ESSAYS BY THEOPHILUS PARSONS. Boston: Otis Clapp, School-st. 1845.
THE claim to be the New Church, or peculiarly the founders of a New Jerusalem, is like exclusive claims to the title of Orthodox. We have no sympathy with it. We believe that all kinds of inspiration and forms of faith have been made by the power that rules the world to cooperate in the development of mental life with a view to the eventual elucidation of truth. That ruling power overrules the vanity of men, or just the contrary would ensue. For men love the letter that killeth better than the spirit that continually refreshes its immortal life. They wish to compress truth into a nut-shell that it may be grasped in the hand. They wish to feel sure that they and theirs hold it all. In vain! More incompressible than light, it flows forth anew, and, while the preacher was finishing the sermon in which he proclaimed that now the last and greatest dispensation had arrived, and that all the truth could henceforward be encased within the walls of a church—it has already sped its way to unnumbered zones, planted in myriad new-born souls the seeds of life, and wakened in myriads more a pulse that cannot be tamed down by dogma or doctrine, but must always throb at each new revelation of the glories of the infinite.
Were there, indeed, a catholic church which should be based on a recognition of universal truths, simple as that proposed by Jesus, Love God with all thy soul and strength, thy neighbour as thyself; such a church would include all sincere motions of the spirit, and sects and opinions would no more war with one another than roses in the garden, but, like them, all contentedly grace a common soil and render their tribute to one heaven.
Then we should hear no more of the church, creed, or teacher, but of a church, creed or teacher. Each man would adopt contentedly what best answered his spiritual wants, lovingly granting the same liberality to others. Then the variety of opinions would produce its natural benefit of testing and animating each mind in its natural tendency, without those bitter accompaniments that make theological systems so repulsive to religious minds.
Religious tolerance will, probably, come last in the progress of civilization, for, in those interests which search deepest, the weeds of prejudice have struck root deepest, too. But it will come; for we see its practicability sometimes proved in the intercourse between friends; and so shall it be between parties and groups of men, when intercourse shall have been placed on the same basis of mutual good-will and respect for one another’s rights. Then those ugliest taints of spiritual arrogance and vanity shall begin to be washed out of this world.
As with all other cases, so with this! We believe in no new church par excellence. Swedenborgians are to us those taught of Swedenborg, a great, a learned, a wise, a good man—also one instructed by direct influx from a higher sphere, but one of a constellation, and needing the aid of congenial influences to confirm and illustrate his.
That the body of his followers do not constitute a catholic church would be sufficiently proved to us by the fact, asserted by all who come in contact with them, that they attach an exaggerated importance to the teachings of their muter, which shuts them in a great measure from the benefit of other teachings, and threatens to make them bigots, though of such mild stain as shows them to be the followers of one singularly mild and magnanimous.
For Swedenborg was one who, though entirely open and steadfast in the maintenance of his pretensions, knew how to live with kings, nobles, clergy, and people, without being the object of persecution to any. They viewed with respect, if not with confidence, his conviction that he was “in fellowship with angels.’ They knew the deep discipline and wide attainments of his mind. They saw that he forced his convictions on no one, but relied for their diffusion upon spiritual laws. They saw that he made none but an incidental use of his miraculous powers, and that it was not to him a matter of any consequence whether others recognized them or not; for he knew that those whom truth does not reach by its spiritual efficacy cannot be made to believe by dint of signs and wonders.
Thus his life was, for its steady growth, its soft majesty, and exhibition of a faith never fierce and sparkling, never dim, a happy omen for the age. Thus gently and gradually may new organizations of great principles be effected now! May it prove that, at least in the more advanced part of the world, revolutions may be effected without painful throes! Such a life was in correspondence with his system, which is one of gradation and harmony.
I have used the word system, and yet it is not the right one. The works of Swedenborg contain intimations of a system, but it is one whose full development must be coincident with the perfection of all things. Some great rules he proffers, some ways of thinking opens; we have centre and radii, but the circumference is not closed in.
This is to us the greatness of Swedenborg and the ground of our pleasure in his works, that in them we can expatiate freely; there is room enough, We can take what does us good, and decline the rest: we may delight in his theory of forms or of correspondences, may be aided in tracing the hidden meanings of symbols, or animated by the poetic energy of his vision, without being bound down to things that seem to us unimportant. We can converse with him without acquiescing in the declaration that all angels have, at some time, been men, or the like, which seem to us groundless and arbitrary. It is not so with his followers; they are like the majority of disciples; if you do not know the master before knowing them, his true face will be hidden from you forever. Their minds being smaller, they lay the chief stress on what is least important in his instructions, and do not know how to express the best even of what they have received; being too mighty for them to embrace they cannot reproduce it, though it acts upon their lives.
So it is with all the books at the head of this notice, Noble’s Appeal has been, we understand, a famous book among the followers of Swedenborg. We did not find it sufficiently interesting to give it a thorough reading. It is addressed to those who object to Swedenborg from a low platform. It arrays arguments and evidences with skill, and in a good spirit, and contains particulars, as to matters of fact, that will interest those who have not previously met with them. It quotes Swedenborg’s letter to Mr. Hartley, written with such a beautiful dignity, and giving so distinct an idea of the personal presence of the writer, also the letter or Kant with regard to one of Swedenborg’s revelations as to a matter of fact, (the fire at Stockholm.) The letter has been quoted a hundred times before, but it always remains interesting to see the genuine candour with which a great mind can treat one so opposite to its own, and pleasant to see how far such an one is above the necessity felt by lesser minds of denying what. They cannot explain.
We have often been asked what we thought of these pretensions in Swedenborg. We think, in the first place, none can doubt his sincerity, and in few cases could we have so little reason to doubt the correctness of perception in the seer. Swedenborg must be seen by any one acquainted with his mind to be in an extraordinary degree above the chance of self-delusion. As to the facts, the evidence which satisfied Kant might satisfy most people, one would suppose. As to the power of holding intercourse with spirits enfranchised from our present sphere, we see no reason why it should not exist, and do see much reason why it should rarely be developed, but none why it should not sometimes. Those spirits are, we all believe, existent somewhere, somehow, and there seems to be no. good reason why a person in spiritual nearness to them, whom such intercourse cannot agitate, or engross so that he cannot walk steadily in his present path, should not enjoy it, when of use to him. But it seems to us that the stress laid upon such a fact, for or against, argues a want of faith in the immortality of souls. Why should those who believe in this care so very much whether one can rise from the dead to converse with his friend! We see that Swedenborg esteemed it merely as a condition of a certain state of mind, a great privilege as enlarging his means of attaining knowledge and holiness. For ourselves, it is not as a seer of ghosts, but as a seer of truths that Swedenborg interests us.
But to return to the books. They show the gradual extension or the influence of Swedenborg, and the nature of its effects. In Mr. Parsons’s case they are good. His mind seems to have been expanded and strengthened by it. Parts of his book we have read with pleasure, and think it should be a popular one among the more thoughtful portion of the great reading public. As to Mr. Barrett’s discourse, the basis of Swedenborgianism had seemed to us broader than such a corner atone would lead us to suppose. Generally, we would say, read Swedenborg himself before you touch his interpreters. In him you will find a great lite, far sight, and a celestial spirit. You will be led to think, and great and tender sympathies be gratified in you. Then, if you wish to prop yourself by doctrines taken from his works, and hasten to practical conclusions, you can do so for yourself, and from Swedenborg himself learn how to be a Swedenborgian; but we hope he may teach you rather to become an earnest student of truth as he was, for it is so, and not by crying, “Lord, Lord,” that you can know him or any other great and excelling mind. But, whatever the result be, read him first, and then you may profit by comparison of your own observations with those of other scholars; but, if you begin with them, it is, even more than usual, in such cases, the blind leading the blind. Confucius had among the host one perfect disciple; others have been, in some degree, thus favoured, but Swedenborg bad none such, and he is not far enough off yet for the common sense of mankind to have marked out what is of leading importance in his thoughts. Therefore, search for yourselves; it is a mighty maze, but not without a plan, and the report of all guide-books, thus far, is partial.
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