Swedenborg, Emanuel

Emanuel Swedenborg

Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) Swedish scientist and scholar who turned mystic and medium in his later years, communing with spirits to develop a highly detailed description of the structure of the afterlife and universal laws. Swedenborg’s views were far ahead of his time, and many of his contemporaries dismissed him as mad. But his works endured, creating a profound impact on Western spiritual beliefs outside the context of religion, the effects of which have lasted to the present. Swedenborg was a major influence upon the secret societies of his time, and on the development of Spiritualism in the nineteenth century. Today’s New Age spiritual concepts and philosophies borrow heavily from his work.

For nearly two-thirds of his life, Swedenborg led a creative but unremarkable existence. He was born the second son of the Lutheran bishop of Skara, and exhibited an early talent for science and mathematics. From age eleven to twenty-one, he studied at the University of Uppsala, learning Greek, Latin, several European and Oriental languages, geology, metallurgy, astronomy, anatomy, mathematics, economics, and other subjects. Upon graduation he travelled to Holland, Germany, and England, where he formed a lasting love for the English.

In 1716 King Charles XII of Sweden named him special assessor to the Royal College of Mines. He worked energetically, publishing scientific works, inventing devices such as air-guns and submarines. He attempted twice to marry but was rebuffed both times. He remained single for his entire life, but indulged in mistresses. He was courteous, a gentleman, and gave no clue of the mystical life that was to unfold.

In 1743 the spiritual world burst abruptly upon the fifty-six-year-old Swedenborg in a dream in which he travelled to the spiritual planes. He had paid scant attention to spiritual matters before, although he had argued for the existence of the soul in one of his scientific works, The Animal Kingdom. Now he began having dreams, ecstatic visions, trances, and mystical illuminations in which he visited heaven and hell, talked with Jesus and God, communicated with the spirits of the dead (whom he called angels), and saw the order of the universe, which was radically different from the teachings of the Christian church. Swedenborg became convinced that he had been designated by God as a spiritual emissary to explore the higher planes and report his findings back to his fellow men and women, who were woefully ignorant of the truth.

So excited was he by what he saw that Swedenborg resigned his government job and retired on a half-pension so that he could devote all his waking-and sleeping- hours to further spiritual explorations. He began recording the dictations of angels, which he automatically wrote while in light trances. Some of his visionary trances were so deep that he remained in them for up to three days. He nonchalantly explained to his worried housekeeper that he was merely out talk- Swedenborg, Emanuel (1688-1772) ing to his friends in the spirit world. The trances were spontaneous at first; then Swedenborg used breathing control to induce them.

He became an ascetic and a semivegetarian, giving up meat and existing primarily on bread, milk, and coffee. Others thought he had gone insane. Immanuel Kant, who studied Swedenborg and found many similarities with his own views, was nonetheless put off, understandably, by Swedenborg’s claims of conversations with Plato, Aristotle, and other historical luminaries, and his interplanetary travels.

Swedenborg’s first of a prolific outpouring of books, Worship and the Love of God, was published in 1745. In 1749 he published the first of the eight volumes of Arcana Coelestia, a ponderous exposition of the spirit teachings he received. His most widely read work is Heaven and Hell, descriptions of the afterlife. In Earths in the Universe, he described his visionary trips to other, inhabited planets. The moon, he said, was peopled by a race which, due to the strange atmosphere, spoke through their stomachs, which sounded like belching.

Swedenborg’s ideas, expressed in his stilted and dry writing, were greeted with little enthusiasm by the public at large, and were opposed by the church. He was forced to publish his books at his own expense. His views did not gain a significant following until after his death, when English translations began to circulate in America and England, and laid the groundwork for Spiritualism.

Swedenborg exhibited psychic powers of clairvoyance and remote viewing on numerous occasions. One of the most famous occurred in 1759, when he witnessed a fire in Stockholm from a location three hundred miles away. See Remote viewing. He impressed Queen Louisa Ulrica, sister of Frederick the Great, by delivering a private message from her dead brother, Augustus William. In another incident a widow came to him for help in finding the receipt for an expensive silver service, which she believed her husband had paid for prior to his death, though the merchant claimed he had not. Swedenborg directed her to a secret compartment in a bureau, where the receipt was found.

He spent much of his later years in England. He died at the age of eighty-four in London and was buried there.

The Doctrines of Swedenborg

Swedenborg believed that God created humankind to exist simultaneously in the physical, or natural, world and the spiritual world. The spiritual world belonged to an inner domain, along with will. We have lost the ability to recognize and use this inner domain, though we remain in constant contact with it, and are influenced by it. The inner domain has its own memory, which is what survives after death. This memory includes an eternal record of every thought, emotion, and action accumulated over a lifetime Swedenborg’s version of the Akashic Records-and influences whether the soul goes to heaven or hell.

Swedenborg’s concepts of heaven and hell are a significant improvement over those offered by Christianity, which feature a bland eternal bliss of adoration and angels singing, or eternal pain and torment under the dominion of Satan. Swedenborg’s hell is frightening, but it has no Satan; his heaven is populated by the spirits of the dead who carry on lives and habits much the same as they did on earth. Both have societal structures and governments. Both are the products of state of mind, self-created by each individual during life on earth. According to Swedenborg Jesus’ crucifixion did not atone for the sins of humankind; we make our own heaven and hell.

Upon death the spirit enters a transition plane so earth-like that many souls cannot believe they are dead. They are met by dead relatives and friends, then go through a self-evaluation process that leads them to choose their heaven or hell. Regardless of choice, souls continue to wear clothes, eat, sleep, carry on activities, and marry. Some remarry their earthly spouses, while others choose new and more compatible ones.

Selfish, materialistic people naturally choose hell, which is a horrible, dark demiworld of souls with monstrous faces. Souls are free to do anything they did on earth, including murder, rape, torture, lie, and manipulate. The only punishment is incurred when a soul develops vices in excess of his earthly ones; then he is beaten by other souls. The demons who rule hell are human souls, not supernatural beings of another order.

Nor did Swedenborg believe in angels; he used the term to describe certain souls. All angels once were humans.

Souls may choose heaven, which is comprised of city-like communities in which everyone works for the communal good. It is possible for souls to progress in the afterlife, but never to leave heaven or hell, which are permanent states. Swedenborg did not believe in reincarnation.

Swedenborg’s visions inspired his followers to establish a religion in his name after his death, and different churches and societies were formed in countries around the world. The first was the Church of the New Jerusalem, founded in England in 1778 and in the United States in 1792. The Swedenborg Society was established in 1810 to publish new translations of his works, create libraries, and sponsor lectures and meetings. As a religion Swedenborgianism has not become a major force.

The Spiritualists of the nineteenth century adopted many of Swedenborg’s views, but rejected his hell and divided his heaven into seven spheres through which the soul passes after death. Swedenborg’s ideas have survived and been spread throughout the general population largely by intellectuals and writers who have been influenced by them. Blake, Coleridge, Emerson, and Henry James are among writers who have used Swedenborgian themes; James and Emerson were attracted to Swedenborg’s ideas even though they were critical of him. Swedenborgianism ran heavily in the James family: theologian Henry James, Sr., father of novelist Henry James, was a Swedenborgian. William James, son of Henry James, Sr., reflected Swedenborg in his philosophical works. In addition to being influenced by his family, William James took his doctrine of pragmatism from Charles Sanders Peirce, a Swedenborgian.

In the eclectic spiritual outlooks that developed in the second half of the twentieth century, Swedenborg’s influence is evident in the popular concept of a selfmade, self-chosen heaven or hell. See Spiritualism.


  • Slater Brown. The Heyday of Spiritualism. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1970;
  • Alfred Douglas. Extrasensory Powers: A Century of Psychical Research. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1976;
  • Edgar D. Mitchell. Psychic Exploration: A Challenge for Science. Edited by John White. New York: Paragon Books, 1974;
  • Kurt Seligmann. The History of Magic and the Occult. New York: Pantheon Books, 1948;
  • Emanuel Swedenborg. Divine Providence. 1764. New York: The Swedenborg Foundation, 1972;
  • Emanuel Swedenborg. Divine Love and Wisdom. 1763. New York: American Swedenborg Printing and Publishing Society, 1894;
  • Emanuel Swedenborg. The Four Doctrines. 1763. New York: The Swedenborg Foundation, 1976;
  • Colin Wilson. The Occult. New York: Vintage Books, 1973.


Harper’s Encyclopedia of Mystical and Paranormal Experience – Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley Copyright © 1991 by Rosemary Ellen Guiley.

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