Conversation with Dr. James Lawrence

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:
  1. 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.
  1. 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:

  1. 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.


  1. 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?


  1. 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.)


  1. 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.

8 responses to “Conversation with Dr. James Lawrence

  1. 1) In Chicago, in spite of a glorious history of Swedenborgian influence, from Burnham’s city plan to the 1893 World Parliament of Religions, (and a large Inness collection at the Art Institute), Swedenborg is not well known among local religious leaders or the public. We are working to change that. Reading about the court case in Philadelpia sheds some light on why there would have been a retraction away by prospective readers in the early 1900s…the good news is that has faded from view. Bad publicity for a religion is not a good thing, witnesses what is happening to the Catholic Church today. The tremendous need/opportunity that we have to introduce Swedenborg is precisely why we need to continue to produce his concepts in contemporary ways.
    2) In my view, congregational format is the higher form, as it requires a growing, committed and responsible group of laity members to keep the church going – in other words, mature adults. Those same adults are less likely to be comfortable abdicating decisions on what is meaningful to them in worship. I think it is a vanity to believe that a body of worshippers need to be told how to worship, as if they were children. The role of the central body is to provide resources and share ideas, not dictate what in many cases are matters of taste.
    3-4) I question whether it is liberal-conservative or simply difference in interpretation/implications of what Swedenborg says, and possibly glorification of Swedenborg. As these variances are part of human nature, accommodating these different natures which are unlikely to ever agree leads to greater overall happiness. There’s no potential harm in that. And the obvious difference in the role of women, and ideas of child-bearing would simply result in yet another split off by women were the two councils of ministers ever to announce a merger. Our focus is much better turned to the good that can be done in the world than these navel-gazing denominationally-manufactured issues.

    • Yes, anonymity is now much more the issue. Studies show that ES’s name recognition in culture probably hit its high point around 1880-1890, which is exactly when the schism occurred. That name recognition factor then at that high point cut both ways: it was both a door-closer and a door-opener, depending usually on the social location and “intellectual demographics” of every individual who might have had potential interest in a new religious or spiritual affiliation. Today I think that with the name recognition factor being way down there is the anonymity factor with which to contend, which is mostly an uphill battle, but at least we get to do most of the “new information” and put the matter in the light we wish. And for those folks with some name recognition, I think “the negatives” are in a lesser position than the potential positives. Evangelicals will always be disinclined to respect Swedenborg: there are just too many attacks on core doctrines and Pauline theology. But Swedenborg wears well in many ways for the educated seeker, and his name recognition is often intriguing. I still like the anecdote told to us when we were talking to Prof. Inese Radzins and her husband Dr. David Kangas, a philosophy and religion professor, when they were at Florida State University (he was tenure-track in the religious studies field and Inese was adjunct faculty there). They said “nobody” had heard of ES in the religious studies department (I don’t think that would be true in a lot of religious studies departments), but “everybody” knew who ES was in the literature fields at Florida State, due to his positive role in the formation so many important authors. I think what you are doing at the Chicago Library is really impressive. Though it is not able to play out in large media ways (yet!), the number of person-to-person positive experiences through all the programs in which Swedenborg is associated with “an inquiring minds” approach to meaning and purpose questions is something, and I’m glad you are looking to move your work there into a paradigm where ministry options can be more readily made available to happy customers.

  2. William Rotella

    Readers of Swedenborg usually intuitively know that the writings of Swedenborg need to be preserved and passed on to the next generation and they intuitively know that we need to build a church that is accepting of Swedenborg’s theology/doctrines and that this usually involves a denominational structure with Swedenborg’s doctrines as canonized doctrines. History shows that having Swedenborg’s doctrines as canon is the only way to keep the writings in the church. All other churches want to discard them and minimize them as insignificant. There is disappointment in the church and a feeling that there is something wrong in that Swedenborgian church growth has not been speedier. However, it should be kept in mind that many churches came from countries and got their boost from being declared the church of a country. The church in Rome was Roman Catholic, the Church of Scotland was established on a reformed protestant and Presbyterian basis, the Church of England became the mother church of the world-wide Anglican Communion, and Germany and Sweden were Lutheran. The Swedenborgian church had no “home” country and no big boost so that slow growth can be expected. However, I think that more successful denominations should be studied and also why their members support those churches so well. It could have to do with Jesus Christ and the Bible being more prominent and not just church structure and governing. It may have to do with the name being complicated and not simply pointing to Jesus Christ. It may have to do with the need for more members being given titles and tasks (with more official titles and tasks to be proud of and a promotion system to aspire to). The church has to keep studying, learning, researching and writing and this could well include how the church can do church organization better and church growth better. Very successful denominational church models can be studied. Subjects such as leadership, organizational management, financing, recruiting and other such subjects to help build churches should be actively engaged. I would like to see new things attempted instead of the pervasive demoralization that I have seen that the Swedenborgian Church hasn’t had spectacular growth. Swedenborg’s idea of diversity in the church and worship points to the fact that variety in worship is a good thing and creates strength in the church instead of weakness. The weakness is having one denomination and one worship style and one church organization. This would be a “single point of failure” if that church did not adapt to changing times and emptied out. One could argue that this could only occur only through a lack of charity but who is to say that a Swedenborgian church could not fall into a lack of charity. The Universal Christian Church as a whole is not one church and one denomination but many, many denominations of which some scholars count about 10,000 denominations or groups with different doctrines. Not that largely divergent doctrines are good, but the proliferation of groups are good and simply add strength. Keep trying and never give up is good advice for the individual as it is good advice for the church and its pastors and leaders. Despair in any failure should simply be turned to trying new things with church naming, structure and governing.

  3. Bill, thank you for these good thoughts. You have three excellent core points. The first one is a favorite of mine: the Swedenborgian church movements are more devoted to their source or foundational materials than most by far. If you go into the electronic Grace library catalog (which you can do online) at the Graduate Theological Union where our research collection is located, you can look up any author for an inclusive list of editions and translations of all that figures primary works that are actually in the collection. At the GTU we have quite the spectrum covered in terms of denominations and even non-Christian religions. Swedenborg far outstrips every other author for total number of unique primary sources. Augustine, Aquinas, and Luther are the next three, and they are way behind. The reason is that Swedenborg has churches devoted to his writings. You can take a rough parallel figure in the history of religions–say, someone like Jacob Boehme, who has a similar name-recognition factor and current sense of “importance” among religion history scholars, and instead of around 1,700 unique primary source works in the collection you will get about twenty five. The reason is that there was never a historical receptacle called a church for Boehme.

    There’s no doubt on your second point that state religion was a major force for establishing certain denominations on a large scale, and in a sense there is a similar logic in place as with this first point: institutions matter! Ironically, state religion is something of a religion-killer overall as the most recent contemporary period of history, because it stifled innovation, whereas the US is a quite well-educated country where, compared to Europe, religion and spirituality are still percolating in dynamic ways, and I would say that result is largely due to freedom to innovate. The genius of the open marketplace helps ideas that connect thrive, and those that don’t die on the vine.

    And brings up your third point–one with which I have had a lot of experience and to which I have had a lot of commitment in my career: studying “what works.” I almost did my D.Min. program in “church growth” at Fuller because I was so into working with church growth strategies. All of my churches grew, and really it isn’t rocket science. We funded a position not that long ago at the denominational level for a full-time church growth facilitator that wen on for about ten years. I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn when I say that he (Rev. Eric Allison) was frustrated that so few pastors and congregations were willing to deconstruct the way they “were doing business” and implement new methods. Let me tell you, it is a lot of work. More elbow grease than rocket science. The General Church has had a full time office for Evangelization now for more than a decade, and they’ve studied the same things that Eric and I and others have. Though things continually evolve (today we need to understand social media and use of virtual communication reaches), the how-to stuff is available. Why more innovation doesn’t happen is another conversation and a complex one, but I think you’re spot-on, Bill, in pointing to the need to study “what is working” in the field. None of “what’s working” goes against Swedenborgian thought.

  4. The history of the politics and schism(s) as presented by Block was very enlightening. I have found that r members of our church who are not involved above the “parish” level seldom understand the difference between “General Church” and “General Convention.” This year, I had to review our 2014 Augmentation Fund grant application to send in the end-of-year progress report and found that, in response to the question of what would happen to our church funds if we disbanded, my predecessor as board president said that the funds would go to “the general church.” No capitalization, but I don’t know what the General Convention committee members evaluating our grant request thought about that! Obviously, our prez still didn’t understand what larger organization we were part of!

    I joined the Swedenborgian Church of Puget Sound during the time to which Jim refers when Eric Allison was the minister and actively working for growth. I had been a very active Episcopalian, exploring the possibility of ordination in that denomination and being told by my mentor (first female Episcopal priest in Texas) that it was not a good time for a 42-year-old woman in Texas (she recommended I move to somewhere like Washington and possibly change denominations – she had just had to tell a 42-year old black woman that St. John the Divine Episcopal Church – the Bushes’ parish – was willing to fund a young male to work with youth, but not a 42-year old black female to do outreach in the local community). Twenty years later, it is a good time for a 63-year-old woman in Washington as a Swedenborgian! But when I moved here, I still didn’t know that Swedenborgianism was alive and well. I did know that my great-granduncle had been a Swedenborgian minister, publishing on such topics as “Conjugial Love,” but in Texas there was no hint of Swedenborgian presence or survival. After moving to Washington, frustrated with the slowness of change and my misgivings about the Nicene Creed, etc. in “normal” Christianity, I learned of Eric’s Puget Sound group through an ad placed in a New Age magazine and was soon hooked, finding the community and mindset that I had sought.
    Puget Sound peaked during Eric’s tenure, but with his 2008 stroke a steady decline set in. Members who had been primarily attracted by Eric’s charisma and enthusiasm have mostly fallen away, as Puget Sound has struggled with figuring out who we are. Eric had brought in more people in the “spiritual but not religious” category, but our specific theological base was not really stressed and many of these “New Age” members have moved to Unity or the Center for Spiritual Living because these are large enough to offer more programs, classes and childcare.

    Currently I am the president of the board and anticipating becoming a Licensed Pastor at Convention next month, and am trying to present offerings that combine broad contemporary spirituality with more awareness of our unique Swedenborgian perspective on the Bible and the spiritual world, but it is challenging. For example, the long-time member who shared that she was frustrated by not knowing enough about Swedenborg to respond to her Fundamentalist/Literalist neighbor, has not returned since I have started Bible study and discussion (which is being well received by our small core group of perhaps nine members (plus me and the Revs. Martin). We are tired of “visioning” meetings to define ourselves. In the first few years after Eric’s stroke, Lisa (Eric’s wife) stressed her music, but good music alone doesn’t suffice. In following up with people who have left us, I find they are divided between those who think we are too “churchy” and those who don’t think we are “churchy” enough. Our DBA is now “Swedenborgian Spiritual Community” but our legal name is still “Swedenborgian Church of Puget Sound.” We are having our annual church retreat next weekend on Guemes Island where Lisa now lives and hopefully we can get more inspiration and commitment from attendees not on the board. (We are expecting 16 people plus three “little kids”.)

    The chapter on the “Conjugial Love” issue was particularly interested to me due to family involvement. When I first read Block (Eric gave me my silver copy the last time I saw him before his stroke), I had not been able to find a copy of Rev. O.L. Barler’s controversial publication (issued on his 83rd birthday) which resulted in him being censured by the Council of Ministers of General Connvention. When I was in Berkeley last year for the intersession SHS class on “Swedenborgianism and Contemporary Spirituality”, Jim helped me to get photocopies of all of the Barler material in the Swedenborg Library. I now have ample references to my great-granduncle’s works and career (including a term as Dean of Women at Urbana!) and so was able to read the Conjugial Love pamphlet this last week. I recommend it as a description of Swedenborg’s insights on the subject that should please both General Church and General Convention readers. (I also recommend O.L. Barler’s “Degrees of Life in Man,” for those interested. I haven’t finished reading his book on Abraham Lincoln.)

    Question(s) for Jim: In your opinion, what effects (if any) have you seen on the spirit and/or workings of General Convention with the influx of General Church women joining General Convention in order to be ordained or serve in other capacities/roles not sanctioned by the General Church? With the increased interest in this issue in the General Church, what other changes might we see?


  5. Helen, thanks for these reflections on your journey in relation to the questions regarding Swedenborgian identity, public image, and theories of working today. First, let me say that I’m very curious to know what was in the publication that got O.L. Barler censured by the Council of Ministers. Do you know what year that was?
    A second comment pauses on your interest in the Conjugial Love chapter, because that topic is starting to seem to me to have one of the most fascinating histories of any of the topical areas in Swedenborgiana. As I am now researching the lecture I’m giving in London in a few weeks at the Wadstrom conference on human rights and the abolition of slavery in connection with Wadstrom studies, it is so fascinating to me that Wadstrom felt that conjugial love was at the core of a free and just society, and he had in 1792 when he was establishing the first “free” black African community in Sierra Leone an application of the love construct that applied on a communal level, and it makes me intrigued again how conjugial love was a revolutionary, utopian, and visionary concept applied to social theories of the eschaton. This “phase” of the concept’s life in historical thought ran for about a century. Then we finally get into the postmodern era when ES’s ideas on sex and gender become targeted (by so many) as backward looking.
    I like your autobiography as a source text on the scarcity of Swedenborgian identity in your journey, but how it was finally a liberating place for you internally/spiritually, even as the Swedenborgian church is so challenging externally. From my own autobiography I have always felt it useful to know how I so clearly felt marginalized growing up Disciples of Christ–at that time the 7th largest denomination in the U.S.–and how folks were always insecure about living in a post-Christian world and in a denomination that nobody seemed to know anything about. When you can say that about a denomination with 700,000 members, it gives some context to being in one with 2,000 domestic members and the anxiety felt there. Now I like to say that American Catholics, at 50 million strong, also feel under siege in American culture.
    As to your question, Helen, I really don’t know. A related piece is that I’ve had board members nervous that we would be appearing to be sheep stealers by taking General Church women into our program. Due to my numerous good friendships inside the General Church, I asked a few of them, including a couple of very prominent ones. I gained a very strong impression that the main feeling was “good riddance!” and one of relief that the worst troublemakers were gone. In fact, we (SHS) were being used regularly in inside conversations because the (male) leaders in the GC could say, “We’re not stopping you from being ordained. You can go to Convention’s seminary.”
    I’m not sure there is much noticeable effect on Convention of GC women, because they don’t have “new” things to bring so much as being happy to find a church that suits them. That is, I don’t see any issues or agendas that they have for Convention. Some are continuing to lobby within the GC for change, though.
    And as far as where that will go in terms of the future for women’s issues in the GC, I feel like there are too many contingent factors to predict. Surely the most important factor is the episcopal form of government: those with the most to lose (in classic self-interest theory) are the ones with all the power. The thought life has been changing a great deal inside the GC, and the numbers in just the past seven or eight years seems to me to have dramatically shifted in “polling” information: ordination of women has a much greater support level among the laity today than several years ago. I recall how I marveled for a couple of years and talked about it with a number of people regarding how quietly the “Berlin wall” fell in General Conference on this issue. In the late 1980s, one of our ministers (Paul Zacharias) spent 18 months post-retirement from Kitchener in one of the Conference churches, and when he came back and gave a talk to our COM, he said that on the women’s ordination question only one minister of the 17 then currently ordained and active supported it, and maybe two or three were on the fence. But when Mary Duckworth was ordained little more than a decade later, it went through completely smoothly with scarcely a noticeable trail of evidence of the internal conversation. Just a couple of articles.

  6. I see now that there are TWO publications about Conjugial Love that were copied for me in the library when I was at SHS in January 2014. The one I just read is titled “A Declaration concerning Conjugial Love, its Opposite and Intermediates Collated from the Writings of Swedenborg, After Which Follows A Defense Against Slander by O.L. Barler, A Minister of the General Convention” (Chicago: The Regan Printing House, 1910.” This is the one Block quotes, with his opinion that the Brockton Decision was a mistake, and which she says “brought a severe reprimand from the Council of Ministers.” However, there is a second pamphlet copied for me which I have not yet read, entitled “The Convention Doctrine Examined and Condemned Involving a Consideration of the Question of Authority in the New Church by A Minister of the Convention.” I see no date on this, just a note on page 2 that “No charge is made to cover the cost of printing and distributing this pamphlet, but those who wish to contribute to that end may communicate with Mrs. L.M. Ross, 1464 Belmont St., Washington, D.C., from whom additional copies may be secured.” Can you tell when this was written, and how it became associated with the O.L.Barler materials, since it is anonymous? After this class is over, I hope to be able to spend some time working on all of the Barler material. I was also given a list of all his articles in the Messenger, and I have also made copies of articles in “New Church Life” which I copied while visiting the General Church in Tucson (while house-sitting for my sister) and I know there is a good collection of letters in the archives at Urbana. We can chat more about this next month at Convention!

  7. How very interesting your name is Dr. James Lawrence. I am the historian at Camp Etna in Maine, a Spiritualist camp since 1876, and googled the name James Lawrence because we have his portrait on our archives. I found you and I also found that the Dr. James Lawrence in my portrait wrote a letter in 1870 explaining how they should begin celebrating the anniversary of Spiritualism on a daily basis. Were you aware you shared his name?

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