Legend 5: Growth from the Universities

November 18, 2016 § Leave a comment


Mr. Simon’s fifth legend is:

The teaching that “The universities of Christendom are now being instructed, whence will come new ministers” (Posthumous Theological Works, I: 570) (See also Letter to Beyer, February 1767).

From <http://www.swedenborgproject.org/2009/01/29/swedenborgian-legends/>

The way this legend is cited, it sounds as if there are two sources. One from Posthumous Theological Works, volume 1, page 570; and the other  a letter to Beyer dated February 1767. However the document in the Posthumous Theological Works, volume 1, page 70 is the February 1767 letter to Beyer.

Here is the relevant part of that letter:

How soon is a New Church to be expected? Answer: The Lord is now preparing a new heaven of those who believe in Him and acknowledge Him as the true God of heaven and earth, and likewise look up to Him in their lives, which means the shunning of what is evil and the doing of what is good; for it is from this heaven that the New Jerusalem is to come down (Apoc. 21:2). I see daily spirits and angels descending and ascending to the number of from 10 to 20.000 and being set in order. Gradually, as that heaven is formed, so the New Church commences and increases. The universities in Christendom are now first being instructed, and from them come new priests; for the new Heaven has no influence with the old, which keeps itself too learned in justification by faith alone. (To Beyer, February 1767; Acton)

Status of the Letter

This letter is included in the volume Posthumous Theological Works as part of the Standard Edition of the Writings published by the Swedenborg Foundation. The Swedenborg Foundation is not a church; and does not maintain that the theological works of Swedenborg are Divine revelation. So, from this perspective, it makes sense to include theological extracts from Swedenborg’s letters in their collection of Swedenborg’s theological writings.

The General Church of the New Jerusalem is a church, and it does claim that at least some of the theological writings are Divine revelation. The General Church has no official canon of those works. However, in some of its past liturgies there has been a list.

The 1908, 1916 and 1921 liturgies introduces their list with these words:

The works which contain the Doctrines of the New Church, and constitute the Second coming of the Lord, are now enumerated (1908: 324, 1916: 324 and 1921: 324)

Each of these lists include both the published works and unpublished works. Each list names 45 works.

The 1939 and 1966 liturgies simple states:

The following works contain the Doctrine of the New Church. (1939: 219; 1966:236)

The later two lists (1939 and 1946) only have 43 works listed. They drop:

  • ANSWER TO A LETTER FROM A FRIEND. Containing Swedenborg’s Autobiography. London 1769.

The 1995 Liturgy drops the list of which contain the Doctrines of the New Church completely. And its web site, https://newchurch.org/ does not appear to have such a list either. The website does contain a bibliography of what it calls Swedenborg’s “primary theological works.” This list contains all the published theological works plus the Spiritual Diary. See: http://about.newchurch.org/about/swedenborg/swedenborgs-bibliography/

To the best of my limited knowledge, no new church organization has an official list of which of Swedenborg’s theological works is Divine revelation. Closest we get to such a list, is the list found in the older liturgies of the General Church. And as mentioned above, they do not include Swedenborg’s 1767 letter Beyer about the universities being now instructed. Consequently, this letter and it statement hardly seem authoritative; and thus I am not sure they actually qualify to be a “legend.”

All this being said, there have been and there are minsters who believe that the theological extracts of Swedenborg’s letters are Divine revelation.

One example is W. F. Pendleton who said in the 1912 issue of New Church Life:

The letters of Swedenborg to Dr. Beyer, as well as other letters written by him during the same period, are to be regarded as a part of the inheritance given to the New Church, as a part of its teaching, its doctrine, its revelation. In them some things are set forth that are not given in the same form elsewhere in the Writings. (p 262)

They are entitled to their beliefs about this, just we are entitled to ours.

Factual Accuracy

What about the factual accuracy of what Swedenborg said in his letter to Beyer?

Swedenborg’s opening observations:

The Lord is now preparing a new heaven of those who believe in Him and acknowledge Him as the true God of heaven and earth, and likewise look up to Him in their lives, which means the shunning of what is evil and the doing of what is good; for it is from this heaven that the New Jerusalem is to come down (Apoc. 21:2). I see daily spirits and angels descending and ascending to the number of from 10 to 20.000 and being set in order. Gradually, as that heaven is formed, so the New Church commences and increases.

These observations are beyond our ability to verify. They do agree with other statements about the growth of the new Church.

Swedenborg goes on to say:

The universities in Christendom are now first being instructed, and from them come new priests.

First, I am not sure what Swedenborg means by the universities are now first being instructed. Is he referring to the books of the Heavenly Doctrines that he gave to various universities, clergy and scholars? Is he referring to some kind of revelation or Divine providence such as the Africans have received (TCR 840)?

The Rev. F. E. Gyllenhaal asks similar questions in his 1946 New Church Life article:

Is Swedenborg’s statement about the universities surprising? Did he mean that the New Church on earth would be begun by new or young ministers prepared in the universities of Christendom, by being instructed there in the Heavenly Doctrines of the New Jerusalem, and that then both the universities and the new ministers were the mediums of influence from the New Heaven? Did the New Church begin by the work of such new ministers, and was its increase for some time due to others following them, who likewise were prepared in the universities of Christendom?

The history of the New Church shows that this was true to some extent, but we shall not present any part of that history now. However, in order to make our subject clear, two further questions must be answered. How were the universities instructed? Undoubtedly by the copies of the Writings freely given to them by Swedenborg. We know that Swedenborg presented copies of many of the Writings to many universities in Europe, and to many bishops and some others of the clergy, and doubtless they were read by some of the young divinity students. But was there ever any formal instruction in the Heavenly Doctrines by lectures in any university? I do not know of any, but it is possible that there was. However, we may be sure that no teachers or students ever were instructed apart from the books of the Writings.  (p. 33)

The Rev. Gyllenhaal acknowledges New Church history shows that to some extant new church ministers had come from the universities. I sure wished he had presented that history. The Rev. Gyllenhaal recognizes that the “some extant” is not the fulfilment that most people want to see when he says:

But, if what Swedenborg wrote to Dr. Beyer was not done in his time, nor in the years that have since elapsed, it may still be done. (1946 NCL 33)

This is, of course, true. But a normal reading of Swedenborg’s letter would not lead you to think that the fulfillment of his remarks were in the distant future.

W. F. Pendleton argues that Swedenborg did not mean that many ministers would come from the universities:

Now what does Swedenborg here mean by the universities of Christendom? The first and most obvious meaning is that out of these institutions called universities will come “new ministers” who will labor for the establishment and increase of the New Church. If we may interpret what Swedenborg says by the result, as well as by the teaching that the New Church is at first to be confined to a few, we may safely conclude that Swedenborg did not have in his mind any idea of a large number of new ministers coming from the source of which he speaks. It is well known, however, as a fact of New Church history, that a few of its prominent ministers and scholars have come from the universities of Christendom. (1912 NCL 262, 263)

W. F. Pendleton also argues that we need broaden our understanding of the term “universities”:

It would, however, be a view too limited and narrow, if we confined our thought to those institutions that are literally called universities. Broadly considered, therefore, the schools of Christendom are meant, the education of the Christian world, and in a still broader view an education in the natural truth of the world, which, in some degree, even the uneducated have. Since, however, all natural truth among men is from the Word, we would say, taking a still broader view, that education in the natural truth of the Word is essentially what is meant by the new ministers who will come from the universities of Christendom, and this wherever and by whatever mode or instrumentality that education and preparation may take place. (1912 NCL 263)

This to my mind is not a fair reading of the text. But even without this broadening of the meaning of “universities” W. F. Pendleton believes that Swedenborg’s expressed hopes to Beyer had been fulfilled.

But how is it that there is more hope of the universities than of the clergy in active work? The reason seems to be that the clergy who are meant here are men of maturer years, and thus more confirmed in falsities of doctrine and of life than the young men who are studying for the ministry in the universities. Experience has shown that the men and women who come into the New Church from the old, take this step in their earlier years. After the age of thirty, states of affection, habits of thought, and practices of life, become, for the most part, confirmed, and a radical change of state is seldom made after that time. This seems, therefore, to present the reason why Swedenborg saw more hope in the students of Theology in the universities than in the ranks of the clergy, who were older men, already in the practice of their profession, already confirmed in their ways of thought and life. But even this hope was relative; it was not a large hope; there was no prospect of the accession of numbers even from the universities. For Swedenborg had already been informed, as he records in the Writings, that not many of the former church, after reaching adult age, would come into the New Church. There would, however, be a few, a sufficient number to make a beginning, and he tells Dr. Beyer substantially that this beginning would be made in the universities with a few young men studying for the ministry, who would become the teachers and leaders of the infant church, now about to be born into the world.

The words to Dr. Beyer have been fulfilled and a number of those who have been the teachers and leaders of the Church in the past have come as young men from the universities, from the schools of the world, young men who have received their education without a knowledge of the New Church, but who, while still young men, have undergone the great change of mind and life which is involved in coming from the old to the near.

What has happened in this way in the past will doubtless happen again in the future from time to time. But call the New Church, as it grows and increases, continue to depend on this source of supply? (1912 NCL 265)

Personally, I favor W. F. Pendleton’s last suggestion, that Swedenborg saying that it is through Beyer and others like him that the church would begin:

The answer is involved in a close scrutiny of the words of Swedenborg to Dr. Beyer. What he says is an answer to the question of Beyer, “How soon may a New Church be expected?” The New Church had not yet come into existence as a visible institution on earth, and the beloved Beyer was anxious to know when it would be expected to begin. The answer of Swedenborg was directed to this question, When would the New Church begin? and Beyer was told that as soon as the New Heaven was formed, the New Church on the earth would begin in the universities. This had already been fulfilled in Beyer himself. He was a professor in a university, and had, as we are told, been introduced as to his spirit into the New Heaven; and Swedenborg Probably had Beyer himself in mind as a striking example and illustration of the truth he was communicating to him in this remarkable letter. Swedenborg was telling him how and where the New Church was to begin, that this would be with some others as it had been with him and by such men would be effected the early institution of the Church; nor does it appear that Swedenborg was speaking otherwise than of the church in its infant beginnings, such beginnings as were made shortly after his death in Sweden, in England, in the United States, and such beginnings as may be made even now in any nation where the New Church has not yet been established. But it does not appear that Swedenborg intended, in what he said to Beyer, to indicate to him how the New Church is to be continued, where it has been once established, and has increased in numbers. (1912 NCL 266)

Where I stand

Personally, I am not inclined to view this letter as Divine revelation. This being the case, I am not concerned with the factual accuracy of this letter. That being said, I would prefer that the letter be factual accurate.

I don’t know if the letter is factually accurate. It is hard to judge the accuracy of the letter when one is not sure what letter was saying.


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