-Rev. Thom Muller
The practice of seances, in a modern Western context, has been primarily associated with the Spiritualist tradition, one of several alternative and esoteric movements, such as New Thought, Theosophy and Anthroposophy, which have been heavily influenced by Swedenborg, historically. Many of the early (as well as later) Spiritualists were avid readers of his works, and the influence of his cosmology on that of Spiritualism is significant. Perhaps the most notable example of Swedenborgian Spiritualism exists in the work of one of the most influential early Spiritualist practitioners, Andrew Jackson Davis.
Helena Blavatsky, the primary fountainhead of Theosophy, which contributed greatly to the popularization of Spiritualism, channeling and mediumship in the modern West (although this only constitutes a small aspect of Theosophical teachings and interest), and has in turn influenced nearly every consequent Western esoteric system which has emerged, writes in her 1892 “Theosophical Glossary” that “Of all mystics, Swedenborg has certainly influenced ‘Theosophy’ the most.” *
While Swedenborg and the history of channelling, mediumship, and the paranormal are inseparable, it is important to distinguish between the man himself and the various spiritual philosophies he inspired. Among “Swedenborgians”, the practice of channelling and seances is extremely rare, and generally discouraged, heeding the old Swede’s personal advice.
In a different sense, however, Swedenborgian spirituality might be considered the “ultimate Spiritualism”. Not only is his communication with the deceased at the core of his mysticism and revelatory process, but his cosmology as a whole presents a spiritual framework in which, people, all people, are in constant contact with the dead, who intimately influence every aspect of our inner life, including thought and emotion:
“Good spirits and angels are not only present with human beings, but even reside in their feelings. For every feeling has great extension, and because the ultimate plane is with human beings in their feelings, therefore this happens when the Lord enlivens, and then arranges them; just as good spirits are in the affection for gardening, where they have little abodes.”**
–Spiritual Experiences §4399**
In other words, Swedenborg would claim that we are all already communicating with spirits every second of our lives, on a subconscious, and often unconscious, level of our spiritual psyche. Only on rare occasions are we fully aware of the specific personalities of the spiritual beings constantly residing within the more subtle levels of our being.
At this point, it seems important to point out the immense and diverse variety of interpretations of Swedenborg’s experiences and works among Swedenborgians. Some are drawn to the literal metaphysics of spirit and the afterlife, others tend to focus on their inner (“correspondential”) significance, effectively psychologizing his otherworldly reports of spirits, angels and extraterrestrials (yes, he did claim to speak to aliens as well, but that’s another can of worms, to be opened in a different piece. Stay tuned!)…
Swedenborgian scholar and theologian Rev. Dr. George F. Dole puts it this way:
“In a sense, then, (Swedenborg’s) descriptions of heaven and hell, and especially the intermediate state between them (the world of spirits, which he sees as our present spiritual environment, can be tested against our own experience. His descriptions of that world are in some sense replicable. We may not have open experience of an alternative reality, but we can to some extent be aware of the workings of our mind.”
* Blavatsky, H. P. The Theosophical Glossary. Santa Barbara: Theosophy Trust Books, 2018. P.316.
**Swedenborg, Emanuel. Journal of Dreams and Spiritual Experiences. Translated by C. Th Odhner. Bryn Athyn, PA: Academy Book Room, 1918.
*** Dole, George F. Freedom & Evil: a Pilgrim’s Guide to Hell. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 2018