It’s fairly often that I hear people say, “Swedenborg never intended to start a church.” For the most part, I think I agree with this statement – he never gathered people to himself, and he never actively encouraged priests or lay people to break away from their denominations to form a new one. Still, I think he may have seen, especially toward the end of his life, that the current denominations weren’t going to accept the revelation that the Lord gave through him. And he did put efforts into spreading the Writings, sending them to all the major universities and encouraging the learned to read them.
Rev. Nathan Cole delivered a speech on this subject at my church on January 29 for our celebration of Swedenborg’s birthday (an event which inspires a lot of angst among New Church people fearful that our celebrations will be taken as saint-worship, which in turn inspires amusement in me at how angsty we can be). Anyway, Nathan has now posted his speech as an essay at New Church Perspective. Nathan argues that Swedenborg at first had hopes that the clergy would accept the Writings, and when he was disappointed in that hope, he thought perhaps at least the theological students would accept them. But he was let down there, as well:
When Swedenborg wrote that the universities of Christianity were receiving instruction presumably he was referring to the fact that he had sent books of the Heavenly Doctrines to universities in Germany, France, and England.
But did Swedenborg find this effort successful?
Unfortunately not, as he wrote in a letter. He wrote that “[faith alone] is what all young students among the clergy greedily learn and imbibe at the universities, and what they afterwards teach in temples, and publish in books, as if they were inspired with heavenly wisdom, and whereby they endeavor to acquire to themselves a name, and the reputation of superior learning, as well as diplomas, licenses, and other honorary rewards” (Letter 7).
I’m not sure whether Swedenborg ever foresaw the rise of a separate denomination, but that later works of the Writings seem to delineate the New Church from the old in ever starker terms. Brief Exposition, the second-to-last work published by Swedenborg, says,
The faith of the New Church cannot by any means be together with the faith of the former or present church… because they do not agree together in one third, no, nor even in one tenth part. (Brief Exposition 103)
Whether or not he foresaw the rise of a separate denomination seems beside the point: either there would have to be a new denomination, or the doctrine of the existing churches would have to radically change. He clearly saw that the two faiths could not exist together in the same mind – and if an individual would have to make a clear, clean break from his former faith, it would be reasonable to assume that he would want to break away from an organization that continued to insist on that faith.