Friday, August 26, 2011

Maybe Morton Smith Never Actually Left the Swedenborgian Faith in 1948

I knew very little - if anything - about the Swedenborgian faith before examining in detail the life of the discoverer of the Mar Saba document, Columbia University professor Morton Smith. After talking with Siri Griffin, Siri Griffin, the Capital Campaign Coordinator at the Academy, I learned that Morton Smith not only attended the Academy of the New Church at Bryn Athyn but was baptized in 1926 and enrolled as a member of the church in 1936. I also learned that Morton Smith asked for his name to be taken off the roll in 1948. I assumed that meant that Morton Smith was no longer a member of the Swedenborgian church as it coincides with being an Episcopal minister.

Curiously I had a conversation today with a seventy something year old senior member of the Bryn Athyn church who said he knew of Morton Smith and that he was '95% sure' that Morton Smith never left the Swedenborgian faith but rather transferred from what is called the 'General Church' (= Bryn Athyn) to what is called 'the Convention Church.' Apparently these are two different branches of the same faith. Here is an explanation I found on the internet to explain the division within the church:

Two Separate Branches


By the early 1800’s, Swedenborgians were exploring ways to join their scattered churches into a single denominational structure. What they finally created was very de-centralized in nature. Each church, as an assembly or congregation, has a large degree of autonomy in deciding its own affairs. Churches in each region of the country come together in annual meetings of regional “associations” (called “conferences” in Canada) to discuss issues of cooperation and common interest.

Once a year, representatives from all the churches in North America, plus all the clergy, come together for what is called “Convention”. Convention is a kind of grand gathering of the clan, a week-long series of meetings, workshops, dinners and special events in which the business of the denomination is conducted, strategic decisions are taken, new ministers are ordained and elections are held to fill church offices.

Convention was first held in 1817 and has met every year since that time, hosted by a different church in the US or Canada. Connections are also maintained with Swedenborgian ministries in many parts of the world. The Church of the Good Shepherd in Kitchener is affiliated with Convention and has played host to this annual gathering a number of times, most recently in 2004.

“General Church”

Alas, for all their breadth of vision, not even Swedenborgians always see eye-to-eye! Just over a hundred years ago, it transpired that a group within the Convention of associated churches wanted to walk another path. In 1890 they separated to form what is called the General Church. Since that time there have remained two separate and quite distinct branches of the Swedenborgian family in North America.

The General Church has a very different denominational structure, based on bishops and a male-only priesthood. The General Church has traditionally placed great emphasis on operating its own schools, based on a Swedenborgian curriculum. This practice has endowed the General Church with a rich heritage of creating wonderful educational resources for both children and adults.

The General Church has traditionally placed a greater emphasis on the Divine inspiration of Swedenborg’s writings, so much so that, in the 1930’s, a group calling itself “Nova Hierosolyma” (Latin for “New Jerusalem”) made the claim that Swedenborg’s own writings, no less than scripture, contained a hidden divine sense. This group separated itself from the parent body but remains based in Bryn Athyn, the headquarters of the General Church.

General Church ministries are located across the US and Canada and there are affiliated bodies in many other parts of the world.

The guy giving me this information noted that the headquarters of the 'the Convention Church' is in Washington. Then after calling around I found that there is a branch of this 'Convention Church' in Boston, the very place Smith was head in 1948. Coincidence? Fact? Stay tune for more information ...

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