Small Christian sect, Swedenborgians, host national conventionby Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Several religious denominations are holding their national conventions in Minnesota this summer.
The 2010 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations began meeting Wednesday at the Minneapolis Convention Center, and thousands of Presbyterians will gather at the same location next month.
And a small Christian sect that once counted poet William Blake and Helen Keller among its members is having its national convention in St. Paul this week. They're followers of a Scandanavian scientist and mystic, but they're known mostly in Minnesota for their church -- a St. Paul chapel designed by famed architect Cass Gilbert.
They're called Swedenborgians -- followers of Emanuel Swedenborg.
He died in 1772, and he lived much of his life, as you might guess, in Sweden. He worked in Amsterdam and London. He was a contemporary of a more famous Swedish thinker, botanist and taxonomist Carl Linnaeus.
But Swedenborg's memory lives again every week at the Virginia Street Church on Selby Avenue.
Eric Hoffman is the pastor there.
"He was sort of like another Leonardo da Vinci," Hoffman says. "I mean he had his hand in everything."
And by everything he means algebra and flying machines. Swedenborg made one of the first working fire extinguishers, and served briefly in the Swedish parliament. He even sketched out a rudimentary machine gun. He made a living as a mine assessor for the Swedish crown.
"In the early part of his career, he was known throughout Europe for his scientific writings. He published a cosmology," Hoffman says. "Newtonian physics was in its heyday and he jumped on that bandwagon. He discovered a few fossils that are named after him."
But, in 1744 Swedenborg started to have religious visions.
Not Book of Revelations-type visions, like beasts full of eyes. They're about what you'd expect from a Scandanavian seer -- they involved angelic spirits and three versions of heaven. God reportedly appeared to Swedenborg once during dinner and told him not to eat so much.
"Theologically, what Swedenborg wrote was essentially a departure from the Lutheran thought of the day," Hoffman says. "When people ask me for a like a five-second description of what Swedenborgs are, I'll often say, for lack of anything better, we're sort of Unitarians with a Christology."
Swedenborg wrote nearly two dozen books explaining his faith by the time he died.
And that would have been it, but for some Anglican churchmen who took an interest in Swedenborg's works. They established a new denomination, based on Swedenborg's writings.
The faith slowly spread, to the rest of Europe and eventually America. It gained some famous adherents along the way. John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, was a member. Industrialist Andrew Carnegie was a Swedenborgian church librarian once.
And Hoffman notes that St. Paul pioneer William Marshall -- Minnesota's fifth governor -- was also a follower.
"The congregation here was actually started by [Marshall]. He began this congregation in 1860, so we're celebrating our sesquicentennial this year," Hoffman says. "For a time, they actually met in the governor's office."
Later, as a former governor, Marshall got architect Cass Gilbert to draw up a new home for his congregation, and Gilbert's Virginia Street Church remains one of the architect's signature works. Built in 1886, the simple stone and wood chapel is still a Minnesota landmark.
It may be best known today as a venue for readings and authors such as Garrison Keillor and Bill Holm, rather than for the congregation that worships there.
Granted, it's a small group. Last Sunday, barely 30 people filled the worn, ashwood pews. Over at the University of St. Thomas, where the denomination's national convention is meeting this week, organizers were expecting fewer than 200 people and little controversy. One ordination is scheduled.
It's no accident the faith is small. Its early years were bankrolled by philanthropists and the faithful say the church has struggled to fend for itself.
And as a denomination, Swedenborgians aren't proselytizers. Jim Erickson has been a member of the St. Paul congregation for more than 20 years. He'd heard of Swedenborg's scientific work in college, and happened to notice the name on the side of the church in passing. He eventually decided to go inside.
"It seemed to me that Swedenborg had learned about, through revelation, a religious path that was a new kind of Christianity, as we were called, or are called sometimes, the New Church," Erickson says. "It's a new way of looking at Christianity. So that appealed to me a lot and the people here, they're like family."