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Full Online Book HomeEssaysThe Inner Life - SWEDENBORG
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The Inner Life - SWEDENBORG Post by :Gotti Category :Essays Author :John Greenleaf Whittier Date :April 2012 Read :1691

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The Inner Life - SWEDENBORG

(1844.)

THERE are times when, looking only on the surface of things, one is almost ready to regard Lowell as a sort of sacred city of Mammon,--the Benares of gain: its huge mills, temples; its crowded dwellings, lodging- places of disciples and "proselytes within the gate;" its warehouses, stalls for the sale of relics. A very mean idol-worship, too, unrelieved by awe and reverence,--a selfish, earthward-looking devotion to the "least-erected spirit that fell from paradise." I grow weary of seeing man and mechanism reduced to a common level, moved by the same impulse, answering to the same bell-call. A nightmare of materialism broods over all. I long at times to hear a voice crying through the streets like that of one of the old prophets proclaiming the great first truth,--that the Lord alone is God.

Yet is there not another side to the picture? High over sounding workshops spires glisten in the sun,--silent fingers pointing heavenward. The workshops themselves are instinct with other and subtler processes than cotton-spinning or carpet-weaving. Each human being who watches beside jack or power loom feels more or less intensely that it is a solemn thing to live. Here are sin and sorrow, yearnings for lost peace, outgushing gratitude of forgiven spirits, hopes and fears, which stretch beyond the horizon of time into eternity. Death is here. The graveyard utters its warning. Over all bends the eternal heaven in its silence and mystery. Nature, even here, is mightier than Art, and God is above all. Underneath the din of labor and the sounds of traffic, a voice, felt rather than beard, reaches the heart, prompting the same fearful questions which stirred the soul of the world's oldest poet,--"If a man die, shall he live again?" "Man giveth up the ghost, and where is he?" Out of the depths of burdened and weary hearts comes up the agonizing inquiry, "What shall I do to be saved?" "Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?"

As a matter of course, in a city like this, composed of all classes of our many-sided population, a great variety of religious sects have their representatives in Lowell. The young city is dotted over with "steeple houses," most of them of the Yankee order of architecture. The Episcopalians have a house of worship on Merrimac Street,--a pile of dark stone, with low Gothic doors and arched windows. A plat of grass lies between it and the dusty street; and near it stands the dwelling-house intended for the minister, built of the same material as the church and surrounded by trees and shrubbery. The attention of the stranger is also attracted by another consecrated building on the hill slope of Belvidere,--one of Irving's a "shingle palaces," painted in imitation of stone,--a great wooden sham, "whelked and horned" with pine spires and turrets, a sort of whittled representation of the many-beaded beast of the Apocalypse.

In addition to the established sects which have reared their visible altars in the City of Spindles, there are many who have not yet marked the boundaries or set up the pillars and stretched out the curtains of their sectarian tabernacles; who, in halls and "upper chambers" and in the solitude of their own homes, keep alive the spirit of devotion, and, wrapping closely around them the mantles of their order, maintain the integrity of its peculiarities in the midst of an unbelieving generation.

Not long since, in company with a friend who is a regular attendant, I visited the little meeting of the disciples of Emanuel Swedenborg. Passing over Chapel Hill and leaving the city behind us, we reached the stream which winds through the beautiful woodlands at the Powder Mills and mingles its waters with the Concord. The hall in which the followers of the Gothland seer meet is small and plain, with unpainted seats, like those of "the people called Quakers," and looks out upon the still woods and that "willowy stream which turns a mill." An organ of small size, yet, as it seemed to me, vastly out of proportion with the room, filled the place usually occupied by the pulpit, which was here only a plain desk, placed modestly by the side of it. The congregation have no regular preacher, but the exercises of reading the Scriptures, prayers, and selections from the Book of Worship were conducted by one of the lay members. A manuscript sermon, by a clergyman of the order in Boston, was read, and apparently listened to with much interest. It was well written and deeply imbued with the doctrines of the church. I was impressed by the gravity and serious earnestness of the little audience. There were here no circumstances calculated to excite enthusiasm, nothing of the pomp of religious rites and ceremonies; only a settled conviction of the truth of the doctrines of their faith could have thus brought them together. I could scarcely make the fact a reality, as I sat among them, that here, in the midst of our bare and hard utilities, in the very centre and heart of our mechanical civilization, were devoted and undoubting believers in the mysterious and wonderful revelations of the Swedish prophet,--revelations which look through all external and outward manifestations to inward realities; which regard all objects in the world of sense only as the types and symbols of the world of spirit; literally unmasking the universe and laying bare the profoundest mysteries of life.

The character and writings of Emanuel Swedenborg constitute one of the puzzles and marvels of metaphysics and psychology. A man remarkable for his practical activities, an ardent scholar of the exact sciences, versed in all the arcana of physics, a skilful and inventive mechanician, he has evolved from the hard and gross materialism of his studies a system of transcendent spiritualism. From his aggregation of cold and apparently lifeless practical facts beautiful and wonderful abstractions start forth like blossoms on the rod of the Levite. A politician and a courtier, a man of the world, a mathematician engaged in the soberest details of the science, he has given to the world, in the simplest and most natural language, a series of speculations upon the great mystery of being: detailed, matter-of-fact narratives of revelations from the spiritual world, which at once appall us by their boldness, and excite our wonder at their extraordinary method, logical accuracy, and perfect consistency. These remarkable speculations--the workings of a mind in which a powerful imagination allied itself with superior reasoning faculties, the marvellous current of whose thought ran only in the diked and guarded channels of mathematical demonstration--he uniformly speaks of as "facts." His perceptions of abstractions were so intense that they seem to have reached that point where thought became sensible to sight as well as feeling. What he thought, that he saw.

He relates his visions of the spiritual world as he would the incidents of a walk round his own city of Stockholm. One can almost see him in his "brown coat and velvet breeches," lifting his "cocked hat" to an angel, or keeping an unsavory spirit at arm's length with that "gold-headed cane" which his London host describes as his inseparable companion in walking. His graphic descriptions have always an air of naturalness and probability; yet there is a minuteness of detail at times almost bordering on the ludicrous. In his Memorable Relations he manifests nothing of the imagination of Milton, overlooking the closed gates of paradise, or following the "pained fiend" in his flight through chaos; nothing of Dante's terrible imagery appalls us; we are led on from heaven to heaven very much as Defoe leads us after his shipwrecked Crusoe. We can scarcely credit the fact that we are not traversing our lower planet; and the angels seem vastly like our common acquaintances. We seem to recognize the "John Smiths," and "Mr. Browns," and "the old familiar faces" of our mundane habitation. The evil principle in Swedenborg's picture is, not the colossal and massive horror of the Inferno, nor that stern wrestler with fate who darkens the canvas of Paradise Lost, but an aggregation of poor, confused spirits, seeking rest and finding none save in the unsavory atmosphere of the "falses." These small fry of devils remind us only of certain unfortunate fellows whom we have known, who seem incapable of living in good and wholesome society, and who are manifestly given over to believe a lie. Thus it is that the very "heavens" and "hells" of the Swedish mystic seem to be "of the earth, earthy." He brings the spiritual world into close analogy with the material one.

In this hurried paper I have neither space nor leisure to attempt an analysis of the great doctrines which underlie the "revelations" of Swedenborg. His remarkably suggestive books are becoming familiar to the reading and reflecting portion of the community. They are not unworthy of study; but, in the language of another, I would say, "Emulate Swedenborg in his exemplary life, his learning, his virtues, his independent thought, his desire for wisdom, his love of the good and true; aim to be his equal, his superior, in these things; but call no man your master."

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