Handsome Lake
and Emanuel Swedenborg

Looking at ourselves through another culture's lens can tell us something about our own culture. If we look at Swedenborgianism through the lens of American Indian cultures, we find delightful similarities and marked differences. Indians go through definable processes to become ritual specialists (medicine or holy people). (1) They receive a call in a dream or vision. (2) They consult another ritual specialist to interpret the vision. This consultation includes the vision's explanation, sometimes partial, and its attending obligations. (3) Indian people train with other ritual specialists--often for decades--to become ritual specialists. (4) They are integrated into their communities, and those communities recognize them. My point of reference for comparison is Handsome Lake or Sganyada¡:yoh (1735-1815), a political and religious leader in the Seneca Nation of the Iroquois Confederacy.

1. Receiving the Call

Swedenborg definitely received a vision. We know it popularly as the "Delft Vision," which occurred after midnight on April 6, 1744. He described it this way.

"At the same moment, I sat in his [Christ's] bosom, and saw him face to face; it was a face of holy mien, and in all it was indescribable, and he smiled so that I believe that his face had indeed been like this when he lived on earth."

Handsome Lake received his vision after a four-year illness complicated by alcoholism. One day he got up, went to his doorway, and collapsed. His daughter thought that he had died, and the family began to arrange his burial. Yet, Handsome Lake awoke, fell back asleep, and awoke again. In the midst of this, he received his commission. The Great Spirit had sent messengers from the spirit world to Handsome Lake. They were to tell Handsome Lake that he was to spread the "Good Word."

2. Consulting Other Ritual Specialists for Interpretation

American Indians call on ritual specialists to interpret their visions. Swedenborg's spiritual experiences were unusual for eighteenth-century Sweden. He recorded his initial doubts about these experiences in the Journal of Dreams, the Spiritual Diary, and The Word Explained. He wrote about these experiences in his later works, but he wrote from the perspective of having integrated his experiences. Handsome Lake received both his vision and its meaning simultaneously. Both men processed their visions beyond the bounds of ancient and contemporary Indian experience. Although one may inherit the medicine man's office by heredity or directly by vision, the usual pattern includes a vision or visions interpreted. Swedenborg did not have an interpreter; Handsome Lake did not need one.

When an Indian has received a vision and consulted a ritual specialist, the interpretation includes discovering an obligation or obligations of the vision. Swedenborg was told, " . . . do what thou hast promised." What had Swedenborg promised? And how did that differ from his mission as he later understood it? Handsome Lake received a vision not only for himself, but for his nation. This may have been why he found himself relaying detailed instructions to others. Handsome Lake's obligations were clear; Swedenborg had to discover his obligations. In either case, both thus far had a vision that implied obligations.

3. Training or Apprenticeship

Handsome Lake needed no training, unless we see his previous illness as the training. One might see Swedenborg's period before his "theological works" as training, but I feel that he would argue with that claim. One of his earlier observations makes him seem like Handsome Lake.

"To forget nothing, it came also into the thoughts, that the Holy Spirit would show me to Jesus, and present me to him, as a work that he had so prepared; and that I ought by no means to attribute anything to myself; but that all is his; although he of grace, imputes to us the same."

4. Community Recognition

The final question is whether they were integrated into their communities, and whether they achieved community recognition. Swedenborg could have hardly been more integrated into his community and recognized by it. He was a noble of the Swedish Riksdag and had some influence over government policy. His civil service and travels suggest that although he enjoyed a privileged position, he also appeared aware of the lower social classes. Indian ritual specialists may receive visions or calls, but the working recognition must come from an Indian community. The Seneca Nation counted Handsome Lake among its sachems (leaders of chiefs), and among the leaders of the Iroquois Confederacy. He was also recognized as a religious and moral leader. He may have been responsible for the first widespread sobriety movement in Indian country. The question of community recognition does not afford an adequate basis for comparison.

Both Swedenborg and Handsome Lake partially fit the model of the person who becomes an Indian ritual specialist. Both met two of the preceding four stages of experience. Each received a vision with obligations and were recognized by their communities. Neither consulted a ritual specialist nor underwent formal training. Naturally, they were from different cultures, so any similarity would be general. "Indian" is too abstract a term, considering the hundreds of existing Indian nations. Also, I have described the process by which a contemporary Indian becomes a ritual specialist. Further, any theoretical model is going to have some exceptions.

However, I believe that there is another, if obvious, explanation. Handsome Lake and Swedenborg were innovators. They had visions of the future that they could wed to the past. They were partly successful because both the past and the future need each other to survive. The final irony is that they did not intend to start separate religious movements. Yet, each is represented in this time by organizations that carry forward their legacies: Swedenborg in the various Swedenborgian churches and Handsome Lake in the Iroquois Longhouse Religion.

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