A RATIONALE FOR SWEDENBORG'S WRITING SEQUENCE, 1745-1771
Friday, January 1, 1991
Location - Sudbury
According to Divine Providence, "Our own prudence is nothing. It only seems to exist; and further, it
should seem to exist; but divine providence covers everything because it is so detailed." In this
essay, then, I will be dealing with a nothing that does and should seem to exist, namely Swedenborg's
own prudence, as it relates to his theological works. I want to try to reconstruct, from the evidence,
an image of how it all happened to and for him. He was setting out into uncharted territory, on an
unplanned task; and the divine guidance, under the laws of providence, would not have overridden his
We may begin with the following words in Carl Robsahm's account of the pivotal event in London in
April 1745. "He (that is, the Lord) then said that . . . He had chosen me to unfold to men the
spiritual sense of the scripture, . . ."
Swedenborg himself was elderly when he described this event to Robsahm, we may therefore have his
understanding of the call in the light of subsequent events. I will be presenting and exploring
evidence to suggest that this definition of his task proved too narrow. The evidence is primarily what
he did in fact do and write, and its pertinence rests in the assumption that he was constant in his
effort to heed his call as his understanding of it developed.
More or less in the course of his call, he wrote The Worship and Love of God, publishing only part of
it. It is a kind of poetic creation myth, and to me, it looks very much as though he was making use of
an accepted literary device to begin to communicate his new-found and growing meaning, and was as yet
not ready to "lay it on the line."
His next major undertakings were the so-called "Spiritual Diary," and a very substantial Bible Index,
which were to serve as basic resources for his later writing. The Index clearly relates to The Word
Explained, a major undertaking in its own right. He carried this latter work through the Pentateuch,
and extended it by treating Isaiah and fifty of the fifty-two chapters of Jeremiah, at which point he
apparently stopped. The "Diary" obviously deals with his other-world experiences. There is also
evidence that it too was intended for publication, but this never happened. He eventually indexed it,
and drew on it quite freely for other works.
Now, there is a close connection between Swedenborg's spiritual experiences and his understanding of
the Word. Swedenborg states the connection clearly in such statements as "Man, being born for both
lives, can, while in the world, be also in Heaven, through the Word, which is for both worlds" (AC
Notwithstanding this connection, however, these two foci of attention--Scripture exegesis and
spiritual experience--remained distinguishable. As late as 1770, Swedenborg could write, "As the Lord
has opened to me the spiritual sense of the Word, and as it has been granted me to be together with
angels and spirits in their world as one of them . . ." (TCR 776). We can therefore see Swedenborg
immediately after his call following two related but quite distinct tracks, and devoting a good deal
of time and energy to each.
Scripture exegesis came to the fore, and the years 1749-56 saw the publication of the eight volumes of
Arcana Coelestia, a commentary on the books of Genesis and Exodus. One factor in this turn of events
was surely Swedenborg's own strong Lutheran background. The heart and soul of Lutheranism was its
insistence on the Bible--not the church, tradition, or "natural theology"--as the sole source of
revealed truth. Swedenborg can state this quite strongly: "When those who are in enlightenment are
reading the Word, they see the Lord . . . . This takes place solely in the Word, and not in any other
writing" (AC 9411).
There is evidence in Arcana Coelestia that Swedenborg planned to continue it well beyond Exodus. He
makes occasional references to his intent, God willing, to give further information when he gets to
Leviticus, Joshua, or Judges. Most clearly, though, the printer's notice of the English translation
which Swedenborg commissioned begins, "This work is intended to be such an exposition of the whole
Bible, as was never attempted in any language."
The Arcana itself, however, almost immediately presents our duality. At the close of its second
chapter, Swedenborg appends an account of his experience of dying, and as the volume proceeds, he uses
the interchapter spaces to present material on the spiritual world. I used to think that he did this
to relieve the monotony of sustained exegesis, but I now believe it is because his spiritual
experiences were so intimately connected to his understanding of Scripture. To put it most simply, how
could you understand the spiritual sense if you knew nothing about the spiritual world?
As the work draws to close, evidence of a third focus begins to emerge. The closing chapters of Exodus
tell the story of the building of the tabernacle in terms virtually identical to the earlier narration
of God's commandments for its building. In those closing chapters, Swedenborg simply refers the reader
to his treatment of the parallel material, and uses the extra "space" for consecutive presentation on
a number of doctrinal topics.
At this point, Swedenborg was faced with a decision. In dealing with Genesis, he had covered, at least
in outline, the whole course of the Lord's glorification, and in dealing with Exodus he had dealt with
much of the history of the churches through the ages. It is hard to imagine how he could have kept on
the same course much longer; and the deciding factor may well have been that Arcana Coelestia was not
selling at all well, even at substantially subsidized prices. If the books were not being read, people
were not being helped.
Within two years after the publication of the last volume of the Arcana, no less than five separate
works were written and published, all drawing heavily on the Arcana. The White Horse of the Apocalypse
is a treatise on the nature of the Word, with copious Arcana references. The New Jerusalem and Its
Heavenly Doctrine is a kind of theological glossary, with extensive Arcana extracts appended to each
brief chapter. Earths in the Universe is lightly edited from interchapter material, while The Last
Judgment and Heaven and Hell are expanded treatments of subjects introduced in the same way.
These works are very different from Arcana Coelestia. Most obviously, they are far less formidable,
and Earths in the Universe and Heaven and Hell in particular focus on topics with broad popular
appeal. Is it simply a coincidence that Heaven and Hell has consistently been our "best-seller?"
Incidentally, I think we miss the point of Earths in the Universe completely if we get caught up in
arguments about the actual existence of people on particular planets. The central purpose of the
little book is surely to present some theological truths which can lead people to the Lord.
As the five works just mentioned came off the press, Swedenborg turned back to Scripture. It is
immediately evident that he had abandoned any thought of writing a commentary on the whole Word. Now,
having published on the first two books, he turned to the last, the book of Revelation, and began
writing The Apocalypse Explained. He got about halfway through the nineteenth chapter (out of
twenty-two), and then laid it aside. It is a major work, comprising six substantial volumes in English
translation; and there have been various opinions as to his reasons for dropping it.
I would see the main reason in the nature of the work itself. Through much of it, Swedenborg sticks
quite close to his exegetical task. Early in his treatment of Revelation 15, however, he begins to
attend to another task. Whereas in the Arcana he inserted material between chapters, he now appends
material to each (numbered) paragraph. At n. 932, he begins a discussion of "The Goods of Charity,"
pursuing it at n. 933 with the heading "Continuatio"; and he continues this procedure to the end of
his work. This "secondary" material gradually grows in scope, and the exegetical material becomes more
and more cursory. The scriptural focus is being replaced, this time not by an experiential focus, but
by one on topical or systematic theology. I doubt that we need look any further for Swedenborg's
reason for laying the work aside. The book had lost its focus.
It is estimated that he stopped working on it in 1759. In 1763-4, he published no less than seven
books--the four doctrines (of the Lord, of Sacred Scripture, of Life, and of Faith), A Continuation on
the Last Judgment, Divine Love and Wisdom, and Divine Providence. Much of this material is clearly
foreshadowed in the "continuations" in The Apocalypse Explained.
Now, however, there is a new dimension to the shift of focus. Swedenborg's preface to the first of
these 1763 works, The Doctrine of the Lord, reads in part as follows:
Some years ago there were published the following five little works:
1. On Heaven and Hell
2. The Doctrine of the New Jerusalem
3. On the Last Judgment
4. On the White Horse
5. On the Planets and other Earths in the Universe.
In these works many things were set forth that have hitherto been unknown.
Now, by command of the Lord [italics mine], who has been revealed to me, the following are to be
The Doctrine of the New Jerusalem concerning the Lord
The Doctrine of the New Jerusalem concerning the Holy Scripture
The Doctrine of Life for the New Jerusalem from the Ten Commandments
The Doctrine of the New Jerusalem concerning Faith
A Continuation concerning the Last Judgment
Angelic Wisdom concerning the Divine Providence
Angelic Wisdom concerning the Divine Omnipotence, Omnipresence, Omniscience, Infinity, and Eternity
Angelic Wisdom Concerning the Divine Love and Wisdom
Angelic Wisdom concerning Life
It is surely striking that while his basic commission centered in unfolding the spiritual sense of the
Word, this most specific list includes no Scripture interpretation whatever. Swedenborg was reasonably
obedient to this command, publishing seven of the nine works stated, and in fact covering all the
At this point, we can gain a clearer view of the process. If we put the nature of The Apocalypse
Explained together with this command, then the "continuations" can be seen as a kind of pre-echo.
They are evidence that Swedenborg was beginning to pick up a message concerning the specific direction
his work should take, a direction different from the Biblical one that was foremost in his
consciousness. Providence and prudence were on divergent courses. Most simply, it would seem that the
Lord was telling him not to focus so narrowly on Scripture.
Note that while Swedenborg seems to have heard the command quite explicitly, in the form of nine
specific titles, his own prudence had the freedom to follow the listing in principle rather than in
complete detail. Note also that in listing the works published "some years ago," Swedenborg did not
mention the Arcana-- a rather substantial omission, since at that time it represented about two-thirds
of his published theology. I could ask for no clearer indication that he regarded the 1763-4 works as
being in the same "special category" as the 1758 works, quite distinct from his "explicit" task of
When Divine Providence was published in 1764, then, Swedenborg evidently felt both free and
commissioned to return to the Apocalypse. The commission was apparently quite explicit. At the close
of a Memorable Relation (undated) in Marriage Love, he says, "Then I heard a voice from heaven, `Go
into your room, close the door, and get down to the work you started on the Apocalypse. Carry it to
completion within two years'" (CL 521f.). What I now hear this saying is, "You started it, now finish
it--but be quick about it." The Apocalypse Revealed was in fact published in 1766, two years after the
publication of Divine Providence.
On April 8, 1766, Swedenborg sent eight copies of The Apocalypse Revealed to his friend and follower,
Dr. Beyer. The next day, he received a letter from Beyer which expressed a wish for a book on
Swedenborg had apparently started work on such a book when he received this letter, but it may be that
Beyer's suggestion at least precipitated the final draft of Marriage Love. The work has some unusual
features. For the first time, the title page bore his name--"Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swede." The secret
had been out for at least eight years, during which seven works were published. He described it as
"not a theological work, but mostly a book of morals," and no other work keeps such an insistent
focus on human behavior and circumstances. No other work has such a high proportion of narrative to
exposition. Swedenborg chose the title "Delights of Wisdom" in preference to "Angelic Wisdom."
Further, the device of opening with an extended "Memorable Relation," especially one of the funniest,
is without precedent in his other works.
Marriage Love was published in 1768, and Swedenborg was eighty. His age itself must have militated
against undertaking another major exegetical task, and circumstances began to press him in another
direction. His few followers were meeting the opposition from the established church that would
culminate in the Gothenburg heresy trial which began that fall.
Not surprisingly, then, we find Swedenborg suddenly occupied with the study of standard Christian
doctrine. His working manuscripts now deal with such topics as "Justification and Good Works," "A
Conversation with Calvin," and "Remission of Sins." In 1769 he addressed directly the relationship of
the new theology to the old in A Brief Exposition. In sharp contrast, Soul-Body Interaction, published
in the same year, is quite exclusively "philosophical," dealing with none of the issues raised at the
heresy trial. This may represent another instance of his deliberately keeping his agendas separate.
It is, in a way, a short step from A Brief Exposition to True Christian Religion. Dr. Robert H. Kirven
has on occasion suggested that this latter work is modeled on traditional systematic theologies. I
suspect that this is quite true, and that it was precipitated by the theological issues that led
ultimately to the heresy trial. There was a need to address the growing opposition from orthodox
To do so, he used authorities which the Lutheran church regarded as valid. He cited the traditional
creed for support; and the extensive quotations from the Epistles, which he regarded as non-canonical
and had previously cited only sparingly, demonstrate his intent to meet his opponents on their own
Further, the work is organized around Lutheran theological constructs. Swedenborg's own theology would
not have prompted separate chapters on the three persons of the trinity or on imputation, and would
surely have prompted chapters on heaven, hell, the world of spirits, and marriage. In short, the work
seems best understood not as a final summary of his theology but as a demonstration that this theology
was "truly Christian."
To summarize the whole process, then, we begin with a person profoundly committed to a Lutheran view
of the exclusive centrality of Scripture. We find him encountering meaning in quite unexpected forms,
particularly in direct, intense, and enlightening spiritual experience. We find a distinct tension at
this level, issuing in uncertainty as to the best means of fulfilling his mission. This uncertainty is
resolved by a kind of alternation between exegetical, experiential, and topical presentation; and in
this alternation we can see the interactive effects of his own conscious judgment, his own deeper
sense of urgency, his circumstances, and divine mandates. The evidence is slender, but I believe that
the slender indications point toward a coherent and believable process.
:. Benjamin Worcester, The Life and Mission of Emanuel Swedenborg (Boston:
Little Brown, 1907), p. 204.
:. Robert Hindmarsh, Rise and Progress of the New Jerusalem Church in England,
America, and other Parts: Particularly in Reference to its External Manifestation
by Public Worship, Preaching, and the Administration of the Sacraments, with Other
Ordinances of the Church (London, Hodson & Son; 1861), p. 2.
:. Cyriel Sigstedt, The Swedenborg Epic (New York, Bookman, 1952), p. 324.
:. Tafel, op. cit., p. 306.