The Swedenborgian Church of the Holy City in Northwest D.C. is noted for its English Gothic architecture and is popular for weddings. But inside, the church is struggling -- its membership has dwindled to a dozen. Peck, the church president, is leading its recovery and hopes to bring the ideas of the church's forefather, 18th century mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, to Washington.
What does the Swedenborgian church believe?
Swedenborgianism is interesting because there was no intent on the part of Swedenborg himself to establish a church or a denomination. His concern was to reinterpret Scripture, to bring it back to life. In a typical 18th-century way in London, a number of people were drawn to his ideas as expressed in certain books, and they established a society, which continued after his death, for the purpose of discussing his ideas. Over time that society morphed into a formalized church structure.
Two particular approaches to Christian worship and belief make Swedenborgianism distinctive. One is the doctrine of uses, which simply maintains that both in the natural world, and then the spiritual world, what is important is that people, given their differing talents, make the best use of those talents to serve the wider community, not only spiritually, but also in a worldly sense.
The other leading doctrine of Swedenborgianism is referred to as correspondences. As a scientist who later became a mystic, Swedenborg believed that there was a direct correspondence between things we see and experience in this world and in the spiritual world.
One of the things that makes it particularly appealing to me is that while Swedenborgianism presents a specific set of ideas and interpretations, it is not believed that Swedenborgianism is the exclusive way to salvation. It honors other faiths.
Another thing that sets it apart [is that the faith] is a very 18th-century phenomenon. Swedenborg was one of the leading scientists of his day. His faith rested very substantially on scientific grounds.
Does it ever worry you to be part of an 18th century phenomenon --either that it's too new in comparison with other faiths, or too old in comparison with scientific truths?
I think I feel comfortable. It is a tolerant and open-minded faith, and so I think that it is subject to adaptation to the needs of the time. One of the other interesting things to me about Swedenborgianism is despite the tiny numbers relative to other denominations, it has at the same time had a very deep effect on thinkers, artists, writers. The American writer Emerson was deeply influenced by Swedenborgianism, as was the French writer Balzac. Helen Keller was a member.
At your core, what is one of your defining beliefs?
I think for me the doctrine of uses is particularly compelling because it has such wide application. For Swedenborg it embraced everything from the role that a person plays in his or her family, [to the person's actions] in the immediate community. He was very civic-oriented; despite the fact that he was best known as a seer and a mystic, which he was, he was very grounded in the immediate community. The doctrine of uses extends to the spiritual realm as well, so it's kind of an all-embracing call for Swedenborgians to fully realize their talents.
- Liz Essley