Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Siri Griffin on Morton Smith`s Religious Beliefs as a Young Man

I work for the Academy of the New Church in Bryn Athyn, and grand daughter, of American composer Richard Yardumian.  You requested to see what our files might have with respect to any ties between Morton Smith, a member of the Secondary Schools class of 1932, a Son’s of the Academy gold medal recipient, and an Oratorical prize winner.  I’m sorry to say that my office has little to no information about Morton Smith. The yearbook of the class of 1932 is not in our collection. We do have a card for Mr. Smith in our old card-catalogue system, but it contains no information that will be new to you. The lack of additional information can be attributed to the fact that Mr. Smith officially joined the church in 1937, and resigned in 1948.  I don’t know that Mr. Smith actually wrote a letter when he resigned, the records I have say that he “dropped from the roll”. Any correspondence, if kept, would likely be in the archives.

But to the point of your question, it is unusual. We have many members who lose interest but never actually resign. According to my record, Mr. Smith was baptized in 1926. Baptism does not equal membership, you become a member when you sign the roll as an adult, which Mr. Smith did in 1937. Not all baptized people become members, it just gives you the right to vote in various church matters. There’s no expectation on members, and once you become a member you are one for life or until you ask to be removed. I think in Mr. Smith’s time membership was more common. The date I have for his resignation is 3/12/1948, but I couldn’t say whether that is the date he requested to be dropped or the day they recorded it.

I did not see anything that would indicate a previous marriage, but that’s not surprising given the incomplete nature of his constituent record. Marrying at a young age was, of course, more common in his day, but particularly so here. The Academy is a boarding school, so people come from all over the world to attend. The long-standing half-joke is that you find your conjugial partner at the Academy. I told you already that many people wait to find the “right” person, but just as many have jumped headfirst into the wrong marriage upon graduation because they’re swept up by the romantic notion. This is not encouraged by the church, it just seems to happen. In the church, divorce is considered a “permission”. It is not ideal, but also not a reason for condemnation. We have divorced ministers and leaders. Swedenborg does give a few legitimate reasons for divorce, e.g. infidelity, but not everyone waits for a “legitimate” reason. There are varying viewpoints on the matter among church leaders and members, of course, but I doubt it’s something the church itself would have asked Mr. Smith to leave over.

I could go into more detail about the church, I’m sure it did impact Mr. Smith, particularly given the field he pursued. One thing that should be made clear: the New Church is to Christianity as the General Church of the New Jerusalem is to the Catholic Church. The New Church is a philosophy, a belief system. The General Church is an organization, which Mr. Smith belonged to for a part of his life. You do not have to belong to the General Church to be a New Churchman. Indeed, I think the more “New Church” one is, the less meaningful they may find membership in the organization.

The New Church was never really meant to be a church as we think of church today. Swedenborg emphasized a personal spiritual journey, informed and led by the Bible. His extensive writings were an effort to show how the Bible really is talking about each one of us as we strive to become more perfect people and, ultimately, angels. “Nunc Licet” means “Now it is permitted”, a quote that goes on to say “Now it is permitted to enter into the mysteries of faith with understanding”. His works attempt to make clear the enigma that is the Bible (funny, though, he wrote in Latin and his sentences sometimes run a whole half page without punctuation. Not really the “for Dummies” reference one would go to today). The New Church also does not condemn other faiths. The holy city New Jerusalem (from which the GC takes the latter half of its formal name) had twelve gates, which Swedenborg wrote means that there are many ways into the kingdom of heaven. It would not be a radical shift for Mr. Smith to consider another perspective on religion and faith. The most important thing is that one lives his beliefs with integrity, wisdom, charity (meaning kindness, sort of, not magnanimity), and usefulness.

One clarifying point on a piece of information you already have: the Sons of the Academy gold medal is awarded to the graduate who best displays not only academic excellence, but also exemplary moral character. From what I’ve read, it seems the Mar Saba hoax would have been drastically out of character.

Also, I noticed something in your article that I can offer a possible explanation for. Swedenborg wrote prolifically on the subject of marriage, and emphasized the concept of “conjugial” (a word I think he made up) partners, or soul mates. We in the New Church are encouraged to marry the right person. If we never meet the right person on Earth, many people believe we will meet them in heaven. If Mr. Smith never found his soul mate, it would not be unreasonable for him to never marry. Though, as you say, the man’s personal life should have nothing to do with it, that might help shed light on the situation.

(editor`s note: slightly condensed from original emails)

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