Looking for Swedenborg in the U.S.
Argentinian writer Borges honored him with a sonnet, Dostoevsky was a devotee, and his writings even got our own Strindberg excited.
In fact the list of authors inspired by Emanuel Swedenborg reads like a veritable who’s who of literary giants. That the Swedish mystic still inspires is clear when one visits Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania – the U.S. center of Swedenborgianism, a.k.a the New Church.
Welcome to Bryn Athyn
Bryn Athyn (Hill of Cohesion in Welsh) on a beautiful summer day can easily compete with the scenery of Sound of Music. Visitors are seduced even before they enter any of the remarkable buildings, by perfectly sprawling lawns and rolling hills. Founded by three Philadelphia-based Swedenborgian congregations in the 1890’s, Bryn Athyn at first had but a school building and a handful of houses. The Cathedral and the big mansions came later. Today Bryn Athyn is the home of an educational system including a Church Elementary School, the Academy of the New Church Secondary Schools, Bryn Athyn College and a Graduate and Theological School. Bryn Athyn’s population is around 1,351, and about 90% of them are Swedenborgians. The congregation has around 800 members. And if the younger generation jump at seeing the name Gyllenhaal in the annals, they are absolutely right. Jake Gyllenhaal and his sister Maggie, both big-time Hollywood stars, are the direct descendents of Swedish nobleman Leonard Gyllenhaal, a leading Swedenborgian. Leonard Gyllenhaal’s grandson was the Swedish-American journalist Anders Leonard who retained the faith of his grandfather and was a member of the New Church.
Although their father grew up in Bryn Athyn, neither Jake nor Maggie are practicing Swedenborgians today.
Bryn Athyn Cathedral
Doug Taylor, a retired New Church reverend, says he likes to give tours of the gothic Bryn Athyn Cathedral in order to “not get blasé about the place.” He knows it quite well.
“If you look closely,” he says as we enter the nave, “you’ll see there are no straight lines anywhere because everything’s done virtually by free hand. This building was to reflect God’s creation.”
Constructed from 1913-1919, the Bryn Athyn Cathedral was built under the auspices of Raymond Pitcairn. A child of a prominent Bryn Athyn family, Pitcairn had grown up in the Swedenborgian faith, and although a newly minted lawyer with no training in architecture, he was given free reigns for the building of the Cathedral project. Blueprints and plans were thrown out the window and unorthodox asymmetries and irregularities planned into the construction. Beautiful stained glass windows made according to medieval methods finish off the structure.
For the non-Swedenborgian, the oddest sensation about entering the Cathedral is the lack of crucifixes anywhere. Important as the death of Christ is in the religion, it’s the resurrection rather than the death, that’s celebrated.
“We don’t have burials,” Julia Schmucker, Administrative Assistant at the Cathedral, explains. “Instead we have a resurrection ceremony three days after the death of a loved one.”
Swedenborgianism is rich with symbols, and Taylor points out several inside the Cathedral. One is a huge circle with what looks like the Star of David in the center.
“The circle is a symbol of love,” says Taylor. “The star represents truth, which as you know can be pointed!”
Bryn Athyn Cathedral
A stone’s throw away from the Cathedral is the equally impressive but rather baroque Glencairn Museum, a castle-like building also constructed under Pitcairn’s supervision. Built between 1928-1939 to be the Pitcairn family’s home, it was also designed to frame his outstanding collection of medieval objects. The Pitcairns, devout Swedenborgians, entertained the Bryn Athyn community at Glencairn with musical, civic, and social events. After Raymond Pitcairn died in 1966, his wife Mildred continued living there until her death in 1979 when the castle became a museum. Joralyn Echols works as the Outreach and PR Coordinator, and shows us the remarkable building, which indeed looks like a medieval castle complete with a tower, gothic valves, a private chapel, and huge halls fit for lavish dinners. There are also other examples of how the Pitcairns reached out to the community. Mildred Pitcairn was famous for her “Baby Boxes”, little boxes with delightful baby clothes sent out to every new mother in Bryn Athyn. Echols explains the importance of family for a Swedenborgian.
“First you help your family, next your community, then your country, then the rest of the world.”
Everywhere at the Glencairn Museum there are pictures of lambs, ewes, and rams – Swedenborgian symbols of family life.
In the family chapel there are writings on the wall from the Old Testament (in Hebrew), the New Testament (in Greek), and in the Third Testament (Swedenborg’s writings – in Latin).
“It’s in the original languages, because often the meaning can be lost or changed in translation,” Echols says.
Find out more about the museum at Glencairn Museum
All the Swedenborgians we run into in Bryn Athyn have one thing in common: They are very welcoming and encourage questions. Joralyn Echols, the young tour guide, talks about what Swedenborg means to her.
“His teachings bring meaning to my life in many ways,” she says. “I guess one very foundational idea is that God is loving, and wants me to be the happiest I can be, and is completely guiding every piece of my life. Knowing that helps me remember to pray and relax and try to not be anxious about my life though it still doesn’t always work! Another fundamental idea is eternal life: there is a heaven and a hell, and I will choose, by my actions, where I will end up. Knowing that helps me value self-improvement and helps me trust God more since I know He’s not about to condemn me to hell.”
Echols also says she is drawn to the intellectual side of Swedenborgianism.
“I love that it can be intellectual and have to do with love. Different events can help me understand my spiritual journey.”
Unlike Catholics, who believe in Purgatory, Swedenborgians believe in a middle space, a world of spirits where, says Echols, “things will be sorted out”.
When I ask her about contacting these spirits, the way Swedenborg did, she explains it’s not encouraged.
“There are evil spirits who will try to convince you they are somebody else, and that can open bad doors.”
Can the spirits contact us?
“Yes,” says Echols. “In fact it happens all the time. Through dreams or in a waking dream. Actually, sometimes you can just…feel it.”
by Eva Stenskär
For more information:
The son of Jesper Swedberg (famous in his own right as bishop of Skara and author of several Swedish hymns), Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) was a Swedish scientist, philosopher, seer, and theologian. Following a prolific career as an inventor and scientist, the 56-year old Swedenborg entered into a spiritual phase of his life, where he experienced visions of the spiritual world and claimed to have talked with angels, devils, and spirits by visiting heaven and hell. He claimed of being directed by God to reveal the doctrines of His second coming. Living on a diet consisting mainly of bread, milk and large amounts of coffee, Swedenborg was in trance for days at a time.
Some of Swedenborg’s beliefs:
On Life after death
When a human being dies, she passes over to the spiritual world. The spiritual world consists of three main parts: Heaven, hell, and the world of spirits which all enter upon dying. Good people choose to be in heaven, bad people choose to be in hell. People associate with one or the other during this life, but neither is visible to us because of the limitations of the physical body.
Evils are from the Self. When a person is occupied with preservation of his body, he concerns himself primarily with material things to the exclusion of spirit. The human body is for Swedenborg the external, while the Spirit is called internal.
On Free Will
People possess free will. A person can only love something they believe in. Therefore God lets human beings think and act according to what they believe is best. They can only love God by their own choice.
(from Swedenborg's The New Jerusalem, and its Heavenly Doctrines)
'Good people choose to be in heaven, bad people choose to be in hell.'