of Mines. The appointment was significant and prestigious because at that time the mines were a vital part of Sweden’s economy. The position suited Emanuel, not only because of family connections to the mining industry, but because it gave him ample opportunities for scientific research. After Charles XII’s death in 1718, his sister Ulrika Eleonora (1688–1741) ascended to the throne. In 1719, she ennobled the Swedberg family, changing their name to Swedenborg, the name by which Emanuel is known today.
During this early period, most of Swedenborg’s intellectual energy was funneled into scientific and technical work. In the years immediately following his return to Sweden, he published a scientific journal titled Daedalus Hyperboreus. Although the journal was intended to highlight Polhem’s accomplishments, it also included a number of Swedenborg’s own ideas and inventions, including plans for a flying machine. The journal was followed by books on chemistry and physics, as well as the first book in Swedish on algebra.
Swedenborg’s first major publication was Opera Philosophica et Mineralia (Philosophical and Metallurgical Works), a three-volume set printed in 1734. Philosophical and Metallurgical Works was written in Latin and published abroad for circulation to an international audience. While the second and third volumes—one on iron and the other on copper and brass—attracted attention for their technical information on metallurgy, it was the first volume, titled Principia Rerum Naturalium (Basic Principles of Nature), that laid the philosophical groundwork for Swedenborg’s later investigations into the nature of the soul.
Philosophical and Metallurgical Works was followed by a series of books on anatomy. The first of these, the two-volume Oeconomia Regni Animalis (Dynamics of the Soul’s Domain), was published in 1740 and 1741. The first volume addresses the heart and blood; the second, the brain, nervous system, and the soul. Here again, Swedenborg was looking for a connection between the spiritual and physical worlds. Drawing on the works of contemporary scientists and philosophers, he describes a subtle spiritual fluid that permeates and sustains all living creatures, existing in a complicated interaction with the blood and the cerebrospinal fluid. The origin of life is a sustaining energy that pervades all of creation, and the source of that energy is God. Thus nature, in Swedenborg’s view, derives life in all its forms from that creative energy and would be dead without divine influence.
Although Dynamics of the Soul’s Domain sold well and received favorable reviews, Swedenborg himself wasn’t satisfied, and almost immediately began work on a series of follow-up volumes that dealt with anatomy in more depth. He published three volumes in this series, titled Regnum Animale (The Soul’s Domain), and wrote drafts of several more, but that work was interrupted by a time of spiritual crisis which would mark the beginning of his visionary period.
Beginning in 1743 and continuing throughout 1744, Swedenborg experienced intense dreams and visions at night, which he recorded in his personal diary. Many of them revolved around a sense of spiritual unworthiness, a feeling that he had to purify himself of sin. In one dream, a man appeared and asked him if he had a health certificate; Swedenborg interpreted this as Christ asking him if he were prepared to undertake a spiritual vocation. In another case several months later, he was thinking about his work and heard a voice say, “Hold your tongue or I will strike you!” This Swedenborg understood as a warning against immersing himself in worldly tasks on a Sunday.
The opening of his spiritual vision—by day, in a state of full wakefulness—began in April 1745, although the exact circumstances surrounding it remain mysterious and a matter of debate. From this point onward, he began to record experiences of being in contact with the spiritual world.
Swedenborg simultaneously started writing an exploration of the inner meaning of the Bible based on the new understanding he gained from his visions. In the beginning, it appears to have been difficult for him; he left the initial drafts of this exposition unpublished. In 1747, he refused a promotion that had been offered to him, instead petitioning the king to be released from his service on the Board of Mines so he could devote himself full time to theological writing.
Swedenborg published his first theological work, Arcana Coelestia (Secrets of Heaven) in 1749; the eighth and final volume was published in 1756. He chose to publish the book in London, in part to avoid Sweden’s strict anti-heresy laws, but also because he felt that London was the best intellectual atmosphere for an entirely new way of looking at Scripture.
Secrets of Heaven is a verse-by-verse discussion of the inner meaning of the Bible, beginning with Genesis and then moving through Exodus. Swedenborg writes that the Bible should not be taken literally—in fact, parts of it make no sense if taken at face value—but everything written there has an inner spiritual meaning he calls a “correspondence.” Interspersed between the chapters of commentary are explanations of principles that would become key parts of Swedenborg’s theology: the correspondence between the physical world and the spiritual world, the structure of heaven and hell and the lives of angels and devils, the interaction between the soul and body, and the interconnectedness of faith and charity.
Although it seems that Swedenborg intended to go through the entire Bible in this type of verse-by-verse exegesis, he never did so. Instead, he returned to London in 1758 with five new titles to publish: Heaven and Hell, a description of the afterlife and the lives of its inhabitants; White Horse, which talks about the inner meaning of the Bible; Other Planets, which describes the beings that live on other planets, some within and some outside our solar system; Last Judgment; and New Jerusalem. These last two refer to a unique aspect of Swedenborg’s theology. He writes that the Last Judgment is not a future event that will mark the end of our world, but a spiritual event where evil spirits who had managed to infiltrate heaven were cast down to hell, allowing human beings on earth and in heaven to receive spiritual truths more clearly. Further, he claims to have witnessed this event in 1757, a year that marked the beginning of a new spiritual age for humankind. In New Jerusalem, he lays out the general principles for the new church that was to follow the Last Judgment.
With the exception of Last Judgment, the content of the five volumes he published in 1758 was taken from Secrets of Heaven, sometimes with very little revision. Secrets of Heaven had been published anonymously, and its initial sales were very poor. Separating elements of this magnum opus into smaller volumes may have been an attempt to make the content more accessible.
Stories of Seership
Starting in 1759, however, a series of incidents demonstrating Swedenborg’s interactions with the spirit world drew international attention. The first, in July 1759, happened while Swedenborg was attending a dinner party in the Swedish city of Göteborg. During the party, he suddenly became agitated and began describing a fire in Stockholm—more than 250 miles away—that was threatening his home. Two hours later, he reported that the fire had been extinguished three doors down from his house. It was not until two days later that messengers from Stockholm arrived in Göteborg and confirmed the details as Swedenborg had relayed them.
In 1760, the widow of the recently deceased French ambassador to Sweden was presented with a bill for a very expensive silver service her husband had bought. She was sure he had paid, but could not find the receipt. After asking Swedenborg for help, she had a dream in which her husband revealed the location of the receipt, a dream which turned out to be accurate.
In 1761, Swedenborg was presented at the court of Sweden’s Queen Louisa Ulrika (1720–1782), and she asked him to relay a particular question to her deceased brother, Prince Augustus Wilhelm of Prussia (1722–1758). Swedenborg returned to court three weeks later and gave her the answer privately, upon which she was heard to exclaim that only her brother would have known what Swedenborg had just told her.
These three well-documented incidents, in conjunction with some others, made Swedenborg the subject of conversation not just in his own country, but in continental Europe as well. The attention prompted Swedenborg to acknowledge that he was the author of the books he had written, although it was not until Marriage Love in 1768 that the books were printed with his name.
In the years that followed the incidents described above, Swedenborg would publish several more key theological works: Divine Love and Wisdom (1763), Divine Providence (1764), Revelation Unveiled (1766), and Marriage Love (1768). Divine Love and Wisdom and Divine Providence, although published separately, could be taken as two parts of the same theme: The first deals with the nature of God, who in his essence is both love and wisdom, and—echoing Swedenborg’s earlier works on the origin of the material world—is the source of all life. Divine Providence tackles free will and the nature of evil and suffering, and describes the spiritual laws that govern the world.
Revelation Unveiled is a return to Swedenborg’s early discourse on the inner meaning of the Bible, this time examining the book of Revelation in much the same verse-by-verse format as Secrets of Heaven. Revelation Unveiled was the first book in which Swedenborg included what he called memorabilia (memorable occurrences): descriptions of encounters with angels, devils, or spirits, usually illustrating a theological point he wanted to make. These memorable occurrences were generally added to the end of a chapter and often had no apparent connection to what he had written immediately before, although in two personal letters he advised people to read the memorable occurrences before moving on to the main text.
Contrary to its title, Marriage Love deals with love between the sexes in all its aspects, including sexual relations outside of marriage. Swedenborg considered married love to be the highest form of connection between a man and a woman. He writes that the masculine and feminine aspects of human beings are complementary. In heaven, where our true natures are fully revealed, a man and a woman who share real compatibility will instantly know each other when they meet, and eventually will become joined in spirit as if they were one person. That person is not necessarily an earthly spouse. People who are in unhappy marriages on earth, or who never marry, may still find true love once they move on to heaven—a teaching that may have had personal significance for Swedenborg, who was never married.
Charges of Heresy
All of Swedenborg’s theological books were written in Latin and published outside of Sweden, most often in London or Amsterdam. This was doubtless a deliberate strategy to avoid running afoul of Sweden’s strict censorship laws, which forbade publishing anything that contradicted the teachings of the Lutheran state church. Although Swedenborg was never the direct target of an investigation, two of his followers were charged with heresy in 1769 after publishing books and articles about Swedenborg’s ideas in Swedish. During the course of the trial, Swedenborg’s published theological works also came under question. When a royal ruling was finally rendered in 1770, it was decreed that Swedenborg’s books contained errors of doctrine, but were not heretical. Swedenborg’s books were banned, and the two followers were forced out of their teaching positions.
Partly in response to the initial news of these charges, Swedenborg began work on True Christianity (1771), a systematic discussion of his theological ideas as they relate to many aspects of Christian (and specifically Lutheran) belief. In the process, he laid out a road map for the new church that he believed was to come.
Swedenborg himself expresses no desire to be revered as a prophet or to be the founder of a new religious movement; when he talks about the “new church” or the “new Jerusalem,” he is referring to a shift in the way that humanity as a whole experiences and practices religion. In various places throughout his theological books, Swedenborg describes five ages in humankind’s spiritual history, from the most ancient church, when human beings were in their spiritual infancy and were most in tune with God, to the fourth age, Christianity, when people possessed true teachings in the form of the Word (the Bible), but those teachings had gradually been corrupted by human misinterpretation. In the coming fifth age, a completely new religion would emerge in which people would have a much clearer and more direct understanding of spiritual truth.
True Christianity was the last book Swedenborg published. Although the main text was printed in Amsterdam, Swedenborg traveled to London to publish a supplement. That supplement was not printed during his lifetime. In December 1771, while still in London, Swedenborg suffered a stroke. Though he partially recovered, he seemed to sense that he was not long for this world. In February, in response to a letter suggesting a meeting in six months, he responded that it would be impossible, because he would die on the twenty-ninth of the next month. True to his word, Swedenborg passed away on March 29, 1772, at the age of eighty-four.
For an overview of the basics of Swedenborg’s theological ideas, check out our video “Swedenborg 101: The Basic Nature of Everything.”
A Scientist Explores Spirit is a short introduction to Swedenborg’s life by Swedenborgian scholars George Dole and Robert Kirven. It also includes an overview of some of his key theological concepts.
Emanuel Swedenborg: Visionary Savant in the Age of Reason by Ernst Benz is a classic early biography of Emanuel Swedenborg.
Emanuel Swedenborg: Essays for the New Century Edition on Swedenborg’s Life, Work, and Impact, published in paperback as Scribe of Heaven, contains a number of short essays on Swedenborg, including a well-researched short biography.