Emanuel Swedenborg was a Swedish engineer, scientist and – most prominently – a theologian. He was born in 1688, and died in 1772. He served in the Swedish House of Nobles, and was a longtime assessor of mines, helping to modernize Sweden’s important mining industry.
Swedenborg had a longstanding interest in the natural sciences – how the physical universe works. He designed locks and dams, worked on the problem of calculating longitude, published papers on mining technologies and metallurgy, and drew plans for an early submarine and an airplane. In mid-career, he gradually turned towards a study of the human mind and spirit. He studied anatomy in Paris, with the leading surgeons of the day, focusing on the brain. He was the first scientist to describe the important functions of the cerebral cortex.
Swedenborg was interested in the human body as a physical seat for the human soul. As he shifted from anatomy to theology, he applied himself to studying the interaction between the soul, mind and body. He undertook a very thorough, long term study and explanation of the Bible, learning Hebrew and Greek, supplementing his very fluent neo-Latin.
From that detailed study came the development of a theological system that would renew Christianity, and resolve some of the theological problems that the Christian churches were wrestling with.
Swedenborg’s interest in the mind led him to practice meditation. Perhaps because of this mindfulness and openness, he began to have spiritual experiences. In his typical, methodical, scientific way – he started to record them in his journals.
There came a point where he felt called to write and publish his Bible exegesis, and a range of other theological works, which he did, from the late 1740’s on.
His work was met by a mixture of enthusiasm and skepticism. In Lutheran Sweden, it was largely banned. In the more free-thinking cities of Amsterdam and London, he was able to publish his works, and people began to read them and talk about them.
Swedenborg himself continued to travel and publish and keep up a correspondence with friends and readers into his 80’s. He died in London in 1772.
Some readers of his works started to form reading groups to discuss the new ideas. Some of these groups evolved into churches that adopted New Christian modes of worship according to Swedenborgian principles. Societies were formed to translate his works from Latin, and publish them in local languages. Gradually, these churches and publishers spread around the world, and Swedenborg’s works were widely disseminated, and had a wide influence.
For a not quite so brief biography, together with comments on the various full-size biographies, see “Who was Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772)?” summary.