Swedenborg in the Early American Republic: Popular and Intellectual Responses to the Doctrines of Emanuel Swedenborg, 1784-1817




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My dissertation argues that the theology of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) was an influential presence in Early America and deserves more historical attention. In their response to this theology, early advocates of Swedenborg’s doctrines demonstrated a desire for reconciliation between Enlightenment reason and Christian Scripture, while those opposed to Swedenborg’s doctrines often highlighted the subjective nature of Swedenborg’s Biblical exegesis, revealing social fears regarding the potential instability of the Bible as a moral blueprint for society. During the early years of nation building, Americans often struggled with feelings of doubt and skepticism in relation to their Christian faith which culminated in public and private cultural and ecclesiastical debates about religious “truth.” Long touted as religious bugbears, Enlightenment rationalism and scientific modes of thinking were central to these debates, leading to many forms of rationalization and explanation as Early Americans struggled to accommodate science to faith, at times committing to one side or the other in an effort to escape the dark cloud of religious skepticism. In Protestants in an Age of Science, Theodore Bozeman argued that evidence of accommodating Enlightenment thinking to Protestant Christianity occurred in America as early as 1820, however, in examining Early American religious modes of thinking through the lens of Swedenborgian doctrine, I find that this accommodation began decades earlier. Through an analysis of Swedenborgian thought, it becomes apparent that a small group of American thinkers committed to both Enlightenment reason and Christian doctrine, promoting a Biblical hermeneutic based on Swedenborg’s theory of correspondences that promised to reconcile reason and revelation, and in doing so, heal social and religious divides. This project focuses on port cities where Swedenborgians first congregated on U.S. shores such as New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, as well as on the transatlantic exchange of ideas with England. Utilizing primary sources from Early American newspapers, personal letters from Swedenborg archives, published sermons, and religious treatises, my work expands our understanding of religious thought in the Early American Republic by examining the voices of those who supported and opposed Emanuel Swedenborg’s religious doctrines.



Swedenborg, Emanuel, -- 1688-1772, Intellectual history, Religion -- History, Swedenborgians, Enlightenment -- United States, United States -- History -- 1783-1865