Please post in the comment section below — “Leave a Reply” — your question or comment for Dr. Lawrence to respond to. As further food for thought, please also consider some of the points he raises in the following reader’s guide to material in Marguerite Beck Block’s New Church in the New World:
The material in Chapter 7 (and 8) in Block is extremely important for an understanding of subsequent developments in all branches of the Swedenborgian Church. It is easily misread as a straight-forward story of expansion that foundered on schism: actually, the story is much more complex. Part of the complexity lies in the fact that some of the organizational entities involved in this story changed in character without changing names. In general, it should be noted more specifically than it is in Block, that the 1890 schism was not a rending of an originally monolithic New Church. The differences in views of Swedenborg’s revelation had been expressed in print as early as 1790 in England; the differences over congregational/Episcopal polity date from the first ordination; differences on a number of other issues had been coalescing into two “camps” for more than 50 years before 1890. Furthermore, there had not been a truly national church before 1860: the General Church schism of 1890 only proved that after 30 years experience, the alliance of organizations included in the incorporation of Convention in 1861 was found to be too broad and too unstable to survive. Dr. Block’s quotation from J.R. Hibbard (p.225) supports this view with regard to the issue of church polity, and his statement could be repeated with regard to Swedenborg’s revelation, and educational policy, as well.
- Convention as an Annual Meeting (no continuing organization): it is important to remember a number of distinctions between what is called “Convention” today and what the Convention was during its first five years. Today’s Convention has four officers and thirteen more members of General Council, five Support Units and a Council of Ministers, a Central Office, and a number of other governing bodies, all active and functioning throughout the year. The first five annual conventions had only two officers—President and Secretary—and only one of these had any duties at all after the close of a convention: the President was responsible for calling the next convention. After the second convention, there were some rules governing ordination of ministers, but that is as close as they came to having an organizational structure.
In 1823, the Convention became a representative body instead of giving equal recognition to everyone who attended. In 1826, it assumed sole ordaining authority, and in 1833 began recognizing only representatives of accredited bodies. That same year, it adopted a list of “standing values,” which in 1838 became mandatory for all societies wishing to maintain their accreditation for voting representation.
- Thomas Worcester’s drive to strengthen the organization: From the time of his ordination (which took nine years to gain the consent of the other ministers of Convention!), Thomas Worcester was the leader of a growing faction of lay people and a few ministers who wanted to develop the Convention into a central authority with powers to regulate member societies. Thus, although Convention originated in Philadelphia, the drive for its empowerment as a structured organization was essentially a Boston initiative. It included the following directives:
- Mission work, which had been begun in the western territory by individuals from the Philadelphia Church, was recognized from 1875 to be a proper work of the national body. In foreign missions, the practice was to lend financial support to already-existing institutions. In the home field, more effort was put into lectures (intended to induce people to start reading circles) than into traditional missionary “revival” meetings. The circuit-riding missionary ministers did baptize, however, and celebrate Holy Communion with the members of the reading circles.
- Education was an important part of Convention policy: it was so important that it proved divisive. On the surface, the argument was over the importance of “distinctive” Swedenborgian education: more significantly, it concerned the relationship between the New Church and its worldly environment; and, to some extent, principles of polity. An instinct for separating the church from the world found expression in a desire for special education, and a tendency to favor Episcopal polity on doctrinal grounds inclined toward limited teaching faculty to ordained ministers.
Boston School (1836-43) was a girls’ school, established to meet the problem of discrimination against New Church children by other children in the neighborhood (parents involved, too, of course). Early success prompted a half-dozen other attempts in New England. When the hostility faded, the schools did as well.
Urbana University (1853–) was the second co-ed college in America, and scene of perhaps the first major division of Swedenborgian educational philosophy. The idea of a university originated in Cincinnati, where Milo Williams — a layman, President of the Western Convention, and founder in 1832 of the first Swedenborgian Sunday School and in 1860 a parochial day school that lasted for four years — and the Cincinnati pastor, Rev. Richard DeCharms, began to talk about extending the school to include higher education. He enlisted the Rev. J.P. Stuart, in Urbana; and he helped to persuade an Urbana businessman, Col. John H. James to provide land and some seed money for the school. Even as the school was preparing to open, DeCharms (along with his protégé, William H. Benade, who was then in Pittsburg) withdrew support because the school was admitted students from outside the New Church, and allowing laymen on the faculty. Finding their hopes for what they considered true New Church education disappointed, they turned their efforts to developing what later became the Academy. Urbana opened anyway, but with a faculty so small as to be overworked by a curriculum covering first grade through college. It soon lost much of its enrollment and fell on hard times, and has had a roller-coaster existence ever since.
Chapel Hill School (1860–), was established in the town of Waltham, west of Boston, as the Waltham New Church Institute of Education, offering what would now be called a grade-school and high school curriculum. It began as a co-ed school, later restricted itself to a girls’ high school. In the 1970’s, it found itself land-rich and cash-poor, and merged with a boys’ prep school in the opposite condition. It continues as a co-ed institution with only historical ties to the New Church.
New Church Theological School (1866–). In 1865, DeCharms and Benade tried to establish a seminary in New York for the preparation of ministers for Convention, but found their plans frustrated when Thomas Worcester opened a seminary the following year. Worcester’s New Church Theological School met during summer vacation on the campus of the Chapel Hill School in Waltham, until it became a year-round school meeting in a succession of rented spaces in Boston until purchasing land for a site in Cambridge, where it functioned until moving to Newton, Massachusetts in 1965. The following year, its centennial, it changed its name to Swedenborg School of Religion.
The Academy (1877–) had been a dream of Benade’s since the late 1850’s, when he conceived it as an elite circle of quintessential Newchurchmen, a core of Swedenborgian scholars forming the “heart and lungs” of the church (Stuart’s phrase). In 1876, after having been disappointed by Urbana and Waltham, the group formally organized as The Academy of the New Church. The following year, having located eight young men interested in receiving an Academy-style education in preparation for ordination, the Academy group finally opened with eight students meeting in the basement of the school connected to Benade’s Cherry Street Church in Philadelphia. With Benade as Chancellor, and four other ministers of the Academy for faculty, but with high academic standards, the Academy grew out of its humble church basement to a beautiful campus on a hill in nearby Bryn Athyn, where it now offers K-thru-12, college, and graduate-level seminary education. It is as much a center of life for the world-wide General Church as is the adjacent Bryn Athyn Cathedral.
Church practices varied in many respects during the early years of Convention, and this variety became an increasingly contentious problem as the effort toward centralized organizational control began to be realized.
- Ordination: from 1818 on, Convention required that a candidate for ordination be approved by a majority of previously-ordained ministers. From time to time, increasingly specific definitions of ministerial qualifications were proposed, some of which were adopted. Ordinations succeeding from John Hargrove carried the authority of Petrine succession, and after Maskell Carll’s visit to England in 1823, subsequent ordinations also depended from Robert Hindmarsh’s claim to direct divine ordination. When an Episcopal hierarchy in the ministry was proposed in 1837, Richard DeCharms, representing the Western Convention, strongly opposed it (even though, later, he and his followers would advocate it in their general defiance of Convention’s rejection of the practice!). After 1877, when there were competing theological schools headed by Worcester and DeCharms, graduation from one of them became a de facto requirement (later a formal one); and by the same token, graduation from either effectively barred the graduate from acceptance by the faction supporting the other.
- Liturgy in worship and in celebration of the sacraments developed along different lines in various individual churches, and only became a problem as central authority became an issue. Baltimore and Philadelphia began with liturgies based on the English book of worship, which in turn had strong Episcopalian roots. In Ohio, worship practices were much simpler and less formal, while in Boston the tendency was prayers and hymns of human composition and toward use of scriptural passages exclusively in worship. Standardization along any of these lines was viewed as an infringement of vital freedoms from the perspective of those who were being asked to change.
- Baptism became another focal point for the argument of the relationship between the New Church and the rest of the world—or, in this case, the rest of the Christian Church. The issue was framed in terms of the necessity of rebaptism into the New Church, which was a way of questioning the validity of baptism in the “old church.” Originally Boston rejected rebaptism, by 1838 (or earlier) Thomas Worcester was a leader among its proponents. Eventually, however, rebaptism became associated with the position of Worcester’s opponents: after the split, Convention rejected rebaptism, and the General Church required it.
- The “Squeezing Rule,” adopted in 1838, brought the issue of centralized authority to a head, by requiring all societies to conform to certain organizational standards or be dropped from the roll of Convention members. Innocuous in its immediate effect—it didn’t require society to change its by-laws in order to conform—it nevertheless symbolized the ascendancy of central authority over congregational rule.
Reactions to strengthening central organization. The “Squeezing Rule” divided the New York and Cincinnati societies into competing groups, caused the Western Convention to declare itself independent of the General Convention, and led DeCharms and his followers to secede from the General Convention and form a Central Convention. In other words, it transformed one loosely-organized national body into three separate bodies.
Philadelphia became one center of dissention from Worcester’s plan for a stronger organization.
Schlatter vs. Worcester: the correspondence between this Philadelphia layman and the Boston pastor (and Schlatter’s letters about Worcester) reveals not only two contentious personalities, but also two well-developed and well-established positions, or schools of thought. Their differences regarding the nature of Swedenborg’s revelation, on polity (and even style) of church life, and on the relation of the New Church to the rest of the world, reflect arguments that can be found in Swedenborgian periodicals as early as 1792 in England.
- Richard DeCharms: Dr. Block picks up a nice irony when she notes that DeCharms, who named his Cincinnati periodical, The Precursor, was himself the precursor of the Academy Movement, and of the General Church which seceded from Convention. He did not always agree with all the principles of the later organization—in 1837, he opposed a rule establishing a trine in the ministry throughout Convention—but he sowed the seeds of secession in his organization of the Central Convention, and he profoundly influenced most of the men who founded the Academy and led the formation of the General Church.
- Western Convention originated as a branch of Convention separated geographically but not spiritually or organizationally from the main body. After the 1838 “Squeezing Rule,” it declared itself “coordinate,” rather than “subordinate” to the General Convention, and maintained this quasi separation for a decade.
- Central Convention originated in 1840, in response to Convention’s “Squeezing Rule,” as a body with the same semi-separate status as the Western Convention. The similarity appears more than coincidental, since DeCharms was the leader of both groups at the time of their declaration of partial independence. It was dissolved in 1852 after being quiescent for about seven years—during which period DeCharms and his disciple Benade rejoined Convention’s Council of Ministers in 1849. It was the members of the former Central Convention, or their successors, who later formed the General Church.
- Pennsylvania Association came into being in 1845, as a loyal Convention body in opposition to the Central Convention, centered in Philadelphia, in response to the establishment of the Central Convention. After the Central Convention dissolved, however, its sympathizers became a majority of the Pennsylvania Association. In 1883, the Pensylvania Association re-organized as the General Church of Pennsylvania — still a body of Convention, but taking advantage of an 1882 decision of Convention which allowed new autonomy to associations. In accord with that decision, Benade became Bishop within the structure of the association, while retaining his post as General Pastor in Convention as a whole; and membership in the association was offered to individual societies in other association which felt restive under Convention policies.
The Academy Movement started as the enactment of an educational theory, but soon became a rallying point for all who shared the same attitude toward the social environment, polity preferences, and attitude toward Swedenborg’s writings.
- DeCharms & Benade: although DeCharms had been the instigator—or at least the precursor—of the Academy Movement, Benade eventually seized the reins and became the most significant leader involved with the actual founding of the Academy and the General Church.
- Stuart & Burnham were leaders among those who allied themselves with Benade during the origination of the Academy, but had retired or died before the actual schism from Convention was seriously considered.
- Swewall, Ager, and Warren were prominent among those who supported the Academy, but remained loyal to Convention.
- Conjugial Love controversy, Part I. This needs to be distinguished clearly from the “Conjugal Heresy” attributed to Thomas Worcester in the 1820’s. The “C.L. Controversy” seems to have been sparked by defensive attitudes toward attacks from outside the church on what was perceived as immoral positions taken in Swedenborg’s work, Conjugial Love. Defense of the work from one perspective in the church drew criticism from adherents of a conflicting position, and these intellectual critiques quickly degenerated into personal attacks on opponents’ morals. In the 1840’s, the Philadelphian Schlatter criticized Bostonian principles and practices, and incited a woman in New York to seek marital counseling by mail from Thomas Worcester over a hypothetical situation, so that Worcester’s reply could be used as the basis for attacks on his morality—attacks reminiscent of implications hurled during a similar debate in England in the late 1830’s. The resulting charges from Academy sympathizers against alleged sexual principles and/or practices in Worcester’s Convention (and some charges the other way around) seem to have been accepted by many as rhetorical hyperbole, and the dispute appeared to blow over; but about the turn of the century it returned with a vengeance.
- “Wine Question” had set individuals (and, in some cases, societies) in opposition to each other whether wine or grape juice should be served in the Holy Supper. Although Convention was broadly divided on the subject, the majority came out strongly in favor of grape juice after the Academy adopted a pro-wine stance on doctrinal grounds. After the schism, Convention remained divided on this issue, though a majority of churches served wine, a minority served grape juice, and still a smaller minority served a mixed tray, giving the individual communicant freedom of choice! In the 1980’s, the issue returned to some prominence in Convention—this time concerning both the Communion elements and the punch to be served for social events at Convention sessions.
- H. Tafel case: The Rev. Louis H. Tafel, a pastor within the Pennsylvania Association, revolted in a very limited way against the new autocracy in the association after former members of the Central Association gained the ascendancy and made Benade Bishop. After some dispute over the issue and jurisdictional boundaries between Convention and the Pennsylvania Association, Tafel was forbidden to serve churches with Pennsylvania jurisdiction, and took his place firmly within Convention.
- H. Pendleton affair: The Rev. William H. Pendleton was elevated by Bishop Benade to the post of Bishop in the General Church without any action by Convention to make him a General Pastor (as Benade held both positions simultaneously). This event, in 1888, was one of the “last straws” before the actual parting of the ways in 1890.
General Church leaves General Convention: From hindsight, it appearsthat this event was the inevitable results of the disputes which preceded it, and the way in which those disputes were resolved. Whether it was inevitable, or could have been averted, has been debated within Convention — and between members of the Convention and the General Church — for years. From the analysis of the late Rev. Leonard Immanuel Tafel (until 1971, Pastor of the Frankford, PA Society, and brother of the late Richard H. of Philadelphia and Immanuel of Chicago), echoed in my comments, it was inevitable — but less because of the way the immediately preceding disputes were handled, than because of ambiguities which appear to be inherent in Swedenborg’s writings — ambiguities which became apparent in disputes among his followers within two decades after his death.
Some possible questions to think about:
- One of the issues that often comes with participation in a religious group that is seen as somewhat far outside the mainstream of American cultural life is that of prejudice—or, as Block calls it “ostracism” (p. 182), which Swedenborgians were experiencing strongly in the nineteenth century. Comment on the challenges the “Swedenborgian identity” poses today either in your ministry vision or as you suppose would be true for those pursuing Swedenborgian ministry today—both the “negatives” as well as any potential positive opportunities.
- The form of worship (unity or diversity) was an issue in both of the earliest two Swedenborgian denominations (Conference and Convention) as Block discusses (183-6). What is your opinion for ministry today as to forms of worship: should anything go, or should there be denominational guidelines, if not uniformity? Who should decide?
- The classic “liberal-conservative” tension that often leads to splits in religious movements was foundational in the rise of the Academy Movement. What was at stake for both sides in the longstanding and growing difference of viewpoint? (You might also want to refer to chapter XI, “Liberalism in the New Church,” which gives some additional background pertaining to this contextual issue.)
- There are still today fundamental differences between Convention and the General Church that seem to be continuities from the late nineteenth-century conflicts. Should there be efforts toward reunion, or is it better to support diversity of institutions to account for diversity of viewpoints? Elaborate.