Emanuel Swedenborg was a fascinating character, whom Jorge Luis Borges called ‘the most extraordinary man in recorded history’. Born in Stockholm in 1688, Swedenborg gained an enviable reputation as a scientist and inventor before undergoing a spiritual transformation in the mid-1740s and pouring out hundreds of essays and dozens of books on all aspects of what was essentially an entirely new form of Christianity. He died in London in 1772 – apparently on the precise day he had predicted some time earlier.
The Swedenborg Society was founded in 1825 with the primary aim of translating his works into English and keeping as many as possible of them in print.
The society’s grade-II listed home is located at 20-21 Bloomsbury Way. Regrettably, it is something of a disappointment. In contrast to the impression given by its welcoming streetfront bookshop, most of the building is in need of tasteful refurbishment and the restoration of what remains of its period features, while throwing out some of the less pleasing 20th-century additions, many of which are in a depressing state of disrepair. The lecture hall (which hosts occasional talks, readings, performances and film screenings) has apparently been described in The Guardian as “one of London’s most atmospheric venues” – but this must have been said a long time ago. Given the remarkably generous bequests made by some of the society’s past adherents it is to be hoped that a radical makeover may prove affordable.