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Brief History of The New Church
The Beginning of the New Church
Essentially, the New Church began with the appearance of the Lord to Emanuel Swedenborg in April of 1745. In this meeting the Lord enlisted Swedenborg to serve as the means by which God could further reveal Himself to humanity. The Lord opened His servant's eyes into the spiritual world, and lead him to observe the lives of angels and spirits, and introduced him to the Science of Correspondence, thereby leading His servant to interpret and describe the spiritual meaning of the Old and New Testaments. From that time on for the rest of his life he visited frequently in the spiritual world, and wrote of what he learned there, beginning with the first volume of Arcana Coelestia, published in 1749, and ending with True Christian Religion, published in 1771. Several works were published posthumously. Swedenborg stated repeatedly that in these Theological Writings he wrote nothing from his own intelligence, and everything from the instruction of the Lord.
During his lifetime he never attempted to organize a new church, though he stated that a new church would arise which would replace the existing Christian church. He had a few followers then in Sweden, but since the State religion of Sweden was Lutheran, the open dissemination of such new ideas would have been considered heresy. He wrote his Theological Works in Latin, which further limited the number of his early readers.
Early Growth of Swedenborgianism
Swedenborg traveled to London to arrange publication of many of his Theological Works. Some people there who could read Latin formed reading groups, and translated some of his Theological Works into English for publication. In 1787, fifteen years after his death in London, a group led by Robert Hindmarsh formally established a church in London, which became known as the General Conference of the New Church, and which grew from the founding eleven members to more than 2,000 in the 19th century, but as of year 2004 has declined to 796 official members, not including spouses and unconfirmed children, plus some members in Scotland.
Though now small in numbers, the Conference Church has had a wide reach. The largest Swedenborgian Church in the world, the New Church of Southern Africa, started in 1911 as part of the General Conference of the New Church, and became independent in 1970 because they were big enough to run their own affairs, and because the South African government at that time frowned on foreign-affiliated organizations. They still maintain close ties to the Conference. They have a congregational form of government, and somewhere from 15,000 to 20,000 members.
Similarly, the New Church in West Africa started in 1939 as part of Conference, and became independent in 1981 because they had become big enough to handle their own affairs. They are based in Nigeria and have societies possibly in Ghana and other neighboring countries. They still maintain ties with Conference, and have approximately 3,000 members.
Another outgrowth from the General Conference of the New Church is the New Church in Australasia (formerly the New Church in Australia), founded in 1881. They comprise the New Church in Australia plus the Auckland Society in New Zealand, and have approximately 500 members.
Beginnings of Swedenborgianism in America
In 1784 James Glen, the English owner of a South American plantation, came across Heaven and Hell, one of Swedenborg's Theological Writings, on shipboard. He was fascinated and continued his studies of the Theological Writings, and while visiting in the States he introduced some of Swedenborg's teachings at a series of lectures in a Philadelphia bookstore, inspiring several new readers who later became leaders in the American Swedenborgian movement. By the early 1800's there were several Swedenborgian societies; President Jefferson invited John Hargrove, of the Baltimore congregation, to preach on the Capital rotunda before Congress. In 1817 the General Convention of the New Church was organized in Boston, the first formal New Church establishment in America. Both the General Convention (in America) and the General Conference (in England) are governed in a congregational style. Today the General Convention has approximately 2,000 active members, in New England and in several large cities in the United States. It now also has some societies in Canada, and has been renamed the Swedenborgian Church of North America.
One remarkable missionary for the New Church, John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, sowed both natural and spiritual seeds in his travels through the Midwest. He sowed nurseries of fruit trees, and where the opportunity presented itself, distributed Swedenborgian publications. Helen Keller was also a Swedenborgian, although she never became a member of a New Church organization; in her book My Religion she describes her love for the Writings of Swedenborg. Prominent 19th century literary artists who acknowledged Swedenborg's influence include Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Blake, Edgar Allen Poe, Honore de Balzac, Charles Baudelaire, Elizabeth and Robert Browning, Henry Ward Beecher, Thomas Carlyle, Samuel Coleridge Taylor and Walt Whitman.
The Establishment of the Academy of the New Church and of the General Church of the New Jerusalem
In the America of the 19th century there was an acknowledged religious awakening, and for a time interest in these new Theological Writings flourished. But various New Churchmen and unaffiliated Swedenborgians had various degrees of appreciation for these Theological Writings. Some regarded them as merely wise books, and others came to see that they are indeed Divinely inspired. Toward the end of the 19th century a group of New Churchmen, centered in Ohio, became increasingly disaffected with the Convention position, wanted to have more emphasis on education, and wanted to have a more hierachical form of government. They founded the Academy of the New Church, chartered in the State of Pennsylvania in 1876, and in 1890 established the General Church of the Advent, which became the General Church of the New Jerusalem in 1897. Unlike the Convention Church, the General Church regards the Theological Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg as a Divinely inspired means for illustrating the inner sense of the Bible. They call them "the Writings", and have come to regard them as the Word of the Lord in His Second Coming. The General Church has an episcopal style of government. They have approximately 5,000 members worldwide, mainly in and around Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia, and Glenview, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, but also in smaller societies in most large cities around the country. They are an international organization, and have at least one society in every inhabited continent, with locations in England, Canada, Australia, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Brazil, France, Netherlands, Sweden, Russia and the Ukraine. They have many people in South Africa, and are growing rapidly in Ghana, Togo, and Ivory Coast.
Modern Developments in the New Church
Independent thinking did not cease with the establishment of the General Church. In the early 20th century a group of ministers and lay people in the Hague and in Bryn Athyn came to see that since the Theological Writings of Emanual Swedenborg are the Word of the Lord in His Second Coming, they are indeed the Third Testament of the Lord's Word, and that therefore the Doctrine of the Sacred Scripture must apply to them as well as to the Old and New Testaments. The Doctrine of the Sacred Scripture teaches us that the literal sense of the Word is written in Correspondences, and thus consists of apparent truths which are not necessarily genuine truths, and which contain an internal sense which is only apparent to one reading the Word in a state of enlightment from the Lord. Such a one is able to draw doctrine from the internal sense of the Word, which must then be confirmed in the literal sense of the Word. This idea, that the literal sense of the Third Testament contains apparent truths that are not necessarily genuine truths, was presented in a monthly magazine, "De Hemelsche Leer", which was published in the Netherlands starting in 1930. This doctrine became known as the Dutch position.
The three leading theses propounded in "De Hemelsche Leer" were:
1. The Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg are the Third Testament
of the Word of the Lord. The Doctrine of the New Jerusalem
Concerning the Sacred Scripture must be applied to the
three Testaments alike.
2. The Latin Word without Doctrine is as a candlestick without
light, and those who read the Latin Word without Doctrine,
or who do not acquire for themselves a Doctrine from the
Latin Word, are in darkness as to all truth.
3. The genuine Doctrine of the Church is spiritual out of celestial
origin, but not out of rational origin. The Lord is that Doctrine itself.
These theses were not accepted by leading bishops in the General Church in the 1930's, nor later by its Council of the Clergy. In 1937, even though the leading proponents of the new position were making every effort to avoid a split, the Rev. Ernst Pfeiffer, was forced to leave the General Church. This led other leading adherents to resign, and they then established the Lord's New Church Which Is Nova Hierosolyma, centered in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, and in the Hague.
The Lord's New Church has an episcopal style of government, and has approximately 1,000 members, mainly in the United States, the Republic of South Africa and Lesotho. It is an international organization, and also has societies and smaller groups in the Netherlands, Sweden, Russia, the Ukraine, Serbia, and Japan. The greatest growth now is in South Africa and in Lesotho.
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