WHO ARE WE AND WHERE ARE WE GOING?
Friday, December 12, 1999
I begin this draft with three "m"s in mind--our moods, our models, and our muddle. I begin
also with three temporal points of reference--the 1890s, the 1950s, and the present.
These stand out for me because the first stands near our zenith as an organization, the
second is the time I began to be actively involved in training for ministry, and the third
is as far as I have gotten.
In the 1890's, our mood was definitely upbeat, and in this respect we were not alone.
Americans in general were immensely impressed with the progress of technology, and the
fact that a new century was on the horizon lent emotional force to expectations that a new
era of global peace and prosperity lay ahead. This mood came to a focus in the Columbian
Exposition in Chicago in 1893. The novelist Hamlin Garland visited it and wrote to his
parents, "Sell the cookstove if necessary and come. You must see the Fair." In the words
of a contemporary writer,
No world's fair before or since has captured the national imaginations quite as
completely. . . . The Exposition was one of the epochal events of its time. It is hard for
us today to grasp the impact a simple world's fair could have on the nation--an impact
combining the appeal of a moon launch and the Bicentennial celebration. In its half-year
existence, it drew 27 million visitors--a number approaching half the American population.
. . .
Nothing says more about the power of the White City than that it inspired the Emerald
City. L. Frank Baum never forgot the fair and transmuted it into Oz, there at the end of
the Yellow Brick Road.<1>
"The White City" was the extraordinary complex of neoclassical buildings erected, it
seemed overnight, under the supervision of Daniel Hudson Burnham, a Swedenborgian. It was
another Swedenborgian, Charles Bonney, who was the originator and the guiding spirit of a
series of "congresses" celebrating progress in less material fields, culminating in what
Richard Seager has called "the dawn of religious pluralism," the Parliament of the World's
Bonney was no romantic dreamer. He was acutely aware of serious social problems. He
campaigned vigorously against a corrupt jury system, against the open sale of liquor to
minors, and against the exploitation of natural resources. He advocated education and
increased legal rights for immigrant workers to counter what he saw as their unprincipled
exploitation by profiteering monopolies. Yet he could honestly believe that solutions to
these problems were within reach. He could say in his opening address at the Parliament,
"This day the sun of a new era of religious peace and progress rises over the world,
dispelling the dark clouds of sectarian strife."
That is how things looked a century ago. The world stood on the threshold of a new era,
and Swedenborgians were in fact standing at the prow of this progress.
When I began training for ministry in 1957, the mood had changed completely. The world had
seen two massive wars, the second including the holocaust and the use of atomic weaponry.
Expectations of a new era of peace and prosperity had been displaced by fears of total
annihilation. The church had been declining in both membership and prestige for most of
the century. We were polarized as an organization, suffering the division Scott Swank
oversimplified as being between "doctrinalists" and "personalists." Our Conventions were
political battles, and when anger was not overt, it seemed as though it was just under the
What had happened? In retrospect, I would point to three factors. I suspect, first of all,
that at our zenith we were riding the wave of American optimism far more than we realized.
When that wave spent itself in World War I, we did not have enough internal dynamism to
sustain our momentum. This was in part because of the second factor, that we were running
out of Bonneys and Burnhams and Barrons and Bigelows and Carters and Cutlers and Scammons.
Again more than we realized, our morale had been sustained by the presence among us of
persons of widely recognized competence and importance. Third, we were (and are) still a
"Convention"--an occasional gathering of relatively autonomous bodies, rather than an
organization starting from a single defined purpose and growing from the center outward.
Our mood today is again quite different. We are not polarized. There is some anger, but it
is not the dominant theme that it was thirty-five years ago. In a sense, it seems as
though the polarization has been replaced by fragmentation. In the fifties, a
Swedenborgian from one church could walk into most others and know more or less what to
expect. Now the difference between Portland and San Diego, Seattle and Wilmington, West
Chester and San Francisco, or for that matter Boston and Bridgewater, can be quite
Perhaps this is why I find it difficult to identify a single mood, other than perhaps one
of general muddle. There is periodic alarm at our continuing statistical decline and alarm
wherever there is knowledge concerning our financial position, but these concerns seem to
lose force as they travel the highways and byways of our decentralization. It is as though
one or another of us pushes the panic button every year, but the bell doesn't ring.
So much for mood. As to model, a century ago this was apparently fairly clear and widely
accepted. I am not talking simply about church buildings and Sunday worship. I have in
mind the image of the church as a kind of lifelong companion, there at birth, throughout
childhood, at marriage, at the birth of a new generation, during one's declining years,
and at death. Individual ministers might come and go (and in Boston they did even this as
rarely as possible), but the church, in a kind of low-key and non-intrusive way, would be
there for you whenever you needed it.
This is the relatively traditional image of the parish church. As Swedenborgians, we gave
it a distinctive flavor with our strong stress on the teaching aspect of ministry. What we
had in common was a highly distinctive theology, and an understanding of that theology was
vital to our sense of who we were. Methodists were not expected to read Wesley, or
Lutherans Luther, or Presbyterians Calvin, the way Swedenborgians expected each other to
This was not arid intellectualism. The same Charles Bonney first encountered our church
when he moved from Hamilton, New York to Peoria, Illinois. He wrote, "My previous
information on the system of Swedenborg had given me the impression that it was a religion
for literary and scientific persons, and I was therefore surprised to find that this
congregation had no member eminent in scholastic attainments, excepting the pastor." He
also wrote, "In this church I was taught the fundamental truths which made a World's
Parliament of Religions possible; upon which rested the whole plan of the religious
congresses of 1893, and which guided the execution of that plan to a success so great and
far-reaching that only the coming generations can fully comprehend and estimate its
influence."<2> The teaching ministry grew out of a sense of discovery and excitement, part
and parcel of the pervasive sense that a new age was dawning.
In the fifties, much of the polarization came to a focus on this model. In part because of
the fact of increasing mobility, a model, or models, of the church developed that adopted
features from the counseling professions. These assume more intense involvement focused on
clearly defined issues. The counselor and client agree on the goals of their work
together, and expect to terminate that work when these goals are reached. Explicit
teaching is usually seen as inappropriate.
I would note that these models can rest on the same theological base, contrary to the
assumptions of the fifties. The same theology can be used in a long-term, broad spectrum,
low-key model and in a short-term, focused spectrum, intense model. What is generally not
possible is for the same individuals to be involved in both models at the same time. One
does not enter into a counseling relationship with a person with whom one has a lifelong
In 1993, it seems clear that we have a plurality of models. To the two already mentioned
we can add the growth center, offering sometimes a wide assortment of programs, including
some that are distinctly instructional. We can add wedding ministries; and I would be
remiss indeed if I did not mention the societal services undertaken in Boston.
As a Convention, then, I find us holding a variety of opinions as to who we are, and it
certainly appears that we are going in a number of different directions. The efforts of
the Ad Hoc Committee of the eighties were to define the common purpose of these efforts,
and to use our decentralization as an asset rather than as a liability. We certainly
cannot claim success. Perhaps "Convention" is trying to be something it cannot be--a
So there is one person's view of the moods and the models. They reflect, I think, an
underlying muddle, resting in the fact that from our point of view, our theology does not
authorize us to be an organized church or tell us how to go about it in any businesslike
sense. Faced with the discovery that we are not "the New Church" described in the
writings, we are not sure who we are. We cohere partly from force of habit, I'm sure, but
also and much more significantly because we do share some convictions that differ,
sometimes subtly, from those that surround us.
It is not easy for us to define that difference. I'm fond of the saying, "I don't know who
discovered water, but I'll bet it wasn't a fish." But as one scholar at the Moscow
conference said about Russian philosophy's effort to define itself, "The search is not for
distinctiveness, but for truth."
. Phil Patton, "'Sell the cookstove if necessary, but come to the Fair,'"
The Smithsonian, Vol. 24, No. 3 (June 1993), p. 38.
. Cf. Charles C. Bonney, "The Genesis of the World's Religious Congresses
of 1893," The New-Church Review (January, 1894), pp. 73-100.