Your Stories of Atheism: The Isolation of The Swedenborgians

Your Stories of Atheism: The Isolation of The Swedenborgians April 2, 2018

‘The Swedenborgian Church’ sounds like a made-up name from a Monty Python sketch. Especially when you find out the founder and first followers were mostly Swedish. It turns out, it’s a very real cult and it’s named for its founder, Emanuel Swedenborg. I often get stories from you that teach me things, but this one took the cake. I didn’t know there was a Swedenborgian church before Sarah sent me her extraordinary story. I learned from it, and maybe you will, too:

I was brought up Swedenborgian. My ancestors helped bring the religion to the U.S. from Sweden and establish the main church and school in Bryn Athyn, PA, outside Northeast Philadelphia. Bryn Athyn has been a fairly insular community. I grew up pretty isolated. The girls and women, in particular, didn’t socialize outside the community—at least when I was growing up. There’s also a lot of inbreeding. There were first-cousin marriages, “double cousins” (where one set of siblings marries another set of siblings), etc. My mother has 60 first cousins on her father’s side alone, for example. There is also a church school that everyone but me attended. I was chosen to be the “smart” one and sent to public school for their gifted program. The religious girls’ school was threatened with loss of accreditation for not teaching academic subjects. I was taught to disdain most of my public school Jewish, Catholic, and mainstream Christian classmates. I didn’t fit in anywhere! I’ve been so lost! Anything I say here is based on my unique, quasi-outsider childhood experience. Other Swedenborgians love to argue that I’m misrepresenting their religion, but that’s irrelevant to my personal experience.

Emanuel Swedenborg was a well-known enlightenment scientist—until he started having psychic experiences. Supernatural beings—God, angels—would talk to him, show him around Heaven, etc., and “chose him” to write about The True Christian religion. Everything in the Bible has an “internal sense,” that is, another meaning. You have to be initiated and have the secret code to understand that other meaning. I didn’t get it. My family are members of an even more exclusive branch of Swedenborgians, the Lord’s New Church. They believe there’s an “internal sense” not just to the Bible, but to Swedenborg’s writings themselves. Swedenborg wrote in Latin, and for some reason, the translators (including my ancestors) translated it into an artificial Latinate English, which makes it even harder to understand. In this way, they can feel superior to and smarter than everyone else. They make up a ridiculously, unnecessarily complicated puzzle and then congratulate themselves on figuring it out. The Lord’s New Church is even snobbier: Our chapel was a medieval-style stone gallery full of 500-year-old leather chairs, rugs, and artwork obtained during the post-WWII rape of Europe. (Wonder how much of it belongs to Jews.) We had lots of professional classical musicians—We sang Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring; never would you hear a “pedestrian,” “low class” Christian hymn.

So I grew up feeling completely clueless and that something was very wrong with me. Everyone else seemed to “get it” and I didn’t. I’d watch them walk out of church with ecstatic expressions on their faces; I can get that look—by completely turning off my brain and pretending to be high. It’s no surprise I ended up a natural linguist and anthropologist. The Bible’s syntax and semantics don’t make sense in the first place. Religious people say things like “the sky is blue” and then support it with a Bible quote like “thus sayeth the Lord to sacrifice a lamb’s head.” (I made that up.) Logic and consistency are important to me; I was SO confused! Then you add the “science of correspondences” (I think that when the Bible says “elephant” it means ‘understanding,’ of what, I’m not sure) to interpret the Bible using Swedenborg’s writings; and then you use some other code to get to the next level of secret meaning? The LNC didn’t have a children’s curriculum. We were expected to do what we were told and not ask questions. I suppose they thought we would learn by osmosis. I never did. One minister would sit us down, formally, open a book by Swedenborg, and have us read and recite out of it. With no context whatsoever. No surprise that we made paper airplanes and otherwise misbehaved. True Swedenborgians are those who prove themselves worthy of God’s truth by pursuing it themselves; in my parents’ chapel, there’s no hand-holding or watering things down. I guess all the other kids got educated in the religious school. I didn’t. No one knew or cared how lost I was. Even today, my mother berates me for my religious ignorance. Before I blocked her number a few weeks ago, I pointed out that she was the one who baptized me. If I’m ignorant, it’s because SHE failed.

I’ve spent my whole life (I’m 50) analyzing everything around me to find out its “inner” meaning! The constant analysis never stops, because it’s driven by fear of abandonment. Everyone else has a secret that I don’t have. Do I have a touch of Asperger’s? Why was I suicidal in my 20s? Why do I have mental health diagnoses now? Or is it the religion? I ignored it (Swedenborg) and thought I was over it for most of my adult life, but I think it’s responsible for my anxiety now. November 8, 2016 was a breaking point for me—I have stomach pains and pinched nerves now. How to get rid of the stress? Could it be—I have maladaptive coping skills and they go all the way back to childhood—and this crazy religious miasma? Can I dig out the Swedenborgian mind twist and start accepting reality at face value? For this reason, I’ve been following ex-evangelicals on Twitter. Mandy, First of her Name, Kathryn Brightbill, Garbage Oprah. None of them has heard of Emanuel Swedenborg. Behaviorally, my upbringing was very similar to evangelicals’; mindfuck-wise, it’s different. If there are any ex-Swedenborgians out there, please contact me!

Thank you, Sarah. If anyone wants to get in touch with Sarah, let me know at mommy@godlessmom.com and I’ll pass your contact info on to her. Did you know about the Swedenborgians? Let me know in the comments.

I’ve heard from a lot of you who have lost family during the process of shedding your religion. As a lifer atheist, I have such immense trouble wrapping my brain around this concept. How can loving family simply discard each other for differences in opinion? These stories trigger the activist in me; the stand-up-and-fight part of my brain. I imagine what I might say to your family on your behalf. I imagine what reasonable arguments could be made to make them see the error of their ways. It doesn’t take long, though, to remember that reason doesn’t necessarily work to convince those in the grip of blind faith. And so these stories are so frustrating for me and if they are frustrating for me, they must be even more so for you.  I know you must feel alone sometimes.  I know you do and that’s why I keep publishing these stories from you, because 1) I want to understand what it’s like for some of my fellow atheists to simply be godless and 2) I want you to know: you are not alone. So, if you want to send me your story, you can email me here. Please note that by doing so, you give me permission to publish it here as part of the series. If you wish to remain anonymous, please say so in your email otherwise, I will use just your first name. To read other stories, click here.

Here is a very frustrating story from Dennis:

I had met a woman in the late 1990’s who wanted to reconnect with church, so we went shopping for one. Landed at a religious science church, very small, very warm, less Christian than most. After several years of being the most religious I had ever been, something happened to me while I was driving to my brothers for lunch. Everything changed for me, everything was connected, everyone was connected, I had to pull the car over and get my bearings again.

After a few days and weeks, I realized money had lost its value, my perception of time and space had changed. Infinity and eternity were my normal time and space. Nothing seemed too far and time seemed to all meld together. My pastor could not help me, she thought I was crazy, nothing to see here and if it was it was God’s spirit.

I found descriptions of my change from what monks and mystics experience, and when they do they go and hide and meditate and find peace away from people. I read ‘Monks and Mystics as Ordinary People’ and ‘How to Know God’ by Chopra and was feeling more settled all the time that it was nothing new or to be afraid of. After I exhausted resources around religious experiences I looked into scientific explanations around neurology and found what I was looking for. Yong used to call it the ‘oceanic experience’, a physical change in the brain where the seat of thinking moves in the brain.

And then it occurred to me what else have they been lying about, what in their teachings is provable in science and history and what is not. Not much as it turned out. I went through the stages of grief many times, angry at my family who taught me lies, angry at society for believing such nonsense, then I did a deep dive into the history of the bible, religion, and the history of the culture that produced those stories.

I got excited and started sharing it with my family. I thought I could share something I found helpful with them and they would be excited for me. First, they found reasons to have me over to convince me I was wrong. Then their friends wanted to get me alone to pray me out of it. Then a cousin I was very close to growing up said I just wasn’t worth the trouble of seeing anymore (I haven’t seen her for 10 years), then a nephew that was like a son to me abandoned me out of the blue for 14 years. Recently we spent some time together, then he said when we were together his mind ‘went into chaos’ and it was too much for him to take. He lives in an evangelical bubble, teaches in a Christian school, all his friends are the same, his best friend is a pastor, his family all believe the same. We decide it wouldn’t work, just the hint that he might be wrong about atheists makes him crazy.

It makes me angry to lose family. I still have a few that talk to me on facebook but still send me pro-life links and ‘thoughts and prayers’ and I try not to be too critical or mean to them. BUT I’ve never been happier or healthier, never more at peace (I have a big ‘atheist’ tattooed on my arm). I am an advocate for separation of church and state locally and had a hand in getting prayers stopped at the Phoenix city council meetings here. I can’t wait to see what comes next.

I don’t blame you for being angry at losing family over your lack of belief in god. I would be angry, too. Thanks for your story, Dennis, and thank you to everyone who sent their story in.

Have you lost family because you’re an atheist? Let me know in the comments!

If you want to send me your story, click here. To read other stories in this series, click here.

Image: Creative Commons/Pixabay

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  • Thank you to Sarah and Dennis for sharing your stories. I haven’t heard of Swedenborg church

  • Kevin K

    I had heard of the Swedenborgs…it was 30 or so years ago, though. I did a news article on something-or-other having to do with a college they founded? Urbana University in Urbana, Ohio? Boy, it’s fuzzy. They did not present themselves as being so … insular. But I do have a recollection of thinking they were “out there” in terms of belief systems.

  • ORAXX

    No matter how well-intentioned these groups may be when they start out, they always seem to devolve into something dark and sinister over time. I feel very sorry for children born into these cults, and never find a way to break free.

  • mobathome

    There’s a Swedenborgian chapel at Harvard University at the corner of Quincy and Kirkland Streets in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I’ve never gone in.

  • disqus_BpHNKeWbFx

    I have. It has an athiest AA group and is very welcoming of most everyone. The Swedenborgain movement split in the 1890’s. One group was very open and the other was more conservative and closed.

  • disqus_BpHNKeWbFx

    The group that founded Urbana wasn’t insular. It was the liberal branch of the tradition.

  • disqus_BpHNKeWbFx

    I certainly feel a great sorrow for the difficulty you had; however, painting all Swedenborgians in simple brush strokes is dangerous. Just as it is to paint all of any group with a simple definition. Like there is diversity with if atheism, there is also diversity within Swedenborgiansim, Islam, Judaism, Baptists etc.

    I grew up Swedenborgain.. my experience was opposite of this report (though I do not doubt her experiences).

  • Agreed. There should be a law against childhood indoctrination by any group.

  • You should check it out!

  • Yes, this is what I’m understanding.

  • I’d love to more about your experiences.

  • Kevin K

    I didn’t know there was a liberal/conservative tradition. Interesting.

  • Jon Widerstrom

    If you want to learn more about Swedenborg’s teachings-check out “Off The Left Eye” Youtube channel.

  • Thank you so much!

  • anxionnat

    No, I didn’t lose my family when I became an atheist (at age 11). Instead, my 5 younger siblings followed me out of catholicism to atheism, and my dad shed his adopted catholicism after we all left home. Shoving catholicism down our throats 24/7/365, kneeling on a hardwood floor (upright, no slouching, no pillows) every evening for an hour to say the rosary, etc etc had zero effect. My dad was the most surprised of any of us. He’d grown up as non-religious, and only converted to marry my mom. He later referred to this forced procedure as “a year of brainwashing”, and told me there’d been few options in 1950. After we were all grown he went back to the non-religiousness of his youth. So, that left my mom, a lifelong catholic, as the only one who even tolerated religion. Dad was surprised and gratified when I told him a couple of years before he died in 2007 that he’d had more effect on us than he’d ever imagined. All 6 grandkids are one stripe or another of atheist or agnostic or secular humanist. The most popular stance among the grandkids seems to be humanism with a strong overlay of “don’t bother me with that idiocy.”

  • anthony barnes

    I read some where the the person that started the Johnny appleseed legend was a Swedenborgian. The person that planted a lot of apple trees around Pennsylvania was an actual person and the Johnny Appleseed legend grew from there! Pretty cool I thought

  • Your dad sounds like he was a cool man. Your family sounds awesome, too.

  • Yeah, that is pretty cool!

  • First, full disclosure: I’m an ordained Swedenborgian minister, from a whole line of Swedenborgians and Swedenborgian ministers. Can’t get more dyed-in-the-wool Swedenborgian than yours truly! However, my entire family on both sides was from the oldest and most liberal and open branch of the Swedenborgian Church in the United States, which now goes by the name of “The Swedenborgian Church.” Just to give you the idea, we started ordaining women in 1972, and openly gay and lesbian people in 1997. And we don’t form isolated religious communities with their own parochial schools, but live in the regular society among people of all types.

    Sarah, by contrast, grew up in the most conservative, insular branch of Swedenborgians, the Lord’s New Church, which is headquartered in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania. That’s the same town where the next most conservative and insular branch of Swedenborgians, the General Church of the New Jerusalem, is headquartered. The General Church is the one that broke away from our church way back in the 1890s, and went way conservative. The Lord’s New Church broke off from the General Church in the 1930s, but the two organizations still have a close relationship, and have similar cultural and religious attitudes.

    Although I grew up in the liberal branch, I spent two years at the college in Bryn Athyn right after high school. I found the atmosphere there very strange and confining. I didn’t agree with their view of Swedenborg or with the insular and rather exclusive culture they built around it. For the last couple months of my time there I went to the church that Sarah grew up attending–that “medieval-style stone gallery” thing. This was in the spring of 1980, which might even have been while she was still living in Bryn Athyn and attending that church. The atmosphere at that church was even stranger and more insular and oppressive to my outside eyes. So I do sympathize with Sarah growing up in that atmosphere, and I truly don’t blame her for becoming an atheist after that experience. I’d probably have become an atheist too.

    I learned a lot during my two years in Bryn Athyn. But mostly about how to turn Swedenborg’s broad and inclusive teachings into something narrow and restrictive, and why I’m so glad I grew up in the more liberal branch of the church. In my view, as an institution they’ve gone seriously off-track in the way they read and understand Swedenborg, and in the rather narrow and intolerant nature of their culture. They’re not as bad as some super-conservative Christian churches, but they’re still pretty bad when it comes to people who don’t fit into their social and cultural mold.

    Having said all that, there are also plenty of good and thoughtful people in Bryn Athyn, even if the church institution is seriously whacked out. (And truth be told, I’m not very close to my own Swedenborgian denomination anymore either, though for entirely different reasons.)

    Just for the record, Swedenborg was about as broad-minded as you could get in the 18th century.

    He wrote his theological writings in very plain, straightforward Latin to make it as easy as possible for people of all different countries and nationalities to read them and translate them into their own languages. Latin was as close to a universal language as existed in the 18th century Europe. It was still the language used in most of the universities in Europe when Swedenborg was growing up, though that ceased shortly thereafter. It is very unfortunate that the old translations of Swedenborg’s writings are so stilted, archaic, and hard to read, because his original Latin is beautiful and flowing.

    Quite shockingly for his times, Swedenborg said that people of all religions, not just Christians, can go to heaven if they believe in God in the way their religion teaches them to believe, and live a good life of love and service to their fellow human beings as their religion teaches them to do.

    Though atheism wasn’t a major cultural trend in his day as it is in ours, I believe the same principle applies to atheists as well as religious people. However, instead of believing in God, atheists (commonly) believe in living by higher principles of fairness, truth, reason, humanitarianism, and so on. And if atheists actually live by those principles rather than just giving them lip service, I believe they go to heaven just as easily as religious people do. I’ve written a whole post about this on my blog, and would be happy to post a link to it here if the OP gives the go-ahead.

    I also think it’s terrible when “Christian” families reject family members who become non-Christian or (gasp!) atheist. I have three adult children myself, none of whom is at this point a Swedenborgian or even a Christian, and I love them all regardless of that. They’re all good people.

    There’s a lot more I could say, but I sort of think that’s enough for now. 🙂

  • disqus_BpHNKeWbFx

    John “Appleseed” Chapman was born in Leominster, MA. And died in Fort Wayne, In. The apple planting was about westward expansion and a great business concept. His conversion to Swedenborgiansim lead him missionary activities, but was helpful and without worldly wants. Not a myth or a legend.

  • disqus_BpHNKeWbFx

    I grew up in metropolitan cities in small churches. They tended toward being welcoming toward anyone who walked on the door. They were accepting of GLTB folks. They sought to engage in healthy interfaith dialogue that included atheists.

    Even attending a Swedenborgain Church camp that has a 10% atheist/agnostic component. They just like attending. I think the heavy psychological and scientific focus of the tradition is attractive to them.

  • Very interesting! Perhaps I will write a post about the other side of the Swedenborgian church.

  • Nica

    Having taught college World Religion courses for nearly 20 yrs in & around Philadelphia, I’ve taken field trips to Bryn Athyn Cathedral, & have had Swedenborgians in to speak to my classes a few times. Much of the information offered by Sarah is new to me. What I do recall is that believers use the Old & New Testaments, along w/ the canonical writings of Swedenborg himself from his self-proclaimed visits to heaven. Also, their spirituality encompasses the realm of the dead as just another dimension existing alongside of our visible one. As for the cathedral itself, aside from its grandeur, what I remember most is that everything in it, from the two doorknobs on its main entrance to chairs inside, must be asymmetrical; unfortunately, I never did learn the reason why.

  • Jim Jones

    It never occurred to them that Swedenborg had lost his mind?

  • Gregory “Wolfe” Woodbury

    I knew of the Swedenborgians for a long time, and that there were a few different septs within their fold. I did not, until fsirly recently, of any details of their theology. It seems to me that there is an upswing in awareness of them the past year or two.

    In re: being an athiest.
    I feel a bit of an oddball. I enjoy studying and classifying all sorts of theological viewpoints (they are just fascinating.) I also ‘love’ a lot of religiously inspiried music. I tend to turn off hearing the meanings of the words, and concentrate on the sound of the voices as another instrument in an orchestra. [Took a long time to develop that particular ability.] Much to my housmates distress, a lot of the ‘religious music’ I like to listen to happens to be Christmas-time favorites. One somewhat outlandish example is Tom Lehrer’s “A Christmas Carol.” Another example is nearly anything performed by The Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

    One brother is a liberal Christian (Episcopal) and the other is a more conservative (mormon-leaning) believer of some sort. You can guess which one I get along with better. Ironically, Momma was quite the non-believer, but made sure we were exposed to a wide variety of religions while growing up. We only got baptised after an Episcopal Parocial School made it a requirement for us to attend as a family. [As it turned out, that school was a disaster for me.]

    Keep up the good work.

  • I have a lot of appreciation for religiously inspired art and architecture. I don’t think that’s oddball. You have a lot of company in that. Thank you for reading 🙂

  • I left a long comment here a week and a half ago, but it got identified as spam, even though it was written specifically in response to this article. Any chance of fishing it out from there? I reported it as not spam, and they’ve been “working to get this corrected” for a week now.

  • GalapagosPete

    Sounds like Emanuel had a brain tumor.