August Nordenskjold, born in Finland in 1754, was one of the earliest promoters of the works of Emanuel Swedenborg in Sweden. At some point approximately twenty-six first edition volumes of Swedenborg’s writings, containing Nordenskjold’s signature, were acquired by John Pitcairn (1841-1916). The books were on exhibit in the John Pitcairn Archives for many years, located in the former garden house at Cairnwood, Pitcairn’s estate in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania. They are now being relocated to the Swedenborgiana collection at the Swedenborg Library in Bryn Athyn (email communication. Lisa Parker Adams, 3/31/10). These books are all similarly bound, but the date of the binding is unknown. About half of the signatures are curiously rubbed out. Place names (Stockholm, Gothenburg) and dates accompany the signatures (see photos below).
No definitive record has been found to indicate when Pitcairn purchased the books, but he may have bought them in England in 1877. His diary entry for August 4, 1877 mentions a visit to Henry Wrightson, “an old bachelor born 1803. He has a passion for collecting the original Ed’s of Swedenborg. . . . He has a complete set & many volumes of the original Editions of Swedenborg” (John Pitcairn. Transcript of Diary entry. 4 August 1877). C. T. Odhner, in his biography of John Pitcairn printed in New Church Life, describes this same visit, and adds that “Mr. Pitcairn purchased from Mr. Wrightson a great number of original editions for the Academy’s library, many of them sumptuously bound” (C.T. Odhner, “John Pitcairn: A Biography,” New Church Life 1917, 518).
August Nordenskjold was introduced to Swedenborg’s writings as a young man in Stockholm, and he shared his new beliefs with his father and brother. In the 1780s he superintended Sweden’s mining operations in Finland, and was elected to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (see C.T. Odhner, “The Early History of the New Church in Sweden,” New Church Life 1911, 164). Swedenborg’s heirs had deposited his manuscripts with the Academy of Sciences after his death in 1772, and as a member of the Academy Nordenskjold had access to them. Many of the Swedenborg manuscripts were in loose sheets, and it was Nordenskjold who had them bound into codices. He arranged to have copies made of many of the manuscripts and, working together with his brother, Carl Frederick, sent copies as well as original manuscripts to London to be published (see S.C. Eby, Story of the Swedenborg Manuscripts, 1926, 24).
For many years August Nordenskjold was involved in a project supported by King Gustav III of Sweden to find the Philosopher’s Stone, the legendary substance that could turn base metals into gold. In 1999 the Nordiska Museet in Stockholm, Sweden, held an exhibition that included an alchemical stove belonging to Nordenskjold. C.T. Odhner asserts that Nordenskjold had a religious reason for his interest in this subject: “By making gold and silver common, he intended to revolutionize and regenerate society. For as the spiritual man is regenerated by the abundance of good and truth given to the New Church, so, he argued, would society be made new, and class distinctions broken down, by a new and abundant influx of silver and gold” (C.T. Odhner, “The Early History of the New Church in Sweden,” New Church Life 1911, 166).
In the final chapter of his short life, Nordenskjold, an abolitionist, was involved in a plan to establish a free colony in Sierra Leone on the west coast of Africa. He worked together with Carl Wadstrom, a fellow Swede and New Churchman, who played an important role in the British Antislavery movement. They had plans to travel together to Africa, but their joint trip never came to fruition. In 1789 Nordenskjold and some associates published A Plan for a Free Community upon the coast of Africa under the protection of Great Britain; but Intirely Independent of All European Laws and Governments. In 1792, with the backing of King Gustav III, he undertook an ill-fated expedition to Africa, where he died.
The editors of NewChurchHistory.org would like to thank Lisa Parker Adams, History and Education Coordinator at Cairnwood Estate, for alerting us to the existence of these books, and suggesting that they might be of interest to readers of New Church History Fun Facts.
Photos: The photograph of August Nordenskjold is in the public domain and is available from Wikimedia.org. The other photos were taken by Ed Gyllenhaal.
Questions and comments may be addressed to the editors at [email protected].