For years I’ve passed Swedenborg House in central London but haven’t dared to go in. The reason for my curiosity is because ever since adolescence I’ve loved the paintings, illustrated books and poetry of William Blake, who was influenced by Swedenborg’s ideas.
So I was very pleased to be invited to a book launch in the Magic Lantern Room there by my friend Sally Kindberg a few weeks ago. Swedenborgianism bases its teachings on the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, who was born in Stockholm 1688. He was a polymath who had a brilliant career as a theologian , scientist, inventor, philosopher and mystic.
Here’s a drawing from his notebook (in 1714) of a flying machine. The pilot was supposed to sit in the middle and use paddles on the wing, like oars on a boat, to propel himself through the air. Swedenborg commented, “ The art of flying is hardly yet born. It will be perfected and some day people will fly up to the moon.” He studied anatomy and physiology and anticipated the neutron concept. He also believed that slavery should be abolished, observing that the inhabitants of the interior of Africa had preserved a direct intuition of God. As a result the first abolitionist society was founded by Swedenborgians in Sweden in 1779.
When he was in his late fifties and living in London he had a vision of Christ, who told him that he had been chosen to interpret the Scriptures and reform Christianity; he was to be given freedom to roam in the spirit world. He spent the remaining 28 years of his life writing about his adventures there and his conversations with angels, demons and spirits from, amongst other places, Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Saturn, Venus and the Moon. His best known books are Heaven and Hell and The Heavenly Doctrine, in which he claims that the teachings of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ have been revealed to him. Swedenborg has been described, intriguingly, as a “secret agent on earth and in heaven.” Swedenborg called his movement The New Jerusalem Church but it only became an institution after his death. Blake commented, “It is so with Swedenborg; he shews the folly of churches & exposes hypocrites”
Swedenborg died in London in 1772 – apparently on the precise day he had predicted. He had, and still has, many followers. It has been suggested that his ideas influenced Joseph Smith, the founder on Mormonism. Writers who were interested in his ideas include Conan Doyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry James, Immanuel Kant, Balzac, Helen Keller, August Strindberg, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman and W. B. Yeats. Jorge Luis Borges called him “the most extraordinary man in recorded history.“ His unorthodox beliefs were a magnet for dissentors and intellectuals interested in radical politics which, in the late eighteenth century, were often linked to mysticism.
William Blake is seen here in a portrait by Thomas Philips. In the bookshop on the ground floor of Swedenborg House books by and about Blake are prominently displayed. Alexander Gilchrist, Blake’s first biographer, wrote that “of all modern men, the engraver’s apprentice was to grow up likest to Emanuel Swedenborg.” Some scholars think that Blake came from a family of Swedenborgians and the Irish poet William Allingham imagined the fourteen-year-old Blake meeting the eighty-four-year-old Swedenborg on the streets of London.
We know that Blake owned and annotated at least three of Swedenborg’s books and he mentions two others in such a way as to suggest that he read them. He and his wife Catherine attended the first General Conference of the New Jerusalem Church in 1789. Blake would have sympathised with the Conference’s endorsement of Swedenborg’s statement that the things seen by the visionary “are not fictions but were really seen and heard in a state in which I was broad awake.” Like Blake, Swedenborgians had to defend themselves against charges of “enthusiasm” and madness. The Church that Blake visited was a development of the non-orthodox Theosophical Society which was established in 1783 by a printer with a Methodist background, Robert Hindmarsh. We know that a number of Blake’s friends and fellow artists were Swedenborgians and met in the Theosophical Society (in 1785 renamed as The British Society for the Propagation of the Doctrines of the New Church).
In Blake’s epic poem Jerusalem he speaks of a “Jerusalem in every individual man, ” a very Swedenborgian idea. Both men had unconventional ideas about marriage and sexuality. In Visions of the Daughters of Albion Blake describes sexual violence, linking sexual liberation with human freedom. Oothoon rages at her lover Theotormon for his “hypocrite modesty.” She describes herself as “A virgin fill’d with virgin fancies”; in accordance with the ideal of the virtuous woman at the time, she is not allowed to express her true sexual desires. In a paradise on the coast of Africa similar to the one described by Swedenborg in his Plan, Oothoon describes a utopian future time of free love, when “Love! Love! Love! happy happy Love!” can be “Free as the mountain wind”
Many Swedenborgians shared another of Blake’s deepest concerns: opposition to slavery. In his long poem America Blake’s revolutionary spirit, Orc, is referred to as “the Image of God who dwells in the darkness of Africa.
Later Blake seems to have turnied sharply against the Swedenborgians and satirized them in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-93). “How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way, Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?” Blake began to mistrust the church's emphasis on the avoidance of sin and eventually accused Swedenborg of “Lies and priestcraft” while the New Jerusalem Church split into factions. Swedenborg's greatest error, according to Blake, lay in his failure to understand the real nature of evil.
Blake saw Heaven and Hell not as real locations but as representations of the human heart. For him, angels represented conservative values whereas devils were rebels; Blake saw himself as a revolutionary devil and also used the concepts of Heaven and Hell in his own polemic against the materialistic philosophies of Locke, Bacon and Newton.
Blake’s private mythology, which make many of his beautiful poems hard to follow, was certainly influenced by Swedenburg’s writings and I find this a helpful approach.