Article abstract: Swedenborg was first a mechanical prodigy, then a scientist and philosopher, then an anatomist, and finally a theologian. Recognition of his achievements has followed a similar time line. His peers saw him as a genius in science and invention, but it was much later before his anatomical studies were appreciated. His many contributions to Christian religious thought are still not widely known.
When Emanuel Swedenborg, the third child of Jesper and Sara Swedberg, was born, his father was court chaplain in Stockholm and was later appointed Bishop of Skara. In 1719, the family was ennobled and took the name Swedenborg. Very little is known of Swedenborg’s childhood. In 1699, he entered the University of Uppsala and ten years later read his graduation essay. Shortly afterward, he began extensive travels in England and on the Continent. Although there is no evidence that Swedenborg actually met Isaac Newton, he studied Newton’s works avidly. Swedenborg did work with both Edmond Halley and John Flamsteed.
Throughout his travels in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Bohemia, and Italy, Swedenborg searched insatiably for scientific knowledge, lodging when possible with scientists, craftsmen, and mathematicians. In 1714, he drafted papers on fourteen mechanical inventions, some of which he soon published in the Daedalus Hyperboreus, the first Swedish scientific journal, since recognized by the Society of Science of Uppsala as the first of its proceedings. He was appointed to the Swedish Board of Mines in 1716 and devised a number of mechanical devices to increase the efficiency of mining operations. In 1721, he published a Latin treatise on chemistry.
The work that established Swedenborg’s reputation as a scientist of note was a massive three-volume set published in 1734. The two volumes on copper and iron smelting were translated into several languages and became standard reference works. Next, his attention turned to physiological studies, his avowed motivation being a search for the human soul. These studies, which include several large volumes, are significant not because they rival in any sense later research using far more refined equipment but because of the remarkably intelligent way in which Swedenborg analyzed and interpreted the phenomena he was able to observe. In 1901, when Max Neuburger noted certain anticipations of modern medical views made by Swedenborg, the University of Vienna ordered a complete set of Swedenborg’s treatises from the Royal Swedish Academy. These studies showed, 150 years before the work of any other scientist, that the motion of the brain was synchronous with respiration and not with the motion of the heart. His views on the physiological functions of the spinal cord agreed with recent research, and he anticipated much later studies on the functions of the ductless glands.
It is curious that Swedenborg, a man of such astonishing achievement in physics and biology, is almost completely ignored in the annals of science. One reason for his obscurity is that between 1749 and 1756 he published anonymously, in eight large volumes, a work entitled Arcana coelestia quae in scriptura sacra seu verbo Domini sunt detecta (The Heavenly Arcana, 1951-1956). This monumental work signaled the beginning of Swedenborg’s work as a theologian. The last twenty-three years of his life were devoted to writing and publishing the works that identify him as a religious reformer and Bible interpreter.
Swedenborg’s biblical interpretations did not earn for him widespread recognition, because he used visions as the basis for his interpretations. In an autobiographical letter to his friend the Reverend Thomas Hartley, written in 1769, Swedenborg stated, “. . . I have been called to a holy office by the Lord himself . . . , when he opened my sight into the spiritual world and enabled me to converse with spirits and angels. . . . From that time I began to print and publish the various arcana that were seen by me. . . .” To his contemporaries, influenced by the intellectual...
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