Ancient Churches Lexicon

A Lexicon of Concepts Relating to the Golden and Silver Ages as Described in the Theological Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg

Amos Glenn and Ed Gyllenhaal
Glencairn Museum, The Academy of the New Church
(Note: This is a work in progress. Comments welcome.)

Lexicon Index

Introductory Essay | Abbreviations | Project Information

Introductory Essay

18th Century Views on the Golden Age
Swedenborg and the Four Ages
Figure 1. Descendants of Adam Chart
The Most Ancient Church
The Fall of the Most Ancient Church
The First Ancient Church
The Corruption of the First Ancient Church
The Second Ancient Church
Skip to: Lexicon Index

18th Century Views on the Golden Age top

Emanuel Swedenborg’s descriptions of a Golden Age made up of “the most ancient people who lived before the flood” (HD 255) would have sounded familiar to many of his 18th century readers. In fact, some of Swedenborg’s more general statements about these people, whom he describes as having “inward peace, and at the same time outward peace, and from this heaven among men” (AC 10160), would likely have found general acceptance in his day. The concept of a prehistoric Golden Age would have been known to Swedenborg’s readers from the accounts of certain Greek poets; Hesiod, for example, had described the Golden, Silver, Bronze and Iron ages in his Works and Days. But educated people in the 18th century would have been most familiar with the Four Ages idea from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a Latin poem completed in 8 AD. In this work Ovid had collected the mythological stories of the Greeks into an elaborate narrative, including vivid descriptions of the Four Ages.1 In Ovid’s account there was a gradual moral decline from the Golden to the Iron Age, which was then followed by a flood. Ovid’s Golden Age is an earthly paradise:

The golden age was first; when Man yet new,
No rule but uncorrupted reason knew:
And, with a native bent, did good pursue.
Unforc’d by punishment, un-aw’d by fear,
His words were simple, and his soul sincere;
Needless was written law, where none opprest:
The law of Man was written in his breast
(Metamorphoses, Book 1).2

So Swedenborg’s readers would have readily understood him when he wrote:

With the most ancient people, who lived before the flood, and whose time was called the golden age, there was immediate revelation; and for that reason Divine Truth was written on their hearts (White Horse 6).3

But the flood Swedenborg refers to here is not the one found in Ovid, but the one described in the Biblical book of Genesis. This juxtaposition of the Golden Age concept with a Biblical story would also have been familiar to people in the 18th century. As early as the 14th century Christian writers had been making associations between Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Bible stories.4 For example, in the 16th century, when Arthur Golding translated the Metamorphoses into English, he felt compelled to moralize the fables with marginal glosses:

Morover by the golden [age] what other thing is ment,
Than Adams tyme in Paradyse, who beeing innocent
Did lead a blist and happy lyfe untill that thurrough sin
He fell from God? From which tyme foorth all sorrow did begin.5

Among some of Swedenborg’s contemporaries there was a longing for the distant past, sometimes referred to as a “Golden Age” before the flood, when there was thought to be a general unity of religion.6 The Classical concept of the Golden Age flourished especially in England, and can be found in the writings of James Thomson, Alexander Pope and many other writers of the period.7 For the most part, this preference for the past seems to have been a longing for a time before the known empires of the world,a paradise of Adam before recorded history. Most writers believed that after the Fall the world lapsed very quickly into degenerate and preposterous forms of idolatry. Robert South, a chaplain of the Church of England whose sermons were published from 1679 until 1744, expresses this common idea:

But then for Religion; what prodigious, monstrous, mishapen Births has the Reason of faln Man produced! It is now almost Six Thousand Years, that far the greatest Part of the World has had no other Religion but Idolatry: And Idolatry certainly is the first-born of Folly, the great and leading Paradox; Nay, the very Abridgment and Sum-total of all Absurdities…Briefly, so great is the Change, so deplorable the Degradation of our Nature, that, whereas before, we bore the Image of God, we now retain only the Image of Men.8

The “six thousand years” mentioned in the passage above refers to the creation of the world, which James Ussher, a seventeenth century bishop, had declared to have occurred on October 23, 4004 BC.9 In South’s view, what we may principally learn from the idolatrous ancient religions that appeared after the Fall is “the Excellency of Christian Religion, in that it is the great and only Means that God has sanctified and designed to repair the Breaches of Humanity.”

The only church history book known to have been in Swedenborg’s library was An Ecclesiastical History by John Laurence Mosheim (1764). It is generally quite dismissive of ancient religions:

These deities were honoured with rites and sacrifices of various kinds, according to their respective nature and offices. The rites used in their worship were absurd and ridiculous, and frequently cruel and obscene. Most nations offered animals, and some proceeded to the enormity of human sacrifices. As to their prayers, they were void of piety and sense, both with respect to their matter and their form.10

Like Robert South, Mosheim goes on to place as much distance between ancient religions and Christianity as possible:

The errors and disorders that we have now been considering, required something far above human wisdom and power to dispel and remove them, and to deliver mankind from the miserable state to which they were reduced by them. Therefore, towards the conclusion of the reign of Herod the Great, the Son of God descended upon earth…11

Yet 18th century Christian scholars, poets and clergy were strongly motivated to make some sense of the strange gods and goddesses that had appeared in the religions that resulted from Adam’s Fall. While the Church Fathers had successfully dealt with the Roman gods many centuries before, Europeans at this time were being confronted with pagan deities wherever they turned. Classicism in literature and the visual arts had taken hold in France in the 17th century, and in England reached its zenith a little later with the writings of John Dryden and Alexander Pope. In a Paris salon exposition of the 1750s “mythological subjects outnumbered the sacred, and even the religious paintings were pagan in spirit.”12 At the same time travelers were now bringing back reliable information about the ancient Egyptian monuments and hieroglyphic writing system, which displayed an even more perplexing variety of gods.13 How was a good Christian to interpret all of this? A great many explanations were proposed.14

Swedenborg and the Four Ages top

Swedenborg considered the Four Ages he wrote about to be the same as those mentioned by Classical writers in antiquity. He makes this connection a number of times; the Golden Age is equated with the Classical version of the age which, according to Ovid and others, was ruled by Saturn:

The ancient writers too knew about this period and called it the Golden Age or the reign of Saturn (EU 49).

Furthermore, as we have seen, others before Swedenborg had interpreted the Classical concept of the Golden Age in the light of the Biblical story of Adam’s paradise. But Swedenborg’s version of the Four Ages differs radically from that of his predecessors in both the Classical and Christian traditions. In order to understand his version of the Four Ages it is first necessary to understand that each one of these Ages is consistently described as a separate Ecclesia or “Church.”

There have been in general four churches (quatuor Ecclesiae) on this earth since its creation….The first church (Prima Ecclesia), which may be called the Most Ancient Church (Antiquissima), came into existence before the flood, and its ending or departure is described by the flood. The second church (Altera Ecclesia), which may be called the Ancient Church (Antiqua), was in Asia and in parts of Africa; this came to an end and perished as the result of idolatrous practices. The third (Tertia Ecclesia) was the Israelite Church (Israelitica), begun by the proclamation of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, and continued through the Word written by Moses and the Prophets. This came to an end and terminated as the result of profaning the Word, a process which reached its full development at the time the Lord came into the world. That was why they crucified Him who was the Word. The fourth (Quarta Ecclesia) is the Christian Church (Christiana) founded by the Lord by means of the Evangelists and the Apostles…. (TCR 760)15

These four Churches are clearly identified as being the same Four Ages named by the Classical writers:16

These ordered progressions gave the wise men of antiquity the idea of the four ages of the world. They called the first golden, the second silver, the third copper and the fourth iron (TCR 762).

Preliminary research17 by Jonathan S. Rose has indicated that Swedenborg may have been unique in his usage of the term Ecclesia. Other 18th century Christian writers seem to use Ecclesia to refer to only the Christian Church, other religious groups being designated religiones or religiosa. In other words, Swedenborg’s contemporaries focused on the differences between ancient religions and Christianity, Christianity being considered the only “true church.” In contrast, Swedenborg always viewed ancient religions in terms of this unique concept of the Ecclesiae. The spiritual history of the human race is presented as a succession of five Ecclesiae: The Most Ancient Church, the Ancient Church, the Israelitish Church, the Christian Church and the New Church.18 All of these spiritual epochs were true Churches, that is, each had a genuine relationship with God, some form of Divine Revelation, and its own Last Judgment.

The scope of our discussion here is the first two of these five Churches, the Most Ancient Church and the Ancient Church. Swedenborg uses Antiquissima Ecclesia and Antiqua Ecclesia as technical terms, always capitalizing them. On the other hand, he is generally content to leave the terms Golden Age (saeculum aureum) and Silver Age (saeculum argenteum), which occur infrequently, in lower case.19

Most Ancient Church (Antiquissima Ecclesia) = Golden age (saeculum aureum)

Ancient Church (Antiqua Ecclesia) = Silver age (saeculum argenteum)

We are also told that these same Churches and their corresponding metals are mentioned in a story from the Hebrew Bible: “These metals were also used to represent the churches themselves in Nebuchadnezzar’s statue” (TCR 762). The reference is to the second chapter of the book of Daniel, where the prophet describes a statue that appeared in the king’s dream:

This image’s head was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. (Daniel 2:32-33)

The order of the metals in the statue is the same as the order of the Four Ages of Ovid: gold, silver, bronze and iron. Swedenborg tells us that the four metals of the statue do indeed correspond to the Four Ages, that is, the Most Ancient Church, the Ancient Church, the Israelitish Church, the Christian Church (TCR 760).20

While the connection between the Classical concept of the Golden Age and the Biblical story of Adam’s paradise would not have surprised Swedenborg’s contemporaries, his statement that the statue of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream “did not signify four political kingdoms on this earth, but four Churches” (Coro 2) would undoubtedly have been surprising. The traditional interpretation of the four metals of the statue has always been of four worldly empires, not four Ecclesiae. For example, Matthew Henry’s well-known and widely-distributed Bible commentary (first published in 1706) explains the four metals as signifying 1) the Chaldean empire (gold), 2) the Medes and Persians (silver), 3) the Greek empire (bronze) and 4) the Roman empire (iron).21 These identifications of the kingdoms would have been widely accepted at that time, and it more or less continues to be the usual interpretation today. So the explanation of the statue found in Swedenborg’s works would have been quite new to the 18th century reader.

It is clear that Swedenborg’s presentation of the symbolism of Nebuchadnezzar’s statue, and also his view of the Four Ages, differed so widely from traditional explanaions because of the unique nature of his inspiration. As this passage makes clear, he had firsthand experience with the people who lived in these Ages:

Once when I was meditating on Conjugial Love , the desire seized my mind of knowing what that love had been with those who lived in the Golden Age, and what it was afterwards in the succeeding ones called Silver, Copper and Iron. And, as I knew that all who lived well in those ages are in the heavens, I prayed to the Lord that it might be permitted me to converse with them and be instructed. “And, lo! an angel stood by me, and said, `I am sent by the Lord to be your guide and companion; and first I will lead and accompany you to those who lived in the first era or Age, which is called the Golden.’ (The Golden Age is the same as the age of the Most Ancient Church, which is meant by 'the head of good gold,’ on the statue seen by Nebuchadnezzar in a dream…) (Coro 37).

A series of special revelations like the one described above allowed Swedenborg to see that the Bible, as the Word of God, can be read on many different levels. He calls these deeper symbolic meanings in the stories of the Word the “internal sense.” One of these levels of meaning describes the entire spiritual history of the human race. In the internal sense, the first eleven chapters of Genesis explain the history of the first two Ages, the Golden and Silver Ages—that is, the Most Ancient and Ancient Churches.

While the order of the first two of these Ages is clear, as is the gradual deterioration of the purity and integrity of the lives of the people, we are never offered an actual historical chronology of these Churches because “their written records do not remain”:

It cannot be known from historical sources because their written records do not remain, and the records that do exist come from writers who lived after those times. It is, in fact, the later writers who give the ages their names, and who also describe the purity and integrity of the life of those earlier peoples, likewise its gradual deterioration afterwards as being like the descent of gold to iron. The last or iron age, however, which began at the time of those writers, can be deduced to some extent from the records of the lives of some of the kings, judges and wise men, who were called sages, in Greece and elsewhere (CL 73).

 Figure 1. Descendants of Adam chart.
To view this chart in PDF format click here.

We are, however, given a detailed list of the descendants of Adam, each of whom, in the internal sense, represents a particular stage in the history of the “celestial” people known as the Most Ancient Church and the “spiritual” people known as the Ancient Church (see Figure 1 above).

The history of the Most Ancient and Ancient Churches as presented in the theological works of Emanuel Swedenborg is not contained in any one volume; rather, the concepts are contained in thousands of passages scattered throughout dozens of works produced during his theological period. In the following summary of the major concepts related to the Ancient Churches, words and phrases in boldface refer to entries in the Ancient Churches Lexicon, where more information is available. (In the Web-based version of the project these words and phrases appear as hyperlinks.) This summary is provided as a convenient overview of the material contained in the Lexicon, but should not be considered a replacement for consulting the entries themselves, which are more comprehensive and give references to the original texts.

The Most Ancient Church top

Origin and Progression

Before the time of the Most Ancient Church, people lived like wild animals, and are even described as “non-human.” Swedenborg sometimes refers to these people as the Pre-Adamites. But at a certain point the Lord began to make these people truly human by a process known as Regeneration. From being “non-human,” they evolved into spiritual people, and eventually into the celestial people who made up the Most Ancient Church. In the internal sense, the individual known as Adam refers generally to the Most Ancient Church, which is said to have surpassed all the other churches that have existed on this earth.

Adam, his son Seth, and Seth’s son Enosh all represent stages (or distinct “churches”) in the history of the Most Ancient Church (see Figure 1). The main difference between these three churches was in the quality of their Perception. Perception was an awareness of the spiritual world beyond their sensing of the natural world. Enosh, as the last of these churches, enjoyed less perception than had the church known as Seth, and Seth in turn enjoyed less perception than had Adam. Nevertheless, although the faculty of perception gradually diminished with time, these three churches together constituted the celestial people known as the Most Ancient Church.

Spiritual Disposition

The people of the Most Ancient Church were of a unique spiritual “genius” or Disposition. Some idea of this disposition can be gained from the fact that these people knew about truth only by means of good, and they knew about faith only by means of love. There was no division in a person’s mind between love (which belongs to the will), and faith (which belongs to the understanding). In fact, love was everything, and faith was simply a part of that love. This was so because they were “celestial,” that is, their Will and Understanding were conjoined. Because of this condition, a person’s will was united with his actions, allowing the will of the person to be seen clearly in his behavior. In addition, because there was an Influx from the Lord through the heavens into the Rational part of their minds, the people of the Most Ancient Church could perceive instantly whether or not something was good or true. In response to any statement about faith, they could simply say “That is so,” or “That is not so,” because they perceived the truth of the matter from the Lord.

Communication with Heaven

The people of the Most Ancient Church were in frequent Communication with the Spiritual World. Due to the Influx of the Lord into the rational parts of their minds, they conversed face to face with the Lord and with angels, and it was through this communication that they learned about the truths of faith. This communication was a kind of Perception. The source of this perception was their internal Respiration, a kind of breathing that was similar to the breathing of the angels. In other words, people at this time were able to communicate with heaven because they respired together with the angels. This internal breathing varied with individuals according to the state of their love and faith in the Lord.

In addition to direct contact with spirits and angels, the people of the Most Ancient Church received revelations through Visions and Dreams. These instructive visions and dreams came from the Lord by way of angelic spirits. At the same time that the vision or dream was experienced, its spiritual meaning was given as well.

Communication with Each Other

The Faces of the people of the Most Ancient Church acted as representative mirrors of their interior parts. In fact, their Speech was a facial type of speech, with ideas being expressed through the lips and the eyes. For this reason, the speech of these people was inaudible, and not produced by external breathing like the vocal speech that developed later. Instead, it was produced by internal Respiration, which was a more perfect form of speech because they were able to express their thoughts and feelings more fully than by using spoken words.

The most ancient Language was similar to the language of spirits; it was a language of the person’s interior ideas. In this language there were some words that belonged to a celestial class, some words that belonged to a spiritual class, and some words that were common to both.


It is necessary for The Word to exist on earth at all times, because heaven and earth communicate by means of it. But during the time of the Most Ancient Church there was no written Word, because the people of that church had immediate revelation from heaven. This Communication with the Spiritual World came in the form of direct contact with angels and spirits, and also by experiencing Visions and Dreams. And because the people thought from Correspondences, the Lord frequently appeared to them and taught them. For the people of this time, all things in the natural world served as Representatives of spiritual things. When they saw an object in the natural world, they did not think about the object itself, but about the spiritual thing the object represented.

The Most Ancient Church, as a celestial church, was characterized by love of the Lord and, from this, charity towards the neighbor. Because of this, and because of their faculty of Perception, these people had the Doctrine of love and charity “inscribed within them.” Their Faith came from this Charity.

Forms of Worship

The people of the Most Ancient Church performed an internal kind of Worship, which is the kind of worship that exists in heaven. Because the people of this time were mostly shepherds of sheep, they not only lived in Tents and Tabernacles, but held worship in them as well. They also worshiped on mountaintops. They built their Temples (which they did not called temples, but “houses of God”) out of wood, because they knew that wood represents the good of love to the Lord. Many Rituals of later times, and even rituals that survive today, derive their origin from most ancient times, when rituals represented holy things. For example, falling upon the face was a ritual of adoration in the Most Ancient Church, and it continued in the Ancient Church. And Altars, which were developed as a representation of the Lord, were used in both the Most Ancient and Ancient Churches. However, in the Most Ancient Church, and in the earlier periods of the Ancient Church, altars were not connected with animal sacrifice.


The people of the Most Ancient Church were differentiated into separate Houses, Families, and Nations. This was done so that the church on earth might represent the Lord’s kingdom in heaven, where people are distinguished into communities according to their differences in love and faith. A married couple with their children, together with their servants, made up one house or household. A family was made up of a number of households living close together. A nation was made up of a number of families who all recognized one common father. The nation would take its name from that father, just as the Hebrew nation took its name from Eber, the patriarch of the Hebrews.

Today the people of the Most Ancient Church live in the Ancient Heavens and Hells. Those who are now living in the celestial heaven are still organized according to households, families, and nations, similar to the way they had lived while on earth. Because they lived in love to the Lord and love to the neighbor, the people of the Most Ancient Church were led to do what was just and right by the Law that was written on their hearts. They knew that all human laws, like Divine laws, should be based on love to the Lord and charity towards the neighbor. For instance, a man in the Most Ancient Church had only one wife, the two of them forming one house. This union was the law for Marriage, because it was modeled after the heavenly marriage of good and truth.

With the people of the Most Ancient Church, Conjugial Love was the highest form of love, and their marriages gave them the highest forms of happiness and delight. The ancients based a number of rituals and customs on their knowledge of marriage love, including a ritual of betrothal and a custom where the couple exchanged gifts after consenting to marriage.

Several other customs are mentioned. Anointing was a ritual in the Most Ancient Church, because the oil used for anointing represented the good of love. Music, including both singing and the use of musical instruments, was considered a spiritual activity. And as for Food, in most ancient times people never ate the flesh of any animal or bird, but only grains, fruits, vegetables, milk and milk products. To them, slaughtering living creatures and eating their flesh was abominable and they associated it with the behavior of wild animals.


The Lord’s church had been located in the Land of Canaan continuously from the most ancient times. One result of the Most Ancient Church residing in Canaan was that everything in that land—including the names of regions, cities, mountains and rivers—became representative of the Lord’s kingdom. The Lord then maintained a church in Canaan in order to preserve those Representatives, which would later be needed in writing the Word. After the fall of the Most Ancient Church, remnants of it continued to exist in Canaan, especially among the Hittites and the Hivites.

The Fall of the Most Ancient Church top

The Beginning of the Fall

The people of the Most Ancient Church were allowed to discover what good and truth were by means of the Perception that they received from the Lord. However, they were forbidden to probe into the mysteries of faith by means of sensory evidence and factual knowledge. The Fall of the Most Ancient Church began when people allowed their Rational minds to be deceived by their Proprium or self-love, so that they believed nothing unless they could see or touch it. This desire to reason from their own self-intelligence led the people of the Most Ancient Church to fall from good into truth, and from love to the Lord and the neighbor into a faith without these loves. The result was that Charity no longer reigned in the rational mind, and Faith became separated from it.

While the Most Ancient Church was degenerating, several heresies arose that were separate from that church, each having its own name (see Figure 1). Each Heresy was descended from a common church represented by Adam’s son Cain. As a heretical sect of the Most Ancient Church, Cain represented those people who cultivated faith, and who eventually separated it from charity. Previously the people of the Most Ancient Church had not known what faith was, because they had possessed a perception of all the things that constituted faith. But the people known as Cain began to make a distinct doctrine out of faith, and reduced what had originally been a matter of perception into a matter of doctrine.

The Process of the Fall

When the people called Cain developed their heresy further, another schism resulted called Enoch (the son of Cain, see Figure 1). This heresy developed further and produced another heresy called Irad. Irad, in turn, produced another heresy called Mehujael, which then became the parent of the heresy Methushael. Methushael’s son Lamech was the sixth, and final, church in the line of descent from Cain. Although the heresy called Cain had made faith the most important thing, it still acknowledged love. But the heresies descending from Cain gradually strayed away even from this, until Lamech went so far as to annihilate the faith of Cain, destroying charity in the process. At the point of the destruction of Lamech, the Lord rose up a new church, represented by Adah and Zillah. Adah and Zillah possessed a new faith that made it possible for a new charity to be implanted in that church.

As we have seen above, the people represented by Adam’s son Cain began a heretical branch of the Most Ancient Church, and Cain’s descendants continued the heresy, developing it even further. But Adam’s other son, Seth, and his grandson Enosh, each represent one of the three stages of the church in its integrity, a branch of the church completely separate from the heresy of Cain. The descendants of Enosh, however, represent a definite change in the quality of this “more perfect” line of Adam. The people represented by Enosh’s son Kenan, Kenan’s son Mahalalel, and Mahalalel’s son Jared all experienced a gradual diminishing of their faculty of Perception (see Figure 1). Their perception was becoming more generalized and vague.

Jared’s son Enoch (“who walked with God”) represents the seventh church in the line of descent from Adam. Enoch’s perception was so vague that their attention was focused on merely doctrinal matters. The Lord forsaw that spiritual perception would soon perish completely, and that it would result in the loss of the knowledge of correspondences, the means by which the human race is conjoined with heaven. For this reason, the Lord provided that the people called Enoch, who lived with the most ancient people, should collect the Correspondences, Representatives, and Significatives that resulted from perception. The people called Enoch converted these things into doctrine and preserved them in a manuscript. But this manuscript was not created for the sake of the people of the Most Ancient Church. Rather, it was intended to serve the people that followed the Most Ancient Church, people who learned truths, not from perception at all, but from doctrine. This manuscript was protected from the final posterity of the Most Ancient Church, who were evil and would have harmed it.

The eighth posterity of Adam was called Methuselah, the son of Enoch. The perceptive faculty of the people represented by Methuselah was even more generalized and obscure than that of the churches preceding it, with a resulting decrease in wisdom and intelligence. The people represented by the ninth posterity of Adam, Methuselah’s son Lamech, are described as possessing practically no perception at all. Because of this, the people had to inquire after what truth was, and do what was good, from their own Proprium, and the result was nothing but falsity and evil.

The Aftermath of the Fall

The reason why every church degenerates, including the Most Ancient Church, is the increase and accumulation of Hereditary Evil. The descendants of this church, step by step, began to acquire Evil Desires in their will. And since they also inherited a Will and Understanding that were joined to form one, when evil desires began to take possession of their will, their understanding also became perverted. Because of this, the descendants of the Most Ancient Church became steeped in the most dreadful Persuasions. These persuasions came about because they perverted truths and forced them to agree with and support their evil desires. The most terrible of these persuasions was the belief that God infused Himself into men. The last descendants of the Most Ancient Church imagined that they were like gods and that whatever they thought was Divine.

The people who lived just before the Flood, known as the Antediluvians, were steeped in these terrible persuasions, and because of it they made light of everything holy and true. And since their internal Respiration varied according to the states of their internals, it finally ceased, and they were suffocated by an inundation of evils and falsities not unlike a flood. In the internal sense, the story of the great flood describes the Last Judgment of the Most Ancient Church. The church had degenerated so far from the good of love that eventually nothing celestial remained. At this point the church perished, and a new church, the Ancient Church, was raised up by the Lord.

The First Ancient Church top

Origin and Progression

The church called Noah was a Remnant of the Most Ancient Church that survived the Flood. Noah was the tenth in the line of churches that had started with Adam (see Figure 1). Without a remnant to preserve the goods and truths of faith, there would have been no conjunction of heaven with the human race, and a new church could not have been raised up. The people of Noah preserved the doctrines derived from the Perception of the Most Ancient Church so that a new church, the Ancient Church, could be raised up with those doctrines. Noah was not the Ancient Church itself, but was like a parent or seed of that church. However, Noah together with his sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth constituted the First Ancient Church, which followed immediately after the Most Ancient Church (see Figure 1).

By the time the Most Ancient Church was at its end, it had degenerated so far that nothing celestial remained in it. However, the people called Noah were different from the rest of the Most Ancient Church. With the people of Noah, some natural good and some knowledge of doctrine had remained, making it possible for the Lord to regenerate them. But before the Ancient Church could come into existence, the people who would belong to that church had to undergo Temptations in order to become truly spiritual people. For this reason, during the time when the Most Ancient Church was dying out, the people called Noah were being born again by means of temptations. Noah was protected while the rest of the Most Ancient Church was perishing in the Flood.

The people of Noah believed with simplicity the matters of doctrine they had received from the Most Ancient Church, which had been collected by those who were called Enoch (“who walked with God,” the son of Jared). The Ancient Church survived with the descendants of Noah until the time of Abram.

Spiritual Disposition

The people of the Ancient Church were of an entirely different spiritual “genius” or Disposition from those of the Most Ancient Church. The people of the Ancient Church were of a spiritual seed instead of a celestial seed. If the Lord had not brought the human race into this new disposition, no one could have been saved, because the people after the flood had no will for good within them. The people of the celestial church had possessed a Will and Understanding that were conjoined, that is, there was no division in a person’s mind between love (which belongs to the will), and faith (which belongs to the understanding). In contrast to this, the people of the spiritual church possessed a will that was completely destroyed, but their understanding was still intact. The Lord was only able to keep the understanding of these people intact by separating the will from the understanding. This separation occurred in the new church called Noah. And because of this change, people would no longer be born with a will for good, but would now be reformed and regenerated in respect to their understanding. A new will, called Conscience, was implanted in them

These people of the Ancient Church were regenerated by means of the doctrinal matters of Faith. After learning these doctrines, an inner dictate (conscience) prevented them from acting contrary to the truths of faith they had learned. It was in this way that Charity was given to them—with conscience, which now took the place of Perception, charity was conferred through faith. Unlike perception, conscience did not dictate to a person what was true. Instead, people learned that something was true because the Lord in His Word had said that it was true. This dictate of the Ancient Church, though called conscience, was in fact halfway between perception and what is known as conscience today.

With the people of the Ancient Church, the Rational mind came from a spiritual origin, whereas with the people of the Most Ancient Church it came from a celestial origin. The early fathers of the Most Ancient Church, who had perception, thought from the interior rational. The fathers of the Ancient Church, who did not have perception but conscience, thought from the exterior or natural rational.

Communication with Heaven

Because the people of the Ancient Church had a different mental constitution from the people of the Most Ancient Church, they had a different way of communicating with heaven. Rather than the Perception that was enjoyed by the people of the Most Ancient Church, the people of the Ancient Church had an external kind of Communication with the Spiritual World. This included, for the first time, communication with hell. The new kind of communication was accomplished by means of the Representatives and Significatives that had been passed down to them by the Most Ancient Church.

The form of communication with heaven had to change because the people of the Ancient Church received Influx from the Lord in a new way. This was necessary because their Will and Understanding had been destroyed by desires for evil and persuasions of falsity. At this time internal Respiration, which had been the source of perception, was replaced by external respiration, and direct communication with angels ceased. However, even though direct contact with heaven had ended, the people of the Ancient Church could still be taught through Visions and Dreams.

Communication with Each Other

The facial type of Speech, with ideas being expressed through the lips and the eyes, was possible with the people of the Most Ancient Church because their Faces acted as representative mirrors of their interior parts. Vocal speech, or articulated sound that encapsulates thoughts, developed only later when internal Respiration ceased to exist and was replaced by external breathing. By this time the state of the human race had changed so that people could no longer be taught through the internal man, but only through the external. Therefore the revelations that had been enjoyed by the Most Ancient Church were succeeded by matters of doctrine that could only be apprehended through the external senses. Nevertheless, a limited kind of facial speech was still in use during the time of the Ancient Church.


The Lord foresaw that Perception would perish by the time of the Ancient Church, and that the ability to think from correspondences would perish with it. For this reason the Lord provided that the people called Enoch (“who walked with God,” the son of Jared) should collect Correspondences, Representatives, and Significatives from the most ancient people. These things were then converted into Doctrine. Within the Ancient Church, there were many smaller churches with many differences in doctrinal matters. But they all made one Church because each one acknowledged love to the Lord and charity to the neighbor as the most important things.

In the time of the Most Ancient Church there had been no need for a written Word, because the people of this Church had the Word “inscribed on their hearts” by means of immediate revelation from heaven. But the people of the Ancient Church did not have this kind of revelation, and so at first the doctrinal things gathered by Enoch served as their Word. In the course of time, however, Writing was developed so that the Word could be written down. The Ancient Word was a written Word with histories and prophecies similar to those in the Old Testament. These texts were Divinely inspired and written by correspondences, with the internal sense treating of the Lord and His kingdom. As the Ancient Church spread throughout the Near East it carried the Ancient Word with it. An angel informed Swedenborg that, although the Ancient Word had been lost in the countries of Asia, it was still preserved in Great Tartary. Portions of the Ancient Word have survived in the first seven chapters of Genesis and in a few verses in the book of Numbers. The book of Job, though not part of the Word, was a book of the Ancient Church and was written in correspondences. In one instance even the apostle Jude quotes from ancient books written in correspondences.

Forms of Worship

The people of the Most Ancient Church, because they were in such close communication with angels, had performed an internal kind of Worship, which is the kind of worship that exists in heaven. Although they were able to sense the objects of the world with their bodies, they perceived what was Divine and heavenly within those objects. But because the people of the Ancient Church were spiritual and not celestial, they were not able to perceive heaven within the objects they sensed. Instead, they learned the significations of the objects, and used the objects to remind themselves of the spiritual things they had learned from the traditions of the Most Ancient Church. From this knowledge came the representative worship of the Ancient Church. All of their outward Rituals represented the internal worship of the Lord. Worshiping on mountaintops, and falling upon the face in adoration, were both elements of worship that had been continued from the Most Ancient Church. Altars, which were developed as a representation of the Lord during the Most Ancient Church, were not connected with animal sacrifices during either the Most Ancient Church or the First Ancient Church.

New rituals were added during the Ancient Church, such as the ritual of circumcision, which represented the removal of defiled good and truth from a person. The Temples of the Most Ancient Church had been made out of wood, but those of the Ancient Church were made out of stone. The temples of the Ancient Church were oriented in an east-west direction, because the Lord appears as the sun in the angelic heaven, and is constantly in the east. Ritual Washings were practiced in the Ancient Church, but it was understood that this was merely an external act of worship; the people did not believe that they were spiritually purified by ritual washing.


Like the people of the Most Ancient Church, the people of the Ancient Church were differentiated into separate Houses, Families, and Nations. The various nations were diverse in respect to their worship, and were distinguished from each other by the name that they called their god, each name representing a different quality of Jehovah. The Cities of the Ancient Church were not merely gatherings of individuals, but were made up of separate families living side by side, all of whom were descended from the same forefather. As for government, during the Ancient Church Monarchs and Priests did not exist separately from one another. The two offices existed jointly in one person, as was the case with Melchizedek, for example.

The Laws that existed in the First Ancient Church were passed down to the Second Ancient Church, which is also called the Hebrew Church (see Eber). For instance, the law that if a man died without children, then his brother was to marry his widow, began during the First Ancient Church. It only later became part of the Mosaic law. In addition, the laws in the First Ancient Church regarding Marriage and betrothal were no different than the laws that later existed in the Second Ancient Church. For example, when initiating marriages it was customary to give a nose-jewel and bracelets to the bride. The difference was that the people of the First Ancient Church were aware of the internal meanings of those laws; this was not the case with the Hebrew Church.

Some of the customs of the Most Ancient Church that were continued in the Ancient Church include Anointings, Music (including both singing and the use of musical instruments), and dancing. The objects that were anointed were used to represent Divine and heavenly things. The songs and psalms had external meanings that referred to worldly things, but they also had internal meanings that embodied heavenly and Divine realities.

Other customs existed in the Ancient Church that had been entirely absent during the time of the Most Ancient Church. As for Food, in most ancient times people never ate the flesh of any bird or animal. But by the time of the Ancient Church the eating of animals was permitted, although there were laws about which animals to eat and a restriction against eating anything that had died naturally. Similarly, the people of the Most Ancient Church knew nothing about Circumcision, but males of the Ancient Church were circumcised to represent the purification of the loves of self and the world. This custom later spread to many other nations, including the Israelites, although by then they no longer understood what circumcision represented.


After the collapse of the Most Ancient Church, Remnants of it continued to exist in the Land of Canaan, especially among the Hittites and the Hivites. The Lord established the Ancient Church in Canaan using representatives that had originated in the Most Ancient Church, and from here the Ancient Church spread to many surrounding nations, including Egypt. Beliefs that were derived from the Ancient Word spread from various parts of Asia into Greece and Rome. However, since the Ancient Word was written by means of representatives, the things of religion were turned into idolatry by many nations, and in Greece they were transformed into Fables. In Syria, a new kind of external worship developed that led to the establishment of the Second Ancient Church, also called the Hebrew Church. But even after the end of this church, a remnant of the Ancient Church survived in Syria. This can be seen from the prophesy of Balaam, a soothsayer from Pethor in Syria who acknowledged Jehovah to be God and who possessed something of the goods and truths of the Ancient Church.

The Corruption of the First Ancient Church top

In the course of time, the people of the Ancient Church began to worship merely external things without the internal, and as they did so they began to depart from charity. As a result, heaven began to recede from them, and they were led by spirits from hell instead. The church began to decline. Eventually the people fell so far away from charity, and so embraced falsities and evils, that they fell into Idolatry. For example, at one time the ancients had made images that corresponded to heavenly things, and placed them in their temples and houses. But as the church began to depart from charity, the knowledge of Correspondences was lost, and the descendants of these people, who did not know what the images signified, began to worship them as deities.

Similarly, the ancients had at one time used a number of different Names of the Lord, in order to describe His various attributes. But as the Ancient Church declined, and the knowledge of correspondences was lost, the people began to assume that each name represented a separate god. They began to worship as many gods as there had once been names for the One Only God, and added many more on their own, resulting in Polytheism. This was one reason why the Gentiles, such as those in Greece and Rome, worshipped so many gods. Eventually they also began to practice the Worship of Humans as Gods.

Magic is the perversion of order, and is especially the abuse of correspondences. As the Ancient Church declined, innovators corrupted its worship until the representatives and significatives they had learned from the Most Ancient Church had been turned into magic and idolatry. For example, the Egyptians had once surpassed all others in their knowledge of correspondences. But when, in Egypt, they changed from being internal people to being external people, the knowledge of correspondences was used in an evil way by applying it to magical practices. Even Hieroglyphics, which the Egyptians had once used to signify spiritual things, were now used to pervert Divine order.

Originally, religion had spread throughout the whole world because of the Ancient Word. But as the Ancient Church declined and people began to falsify the correspondences that filled that Word, the religious beliefs that had been based on the Ancient Word became idolatrous. For this reason, by the Lord’s Divine Providence, the Ancient Word disappeared, and another Word was given through the prophets of the Children of Israel.

The Second Ancient Church top

As the First Ancient Church declined, the significative and representative things that had been handed down to them from the Most Ancient Church were being turned into idolatry and magic. In order to prevent the Ancient Church from going into complete ruin, the Lord permitted significative and representative worship to be reestablished in a Second Ancient Church. The Second Ancient Church, which is also called the Hebrew Church, was founded by Eber. Eber, the great-grandson of Shem (see Fig. 1), was both the name of a person and the name of the nation made up of his descendants. Eber began the Hebrew Church in Syria, and from there it spread to many nations, especially the Land of Canaan.

Internally, the Worship of the Hebrew Church was of the same origin as that of the First Ancient Church. The internals of worship were the doctrinal matters that had been collected by Enoch, who had gathered together the perceptive findings of the Most Ancient Church. But the worship of the Hebrew Church consisted mainly of externals such as priestly offices, high places, groves, statutes, and anointing. The most significant change to the external worship was the addition of Sacrifices, which the First Ancient Church had known almost nothing about. The sacrifice of animals on Altars was a fundamental part of their worship. The altar was the chief representative of the Lord, and for this reason a perpetual Sacred Fire was kept burning on it. From the Hebrew Church, the practice of making sacrifices spread to the gentile nations, and later even to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jacob’s descendants.

[The preceding text is still in draft form. Comments welcome.]

Footnotes top

1 Interestingly, Swedenborg refers to the Roman poet directly while discussing the “Most Ancient” origins of certain “stories composed by writers of the distant past in Greece, stories which are called myths, and which were gathered together and recorded by Ovid in his Metamorphoses” (De Verbo 7). For the importance of Ovid’s Metamorphoses to Swedenborg’s Latin style see Hans Helander, “Swedenborg’s Latin,” in Studia Swedenborgiana, Vol. 8, no. 1 (1993).

2 This translation was published in 1717 under the direction of Sir Samuel Garth by John Dryden, Alexander Pope, et. al.

3 See also Arcana Coelestia 10160: “Those times were therefore called by ancient writers the Golden Age, and they were described by saying that the people did what was just and right from the law written on their hearts.”

4 Harry Levin, The Myth of the Golden Age in the Renaissance (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969), p. 35.

5 Levin, p. 36.

6 David A. Pailin, Attitudes to Other Religions: Comparative Religion in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Britain(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), p. 57.

7 A. Owen Aldridge, “Primitivism in the Eighteenth Century,” in Dictionary of the History of Ideas, ed. Philip P. Wiener (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973), Vol. III, p. 600.

8 Pailin, p. 173.

9 Swedenborg was aware of this chronology and makes reference to it in Conjugial Love 29.

10 Swedenborg’s copy was Mosheim’s Neo-Latin edition. This English translation by Archibald Maclaine is from John Laurence Mosheim, An Ecclesiatical History, Ancient and Modern (Cincinatti: Applegate & Co., 1854), p. 3.

11 Mosheim, p. 9.

12 Frank E. Manuel, The Eighteenth Century Confronts the Gods (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1959), p. 3.

13 See Erik Iversen, The Myth of Egypt and its Hieroglyphs in European Tradition (Copenhagen: Gec Gad, 1961). See also Richard L. Goerwitz III, “Thoughts on Modern Hieroglyphic Theories and their Impact on Swedenborg’s Intellectual Milieu,” in Studia Swedenborgiana, Vol. 6, no. 3 (1988), pp. 5-34.

14 Manuel 1959, and Pailin 1984 are convenient sources for 18th century attitudes toward ancient and contemporary non-Christian religions.

15 Other passages describe these Ages somewhat differently: see DP 328, CL 78.

16 See also De Conj 119, DP 328, EU 49.

17 Research in the Neo-Latin terminology connected with Antiquissima Ecclesia and Antiqua Ecclesia was done by the Rev. Dr. Jonathan S. Rose in 1996. His unpublished findings, “Preliminary Research for the Ancient Churches Project,” are available from Glencairn Museum, Bryn Athyn, PA, U.S.A.

18 For a discussion of the five Ecclesiae see TCR 786-787.

19 See for example see the Latin text of AC 1551.

20 Other passages describe these Ages somewhat differently: see DP 328, CL 75-78.

21 Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan publishing House), pp. 1085-1086.