The New Church (Swedenborgian)

The New Church
ClassificationNew Christian
OrientationSwedenborgian
PolityMixed congregational and newchurch.org

The New Church (or Swedenborgianism) is the name for several historically related Christian denominations that developed as a new religious movement, informed by the writings of scientist and Swedish Lutheran theologian Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772). Swedenborg claimed to have received a new revelation from Jesus Christ through continuous heavenly visions which he experienced over a period of at least twenty-five years. In his writings, he predicted that God would replace the traditional Christian Church, establishing a "New Church", which would worship God in one person: Jesus Christ. The New Church doctrine is that each person must actively cooperate in repentance, reformation, and regeneration of one's life.[1]

The movement was founded on the belief that God explained the spiritual meaning of the Scriptures to Swedenborg as a means of revealing the truth of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Swedenborg claimed divine inspiration for his writings[2] and followers believe that Swedenborg witnessed the Last Judgment in the spiritual world, along with the inauguration of the New Church.

The New Church is seen by members of New Church organizations as something which the Lord is establishing with all those who believe that the Lord Jesus Christ is the one God of heaven and Earth, and that obeying his commandments is necessary for salvation. Therefore, it is thought that any Christian holding these beliefs is part of this New Church movement. New Church organizations also acknowledge what they believe to be the universal nature of the Lord's church: all who do good from the truth of their religion will be accepted by the Lord into heaven, as God is goodness itself, and doing good conjoins one to God.[3] Adherents believe that the doctrine of the New Church is derived from scripture and provides the benefit of further enlightenment concerning the truth, and that this leads to diminished doubt, a recognition of personal faults, and thus a more directed and happier life.[4]

Other names for the movement include Swedenborgian, New Christians, Neo-Christians, Church of the New Jerusalem, and The Lord's New Church. Those outside the church may refer to the movement as Swedenborgianism; however, some adherents seek to distance themselves from this title, since it implies a following of Swedenborg rather than Jesus Christ. Swedenborg published some of his theological works anonymously, and his writings promoted one Church based on love and charity, rather than multiple churches named after their founders based on belief or doctrine.[5]

History

Swedenborg spoke of a "New Church" that would be founded on the theology in his works, but he himself never tried to establish an organization. In 1768, a heresy trial was initiated in Sweden against Swedenborg's writings and two men who promoted these ideas. It essentially concerned whether Swedenborg's theological writings were consistent with the Christian doctrines. A royal ordinance in 1770 declared that Swedenborg's writings were "clearly mistaken" and should not be taught even though his system of theological thought was never examined.[6]

Swedenborg's clerical supporters were ordered to cease using his teachings, and customs officials were directed to impound his books and stop their circulation in any district unless the nearest consistory granted permission. Swedenborg then begged the King for grace and protection in a letter from Amsterdam. A new investigation against Swedenborg stalled and was eventually dropped in 1778.[6]

At the time of Swedenborg's death, few efforts had been made to establish an organized church, but on May 7, 1787, 15 years after Swedenborg's death, the New Church movement was founded in England. It was a country Swedenborg had often visited and where he died. By 1789 a number of Churches had sprung up around England, and in April of that year the first General Conference of the New Church was held in Great Eastcheap, London. New Church ideas were carried to United States by missionaries. One famous missionary was John Chapman, also known as Johnny Appleseed.

Early missionaries also traveled to parts of Africa. Swedenborg himself believed that the "African race" was "in greater enlightenment than others on this earth, since they are such that they think more "interiorly", and so receive truths and acknowledge them."[7] At the time these concepts of African enlightenment were judged highly liberal; Swedenborgians accepted freed African converts to their homes as early as 1790. Several of them were also involved in abolitionism.[8]

In the 19th century, occultism became increasingly popular especially in France and England. Some followers blended Swedenborg's writings with theosophy, alchemy and divination. What fascinated these followers most was Swedenborg's mystical side. They concentrated on his work Heaven and Hell which tells of Swedenborg's visit to Heaven and Hell to experience and report the conditions there. In structure, it was related to Dante's The Divine Comedy. Some continue to combine the theology of the New Church with ideas from other systems, including Jungian psychology and Spiritualism.[citation needed]

The Bryn Athyn Cathedral of the General Church in Pennsylvania

In the US, the church was organized in 1817 with the founding of the General Convention of the New Church (sometimes referred to as the Convention), now also known as the Swedenborgian Church of North America.[9]

The movement in the United States grew stronger until the late 19th century. There was a "New-Church Theology School" in Cambridge.[10] A controversy about doctrinal issues and the authority of Swedenborg's writings caused a faction to split off to form the Academy of the New Church. It later became known as the General Church of New Jerusalem (sometimes referred to as the General Church,) with headquarters in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. Other congregations felt doctrinally compelled to join the General Church at its inception. Two Convention congregations in Canada, one in Toronto and another in Kitchener, as well as two congregations from the British Conference, Michael Church in London and Colchester New Church joined the General Church at this point.[11][12]

In the 1930s, a doctrinal issue about the authority of Swedenborg's writings arose in the General Church. Members in the Hague branch of the General Church saw Swedenborg's theological writings as the Word of the Third Testament, which they wrote about extensively in their Dutch magazine De Hemelsche Leer. Faced with discipline by the leading Bishop of the General Church, those holding this new doctrinal view split off to form the Lord's New Church Which Is Nova Hierosolyma.[citation needed]

The Swedenborgian Church of North America, with headquarters in Newton, Massachusetts, now has 37 active churches with about 1,500 members in the US today. The General Church of the New Jerusalem, with headquarters in Bryn Athyn, has about 5,000 members in 33 churches. The Lord's New Church Which Is Nova Hierosolyma, also in Bryn Athyn, now has about 28 active churches with about 1900 members worldwide.[citation needed]

The Lord's New Church is primarily associated with South Africa, although roughly 200 members are found in the United States. It is noted for its concern for social justice. Australia and Germany are estimated to have 504 and 200 members, respectively. Counting additional members in Asia, Africa, and South America, current sources put the total number of Swedenborgians between 25,000 and 30,000.[citation needed]