Swedenborgians celebrate 150th anniversary of Enlightenment-era mystic's Wilmington congregation
By GARY SOULSMAN, The News Journal January 27, 2007
WILMINGTON -- He's been called the Buddha of the North.
One reason why: Emanuel Swedenborg believed that all people who live good lives -- regardless of their religion -- have a place in heaven.
Yet as a Swedish Lutheran, Swedenborg was a radical in his day -- 1688 to 1772.
And some say America's New Age teachers are only now catching up to this Enlightenment-era scientist and mystic, who claimed to have visited heaven and conversed with angels for more than 20 years.
His insights were so arresting that Ralph Waldo Emerson, Carl Jung, Helen Keller and Wilmington artist Howard Pyle are among those who've found value in his ideas. And because of his these ideas, Christian churches were founded in his name.
Nevertheless, if you ask most Americans to tell you something about Swedenborg, they go blank.
"I don't know or understand why he isn't better known," says the Rev. Randi Laakko, a student of Swedenborg's ideas for almost 50 years.
Laakko and the Rev. Sage Currie want to raise Swedenborg's profile this year, the 150th anniversary of people gathering in Wilmington to foster his ideas. The congregation is Church of the Holy City, where Laakko is pastor and Currie is an assistant.
"I like that Swedenborg talks of God being -- not a God of anger, wrath and judgement -- but a God of compassion, forgiveness and support," Laakko says.
Since 1857, local folks have met and worshiped in Wilmington, with prayers, hymns, Bible readings and sermons presented much like the traditional liturgy in mainline churches. Also in 1857, they began a handsome Gothic revival church which they built for less than $10,000.
It was constructed downtown, near the site of the Wilmington YMCA at 10th and Washington streets, though the church now sits at 1118 N. Broom St. It was a street widening project in 1917 that led to the blue granite church being taken apart and reassembled less than a mile away.
Starting this month, members hope to tell this story in a yearlong celebration. It will begin at 4 p.m. Sunday, when church member Sue Ditmire will speak about the history of the congregation. Later programs will focus on the church's architecture, as well as music, art and Swedenborg's ideas.
Now 67, Laakko has pastored the church for 43 years and says the congregation has always drawn about 50 adults. He believes the limited street parking has been one of the deterrents to greater growth.
Over the years, he was also president of the national denomination. Today, he says, there are fewer than 10,000 Swedenborgians in the United States, perhaps 50,000 worldwide.
Despite the small size, Swedenborgians have a strong presence in the greater Wilmington area. For instance:
• West Chester, Pa., is the home to the Swedenborgian Foundation, a nonprofit that publishes Swedenborg's books and those of scholars who write about him.
• In suburban Philadelphia, the Bryn Athyn Cathedral promotes itself as the world's largest church devoted to Swedenborg's teachings.
And there is a retreat center -- Temenos -- near West Chester, staffed by the Rev. Susannah Currie and Deane Currie. They are Sage's parents.
Sage says that she and her mother are the first mother and daughter to be ordained in the denomination. As a part-time minister in Wilmington, Sage is helping with the anniversary and talking with the congregation about how they would like the church to evolve.
"It's rare to get to work with another person in our denomination," says Sage, 29, a new pastor. "For me it's great that I can benefit from Randy's experience and not have to be totally in charge."
Sage is also a part-time pastor to an online ministry launched in June -- swedenborgiancommunity.org. The ministry reaches out to seekers and links people curious about Swedenborg's ideas.
"It was the brainchild of parishioners who were isolated from a church," she says. "There are only 43 churches in the U.S. and Canada.
"A lot of times, even if people have a church, they have to move away and are not able to maintain a connection."
Online, there's a weekly message posted and chats held three times weekly that are focused on a range of topics. The chats average 15 to 20 people. Overall there are 120 members.
Some are people as far away as Italy and Poland who stumble on Swedenborg's writings. They can't believe they never heard of the Buddha of the North.