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Origin of The Swedenborgian Church of San Francisco

► Hear Dr. Devin Zuber deliberate the influence of Emanuel Swedenborg on 19th Century romantic aesthetics and construction of the San Francisco Swedenborgian Church as he examines "What was it about a particular spiritual experience in the wild that pushed Joseph Worcester and the other architects of this space to make such an unusual, unique building -- to bring the wilderness indoors, into sacred architecture?" (or read it here)

And I have felt
a presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth . . .

William Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey, 93-105 (1798)

► Hear a Special Storytelling
by John Gaul on The Reverend Joseph Worcester

In 1863, Joseph Worcester was a young graduate from Harvard College, whose chronic poor health led to a trip out West where the fresh air and salutary climate might restore his weak constitution to a more robust health. He might also have been seeking another kind of strengthening: some kind of inner direction or conviction as to his future.

All of the most promising men for three generations in his family had gone to Harvard and become Swedenborgian pastors and theologians, forming the most powerful family in the early decades of this striking Christian sect.

Though he held a deep love for the ideas contained in Swedenborg's revolutionary insights, young Joseph was most drawn to art and architecture. And it was to be his health trip out West that began the solution of bringing together his two loves: theology and architecture.

During his half-year of convalescence, the artistic theologue fell in love with the romance of Northern California.

Staying in Yosemite for some weeks with family friends, he met and began an intriguing friendship with the naturalist, John Muir. They had in common a reverential view of nature.

John Muir, Naturalist

Though Muir's vision was never so theological as Worcester's, many volumes of Swedenborg with Worcester's name inscribed in them are in Muir's personal library, now kept at the John Muir Center at the University of the Pacific.

There are in Muir's private writings indications that he found Worcester's theosophy of nature challenging and that he wrestled with ideas presented to him through his Worcester-Swedenborg connection.

After experiencing this spiritual resonance with John Muir, Worcester went on to San Francisco. He discovered an attraction to this newly sprawling town, creating itself, as it seemed, on the edge of the world.

A new world was being made, and leading citizens were striving to make a civilized environment in a cultural atmosphere that was often very rough and crude.

Key figures apparently took a strong liking to this educated, soft-spoken but clearly visionary young man, who was searching out and discovering his life's calling. There was already a Swedenborgian congregation being led by a New York attorney who had not had proper theological training.

Several somewhat disaffected members urged young Worcester to return East and complete his theological studies needed beyond his Harvard degree, and they vowed that if he would then return to San Francisco they would serve as a loyal foundation for a new congregation and would support the Swedenborgian cause to their full extent.

So in 1867, Worcester returned, against the strong wishes of his family, and with such stalwart parishioners as Capt. Eldridge, Catherine Marshall, and eventually Bruce Porter, Mary Curtis Richardson, Judge Timothy Riordan, and William Keith, Joseph Worcester shepherded what would become a particularly artistic pilgrimage.

► Hear another Special Storytelling
by John Gaul on Bruce Porter, Stained Glass Designer

As this congregation felt called to be a part of the growing and artistically-inclined congregation, they began to think of building a church together, and plans began in earnest.


The architect A. Page Brown
at the site, c. 1894
Worcester drew up the plans for the church himself. He "had his notion that the way to the door should lead through a garden in which the grass should be ever green, in which the first roses should bloom, in which the birds should gather to bath[e] at a fountain, in which the vines should start on their clinging course, holding fast to the bricks of the church, as the men and women should hold fast to the Bible.

He pictured a church interior in which there should be no pretense, no plaster, no paint. He saw the heavy, timbered roof supported by great trees cut from the forest and the thick walls of concrete." (San Francisco Examiner, September 30, 1895) According to legend, Worcester himself went into the Santa Cruz mountains and selected the eight Madrone trees that support the roof.

► Hear another Special Storytelling
by John Gaul on The Triumph of A. Page Brown


Worcester's architect, A. Page Brown, reportedly criticized his plans severely, especially perhaps the idea of leaving the bark on the interior beams. He reportedly expostulated to his theological client that, "This is not architecture!"-- to which Worcester made his now legendary reply: "I care nothing for the canons of architecture. The building must teach its lessons."

When later told of the incident, Brown's chief architect, Bernard Maybeck responded, yes, he knew it was not architecture. It was, moreover, the poetry of architecture.

According to Charles Keeler, one of Maybeck's closest friends, the budding young architect was deeply affected by his encounter with the gentle minister's ability to create wonderful feelings in his architectural endeavors and that Maybeck's own ideas were forever changed after seeing Worcester's Piedmont house in the early Eighties.

► Hear another Special Storytelling
by John Gaul on The Gold Medal of Bernard Maybeck

Rather than a grand entrance from the street, visitors would find instead a humble portico, quietly beckoning any weary pilgrim in from the hustle and bustle of life.

The philosopher Schlegel wrote: "Nature is a book, written on both sides, within and without, in which the finger of God is distinctly visible; a species of Holy Writ in a bodily form: a glorious eulogy on God's omnipotence, expressed in the most visible symbols."

This vision is what the artist-pastor sought to create in his Church of the New Jerusalem (the first name of the church, changed in the 1960s to The Swedenborgian Church).

There were trees planted from all over the world: an Irish yew, a cedar from Lebanon, an olive tree from the Holy Land, a maple from Japan, a redwood native to California, a Siberian crab apple, a New England elm.

They began to form over the decades a wall of living things around a central greensward, a lawn, with a pond for the birds and many types of shrubs and flowers as the cycle of the seasons, years, and decades would allow.

Worcester served his congregation for 46 years until his death in 1913, and this church brought to life his vision of expressing the divine in a direct and simple way.

An old letter written by a visitor states that the service was very plain, yet cordial and warm. The people present seemed less like a congregation and more like "arriving guests," who "drew chairs into groups, and smiled at or shook hands with or talked to each other."

Since the building of this little church, countless thousands have turned to its quietly evocative beauty and the spiritual vision that called it into being.

Still today, the gardens stand sentry at this Pacific Heights corner, offering respite to all who might find themselves drawn in from the busy pace of urban living to contemplate things of spirit.

Inside, a huge fireplace warms the modest dimensions of the nave which is almost as wide as it is deep. There is no paint or gilt. There are no pews, but the seeker is offered a sturdy rush-seated chair.

Arching overhead are the reddish madrones from the Santa Cruz mountains. Trees correspond to the entirety of the divine life, with roots going deep into the good soil to bring the love of the earth up into the trunk of life.

The spreading system of branches represent knowledges of many kinds, that at last bear leaves and blossoms, which are the actual uses and enjoyments of being alive.

So within, this temple is of God's trees. The gnarled cypress from the wind-swept crest tells of the vicissitudes of life. There points a flame-like piece of root to things above. Swedenborg himself wrote: "The ancients worshipped in groves, because groves of trees signify heavenly wisdom and intelligence."

Four murals painted by William Keith depict nature scenes of Northern California - a divine sanctuary which the artist painted for forty years. The stained glass replicates a garden scene. As the dove drinks sustenance from the water bowl, so is the worshiping congregation to drink spiritual sustenance from the Word of God.

► Hear another Special Storytelling
by John Gaul on William Keith: The Man Who Overcame

The spiritual foundations of the worship practiced within this structure are found in the theological writings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). Foremost among his ideas is a central perception that all life is spiritual and all things reveal something essential of the divine.

Swedenborg believed the world had entered a new phase of spiritual potential during his own lifetime and that he had been called to the role of revelator.

As a celebrated scientist-turned-mystic whose extensive writings articulated a new understanding of Christianity, Swedenborg's ideas were championed by American Transcendentalist thinkers (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry James Sr., Bronson Alcott) and English Romanticists (William Blake, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle).

In recent times, Helen Keller, D.T. Suzuki, Jorge Luis Borges and William Butler Yeats are among dozens of significant minds who have drawn explicitly upon Swedenborg's religious insights.