A New Church View of History

William R. Kintner

New Church Life 87.11 (November 1967): 493–505.


The General Approach
New Church Principles of History
A New Church Outline of History
Alternative Approaches
Can the Work be Done?

The motto of the New Church proclaims: "Now it is permitted to enter intellectually into the mysteries of faith." With such a mandate may it not be said that the New Church is commissioned to bring intellectuals into a receptive understanding of religion through rational faith? The eventual triumph of the Writings will come only after those men who dominate the modern mind are finally led to accept the rationality of Swedenborg's revelation. In his lifetime Swedenborg expressed distress that the mental stars of the "Age of Enlightenment" were so unwilling to read, let alone receive, the message of the Writings. Although he was largely unsuccessful, his effort to gain acceptance of his message by intellectuals should be emulated by those who accept the authenticity of the Writings if their truth is to be received today and tomorrow by mankind.

When asked how soon a New Church could be expected, Swedenborg replied in a letter to Dr. Gabriel A. Beyer written in 1767:

The Lord is now preparing a new heaven of those who believe in Him and acknowledge Him as the true God of heaven and earth, and likewise look up to Him in their lives, which means the shunning of what is evil and the doing of what is good; for it is from this heaven that the New Jerusalem is to come down (Apoc. 21: 2). I see daily spirits and angels ascending and descending to the number of from 10 to 20,000 and being set in order. Gradually, as that heaven is formed, so the New Church commences and increases. The universities in Christendom are now first being instructed, and from them come new priests; for the New Heaven has no influence with the old, which keeps itself too learned in justification by faith alone.1

Unfortunately the universities in Christendom have not fulfilled this promise. To the contrary, the "God is dead" movement, despite the resistance which it has aroused, typifies the secular, agnostic and materialistic values of most modern universities.

But how are we in the New Church to approach the intellectual giants of today so as to induce them to transform our universities into centers which will receive and disseminate the light of the Writings? Who is our New Church Einstein, Toynbee or Freud? In almost no field of human endeavor can we match the geniuses whom the world recognizes in the various intellectual disciplines. Yet our church, small in numbers, includes on its rolls many talented people whose lives are influenced by the Writings. Is it not possible that, working together, they can produce a synthesis which will induce our contemporaries to seek the truths revealed in the Writings? Most thinking men are intrigued by one recurrent question: What is the meaning of life? For many of them the answers they seek are found, if at all, in philosophy developed in the perspective of history. Paradoxically, the search of some intellectuals for the understanding of life in history may be matched by the capability of New Church men to produce a new history of mankind that might effect a more ready acceptance of the doctrines of the New Church. This assertion requires clarification.

The General Approach top

The study of history would be nothing but a cataloging of endless facts, of small value in themselves, unless an effort were made to interpret and synthesize them. The proper aim of history is to discover that inner connection which gives the facts significance. There have been many endeavors to explain the facts of history, starting from various a priori assumptions. Thus far there has been no comprehensive attempt to interpret history in accordance with the revelation to the Lord's New Church.

Every historian writes with a sense of direction and a set of values, which enables him to order and interpret the events of the past. According to Edward H. Carr:

Progress in history is achieved through the interdependence of facts and values. Our values are an essential part of our equipment as human beings. It is through our values that we have that capacity to adapt ourselves to our environment. . . . A clue to this problem of facts and values is provided by an ordinary use of the word 'truth' which straddles the world of fact and the world of value and is made up of the elements of both.2

New Church men, in seeking to interpret history from the perspective of the Writings and the values thence derived, face the same task as that confronting a historian owning to a different orientation. This task is to design a model of the past and then attempt to validate it with all the empirical data available.

It seems essential that the New Church should study history from its own point of view, for the values assigned to history by the modern world provide no adequate insight into the spiritual meaning of man's tenure on earth. At the same time, the history should be written for the world and not just for the committed New Church man. This would require sensitivity to the world of thought outside the church as well as high standards of scholarly objectivity. Yet can this new history, keyed to the rise and fall of the churches, be written separately from history in general? Rather, should not the part be set in the whole?

The established schools of historical interpretation utilize the same data. But since their analysis is informed by different values there is little hope that any of them alone can aid either New Church men or contemporary gentiles in acquiring a spiritual understanding of humanity's development. A few historians accept the notion that history obeys no ascertainable laws. Most historians, however, belong to one of the following schools: 1) the "great man" theory; 2) the scientific or technological; 3) the economic; 4) the geographical; 5) the sociological; 6) the "collective psychological"; and finally 7) the spiritual or idealistic.

Those who subscribe to the "great man" interpretation hold that great personalities are the mainsprings of historical development, without delving into the origin of the great men themselves.

The invention of the wheel and the sailing ship, and in this century the atom bomb, are events which, according to the school of scientific and technological interpretation, are of fundamental importance in shaping the structure of history. But again, this school of historian does not go beyond the event. It is not, enough for a New Church man to acknowledge that the invention of the printing press profoundly influenced the growth of western civilization. He is also aware that this invention provided the means of bringing the Word to the mass of humanity.

The doctrine of economic determinism, expounded by Karl Marx and a legion of followers, holds that economic relations decide to an overwhelming degree the nature of social organization and change. Yet the Writings tell us that things economic are only the changeable clothing of more interior relationships.

The geographical school lays its main emphasis on the influence of climate. soil fertility and closeness to natural routes of travel in developing its interpretations of history. Certainly, human existence does not proceed in a vacuum, and the physical stage on which the drama of life unfolds is important to the play called history. But the setting is not the play.

The sociological school endeavors to visualize history in accordance with the forms and institutions of society itself. It uses the increasingly better tools of the social sciences both for its measuring devices and for its yardstick of values. Although it is concerned with physical forces operating in society, it makes no inquiry as to their origin or their influence on historical events.

The "collective psychological" approach to history represents a synthesis of the others. No one cause, according to this historical school, can explain the meaning of the past. Instead, it is the "collective psychology'" of an entire period taken together that sets the pattern of historical change. This approach will produce a more valid picture of humanity's journey through time, but because of its concern solely with the world of effects it can not by itself satisfy the New Church.

This resume of historical methods has purposely omitted discussing the "spiritual" school until last. Does it offer a solution for our need? Unfortunately, the modern meaning of "spiritual" is inadequate for our purpose. According to one authority, "The spiritual interpretation of history must be found in the discovery of spiritual forces co-operating with geographical and economic to produce a general tendency toward conditions which are truly personal. And these conditions (whatever they may be) will not be found in generalizations concerning metaphysical entities, but in the activities of worthwhile men finding self-expression for the ever more complete subjection of physical nature to human welfare."3 This approach is closely akin to the "great man" theory, masked by some theological trappings.

It is most unlikely that the secular bias of the modern world can support a spiritual insight into history which will meet the needs of the New Church. Anything spiritual in the sense of transcendental is alien to the modern mind. Secular historians have vigorously rejected Christian appraisals of history. According to them the Christian school of history, which arose in the first centuries after Christ, created a barrier against any objective understanding of human life. In the words of James T. Shotwell: "It was a calamity for histiography that the new standards won the day. The authority of a revealed religion sanctioned but one scheme of history throughout the vast and intricate evolution of the antique world. A well-nigh insurmountable obstacle was erected to scientific inquiry, one which has at least taken almost nineteen centuries to surmount."4

Obviously, those who subscribe to the "authority of a revealed religion" can not find the meaning of history in the histories published for the secular world. Rather, the meaning of history must be found by examining and ordering historical facts with the light of the new revelation.

If we try to do this, the problems we face will be formidable but perhaps not unmanageable. History as we know it today originated with the Greeks, who were the first people to attempt an explanation of the past in accordance with some rational rules of evidence. The Greeks regarded the course of history as flexible, since they believed that nothing which happens is really inevitable. From the perspective of the Writings, the Greek role in history was to lay the foundations of the rational mind—an essential pre-requisite for the Lord's advent.

Under the Christian impact, the historical process was regarded as the working out of God's purposes, operating through the activity of free and conflicting human wills. This view of history makes it possible to see man as the vehicle of this purpose and therefore historically important. The early Christians also conceived of God as a Creator calling the universe into existence for His own inherent ends. The Christian concept of history has a pervasive universality, because all people are involved in the unfolding of the Lord's work of creation.

According to R. G. Collingwood,5 Christian history 1) will be universal; 2) will ascribe events to the workings of providence; and 3 ) will detect an intelligible pattern in the course of events critically related to the life of Christ. It should be obvious that this description is compatible with a New Church view of history. We would add the concept of the doctrine of correspondences in which the natural theater of life, together with the events that happen there, concisely relate spiritual forces with the checkered historical development of man. Ralph Waldo Emerson perhaps foresaw the need for such a history when he wrote, in Swedenborg the Mystic:

. . . the earth had led its mankind through five or six milleniums, and they had sciences, religions, philosophies; and yet had failed to see the correspondence of meaning between every part and every other part. And, down to this hour, literature has no book in which the symbolism of things is scientifically opened.

New Church Principles of History top

The revelation to the New Church gives us the broad principles by which the spiritual meaning of history can be discovered. To begin with, the doctrine of influx teaches us that causes are spiritual and create effects. which are natural. "All things in nature in general and in particular correspond to spiritual things." Therefore if we are to interpret correctly the drama of human life on earth we should try if possible to correlate the spiritual causes with the events of history. The key for utilizing this broad principle of spiritual influx exists in the Word, the instrument through which the Infinite leads and guides the human race. The Word is the bridge through which Divine order passes from the spiritual world into the natural. If correlation can be established between the Word and history, other known correspondences may be applied to unlock much of the spiritual meaning of the past, as well as to establish useful guideposts toward the future.

The Doctrine of the Sacred Scripture teaches that human life would end on this planet unless there be somewhere on earth a church where the Word is read, and where, through the Word, the Lord is known and worshiped in the good of life.6 Without this conjunction the human race would perish, and along with it, history. It is a tenet of the Writings that there must be a church where the Word is, although it consists of comparatively few; for by means of the Word the Lord is still present everywhere throughout the whole earth. A main task of a New Church history will be to find evidence that the dynamic center of human life has been associated with the people who have been entrusted with the successive spoken and written forms of the Word. Swedenborg asserted concerning his own age: "Communication with the universal heaven is given through the Word. For this reason, by the Lord's Divine Providence, there is a universal intercourse of the kingdoms of Europe, chiefly of those where the Word is read, with the nations outside the church."7 Today the same observation can be made of North America and the other regions of the globe where the Scriptures and the Writings are freely published and circulated.

A more tenuous hypothesis is that the relation between mankind's spiritual development from infancy to adolescence may be similar to the correspondence between the spiritual sense of the Word and the sense of the letter. The myths of the ancients—those mixtures of fact and allegory—were written, we are told, in correspondences. These myths came down from the men of the Ancient Churches for whom the science of correspondences was the key to wisdom. By applying the tool of correspondence to history many rich veins of historical fact will be mined, and new insights will be discovered concerning the meaning of the journey of man on earth. What has been recorded, or what will be discovered, are those facts and events which the Lord wishes to include in the book of the human race. Similarly, the Word we have today is what the Lord has preserved for our use from all revelations given to man in the past.

In its inmost sense our Word is a revelation concerning the nature of the infinite Creator. History, regarded internally, may unfold itself as the story of the human race created in the image and likeness of God. Essentially it is a story of man's rejection of his heritage, and of the Lord's infinite patience in leading man to eventual attainment of the happiness which He wills for all men.

A spiritual meaning of history should give a better understanding of the nature and consequences of human freedom. It would account for man's advances and backslidings. It should help to answer the question of how a Being who is love itself could create a world in which so much evil and unhappiness exist.

However, if a New Church history is to have eventual acceptance in the modern world, it must adhere to exacting demands of scholarship. R. G. Collingwood 8 has suggested four criteria for acceptable history: 1) that it ask the right questions; 2) that it ask questions about things done by particular men at specific times in the past; 3) that it answer these questions on grounds of acceptable evidence; and 4) that it tell what man is by what he has done.

It is impossible to predict at this time whether a history of man written from the perspective of the New Church could ever fully meet such scholarly criteria. There are many phases in creation and in the early stages of the human race for which objective historical evidence is lacking and may never be discovered. For these epochs philosophical constructs based on the Writings can be contrasted with contemporary theories. With the foregoing in mind, let us turn to a tentative scope of a possible New Church history.

A New Church Outline of History top

I. Creation. What are the various concepts concerning creation? Examine conflicting ideas concerning the immensity and infinity of the universe. Contrast various theories of first causes and concepts of creation including those of Descartes, Swedenborg, Laplace, Kant, Einstein and others. Seek to demonstrate the imperative of creation and the origin of the universe from the Infinite rather than from nothing.9

II. Advent of Life. What are the various theories regarding the advent of life on this planet, including Swedenborg's concept of spiritual influx into the natural plane? Contrast this concept with the assumption that life is the result of complex organic combinations brought about under unique cosmic conditions.

III. Origin of Man. Assess theories of evolution and direct creation. Is it possible that an evolutionary process was the means by which a receptive form could be created which could serve as the ultimate for the human soul? In seeking to answer this question a New Church history must be able to cope with prevalent Darwinian views.

IV. Pre-literate History. The Writings teach that there was a species, the pre-Adamites, which existed before man was created fully in the image and likeness of God.

Adam was not the first of men. He and his wife signify the first church on this earth; the garden signifies its wisdom; the tree of life, looking to the Lord who is to come; and the tree of knowledge of good and evil, looking to oneself instead of to the Lord.10

The pre-Adamites will present a problem in a New Church history-to harmonize in so far as possible speculation derived from archeological and anthropological studies with insights derived from the Writings. This will be most difficult. A New Church history must explain why the pre-Adamites chose to ascend toward good as well as the subsequent decline of the celestial state of the Most Ancient Church. Answers must be sought for many thorny questions. For example: did animals later described by Swedenborg as evil come into being before man himself became evil?

V. Revelation, the Dynamic Force in History. The fundamental principle of a New Church history is that Divine influx centers where the church is. The stream of history attests to the past predominance of Mediterranean peoples—the Chinese case notwithstanding. The source of influence of the now predominant western nations can be traced to those peoples who have been carriers of the series of revelations which historically constitute the spiritual mainstream of mankind. A New Church history should be able to document this assertion. The dynamic historical role played by these peoples should be contrasted with the more passive record of the orientals, whose spiritual inheritance consisted for the most part in the perverted teachings of the Ancient Church. A New Church history should also trace a record of these people, divorced from almost any religious basis, who later inhabited the vast stretches of Asia, the Americas and the Pacific Ocean. Perhaps such an investigation would support the contention that these societies remained static for so long because they were insulated from the mainstream of spiritual change.

VI. The Advent and Significance of the Hebrew Church. An understanding of the special spiritual-historical use of this unique people could be persuasively presented through the knowledge derived from the Writings, fortified by many excellent histories and studies of Mesopotamia and Egypt. The subsequent and significant role of the "chosen people" should be carefully analyzed. Apropos is the remark made in 1967 by Ben-Gurion, former premier of modern Israel, that "without the Hebrew Bible there would be no Jewish people today."11

VII. Necessity of and Preparation for the Lord's Birth. This portion of a New Church history would seek to validate the following propositions: the prevalence of idolatries and growing perversions which existed prior to the Lord's advent, and which if unchecked, we are told, would have led to the spiritual and natural annihilation of the race; the opening of the rational mind, a primary contribution of Greek civilization to history and a prerequisite to the acceptance of Christianity; the Roman creation of political order throughout the Mediterranean world, enabling Christianity to spread; the phasing of the foregoing developments coincident with the completion of the primary Hebraic spiritual use.

VIII. The Messiah: Impact on History. The New Church history would identify the philosophical differences between the Christian ethos and prior revelations. (For example, contrast "an eye for an eye" with the Sermon on the Mount.) From Christianity issued prevalent political and social concepts of the western (modern) world, i.e., dignity of man, personal responsibility and social compassion. It is noteworthy that many modern men accept concepts regarding the sanctity of human life, with their attendant social and political implications, without ever crediting the spiritual sources of these concepts. (Needless to say, there are far more implications to be examined than those suggested here.)

IX. The Christian Church. Why did it first succeed? Why did it later fall? According to F. W. Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity, Graeco-Roman "material and intellectual life was so far ahead of its spiritual development that the lack of integration became too great to permit further progress on the old lines. Jesus Christ appeared on the scene just when the occidental civilization had reached a fatal impasse." A New Church history should explain the fate of the Christian Church: its corruption through power; the limited development of the rational mind and, in consequence, a very weak foundation for a more rational faith. The spiritual collapse of integrity in the early Christian Church did not prevent it from spreading the Word throughout many nations and from serving a useful and ameliorating role.

X. Decline of the Christian Church and Preparation for its Judgment. A New Church history would have to develop its interpretations of the Middle Ages, scholasticism, feudalism, the Renaissance, re-establishment of contact between Asia and Europe through global exploration. Special treatment should be given to the Protestant Reformation-the separation of faith and charity; reaction of the Catholic Church-the Jesuits; the advent of scientific method, the growth of humanism, the age of reason, Swedenborg's mission and his preparation for it.

XI. The Modern World. This portion of the New Church history should review the destruction of historical faith; the rise of secularism; industrialization; the possibility for the first time since the fall that man would not live by the sweat of his brow; growth of materialism; collapse of ancient cultures (Asia, Africa and the Moslem world) under the impact of adulterated Christianity; growth in world-wide communications; the advent of the space age; the growth of social consciousness (the social gospel divorced from religious principles); the development of communism as a calculated antithesis of all religion ("A religion which does not acknowledge the Divine is no religion" HH 319.), yet retaining a spurious religious orientation since it envisages that its foreordained unfolding of history will eventually lead to an earthly paradise; rejection of personal immortality; impact of Swedenborg's revelation on modern thought. The New Church history would also examine the contradictions facing western culture in seeking to maintain a humanistic society divorced almost entirely from its original religious ethos, struggling against a disciplined opponent whose world view is based on an avowedly materialistic philosophy.

XII. Implications for Modern Man. From a New Church history conclusions may be drawn as to why the crown of revelations will one day inherit the earth.

Alternative Approaches top

The suggested outline for a history of the human race written from the perspective of the New Church is obviously embryonic. For one thing, such a transcendental interpretation of the objective processes of history, imperfectly traced, may alienate rather than attract the modern mind with which the New Church must eventually establish communication. In addition, a history written solely from the perspective of the New Church might not meet scholarly criteria which insist that all valid conclusions rest on massive empirical data. Some who have commented on earlier drafts of this article question whether it is possible to "explain" the world during the millennium preceding the Lord's advent by examining the ups and downs of the representative Hebrew Church. Obviously there were human beings then living in territories which are now called Mexico, China, India and England who were not directly affected by contemporary events in the land of Canaan. Yet the modern world is far more a result of pre-Christian events in Palestine than of the impact of now forgotten cultures. The modern world is in the process of westernization, i.e., it is being transformed by the civilization whose three well-springs were Jerusalem, Athens and Rome. It should not be impossible to demonstrate that the dynamic force of contemporary history issues from the people and regions through which the stream of revelation flowed. In fact, Toynbee's Outline of History reaches such a conclusion.

This not withstanding, there is a need for evaluating the role played by peoples who were not in the mainstream of Divine revelation, if for no other reason than to demonstrate the universal scope of the Lord's providence. With the Writings as a frame of reference the New Church historian can use the tools of anthropology, geography, archeology, economics, sociology and political science to attempt to find out what peoples in the mainstream and eddies of the past were really like. In analyzing the history of specific peoples the New Church historian will ask the questions of the past that he asks himself about the present. The questions may be asked of any society at any time and place. A few examples follow.

1) What was their concept of God or religion?
2) What was their concept of the "good life"?
3) What was their belief in death and after-life?
4) What was their concept of use?
5) What was their concept of man and relations between men?
6) What was their concept of marriage-family and children?
7) How did the society organize, politically and economically?
8) What relations were conducted with other societies or nations?
9) Why did the society prosper or fall?

This kind of alternative approach might more easily meet the test of scholarship. Whether it would provide the kind of cosmic "answers" which might attract the intellectual "pace-setter" of today cannot be prejudged.

Can the Work be Done? top

A New Church history of the kind proposed is a major undertaking and by its very nature must be a collective effort. There are historical parallels. For instance, the great King James Version of the Bible in English was the joint production of a large number of learned men. The New Church has been organized and supported by men and women who for the past two centuries received the Lord's second coming through the reading of the Writings. A body of interpreted knowledge has already been written. Consequently, there is a library of informed New Church scholarship from which to draw.

But is the time ripe to initiate such a history? Are there sufficient men and women in our church who would wish to participate in such an endeavor? Conceivably, individual members could select areas of study and research according to their reading interests. From the suggested outline they might be intrigued by a particular problem or period in world history. If they followed a systematic reading program they would be able to relate their study to the teachings of the Writings. There are doubtless knowledgeable people who may be willing to spend some of their time in one field of endeavor and thus contribute to the over-all effort.

Admittedly the task is an immense one and will demand considerable financial and personnel support. Just collecting basic data and correlating it with insights derived from the Writings on a voluntary basis might take ten or more years. Some sort of central repository and systematic data collection will be needed. These mechanical details could be worked out provided sufficient New Church men and women are interested in contributing to such a project. In time the person or persons who may be able to integrate this effort into a coherent New Church history may be found. In the parlance of the day, this might contribute to a major "bridge building effort" between the New Church and the alien intellectual world which surrounds it.

Note: This article spurred several responses. We have some of them available online:

Dawson, Geoffrey P. "The Basis for a New Church View of History."

Footnotes top

1 Letters and Memorials of Emanuel Swedenborg, page 631.

2 Edward H. Carr, What Is History, p. 174.

3 Shaller Matthews, The Spiritual Interpretation of History, Harvard University Press, 1916. [Italics added.]

4 James T. Shotwell, Introduction to the History of History, Columbia Press, 1922.

5 R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History, Galaxy Books, N.Y. 1946.

6 SS 104.

7 SS 108e.

8 Collingwood, op. cit. p. 18.

9 See TCR 75.

10 TCR 520.

11 New York Times, March 13, 1967 p. 8, C.