Jonathan Rée begins his review of Lars Bergquist's recently translated biography, which he describes as "a fervent attempt to rescue Swedenborg from the contempt of Kant and the condescension and incuriosity of everyone else," by setting the scene of the prophet's central religious experience:

One evening in April 1745, Emanuel Swedenborg sat down to a large meal at an inn not far from his lodgings in Salisbury Court, off Fleet Street. He was a confirmed bachelor, fifty-seven years of age, and well known in his native Sweden as an active member of the House of Nobles. With the help of his inherited wealth he had also spent half his life travelling round Europe in pursuit of scientific and technical speculations, which he wrote up in copious Latin and published with various printers in London, Leipzig and Amsterdam; indeed he had just completed his twentieth book, a three-volume treatise about the evidence of God's handiwork throughout the animal kingdom.

Over the previous year, Swedenborg had been troubled by dreams in which his scientific truths transformed themselves into lusty women, and Jesus Christ visited him in person bestowing both religious and sensuous joy. And on that night in 1745 his visions began to invade his waking life as well. As he ate, he became aware of frogs and snakes crowding into his private dining room, and an unknown gentleman materialized in a comer to rebuke him for eating too much. Back home in Salisbury Court the stranger appeared again, and introduced himself as Christ, the man-God, creator and redeemer of the world. He then made an important announcement: humanity stood in need of a definitive explication of holy Scripture, and Swedenborg had been selected to provide it; moreover, to assist him in his labours, he was to be given unrestricted access to the entire spirit world.

Swedenborg thereupon undertook to devote the remainder of his life to communicating the results of his travels throughout the spirit world, during which he had the opportunity to discover that heaven and hell were nothing like what orthodox Christians believed. He had the opportunity to devote a year talking to St. Paul, who, in Rée's words, "was less unpleasant than he expected, and he also had the pleasure of attending disputations between the great dead philosophers, where he saw Descartes triumphing over Aristotle and Leibniz, though an angel confided that Descartes had not really understood what he was saying."

Swedenborg not only inspired the Theosophical Society, which still continues today, he also influenced Blake, Emerson, Yeats, and many other poets. However much orthodox believers denounced or ignored the results of his visionary labors, the prophet remained confident that his books received high marks from the reviewers who mattered most: "in 1769 his sketch of a 'New Church' was published to the kind of acclaim that others can only dream of: as he recalled it, the heavens themselves were empurpled with the 'the loveliest flowers' and all the kings of Denmark witnessed the paean of praise. The following year he scored an even more enviable success when a jury consisting of Jesus Christ and the twelve apostle came together to endorse his new book on The True Christian Religion." Why kings of Denmark and not Swedish or British royalty?

Bibliography


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Last modified 2 May 2006