Helen Keller and Swedenborg
Richard Lines MA
Helen Keller who, despite the double handicaps of blindness and deafness, achieved world-wide fame as an educator and humanitarian, died at the grand age of eighty eight in that terrible American summer of 1968, a few weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King and just days before the gunning down of Senator Robert Kennedy, brother of an assassinated President and himself. Every school child knows the miraculous story of how Helen, struck down by these afflictions as a result of illness when she was only eighteen months old, learned to read and write and went on to receive a university education through the efforts, above all, of an inspired teacher, the "Miracle Worker" Annie Sullivan, who became Helen’s companion and close friend. Less well known is the other miracle of Helen’s life, her joyous reception of the religious teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg and her later propagation of them to a wider readership in books and articles.
It was not Annie Sullivan, a lapsed Catholic with little time for religion , who introduced Helen to Swedenborg’s writings, but John Hitz, superintendent of Alexander Graham Bell’s Volta Bureau. Hitz, already a elderly gentleman with a long white beard when Helen met him, had been born in Switzerland and was an ardent Swedenborgian. Before she met Hitz Helen had corresponded with Phillips Brooks, the famous Boston Episcopalian preacher (and author of the hymn O Little Town of Bethlehem) and himself a reader of Swedenborg. A question that Bishop Brooks had been unable to answer concerned the apparent condemnation of Jews and other non-Christians. It was only when Hitz put into her hands a Braille version of Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell that she learned that this was not so.
Helen described how she had opened the big book and her fingers lighted on a passage in the preface about a blind woman whose darkness had been illuminated by the beautiful truths she had found in Swedenborg. Here was a light which more than compensated for the loss of earthly light. Helen wrote that at this point she let herself go "...as healthy, happy youth will, and tried to ponder the long words and the weighty thoughts of the Swedish seer".
She wrote later in life that she had been a strong believer in the doctrines of Emanuel Swedenborg since she was sixteen years old. Swedenborg’s teachings led her to support humanitarian causes like women’s suffrage, and the demands for justice from their employers by workers. She explained the attraction of this creed in an unpublished letter to a New York magazine.
Helen set out her Swedenborgian beliefs most fully in a book called My Religion published in 1927. She was invited to write the book by the Rev. Paul Sperry, minister of the Swedenborgian or New Church congregation in Washington. There had been an upsurge of interest in Swedenborg, wrote Perry, and the New Church would like to publish a book about him and his teachings "by a person well qualified and also well known to the general public". Overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task before her, Helen did not reply to Perry’s letter for six weeks. How could she explain to a sceptical public Swedenborg’s extraordinary claim that he had been for twenty seven years in daily communication with the spiritual world? But at last she agreed to undertake the task and she came to regard it as a labour of love, love for Swedenborg and also love for her friend John Hitz who had introduced her to his teachings.
My Religion, recently reissued in an expanded form with other Swedenborgian writing by Helen as Light in My Darkness, soon became an established New Church classic and has been frequently reprinted. She wrote of Swedenborg’s reading of the Bible as metaphor, as an account in parable form "of the spiritual life of the race from the beginning down to the Jewish era" that "He did not make a new Bible but the Bible all new". At the end of the book Helen stated her personal creed:
She knows that the mystic sense of these sceptics who prefer facts to vision is only dormant. Science, she says, has traced man back to the ape.
A few years after My Religion Helen wrote an introduction to the Everyman’s Library edition of Swedenborg’s True Christian Religion. This magnum opus , she wrote, is the summation of Swedenborg’s religious writings, his universal theology. His central doctrine is simple. "It consists of three main ideas: God as Divine Love, God as Divine Wisdom, and God as Power for use. These ideas come as waves from an ocean which floods every bay and harbour of life with new potency of will, of faith, and of effort." God never changes in his attitude towards anyone at any time. All through Swedenborg’s books "...shines an image of the Eternal Love which embraces every human being, and saves him from sinking into deeper sin." His books are, she concludes, "...an inexhaustible well-spring of satisfaction to those who live the life of the mind."
Helen’s humanitarian and educational work took her across the United States and around the world. She knew every US president from Calvin Coolidge to John F Kennedy. She met national leaders as different as Pandit Nehru and Konrad Adenauer. And she met countless ordinary people as well. In one year, 1932, she crossed the Atlantic by liner to receive an honorary degree from the University of Glasgow and to address the New Church in Scotland. The London Daily Express wanted her to write an article and the National Institute for the Blind wanted her to open a massage parlour. "Oh dear!" she wrote, "How I wish I might be invisible for five months!" Her visit to Great Britain included a trip to Looe in Cornwall where she described to a friend "the precipitous cliffs" on both sides of the river to which the "houses cling,while gulls, thousands of them, soared in and out of the harbour."
Annie Sullivan, Helen’s "Teacher" died in 1936. Eventually, Polly Thomson took her place as Helen’s companion and together they continued the humanitarian work for many years. Polly died in 1960 when Helen was eighty. Interviewed by the New York Herald-Tribune for this anniversary she was asked what was her basic philosophy. "God gave us life for happiness, not misery. And I believe that happiness, attained, should be shared." Asked about her plans for the immediate future she replied, "I will always - as long as I have breath - work for the handicapped."
In October 1961 Helen suffered a slight stroke and after this she seemed to age rapidly. A series of minor strokes followed over the next few years and her interest in and ability to communicate with the outside world diminished more and more. After Polly Thomson’s death Helen became increasingly alone. Her family (they came from Alabama in the deep South) took over the arrangements for her funeral as she walked "...that last mile so very slowly." An understanding that the funeral would be conducted by a New Church minister was cancelled. "We never went for the Swedenborgian stuff at all and it was hanging regretfully over our heads," wrote her brother, Phillips Brooks Keller.
Helen Keller finally died on 1st June 1968. Her ashes were taken to the National Cathedral in Washington where a memorial service was held. Senator Lister Hill of Alabama (a former classmate of Helen’s brother) gave a tribute. He ended with some words from My Religion:
(Richard Lines, a Barrister is a Past-President of the Society)
LIGHT IN MY DARKNESS by Helen Keller, is published by Chrysalis Books at £7.00