Scientist, Philosopher, and Religious Leader
b. 1688, Stockholm, Sweden.
d. 1772, London, England
Emanuel Swedenborg was born in Stockholm, the son of Jesper Swedberg, a Lutheran clergyman who would later become a bishop. Jesper was elevated to the nobility by Queen Ulrica Eleonora in 1719, at which point the family name was changed to Swedenborg. By any name, the family was prominant in religious circles; Jesper was a fiery reformer who was periodically in trouble for attempting to revise to Lutheran doctrines and hymns. The family also had significant interests in the mining industry. Emanuel entered Uppsala University at the age of 11, and pursued a course of study focused around the sciences. He was to continue this interest throughout his life, studying geology and minerology, mathematics, physics, and anatomy, as well as the crafts of bookbinding, optics, and clockworks. Swedenborg's early years were a period of begrudging truce between science and religion, so his choice of study seems to have caused little friction with his father, who was appointed bishop of Skara.
Emanuel graduated in 1709 and set off to see the world. He traveled extensively throughout Europe, visiting England, France, and Germany. He met with scientists, inventors, and studied the works of Newton and Boyle, among others. He boarded with artesians and learned their trades.
Swedenborg returned to Sweden following the defeat of Charles XII in his campaign against Peter the Great, armed with new knowledge, a portfolio of inventions (including plans for a glider and a submarine), and high hopes of establishing an observatory in Sweden. Unfortunately, Sweden's ruinous military campaign had left the national economy in shambles, making such an achievement impossible. Emanuel settled for working for a leading Swedish inventor, which eventually led to an appointment by the King to the Royal College of Mines. In this capacity, Swedenborg toured mines, smelters, and refineries across Europe, writing a treatise on metallurgy entitled The Principia.
Following his father's death, Swedenborg began to turn to religious concerns. Seeking evidence of the human soul, he began to study anatomy, observing dissections in Paris. Eventually, he elected to rely on published material, so that he would not be biased in his discoveries by his own first hand experience (which is certainly a novel view of the scientific method!). He published two volumes on anatomy detailing his findings, findings which included new insight into the workings of glands and the localization of functions in the brain. Despite these successes, he viewed the endeavor as a failure in his own eyes; he had not found any new information about the soul, which he attributed to a lack of thoroughness on his own part.
Dissapointed but unwilling to give up, Swedenborg set out in 1741 to improve upon his own work, envisioning an 11 volume series on human anatomy and the soul (two volumes were eventually published; drafts of others exist). As he continued his enquiry, he was wracked with doubt, and possessed by an unshakable notion that his endeavor would fail. At the same time, he began to experience strange flashes of 'light' and 'fire' visible to the mind ("photism"), which he claimed signled the discovery of new truths or insight. In the Prologue to his first volume on anatomy, he postulated a sort of human instinct for truth that guided men towards discovery.
Swedenborg suffered a crisis of faith that culminated in two visions of Christ taking place on successive Easters starting in 1744. Following the second vision (which included the figure of Christ telling Swedenborg not to eat so much(!?), and that he was to be charged with revealing new meanings of the Bible to the world), Emanuel became convinced that he had been called to a religious life. He received almost daily visions of angels and saints, and began in earnest study of Biblical language and scholarship. He began work on a nine volume Biblical commentary, published only after his death. He wrote Arcana Coelestia, a systematic interpretation and exegesis of the books of Genesis and Exodus. Swedenborg's interpretations found multiple levels of narritave in the Bible, the deepest level of which told the story of the interaction of the divine and human sides of Jesus Christ.
Following the publication of the Arcana, Swedenborg turned aside from the task of offering commentary on the entire Bible, and instead began to write in a more accessible form. In 1758, five of these works appeared, varying in length from a discussion of the occupants of other planets in pamphlet form to short books on the spirit world and the last judgement. Again in 1763 and 1764, he set out new works, this time a set of systematic doctrinal works, as well as companion books to earlier publications. Intemitently from 1758 to his death, he worked on The Apocalypse Revealed, a commentary on the book of Revelations published posthumously. Swedenborg published several more times before his death, ending with True Christian Religion, a summary of his religious teachings, and a defense against charges of heresy leveled against his early followers.
Swedenborg died in 1772 following a long and productive life. He was a cabinet-level government official, a member of the Swedish parliment (the House of Nobles, due to the elevation of his family in 1719), and a respected authority in metallurgy and several other fields. However, he never seems to have been satisfied with his own achievements.
His religious teachings formed the basis for the establishment of the Swedenborgian Church, sometimes called The Church of the New Jerusalem. It was never his intention to found a new Christian sect; Swedenborg felt that all Christians were potential members of his 'new Church'. Nevertheless, by 1787 organizations were founded that built the groundwork for the creation of the new Church. In 1810, a society was founded in London to translate all of his works into English (Swedenborg had usually written in Latin in order to avoid language barriers in Europe). The teachings of the Swedenborgian church aims to preserves the spirit of inquiry that Swedenborg brought to the religious life, as well as his tolerent views on different interpretations of God. Swedenborgian churches at Harvard University and elsewhere sponser talks by both theologians and scientists, and particularly by academics interested in the intersection of these two disciplines.
Swedenborg believed ultimately that the best form of devotion to God was the living of a good and useful life, saying:
"All religion relates to life, and the life of religion is to do good."
Most would say that he succeded by his own standard.