Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

Related Topics

West of Broad
A collection of articles about the area west of Broad Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Religious Philadelphia
William Penn wanted a colony with religious freedom. A considerable number, if not the majority, of American religious denominations were founded in this city. The main misconception about religious Philadelphia is that it is Quaker-dominated. But the broader misconception is that it is not Quaker-dominated.

Sights to See: The Outer Ring
There are many interesting places to visit in the exurban ring beyond Philadelphia, linked to the city by history rather than commerce.

Touring Philadelphia's Western Regions
Philadelpia County had two hundred farms in 1950, but is now thickly settled in all directions. Western regions along the Schuylkill are still spread out somewhat; with many historic estates.

Favorite Reflections
In no particular order, here are the author's own favorites.

The Swedenborgian Church

{Emanuel Swedenborg}
Emanuel Swedenborg

Among the many churches centered in Philadelphia, the Swedenborgian is probably the least typical and most difficult to understand. The church does not actively seek out a new membership, but it welcomes everyone, in the spirit of Emanuel Swedenborg's observation that "All people who live good lives, no matter what their religion, have a place in Heaven." Without attempting to define the teachings of Swedenborg (1699-1772), who was quite able to speak for himself, it can be approximated that Heaven plays a central role in this belief system, and predestination does not. Although the ceremonial features of this religion are very similar to the Episcopal Church, its main emphasis is on good works as a way of attaining the reward of Heaven. In some ways, that is an unexpected position for a noted scientist like Swedenborg to take, since generally scientists lean toward Calvinism, with the mechanistic view that if God is all-powerful, then human free will must be impossible.


There are at least four divisions of the Swedenborgian religion, but the Bryn Athyn branch is most notable in the Philadelphia region. A very wealthy adherent of Swedenborg named John Pitcairn bought a large tract at Bryn Athyn and gathered the local church to live around a perfectly magnificent cathedral and church school. It is hard to think of any church in the Philadelphia region which approaches the magnificence of the Bryn Athyn cathedral. It has a special character that it was conceived and built during the crafts movement of the early twentieth century, with imported European workmen deliberately organized like medieval craft guilds. The central features of this workmanship reflect and then project the belief in personal individuality within the whole religion. No two windows, or doorknobs, or carvings are the same in the cathedral, reflecting the wish for each workman to devise his own unique creation and show the way of personal responsibility to the faithful. This cathedral is one of the things in the Philadelphia region most worth visiting, but to appreciate its quality you have to know what you are looking at.

Everybody in this church is unexpectedly hard to characterize. The Pitcairn Foundation was such a successful investor that it formed a mutual fund for others to share in its good fortune. Its central philosophy is to invest only in corporations which have been dominated by a single family, preferably the founding family, for at least fifteen years. There are about six hundred eligible corporations, and recent management scandals in the newspapers illustrate the Pitcairn's exactly knew the dangers of handing your assets over to a hired manager. This family-centered investing approach consistently yields better than the S & P 500, which in turn beats ninety percent of investment managers. You sort of get the idea you know where this family is coming from when you meet a courtly, meek, retiring but friendly person, who can say, "My mother is the only person I ever met who looked perfectly at home seated under a sixty-foot ceiling."

{Helen Keller}
Helen Keller

Two other famous Swedenborgians illustrate the unusual individualism of this religion. Helen Keller, the deaf-blind girl who overcame her handicap by going to Radcliffe and becoming a successful author and lecturer, for one. The other would be Johnny Appleseed (1774-1845), whose real name was John Chapman. Grammar school legends would have this bearded, barefoot vegetarian adopting a life of poverty like St. Francis, but in fact, he was an extremely shrewd businessman who died rich. He developed the business plan that American settlers would be going West into what was then the Northwest Territory, and having a tough time getting enough to eat the first year or two. So, he anticipated the paths of frontier settlement, and went ahead among the Indian tribes, planting apple trees. When the settlers arrived in the region, he sold them young apple trees and showed them what to do with them. Apples grown from seed are not the tasty morsels we know today but tend to be rather shriveled and bitter. So Johnny showed them how you make cider, and if you let it sit around a while, hard cider. The settlers would use the pulpy squeezing for compost, and he would be back to collect the seeds from them so he could continue his business plan in the next county. In short, he showed them how to drink the apples. He also let the Indians pick the apples, so they liked him and spared him the common troubles of the frontier.

If you are going to boil apples, you need a pot, and Johnny often carried his like a hat. He wasn't a nut, at all, he was a showman. In his backpack, he was also carrying a Bible. And in his head, he carried a motto, "All religion has to do with life, and the life of religion is to do good."

Originally published: Friday, June 23, 2006; most-recently modified: Friday, May 24, 2019

Daniel Marsh 6539 Linville dr Brighton, MI 48116 Dear People of the Swedenborgian Church, I am trying to find out if Mormonism aka Latter Day Saints teachings and scriptures borrowed or plagurized from the writings of your church. Any information and links you can send me would be appricated. Thanks, Daniel
Posted by: Daniel Marsh   |   Mar 10, 2018 11:27 PM
The doctrines of the New Church are very detailed, but boiled down to their essence are actually very simple: those who "keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ" (Revelation 12:17) are members of the New Church.
Posted by: Ben   |   Mar 10, 2018 4:43 PM
Very good.. I enjoyed reading it & learned a lot.. the critique I'd make is that you left out Harriet Beecher Stowe.. actually this site contains names of well-known people who were either directly or indirectly with Swedenborg...
Posted by: JFloyd    |   Mar 25, 2016 9:28 PM
Thank you for this additional information. While I am not a member,Over the years I have been drawn to the Bryn Athyn Cathedral and the teachings of Swedenborg.
Posted by: Timothy   |   Jan 2, 2015 8:11 PM
The essence of the Swedenborg church, or the New Church is twofold: one, is that there is one God in one person Jesus Christ. There is no such thing as a trinity of three beings, this was a false misconception invented in the fourth century which is essentially tritheism. The second principle is, that there is no faith that is not a living faith of activity - and that must involve good works. And this is where we come to the principle error of the Protestant Church. When Paul spoke of justification by faith without "works of the law", he was talking about the Mosaic law of Jewish rituals - circumcision, dietary laws, rituals, etc. These were representative and symbolic. It is unfortunate that the Protestant church took a statement of Paul out of context, and invented a new theology in the 16th century. If you understand those two principles, you will understand how the Swedenborg church differs from the former Christian churches.
Posted by: Doug Webber   |   Jan 11, 2014 2:26 AM
You are very kind and generous. Thank you very much.

Martin Pryke was a patient of mine and dear friend; it sounds as though you were a friend of his, too.

I could never get him to discuss Swedenborgian ideas, but your
letter prompted me to Google him and thus I find several sermons which help me know him better.

He once took me on a memorable tour of the Cathedral and Castle.
Posted by: Dr. Fisher replies   |   Sep 4, 2006 1:43 PM
Your site is a wonderful resource. I originally found it looking for blogs related to Swedenborgianism. (I'm a minister in the General Church of the New Jerusalem, and just started podcasting at my site,, and was wondering what else was out there.)

I grew up in the Philadelphia area, but have recently moved to Pittsburgh. I'll always be part Philadelphian, though. The historical information you've gathered, with the tone you lend in how you describe it, make this site a delight.

Thanks, and keep up the good work.
Posted by: Mac   |   Aug 1, 2006 3:45 PM