Swedenborg and Wesley
Ormond DeCharms Odhner
Thus, in 1770, wrote John Wesley, founder of Methodism, concerning his contemporary, Emanuel Swedenborg. A year later he wrote again: "The fever he had twenty years ago, when he supposes he was 'introduced into the society of angels,' really introduced him into the society of lunatics; but still, there is something noble, even in his ravings:
Seven years after Swedenborg died, Wesley reviewed Heaven and Hell. . . the dreams of a disordered imagination . . . a brain-sick man. . . . contrary to Scripture to reason and to itself . . . . Essentially and dangerously wrong. . . . His ideas of heaven are low, groveling, just suiting a Mohametan paradise. . . ."
Two years later, in his Arminian Magazine, Wesley published an "authentic account" of Baron Swedenborg's "insanity." In detail it describes an incident that supposedly occurred in 1744, when Swedenborg, in London, was lodging at the house of a John Paul Brockmer- 1744, a year after the Lord had first appeared to our seer. "His hair stood upright and he foamed a little at the mouth He said . . . he was the Messiah . . . come to be crucified for the Jews. He then went to a place called the Gulley-Hole, undressed himself, rolled in very deep mud, and threw his money out of his pockets among the crowd."
In 1783, Wesley plunged his final daggers into Swedenborg's reputation and into the Writings as well. In several articles reviewing Heaven and Hell and the True Christian Religion, he again refers to Swedenborg's "fit of madness," and says: "From this time we are undoubtedly to date that peculiar species of insanity which attended him, with scarce any intermission, to the day of his death." He quotes extensively and incorrectly, and always comments most adversely. "Utterly false . . . . As arrant nonsense as ever was pronounced by any man in Bedlam . . . . Contrary to all sound reason [and] to . . . Scripture. . . . When were the hells not in subjection to the Almighty? When was heaven, the abode of angels, out of order? 56 . . . Blasphemous nonsense. . . . Which shall I believe, the Bible or the Baron? . . . If this stands, the Bible must fall."
At length Wesley damns the teachings given by "this filthy dreamer" as he delighted to call Swedenborg. He ridicules the doctrine of an internal sense to the Word, the explanation of the Ten Commandments. He condemns the teaching that the Lord is a Divine Human God, and misquotes the Bible to prove his point. He damns the denial that salvation comes through faith alone. He insists that God is an angry Being who personally condemns men to eternal fire in hell. He calls Swedenborg insane for teaching that angels wear clothes, and says he is worse than Mohammed in his teaching that there is marriage, not only in heaven, but also in hell.
He closes: "O my brethren, let none of you that fear God recommend such a writer any more! . . . All his folly and nonsense we may excuse, but not his making God a liar . . . . If the preceding extracts are from God, then, the Bible is only a fable; but if 'all Scriptures are given by the inspiration of God,' then let these dreams sink into the pit from which they came."
Thus was the Heavenly Doctrine introduced to the general public of England by the most famous churchman of the Eighteenth Century, whose devoted Methodist followers numbered a hundred and fifty thousand by the day of his death. John Wesley, founder of Methodism-no other man has ever done as much to injure the cause of the Lord's New Church on earth!
Wesley was born in 1703. He entered Oxford at the age of seventeen, and soon was the leader of the "Holy Club," a group of young men who met frequently for self-improvement and the salvation of their souls. Methodically they planned their days for increased personal holiness, and soon jeering fellow-Oxonians nick-named them "Methodists."
While visiting the condemned in England's jails, Wesley met the reformer, James Edward Oglethorpe, and not long afterward sailed with him for Georgia, to act as that colony's minister. His Georgia mission is unimportant here, however, save for one incident. A group of Moravians crossed the Atlantic with Wesley. One night a terrific storm almost capsized the ship. All the passengers were terrified, save the Moravians; they calmly sang a psalm.
Back in London in 1738, Wesley turned to the Moravians for spiritual light, and soon was attending services in their chapel in Fetter Lane. Quickly he became one of their leaders, and at the home of one of them, John Paul Brockmer, conducted nightly meetings where they "sang, prayed, and read."
But the final phase of Wesley's life was just ahead-his wondrous "field preaching," during which he converted thousands with "hell-fire" sermons. He was not content merely to convert them, however; he organized them into little "bands," gave each convert a "ticket," annually examined his spiritual state, and deprived him of his prized "ticket," if he could not openly demonstrate spiritual progress. On and on he went, with ever increasing success. England, Scotland and Wales were his parish, and he organized them all in the most amazing religious revival in history.
The paths of Swedenborg and Wesley almost crossed in the Moravian Chapel in Fetter Lane, at the very outset of their ecclesiastical missions. They almost crossed again during Swedenborg's last year on earth. Certainly Swedenborg knew of Wesley, and apparently the two exchanged letters.
In 1743, Swedenborg was in Holland, publishing some of his scientific writings. None would then have suggested any insanity in this world famous scientist, this distinguished member of the Swedish House of Nobles, this Assessor of his government's Board of Mines. Inwardly, however, Swedenborg was deeply troubled at the atheism he met in learned circles; for this, in world history, was the agnostic "Age of Enlightenment. "Swedenborg studied and wrote of nature, that he might show the reasonableness of a creating God still in control of the universe. He studied anatomy, trying to discover the soul's purposes in the body, so that he might determine the nature of the soul after it left the body.
He had already begun to experience supernatural "signs," and he interpreted them to mean that what he was writing was true. He dreamed strange dreams, began to attach spiritual significance to them, and tried to interpret them. He jotted down both dreams and interpretations in a little book, The Journal of Dreams.
Religiously he was shaken to the bottom of his soul. He doubted his faith. Abjectly he confessed his sins. He cried to God Messiah for help. Twice-we know not how-the Lord appeared to him. In the spring of 1744 he dreamed of a ship, and interpreted it to mean that he should sail for London, there to publish his Animal Kingdom.
That May he sailed for London, and soon came to lodge with our Moravian friend, John Paul Brockmer, with whom he stayed until July 9th, 1744. With Brockmer he attended the Moravian services in the Fetter Lane Chapel, and was so attracted by them that he considered formal affiliation with that group. (It had been just four years earlier that Wesley had parted company with these Moravians.)
When Swedenborg left Brockmer's, he reportedly said he did so because Brockmer and his maid meddled with his papers. Years later, a friend said the Moravians were very angry when he left. 58 During his stay with Brockmer, he evinced a great desire to be left alone. We know that the spiritual world was then being opened to him, but he said only that he was busy on his books. It would seem that occasionally he shut himself in his room for two days at a time. An intimate friend reports that he sometimes went into trance at this period of his life.
At Brockmer's he continued his Journal of Dreams. He wrote it in Swedish, a language Brockmer could not understand. But perhaps one of his friends could; and if so-if, that is, they "meddled with his papers" they would have found this entry, dated June 20-21, 1744:
"There was a deliberation as to whether I should be admitted to their assembly. My father came out, and said to me that what I had written about Providence was the finest. . . . Afterward, one night, I was found in the church, but I was naked, having nothing on but the shirt, so that I did not dare to come forward. This may mean that I am not yet clothed and prepared as I need to be."
Only a dream; but Brockmer meddled with his papers, and Swedenborg left his house forever only three weeks later. The Moravians were angry then, and they would be angrier still when Swedenborg, in the Continuation concerning the Last Judgment, unmasked their secret beliefs and practices. Brockmer would vow vengeance for his sect. Only a dream, but as far as research can disclose, it is the basis of Wesley's insanity story.
The next year the Lord again appeared to Swedenborg and called him to the office of revelator. Far from proclaiming himself the Messiah, however, his private diaries show, he confessed himself unworthy of the Lord's call. Wesley attributed Swedenborg's mud-rolling to a delirium brought on by a violent fever; yet Swedenborg, years later, said he had always enjoyed exceptionally good health, and there is no other report that he was ever seriously ill. Wesley says further that this "fever" left Swedenborg insane to the end of his life, "with scarce any interruption," and that from this time on he continued to proclaim himself the Messiah. How absurd! No man ever put a greater distance between himself and his God.
Nor is there any evidence of continued insanity. Back in Sweden he continued his duties as Assessor in the Board of Mines. Insane? In 1747 the board's members unanimously recommended to the king that he be appointed their president-an honor he declined so that he could devote himself to the writing of the Arcana Coelestia. In 1757 he submitted to the House of Nobles a learned proposal to curb the liquor traffic in Sweden, in order to stop that country's wave of drunkenness.
All the Writings so far, remember, had been published anonymously. For fifteen years no one suspected that he was in contact with spirits. 59 But about 1759 the secret began to break, for that year Swedenborg, in Gottenburg, described in detail a fire then raging in Stockholm. People began to suspect.
Also in 1759, however, he was intensely active in Parliament, and formed a close friendship with Count von Hpken, the Prime Minister. And even when it became known that he was the author of the Writings, it was still he who devised a way to restore the value of the Swedish currency.
1769, however, is the next important date here. Swedenborg was in London, lodging with a wig-maker and barber named Richard Shear smith. Possibly it was then that he met two clergymen at London's Swedish Church, the Rev. Arvid Ferelius, pastor, and the Rev. Aaron Mathesius, his assistant. Swedenborg presented each with a set of the Arcana. Ferelius became an ardent, if secret, New Church man. Mathesius refused even to read the Writings, but violently condemned them. Swedenborg became a special object of his bitter dislike, and knew it.
Wesley says both Mathesius and Brockmer told him the insanity story. That was before 1779. Seventeen years later Mathesius would write a much altered and highly embellished account of it, and then would have Brockmer fearing that Swedenborg was out to murder him with a knife.
Mathesius succeeded Ferelius as pastor in 1773. Four years later the congregation petitioned the King to remove him from office for forging church records, mishandling church funds, and making personal attacks from the pulpit. Mathesius was suspended, but only temporarily. Then, in the summer of 1783, he went ravingly insane. Back in Sweden, however, he had recovered his sanity by 1795.
So much for 1769. In 1770, Swedenborg was in Holland writing the True Christian Religion, and Wesley was in England, writing in his private diary-which he published regularly: "I sat down to read . . . some of the writings of Baron Swedenborg. I began with huge prejudice in his favor, knowing him to be a pious man, one of a strong understanding. . . . But any one of his visions puts his real character out of doubt. He is one of the most ingenious, lively, entertaining madmen that ever set pen to paper. . . ."
1771. Swedenborg saw his True Christian Religion come out of the press, and sent a copy to Wesley. He returned to London and again lodged with Richard Shearsmith. And a few days before Christmas Wesley was writing in his journal: "I read a little more of that strange book, Baron Swedenborg's Theologica Caelestis [sic]. It surely contains many excellent things. Yet I cannot but think that the fever he had twenty years ago, when he supposes he was 'introduced into the society of angels,' really introduced him into the society of lunatics . . . ."
Toward the end of February, 1772, Wesley was at a meeting with some of his ministers, among whom was the Rev. Samuel Smith. 60 During the meeting a letter arrived for Wesley. He read it; his face registered surprise; he turned and read it to his ministers. As far as Mr. Smith could recall, the contents were as follows:
According to Mr. Smith, Wesley frankly acknowledged his desire to converse with Swedenborg, but said he had never mentioned it to anyone. He was about to leave on a six months' tour of his churches, however, so he wrote Swedenborg, saying he would see him thereafter. Smith says he later learned that Swedenborg wrote back, that the proposed visit would be too late, as he himself would go into the spiritual world the 29th of the next month.
A legend of New Church literature has Wesley saying thereafter-possibly having heard of Swedenborg's death on the predicted date-"We may now burn all our books on theology. God has sent us a teacher from heaven, and in the doctrines of Swedenborg we may learn all that it is necessary for us to know." Intensive research into this story has led me to doubt it in its entirety.
Seven years after Swedenborg's death, Mathesius had done his work. Wesley wrote, on February 12th of that year, that he had "abundant proof" that Swedenborg's "fever" had overturned his understanding, which, to the end, continued "majestic, though in ruins."
Eight more weeks, and Wesley publicly was condemning Heaven and Hell. "Low, groveling, just suited to a Mohametan paradise." Again the charge of insanity. Again he berates the teaching that Christ became one with the Father. He deplores Swedenborg's "quenching the unquenchable fires of hell," opining that fear of hell fire is needed for the Englishmen of his day. "This madman's dreams," he calls Swedenborg's teachings.
Two years later the insanity story is published in full in Wesley's Arminian Magazine. All goes well at Brockmer's for a few months; Swedenborg "behaves decently," and goes to the Moravian services every Sunday. Then he begins to shut himself in his room. One evening the maid reports that something is "violently wrong with Mr. Swedenborg." Brockmer finds him, his hair on end, foaming at the mouth. Swedenborg proclaims himself the Messiah, come to be crucified for the Jews, and asks Brockmer to preach this for him next day in the synagogue. He says that an angelic appearance to Brockmer that night will prove his words. 61 Brockmer pleads that he see a doctor, but agrees to the test of the angelic visit. Early in the morning Swedenborg, now foaming at the mouth continually, runs to Brockmer. No angel! The doctor? No! Both men burst into tears.
Brockmer goes for the doctor. Swedenborg runs out, undresses himself, rolls in mud, throws his money around. Brockmer has him moved to a residence near the doctor's. Swedenborg calls for a tub and six towels, and then for six more, as he had got the first six all wet. Brockmer visits him frequently. Swedenborg thanks him for his care, but continues to insist he is the Messiah. Later he breaks from his keeper, runs into the fields, laughs hysterically, and plays tag with his pursuers.
After this, in 1783, Wesley publishes his long and damaging review of True Christian Religion. We have already quoted from it at length: "Let these dreams sink into the pit from which they came."
Outside the New Church, Wesley's words closed almost every mind to a fair and just appraisal of the Writings. They remained the favored method of attacking the Writings, indeed, until modern psychiatry called Swedenborg a paranoiac.
Inside the New Church, however, Wesley's calumnies also caused a stir. New Church men sprang to Swedenborg's defense, delved into every detail of his life, in order to prove him sane.
Robert Beatson, secretary of the General Conference, was the first to answer Wesley's charges. Wesley attributed Swedenborg's madness to delirium. Beatson asks: Could anyone-even Mr. Wesley-account for his actions when totally delirious? He shows that in his later life Swedenborg never exhibited any signs of insanity at all, yet Wesley says his insanity continued to the end. He notes Wesley's misquotations from the Writings, in order to make them appear ridiculous, and points out Wesley's willingness to misquote the Bible itself to confute Swedenborg's teaching that God is in the human form. "God is not a man," Wesley quotes from Numbers; but the full text reads: "God is not a man that He should lie, nor the son of man that He should repent."
Another early convert to the Writings, Peter Provo, was unwilling to admit that Swedenborg might ever have acted insanely, even when delirious. He wrote to the Rev. Thomas Hartley-a Church of England clergyman, but one of the earliest receivers of the Heavenly Doctrine-to ask his opinion of our seer, for he knew that Hartley had visited Swedenborg and later had entered into correspondence with him.
Hartley replied that, far from Swedenborg's having an appearance of insanity, "there was something in his manner and behavior remarkably kind and pleasing." 62 "If I had not been fully satisfied as to the perfection of his mind," he added, "I should in no wise have attempted to bring his writings before the public."
But Provo was not yet content. In 1792 he interviewed Swedenborg's last landlord, Richard Shearsmith, to hear his story.
Swedenborg was of very sober habits, Shearsmith said, and a hard worker. He continued: "He was never known to be in a passion, but was always kind and civil . . . not minding what others thought or said of him." He never saw anything in Swedenborg but what bespoke a man in the use of his perfect reason. "There was something very sincere and innocent in his countenance. . . . He did not even so much as tell me that he saw anything more than common, or had any sight of the spiritual world."
Yet Shearsmith was aware that Swedenborg conversed with spirits. He says Swedenborg "seemed at times . . . to be conversing with some who were not visible to others. . . . What he saw was in a wakeful state, as he generally stood between the bed and the front room when conversing with spirits in the day . . . which conversations would also be held at night . . . and would last for an hour or more."
Even so, it never occurred to Shearsmith to consider Swedenborg insane; and as for Wesley's insanity story, Shearsmith would have none of it. He himself lived forty years in the neighborhood where the fit supposedly occurred, yet never even heard a rumor of it. He said, too, that the woman who recommended Swedenborg to him as a lodger was she to whom he turned when he left Brockmer's.
About the same time Provo was interviewing Shearsmith, Beatson and Robert Hindmarsh went to visit Brockmer. They read him Wesley's account of Swedenborg's insanity. Brockmer was incensed, flatly denied that Swedenborg was ever sick at all at his house, and vowed that he had never opened his mouth on the subject of Swedenborg to Mr. Wesley.
He denied that Swedenborg ever broke from him in delirium, ran naked into the street, or proclaimed himself the Messiah. He did say, however, that he once heard a report that Swedenborg rolled in the mire, but said that he himself did not see it.
As for the details of Wesley's story-of course Swedenborg's hair stood on end, when he was not wearing a wig; to wear a wig at all he had to keep his hair cropped short. He never foamed at the mouth; he only stuttered. And Brockmer ended by saying that "unguarded statements" never escaped Swedenborg's lips.
In spite of his denials, however, it is impossible to absolve Brockmer from blame for the story. A Moravian priest named Okely was also intrigued by Wesley's tales. 63 He went to visit Swedenborg in 1771, and reported to Wesley, "He spoke with all the coolness and deliberation you might expect from any." Okely therefore began to doubt Wesley's story, so he too went to see Brockmer. He reported: "I found all the main lines of it truth. There is no denying that in the year 1743 he was for a while insane."
Brockmer, then, had a hand in the story. His motives are attested to by three separate witnesses: He was angered at what Swedenborg wrote concerning the Moravians, and swore vengeance for his sect.
Recall that Swedenborg said Brockmer meddled with his papers. He, with a Swedish-speaking friend, could have found that entry in the Journal: "One night I was found in the church, but I was naked." He might not have known this described a dream. Even further, as heaven was being opened to him, Swedenborg often was shaken bodily by violent tremors. Once he was even thrown out of bed. One such experience occurred while he was at Brockmer's. Could it not have been then that the maid reported, "Something is violently wrong with Mr. Swedenborg?"
It could only have been with Brockmer that the insanity story originated. Later he vowed he had nothing to do with it. At one time or the other, then, he lied. His insanity story, therefore-if ever he told it-was the testimony of a liar. As such it is worthless.
Others of Swedenborg's contemporaries also documented their witness to his sanity, among them being the Swedish Prime Minister. But if any other external witness be needed to Swedenborg's sanity, let it be his own Journal of Dreams, intimately covering his thoughts and acts during the period in question. Ignore the dreams themselves, for dreams are ever weird. The rest of the book shows a man admittedly undergoing spiritual temptations, yet calmly reflecting on them and rationally engaged in everyday pursuits. Rational, too, are the works he then was writing, The Five Senses and The Worship and Love of God.
For a New Church man, however, the conclusive proof of Swedenborg's sanity will ever be the internal evidence of the Heavenly Doctrine. Not only is it consistent with itself, though written over a period of twenty-two years. What is all-conclusive is that in it man can find the one and only rational presentation of true theology and genuine religion.
So much, then, for Swedenborg's "insanity." There was none. Why, then, did Wesley publish what he did?
At one point we can be kindly toward him. In the account of
Swedenborg's reputed madness, he may simply have been duped by the Rev. Aaron
Mathesius, whom he had no reason to distrust, and perhaps also by Brockmer, who
once had been his friend. 64
Most of Swedenborg's biographers conclude that the cause of Wesley's enmity was the fact that his ministers and lay followers were deserting him, in small numbers, and were espousing "the New Jerusalem Church." Certain it is that the majority of early converts to the New Church once were Methodists. Six of the earliest New Church ministers had once been ministers of Wesley's. The Methodists also formally expelled one minister for espousing Swedenborgianism-though Wesley himself both argued and voted against the expulsion. But the dates here are vitally important. The first minister to leave Wesley for the New Church did not do so until five years after Wesley's last attack upon Swedenborg.
Wesley himself says he read very little of the Writings-"no more than had been published in English," save for the Latin of Conjugial Love. (I doubt that he ever read much of that, for he never attacked it specifically.) At the end, it is true, he purchased the first volume of True Christian Religion, in English, in order, he says, "that I might become thoroughly master of the subject."
Wesley, then, knew little of the Writings. What he did know, he either misunderstood-he misunderstood the doctrine of the glorification, for he says Swedenborg teaches that it was God the Father who was crucified; or, what he knew and understood, he knowingly rejected-and if you did that, you would likely agree with Wesley's estimate of Swedenborg's claim to intercourse with spirits and angels.
Wesley loved his doctrine of the angry, vengeful God the Father. He loved his horrible doctrine of the atonement-the suffering of the loving Son taking away our sins. He was bred in the Reformation tradition, which strongly rejected the old Christian belief that Scripture had an inner meaning. His own unhappy marriage, and the current opinions regarding sex, made him unable to allow either in heaven. He loved his hell-fire, and thought its threat necessary to preserve order. He believed he had been saved instantaneously through faith alone; how could he possibly accept the teaching of the Writings that reformation and regeneration are gradual, and require man's cooperation?
That, I think, was the reason for Wesley's bitterness toward the Writings. It might even have been honest, in the opinion of that much-misguided man. As he put it: "If this stands, the Bible must fall."
But no, Mr. Wesley, that is not so. This will stand unto ages of ages and even forever. So will the Bible and it is especially with New Church men today that the Bible still is standing; for the Lord came to men the second time, not to destroy the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them, and to show the Divine power and glory within them-the clouds of heaven. 65 This will stand, and the Bible, too, will stand. Only the falsities, the misconceptions, and the distortions of the Old Christianity will fall before the gradual but inevitable spread of the reign of the Lord God Jesus Christ across the face of all the earth.