Questions regularly asked by visitors to our bookshop on Bloomsbury Way:
Q: What is the Swedenborg Society?
We are mainly a publisher, so most of the books in our bookshop are produced by us. All of the books are by or about Emanuel Swedenborg, an eighteenth-century Swedish philosopher, a scientist of the European Enlightenment who became a visionary and also a major influence on the Romantic, Symbolist and Spiritualist movements. Some of the titles in the bookshop therefore reflect Swedenborg's influence, and that's why we stock William Blake, JL Borges, Charles Baudelaire, WB Yeats, Edgar Allen Poe and AS Byatt among others, as well as Swedenborg's own work. The Society was founded in 1810 to translate Swedenborg's work into English, because he wrote mostly in Latin. We continue to publish his writing but also produce biographies, academic studies and a Journal. We also organize public cultural events on 'Swedenborgian' themes; an Artist in Residence programme; and this building houses an ever-expanding library of Swedenborg studies, which will soon be catalogued online.
Q: What's the gist of Swedenborg’s philosophy?
A: Swedenborg was a great scientist, philosopher and statesman who later became a visionary, or seer, so his philosophy is a fascinating mix of mysticism and reason. Swedenborg's main idea was his theory of Correspondences: that every thing in the material world relates to its source in a spiritual reality. In the Arcana Coelestia, his first theological work, Swedenborg argued that the Bible should also be read allegorically, according to the Word's 'spiritual sense'. He believed that we are defined by what we love and what we do, and that heaven and hell are self-chosen states of being, rather than objective places to which we are sent.
Q: Did Swedenborg live in this building?
A: No, Swedenborg never lived here exactly, but he often visited London to write and publish his theological works. Because of the censorship laws in Sweden, Swedenborg was unable to publish his mystical theology in his homeland. Indeed, he was advised not to, for fear of being tried for heresy! (And this nonetheless happened anyway, late in his life.) Instead, Swedenborg travelled to London and Amsterdam, where freedom of the press and religious toleration made the publication and distribution of his works possible.
Q: Where did Swedenborg stay in London?
A: Swedenborg claimed to have seen one of his first visions of Jesus at a Clerkenwell inn (no longer standing), and returned to Clerkenwell to begin writing his first major theological work, Arcana Coelestia; he stayed on Cold Bath fields near Warner St for his subsequent visits to this city. Despite his noble title, Swedenborg chose to lodge with skilled craftsmen rather than the learned upper classes; during his time in London Swedenborg stayed with a clock maker, a Moravian watch engraver and finally a wig maker.
Swedenborg died in London in 1772 and his body was buried at the Swedish Church in Wapping, east London. This church was demolished in the early twentieth century and Swedenborg's body was taken back to Sweden by warship; he now lies near his cousin Carl Linneaus in Uppsala Cathedral. The churchground in London where Swedenborg was originally buried is now covered by a housing estate, featuring a small park named 'Swedenborg Gardens.'
Q: Is this place a church?
A: No, Swedenborg House is a converted eighteenth-century townhouse, with a neoclassical lecture hall built by the Society in 1925 as part of an extensive refurbishment project. The house was refurbished by Soloman & Sons, specialists in religious buildings; so the interior arguably has a monastic atmosphere, supported by its dark wooden features and the countless books lining the walls of most rooms. Many people describe Swedenborg House as a portal to a past age, as not much has changed since the Society acquired and converted the building in 1924-5. Swedenborg House was registered as a grade-II listed building in 1974.
Q: What's the aim of the Society?
A: Our primary aim is to publish Swedenborg's writing and to raise awareness of his work and influence on the history of ideas. Other organizations, with similar but not identical aims, include the Swedenborg Foundation in the USA. Swedenborg himself never founded a church, but a 'Church of the New Jerusalem', or 'New Church' following his teachings was set up in London during the 1780s. The New Church still exists today, although it has split into a number of different denominations, and remains separate from the Swedenborg Society.
Q: What's Swedenborg Hall?
A: Swedenborg Hall is a neoclassical hall built by the Society in 1925. It hosts literary lectures, performances, film screenings and art exhibitions. Swedenborg Hall has been described as 'one of London's most atmospheric venues' (The Guardian) and is also available for private hire.
Q: How does the Society keep going?
A: The Society bought this building (no. 20) and also the building next door (no. 21) in December 1924, renaming the premises 'Swedenborg House'. We lease out number 21 as office space, which helps us to cover costs; and we hire out Swedenborg Hall and other rooms in number 20 for meetings and functions on a daily basis. More importantly, there was an active and wealthy membership in the nineteenth century, so the Society relies to a certain extent on investment capital. The Society currently has a worldwide membership of around 800 and is a registered educational charity.
Q: Who runs the Society?
A: As a registered charitable trust, the Society is managed by a board of trustees, called the Swedenborg Society Council, who meet once a month. Our President (an honorary position) is currently Homero Aridjis, a Mexican poet and environmental activist in whose work one can find Swedenborg's influence. On the staff, Stephen McNeilly is the publishing manager and curator; James Wilson is the assistant editor and librarian; and Alex Murray is the assistant librarian. We also rely on help from volunteers and we offer internships in the library and publishing office.
Q: Which books do you recommend as an introduction to Swedenborg?
A: Gary Lachman's Into the Interior: Discovering Swedenborg (2010) is a great, modern introduction to Swedenborg's life and ideas. We also recommend our new edition of Swedenborg's seminal work Heaven and Hell (1754, 2010), which is aimed at the general reader, with a particularly readable translation and an introduction by the legendary JL Borges. More recently, we produced a 35-minute documentary on Swedenborg, Heaven, Hell and Other Places, which is now available on DVD.
Q: How can I keep updated with Society publications and events?
We recommend joining the mailing list; we email about upcoming events and also send out a regular e-newsletter, containing news and reviews relating to Swedenborg and to the Society. If you become a member of the Society, then you also receive a 20% discount on all books from the Society bookshop, priority booking on all events and a regular paper newsletter entitled Things Heard and Seen. The Society is also on Facebook and Twitter; and we update a regular Wordpress Blog.