Rational Supernaturalism, Part I: Joseph Smith, Emanuel Swedenborg, and Angels

By August 17, 2008

Enlightenment thought brought many threats to eighteenth and nineteenth century religious movements. It made those who emphasized spiritual impulses not only have to dispute ?what is true?? but also ?what is rational?? What had been fundamental beliefs like God?s intervention in human lives, direct communication from heaven, and Angelic visitations were now contested as being unreasonable and improbable. Leigh Eric Schmidt does an excellent job exploring this issue in his important book, Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment.[1] In it, he wrote that,

The very idea of a God who speaks and listens, a proposition integral to Christian devotionalism, became a ?monstrous belief? to men like [Thomas] Paine, and the voice of reason was offered as a mechanically reliable replacement for these divine attributes. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, divine absence, far more than presence, had to be constructed, and philosophical argument alone was insufficient material: the rules and practices of auditory experience had to be reshaped as a condition of heaven?s silence.[2]

However, even with the increase of enlightenment critiques, Schmidt would also argue that ?the modern predicament actually became as much one of God?s loquacity as God?s hush.? But, religious movements would now be obligated to attempt to meet new enlightenment guidelines: ?a significant number of American Christians continued to absorb the mental habits and disciplines of the Scottish Common-Sense philosophy well into the nineteenth century; and evangelicals, Spiritualists, and Swedenborgians all scrambled to put themselves on respectable scientific footing.?[3] I?m sure Schmidt would gladly add nineteenth century Mormonism to that list as well. (In fact, he does make that connection several times in his book, though never with deep analysis.)

The usage of angels was one way religious leaders attempted to ?put themselves on respectable footing,? and Joseph Smith and Emanuel Swedenborg provide excellent examples of it.

Both Smith and Swedenborg had the audacity of claiming personal encounters with angelic beings. Starting in the 1740s, Swendenborg developed the ability to ?converse with angels and spirits in the same manner as I speak with men,? and his continual communications with angels was the main foundation for his knowledge and authority.[4] Many of his followers came to see him as introducing ?a more intimate fellowship with saints and angels,? implementing a time when ?angels shall converse with men as familiarly as they did with Adam before the fall.?[5] Likewise, Smith also bragged of his experiences with angelic beings. In a letter written to the Church in 1842, Smith jubilantly proclaimed the many angelic visitors who had tutored him in the restoration of the gospel:

Now, what do we hear in the gospel which we have received?…Moroni, an angel from heaven, declaring the fulfilment of the prophets?the book to be reveal?d?The voice of peter, James & John, in the wilderness, between Harmony, Susquehanna County, and Colesvill, Broom County?And the voice of Michael the archangel?the voice of Gabriel, and of Raphael, and of divers angels, from Michale or Adam, down to the present time; all declaring each one their dispensation, their rights, their keys, their honors, their majesty & glory.[6]

Both viewed their angelic messengers as not some foreign specimen completely other-worldly than us, but rather as individuals who had once lived on the same Earth that we walk on today and were just at different phases of there post-mortal progression. Schmidt noted that the enlightenment made it necessary for those who believed in angels to present them in a more reasonable framework. During this time, Schmidt argued, ?the voices from the spirit-land that people desired were increasingly materialized and incarnated,? a distant cry from the ?wholly other? type of ministers traditional Christianity was used to.[7] To both the Swedish and Palmyra Seers, angelic beings were much more personal, and therefore much more rational.

When Swedenborg described the angels he was used to conversing with, he presented a vision of celestial beings not too dissimilar from common humanity:

The Angels converse together, as we do on earth, and in like manner on various subjects, whether of a domestic, civil, moral, or spiritual nature…The speech of angels is equally divided into words with our?s, and alike sonorous and audible, for they have mouths, tongues and ears, as we have.[8]

It is not difficult to see rationality used to give credence to his supernatural claims.

Joseph Smith and the early Mormons also hoped to present a more ?rational? type of angel. He taught that angels did not have wings because they were merely people just like us who had passed to the other side of the veil. In Nauvoo, he even explained a process in which a person could ?test? the vitality of an angelic visitor.[9] Even more, Smith used the idea of angels as a rational way of proving his movement?s authority: because of the apostasy, and therefore loss of authority, that occurred after Christ?s apostle?s death, the only way to restore that authority was to get it from those who previously held it. Joseph Smith?s solution to the problem of fallen Christianity included bringing back those involved with the original before it was lost. As Jack Welch has argued, ?[Smith] relied not only upon biblical authority to recover the past, but upon the past to recover authority.?[10]

While many enlightenment thinkers still rejected outright angelic claims?Statesman Benjamin Rush specifically pathologized those who ?see and converse with angels?[11]?these attempts to combine the supernatural and rational did provide a workable ?footing? for many religious seekers of their day. They offer a vivid example of the struggle for a reasonable foothold for religion in an increasingly enlightened environment.


[1] Leigh Eric Schmidt, Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000).

[2] Ibid, 6.

[3] Ibid, 11.

[4] A Brief Account of the Life of Emanuel Swedenborg, a Servant of the Lord and the Messenger of the New-Jerusalem Dispensation (Cincinatti: Looker and Reynolds, 1827), 15-19.

[5] ?Preface by the Translator,? in Swedenborg, A Treatise Concerning Heaven and Hell, and of the Wonderful Things Therein, as Heard and Seen by the Honourable and Learned Emanuel Swedenborg (Baltimore: Miltenberger, 1812), 5-10. As a quick side-note, Swedenborg had a considerable advantage as being considered ?rational? when compared to someone like Joseph Smith because, as the title of this treatise hints to, he was a well respected scientist before becoming a visionary. Thus, because of his ?rational? background, it became a little harder to merely dismiss his ?supernatural? claims.

[6] Smith, The Papers of Joseph Smith, 2:473-474.

[7] Schmidt, Hearing Things, 201.

[8] Swedenborg, Heaven and Hell, 234-236.

[9] Sam MB spoke on this very concept at this last year?s MHA, so hopefully he can drop by and correct my mistakes.

[10] John W. Welch, ?Joseph Smith and the Past,? in The Worlds of Joseph Smith: A Bicentennial Conference at the Library of Congress, ed. John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 2006), 112, emphasis in original.

[11] Benjamin Rush, Medical Inquiries and Observations upon the Diseases of the Mind (Philadelphia: Kimber and Richardson, 1812), 138.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Cultural History Intellectual History Theology


  1. Ben, do you have the sense that Joseph’s rationalizing take on angels may have been influenced by Swedenborg, or does it look to you like it was independent but driven by similar concerns?

    (Thanks for the post, btw.)

    Comment by Kevin Barney — August 17, 2008 @ 7:04 pm

  2. Kevin: Great question. Off hand, I don’t have a definitive answer. My impulse is that he probably didn’t know that much Swedenborg, but then I remember that there were many “New Jerusalem” churches (churches that were based on Swedenborg) springing up in America during JS’s time, and he must have had some contact with them. How much contact, though, I’m not qualified to say.

    I seem to remember Quinn making the argument that JS had a lot of contact with Swedenborianism, but I don’t have my Early Mormonism and the Magic World View handy.

    Hopefully someone will comment who has researched this matter more and is qualified to give a better answer.

    Comment by Ben — August 17, 2008 @ 7:34 pm

  3. i continue to think these are fascinating topics, Ben, and Schmidt’s is an absolutely wonderful book that tells a story well and engages in significant and compelling interpretation. I highly recommend it.

    I’m revising the Buck’s paper (the MHA one) now and do feel that there were several important issues relating to angels in the negotiation of sacred pasts and authority. In the Chain paper that I’ve almost completed revisions for I argue that there was a humanization of angels required to tame the old Chain, and I think this plays a crucial part in JSJ’s angelology as well. I’ll be interested to get your comments on my angel work.

    once I finish the death project (current plan is to submit jan 1, 2009), I’m collecting material for an essay that I plan to call “The early Mormon assault on Common Sense” that brings together the disparate threads of rationalism, supernaturalism, biblical textuality, and the meaning of knowledge and science for antebellums.

    I agree with you that Mormon angelology has been only poorly considered as a general rule and think it’s time for more and better work. One of the chapters in the death book will focus on angels and the meaning of the encounters, mostly emphasizing the Chain material and the creation of a society against death.

    As for Swedenborg, I had to abandon an essay on this for lack of time, but it’s an interesting question. Quinn’s evidence is actually a minor misquote from Edward Hunter’s late autobiography, and Quinn is the source that Brooke and Albanese rely on. Nobody really has adduced much concrete evidence of any specific encounter.

    That said, there’s no reason to doubt that early LDS knew about Swedenborg–Parley Pratt clearly invoked him in his response to LaRoy Sunderland’s 1838 pamphlet, and there are other clues of varying complexity. Heaven and Hell was immensely popular at the time, and people talked about Swedenborg a lot (though popular Swedenborgianism would wait to skyrocket for seance spiritualism of the 1850s and 60s, which relied heavily on his angelology/eschatology). A description of Swedenborgianism was available in Buck’s (and on the same page as I recall as the Nestorians which Taylor quoted directly), and if I had to guess how much Smith and others knew, I would say that the Buck’s piece and random gossip would be the extent of their knowledge.

    It would be simplistic to deny any link between Swedenborgianism and Smithian angelology, just as it would be simplistic to read JSJ as a closet Swedenborgian. My personal view is that a somewhat superficial understanding of Swedenborg represented one of the many disparate threads from which JSJ drew inspiration as he revealed the new dispensation. Perhaps not as directly as he inspired Ann Lee (the Shaker founder called Swedenborg her “John the Baptist”), but ES at the very least opened the way for JSJ. A priesthood manual from the 1940s (may have the date off by a decade or two) actually brought up ES as an example of how God was preparing the world for the prophet of the Restoration.

    Incidentally, it’s not a surprise to see the way some modern spiritualists use Joseph Smith and particularly Moroni to defend angelic intercourse through seance-type encounters.

    Comment by smb — August 17, 2008 @ 8:06 pm

  4. Swedenborg’s Angelic Wisdom shows up in the Utah Territorial Library, assembled in 1851 (I know that’s late for most of you, but it’s my only contribution here).

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 17, 2008 @ 8:35 pm

  5. smb: Thanks for your insights; they are always appreciated. I knew someone more sophisticated than I would stop by and give valid comments. I look forward to reading your work on this.

    Ardis: thanks for commenting; your contributions are always more than welcome :). Also, how Mormons dealt with these issues during the Utah period is equally interesting–too bad most of my fascination with Mormonism didn’t make the trek west.

    Comment by Ben — August 17, 2008 @ 8:53 pm

  6. There are some interesting parallels but one can’t help but suspect that many of these could be easily arrived at via other means. As SMB noted Quinn’s claim is really just a musing (along with several other provocative ones in the book). Unfortunately it isn’t presented rhetorically as raw speculation so a lot of people assumed there was more there than there was. (As with neoPlatonic parallels to Joseph’s materialism, for example)

    It’s sort of like finding Hegelian parallels in Joseph. One has to be careful on how to take them. Further, from an LDS perspective, who is to argue that Swedenborg wasn’t partially inspired so as to lay the groundwork for the restoration? Why do we put in pamphlets the inspiration of folks like Martin Luther but ignore folks less accepted in the mainstream?

    Comment by Clark — August 18, 2008 @ 11:56 am

  7. check out a few things Swedenborg wrote about eternal marriage…very interesting in light of what JS taught:

    Heaven and Hell 379:The delight of true marriage love not only endures to old age in the world, but after death becomes the delight of heaven and is there filled with an interior delight that grows more and more perfect to eternity. The varieties of blessedness of true marriage love could be enumerated even to many thousands, not even one of which is known to people, or could enter into the comprehension of any one who is not in the marriage of good and truth from the Lord.

    Arcana Coelestia 2734:Those who during their lifetime have found happiness in marriage because of genuine conjugial love find happiness again in the next life, so that the happiness experienced by them in one life is continued into that of the other, where it becomes a union of minds, in which is heaven.

    Conjugial Love 216:People who are in a state of truly conjugial love look to eternity in their marriage because eternity is inherent in this love. Its eternity is owing to the fact that this love in the wife and wisdom in the husband grow to eternity, and as these grow or progress, the partners enter more and more deeply into the blessings of heaven-blessings which their wisdom and love of wisdom at the same time carry concealed within them.

    Comment by Phouchg — August 18, 2008 @ 11:52 pm

  8. […] JI had up an interesting post comparing the angelology of Swedenborg and Joseph Smith. […]

    Pingback by Best of the Week 6: Academic LDS : Mormon Metaphysics — August 19, 2008 @ 12:02 am

  9. […] See part I here. […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Rational Supernaturalism, Part II: What’s in a Name? — October 17, 2008 @ 1:46 am

  10. […] Loosely continuing on the same theme from parts I and […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Rational Supernaturalism, Part III: The Pratt Brothers and Defining Mormon Doctrine — November 3, 2008 @ 2:59 am

  11. Ben, I didn’t have the chance to comment on this when you first posted it, but thanks for the incisive analysis.

    Comment by John Turner — November 3, 2008 @ 10:17 pm


Recent Comments

Armand Mauss on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “I am pleasantly surprised and deeply grateful for the three assessments offered in this space this week by Gary Shepherd, Jana Riess, and Matt Bowman.…”

Roger T on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Since I work in Mormon studies, I tend to read a lot. It's impossible to keep up with everything being published, but over the past…”

Jeff T on Q&A with Taylor Petrey,: “Thanks, Taylor!”

Jeff T on The Mechanics of Applying: “Thanks, J!”

Jeff T on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Thanks, Matt!”

Jeff T on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Thanks, Jana! My experience with Armand, too, has been that of generosity and genuine care for Mormon Studies as a broad and inclusive field. And…”