The Wikipedia article on Emanuel Swedenborg mentions his revelations, but doesn't use the term "prophet" even once. Did Swedenborg not see himself as a prophet? What is a prophet, according to Swedenborg, other than someone receiving divine revelation and preaching it?
Swedenborg did not refer to himself as a prophet, nor did he see himself as a prophet. Indeed, he saw a clear distinction between himself and the biblical prophets, based on at least three significant factors:
- Manner of inspiration
- Style of writing
- Purpose of the message
In general, Swedenborg saw prophets as biblical figures, and did not recognize prophets outside of the narrative of the Bible.
1. Manner of inspiration
Swedenborg saw the biblical prophets as being inspired by God right down to the very words they spoke. He wrote:
The prophets through whom the Word was written . . . wrote exactly as the spirit from the Divine dictated, for the actual words which they were to write were uttered in their ears. (Arcana Coelestia #7055:3)
When the prophets were engaged in various representative actions, according to Swedenborg these were inspired into them through spirits sent by the Lord who possessed their bodies during the time they were engaged in this type of prophesying. Swedenborg stated that he himself was given an experience of what it was like for the prophets when they were being possessed by spirits in this way:
It is well known from the Word that the prophets received influx from the world of spirits and from heaven. It came to them partly through dreams, partly through visions, and partly through utterances. With some prophets it also entered into their own speech and gestures, thus things of the body; and when this happened neither their utterances nor their actions were their own but were those of the spirits who occupied their bodies at the time. Some behaved as though they were insane, as when Saul lay down naked, some inflicted wounds on themselves, and others wore horns; and there are many other examples of the same thing.
Having the desire to know how spirits led them to do those things, I was shown through actual experience. So that I might know, I was possessed for a whole night by spirits who occupied my bodily powers so fully that I could not feel it was my own body except in a very vague way. . . .
This state which lasted through the night until morning taught me the way the prophets through whom spirits spoke and acted were possessed. The spirits occupied the prophets' bodies so thoroughly that the prophets were left with hardly anything more than an awareness of their existence. There were particular spirits assigned to this function who had no wish to obsess men, only to enter a person's bodily affections, and having entered them they entered all things of his body. The spirits normally present with me said that I had not been with them while I remained in that state. (Arcana Coelestia #6212)
Swedenborg's experience of inspiration was very different. Though, as here, he was occasionally given experiences of what dreams, visions, and prophecies were like for the biblical prophets, this was not his usual ongoing experience. Rather, he remained fully in possession of his own mind and body. Further, though the prophets often did not understand the meaning of the words they were speaking or writing under divine inspiration, Swedenborg's inspiration was into his thinking mind. He wrote:
The Lord cannot manifest himself to everyone in person, as has been shown just above, and yet he foretold that he would come and build a new church, which is the New Jerusalem. Therefore it follows that he is going to accomplish this through the agency of a human being who can not only accept these teachings intellectually but also publish them in printed form.
I testify in truth that the Lord manifested himself to me, his servant, and assigned me to this task; after doing so, he opened the sight of my spirit and brought me into the spiritual world; and he has allowed me to see the heavens and the hells and to have conversations with angels and spirits on a continual basis for many years now. I also testify that ever since the first day of this calling, I have accepted nothing regarding the teachings of this church from any angel; what I have received has come from the Lord alone while I was reading the Word. (True Christianity #779)
For our current purposes, we will set aside Swedenborg's concept of the Second Coming. Suffice it to say that he did not believe himself to be the Second Coming of Christ. Only a means by which the Lord accomplished that Second Coming, which Swedenborg saw as a spiritual coming, not another physical one.
The key point here is that unlike the prophets, who were possessed by spirits and heard words spoken to them which they were to pass on to the people, Swedenborg was not possessed by spirits, but fully conscious and aware of his own mind. His mode of inspiration, as described briefly here, was that the Lord inspired his mind to see the truth while he was reading the Bible.
In summary, Swedenborg's mode of inspiration was entirely different from the mode of inspiration of the biblical prophets.
2. Style of writing
Swedenborg saw the style of writing of the biblical prophets as entirely symbolic—or "correspondential," to use his term. Everything they wrote had a deeper spiritual significance, even where the literal meaning of their words is quite obscure to present-day readers. In Arcana Coelestia #66, he describes four different styles of writing in the Bible:
- The mode of people of the earliest church
- The narrative mode
- The prophetic mode
- David's psalms (i.e., the style of the Psalms)
The prophetic mode draws on the mode of the earliest church, which Swedenborg describes in this way:
The mode of [the people in] the earliest church. Their method of expressing themselves involved thought of the spiritual and heavenly things represented by the earthly, mundane objects they mentioned. Not only did they express themselves in words representing higher things, they also spun those words into a kind of narrative thread to lend them greater life. This practice gave the earliest people the fullest pleasure possible. (Arcana Coelestia #66)
Based on this, here is how he describes the prophetic style:
The prophetic mode. The inspiration for this was the mode used by the earliest church, a manner of writing [the authors] revered. But the prophetic mode lacks the cohesiveness and semi-historical quality of the earliest church's mode. It is choppy, and almost completely unintelligible except on the inner level, which holds profound secrets forming a well-connected chain of ideas. They deal with our outer and inner beings, the many stages of the church, heaven itself, and—at the very core—the Lord. (Arcana Coelestia #66)
In short, the prophetic style of writing is one of embedding spiritual symbolism within the words in a continuous sequence. Not that the prophets themselves understood this; as covered above, the words were given to them by God.
Meanwhile, Swedenborg used three main styles of writing in his theological works:
Swedenborg's exegetical style is one of explaining the spiritual meaning of the Bible, often verse-by-verse, as in his exegesis of the books of Genesis and Exodus in the eight Latin volumes of Arcana Coelestia, and in his exegesis of the book of Revelation in his book Apocalypse Revealed.
His doctrinal style is one of orderly, point-by-point explanation of Christian doctrine, most notably in his final work, True Christianity, in which he provides an extensive presentation of his Christian theology in the form of a traditional Lutheran catechism or summa theologica.
His narrative style is one of telling stories of his experiences in the spiritual world. Though some of these have extensive symbolic elements, this style is generally one of simple story-telling of events that he experienced first-hand.
Unlike the symbolic prophetic style of the biblical prophets, none of these styles are intended to be symbolic or correspondential in nature. They are all meant to provide explanation and understanding of the Bible, Christian doctrine, and the nature of the spiritual world.
Another way of saying this is that Swedenborg's style is generally meant to be read literally, such that the meaning is in the plain words he wrote, whereas the style of the biblical prophets is meant to be read spiritually, for its deeper metaphorical meanings.
3. Purpose of the message
More briefly on this point:
In the Bible, though prophets do sometimes predict the future, and this has become the popular understanding of the meaning of "prophecy," the primary purpose of the prophets' message was to call God's people to repentance, and to re-committing themselves to living according to God's commandments and God's way.
Swedenborg's theological writings, by contrast, contain few direct calls to repentance, worship, and so on. They are focused on explaining the meaning of the Bible, genuine Christian theology, and the nature of the afterlife. It is left to the reader to use this information as the reader sees fit.
In other words, in Swedenborg's writings there is no ringing prophetic call to repentance and a changed life. Swedenborg instead explains how to repent, and how our spiritual rebirth happens. His writings are not prophetical, but informational.
Swedenborg saw his own mission as very different from that of the biblical prophets—so different that he did not think of himself as a prophet, nor did he refer to himself as a prophet. The reasons for this can be seen in the above explanation of the differences between the prophets and Swedenborg in their very different manners of inspiration, their different writing styles, and the different purposes of their respective messages.
Swedenborg indeed engaged in activities normally associated with prophets but there is no evidence that he actually claimed this title. According to the Swedenborg Foundation:
Swedenborg himself expresses no desire to be revered as a prophet or to be the founder of a new religious movement; when he talks about the “new church” or the “new Jerusalem,” he is referring to a shift in the way that humanity as a whole experiences and practices religion.
Two reasons present themselves as to why Swedenborg did not wish to claim the prophetic mantle: 1) to do so would draw attention to himself rather than his teachings and 2) to claim to be a prophet would escalate his already precarious position skating on theological thin ice. From the same source as above:
All of Swedenborg’s theological books were written in Latin and published outside of Sweden, most often in London or Amsterdam. This was doubtless a deliberate strategy to avoid running afoul of Sweden’s strict censorship laws, which forbade publishing anything that contradicted the teachings of the Lutheran state church. Although Swedenborg was never the direct target of an investigation, two of his followers were charged with heresy in 1769 after publishing books and articles about Swedenborg’s ideas in Swedish. During the course of the trial, Swedenborg’s published theological works also came under question. When a royal ruling was finally rendered in 1770, it was decreed that Swedenborg’s books contained errors of doctrine, but were not heretical. Swedenborg’s books were banned, and the two followers were forced out of their teaching positions.
Swedenborg apparently thought of himself more as an interpreter of scripture and prophecy than as a prophet himself. This article provides various excerpts from his writings about the prophets. Although he indeed saw some of his interpretations as divinely revealed to him, the important thing for him was the teaching itself, which should stand on its own merit rather than to an appeal of prophetic authority.
Conclusion: Swedenborg may have seen himself a prophet in some sense, but his main mission was to teach rather than prophesy. Living in Lutheran Sweden, he risked charges of heresy and probably wished to avoid further controversy by drawing attention to himself.
The only person who can answer that is the man himself, for how a man sees himself might not be divulged in his writings or conversations. And it appears that he never stated such a view of himself.
Last year, when trying to find out what he taught about the Last Judgment, I went to the official web-site but had to send an e-mail to the office for a particular point. This was the e-mail reply to me on 26/11/22 @ 01.49 -
“Concerning the Last Judgment, in brief, Swedenborg wrote that the Last Judgment took place in the spiritual world in 1757. In fact, he witnessed the event! The Bible is a book about spiritual events, not physical events, so the book of Revelation was predicting events in the spiritual world rather than events in the physical world…”
This indicates less of a prophecy, more a relating of something he saw at the time.
Searching further back to events he wrote about prior to 1757, I found this information:
“From 1743 to 1745, Swedenborg experienced a protracted emotional crisis, during which he asserted he had received three direct disclosures of Christ. He kept a diary during the next sixteen years, recording his visions, dreams and extra-sensory perception experiences. He also wrote Heavenly Secrets [published by Swedenborg in eight volumes from 1749 to 1756, one volume per year] in which he told of the visitations of the “spiritual world” and gave his own interpretation of various Scriptural material. A series of writings followed, all claiming to take precedence over Christian doctrine, and rejecting such traditional orthodoxy as the Atonement and the Trinity (causing his books to be banned in Sweden).” Church of the New Jerusalem (Swedenborgians) from Who’s Who in Church History, William P. Barker, p. 267, Baker Book House, paperback ed. 1977
Swedenborg always maintained that his revelations were given to restore Christianity to its original pristine purity and to bring enlightenment. Again, others might be inclined to view such revelations that he had as being prophetic, but apparently he never did.
Some related information is in the answer by Lee Woofenden to this question, Besides Paul, have there been any other Christians who had both a scholarly background and overtly supernatural experiences?
Although the matter of whether Swedenborg ever claimed to be a prophet is not directly raised, the parallels between the Apostle Paul (whose prophetic ministry is clearly shown in the New Testament) and Swedenborg’s claims are strikingly similar. Those who know the conversion account of Saul on the road to Damascus, and how Christ then commissioned him, will note the following: Swedenborg began having spiritual experiences in 1743,
“including several visions of Christ in which, he said, the Lord called him to leave behind his scientific career and begin a new spiritual career. In support of this, Swedenborg said, the Lord opened Swedenborg's spiritual eyes so that he could be fully conscious in the spiritual world at will even while he continued to live in his physical body in the material world. Swedenborg said that at the same time the Lord gave him a commission of explaining the spiritual meaning of the Scriptures, not based on anything taught to him by angels and spirits, but under the Lord's direct guidance as Swedenborg read the Bible.” [quote from that Stack answer ends.]
If that is not laying claim to a divinely appointed prophetic ministry, I don’t know what is. If Swedenborg never claimed to be a prophet (and there were many reasons why he might have avoided stating, or writing that), that is hardly here or there. It’s academic. He could have viewed himself as a prophet, but kept his views to himself. Or he could have viewed himself as being on a par with first century Apostles such as Paul, but – again – there appears to be no written statements to that effect.
1Thank you for this answer. One correction: The quotation from Who’s Who in Church History states, "He also wrote Heavenly Secrets, published posthumously in 1783." Heavenly Secrets (commonly known by its Latin name Arcana Coelestia) was not published posthumously. It was published by Swedenborg in eight volumes from 1749 to 1756, one volume per year. Mar 2 at 20:46
1Ok, maybe one more thing to make this answer even better: Did he want to restore Christianity out of his own volition, or did one of his revelations include the mission to do so? As in, did he just claim to have revelations, or did he also claim a mandate to make them public? Mar 3 at 6:29
1@kutschkem "Swedenborg said that at the same time the Lord gave him a commission of explaining the spiritual meaning of the Scriptures". Mar 3 at 13:39
1@Lee Woofenden Thank you for the correction. I have inserted it into the text of my answer.– AnneMar 3 at 14:02
1@kutschem My last quote is from Lee Woofenden's Stack answer. He is something of an authority on the subject. You will see from it the answer to your query. Swedenborg claimed to have been directly commissioned by the Lord to start a new (spiritual) career and to explain the revelations given to him. He did that in his writings. Others read them and believed he'd had those visions and that his explanations were given directly to him by the Lord. Even today, some people believe likewise.– AnneMar 3 at 14:11