Real estate row creates religious rift

Boston Globe June 2, 2000
By Alex Beam

It is true, as historian Eugene Taylor says, that any educated man or woman of the 19th century knew the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg. The Swedish mystic profoundly influenced Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the James gang: father Henry Sr. and his two sons, Henry, the novelist, and William, the philosopher/psychologist. Helen Keller's book ''My Religion'' describes her commitment to Swedenborgianism. In his history of spirituality in America, ''Shadow Culture,'' Taylor calls Swedenborg ''one of the most widely read authors of the nineteenth century in American popular culture.''

Swedenborg never intended to found a religion. Nonetheless, the Church of the New Jerusalem sprang up over 200 years ago and took root in North America. The General Convention, with about 2,000 members, is headquartered in Newton (a larger, rival denomination works out of Philadelphia). Although its communicants, like Swedenborg, may have found peace in the natural universe, they have not found peace among themselves.

The trouble started about a year ago when the Convention's only seminary, the Swedenborgian School of Religion, tried to sell its church on Quincy Street, smack in the middle of the Harvard University campus. It is possibly the most beautiful piece of real estate in the city, and the pocket-size Gothic church is famous throughout Cambridge for its well-attended Christmas candlelight services. When the SSR tried to sell the parcel out from under the 50-member congregation, to a developer who planned to build an 11-story office building there, all hell broke loose.

The congregation filed a restraining order against the sale, and quickly convinced the Cambridge Historical Commission to grant the building landmark status. That put the kibosh on the office deal. Then a judge ordered the two parties to mediate their differences, but this hasn't worked out. The congregation has offered $630,000 for the plot. The SSR wants $2 million. It is possible that church members may iron out their differences at this month's annual meeting in Illinois, but no one is counting on it. ''Their attorney is pressing for a trial,'' says Cambridge church president Lars-Erik Wiberg.

Meanwhile, the school is planning to leave the Boston area altogether. Earlier this year, it sold its small Newton campus for $2.7 million, and is hoping to merge its program with the University of California,Berkeley's Pacific School of Religion. ''We're so small that we need to be part of a larger seminary,'' says school chair Jane Siebert. ''We're changing our philosophy from tying up our money in buildings to putting it to use.''

Pshaw! says historian Taylor, who is a member of the Cambridge congregation. In a lengthy and spirited ''Open Letter to Swedenborgians'' written earlier this year, he charges that the school has been hijacked by non-Swedenborgians ''advocating a mail order church devoted to New Age teachings ... [and] the perception of Swedenborgianism as a cult is being reinforced by the constant comparison of Swedenborg's ideas to the New Age.''

It is true that the SSR will soon offer its first course on its Web site (, but generally speaking, Siebert - herself a church member in Kansas - calls Taylor's charges ''off the wall.'' In a lengthy rebuttal, she says the school ''has been trying to work out an equitable arrangement with the Cambridge Society for over 10 years,'' so far in vain.

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