First New Church Place of Worship in the World (1791)

birminghambackjpg.jpg“It is somewhat remarkable, that the opening of the [Birmingham] Temple should take place on the 19th day of June, 1791, which is exactly 21 years (3 times 7) since the Lord sent his twelve disciples throughout the whole spiritual world to preach the new and everlasting gospel, That the Lord God Jesus Christ reigneth, whose kingdom shall endure for ever and ever. . . . And what is likewise worthy of notice is, that the proprietors of the Temple, when they appointed the day of opening it, were not in the least aware of the above circumstance, neither did the reflection occur to the mind of any person till after the day of opening it was publicly announced” (The New Magazine of Knowledge, June 1791. In Early History of the New Church in Birmingham, by E.J.E. Schreck, 1916, 27).

birmingham5b.jpgThe New Jerusalem Temple in Birmingham, England, was built from 1790 to 1791. It was the first building in the world erected specifically for the purpose of New Church worship, although it remained in New Church hands for only two years. No drawings are known to exist from 1791, but “thanks to the interruption in the copper coinage of the realm at that period, we are given a clue as to what the building looked like. For, the scarcity of copper coins led tradesmen to issue half-penny tokens. . . . One set published by [Peter Kempson] in 1796 consists of twenty-seven tokens, showing on the obverse the most prominent buildings of the city. . . . Among them is the ‘New Jerusalem Temple. Erected 1790’” (Schreck, 21-22). Glencairn Museum recently acquired an example of this token, minted in 1796, and NewChurchHistory.org has placed online an entire book about the history of the Birmingham Temple: Early History of the New Church in Birmingham, by E.J.E. Schreck, New-Church Press, London, 1916.

The Temple was constructed during the earliest days of the British Conference—less than twenty years after the death of Emanuel Swedenborg—a  time when new ground was being broken and many doctrinal and organizational issues were being discussed by its members. Eugene Schreck, writing in 1916, speculated about their use of the term “temple”: “‘Templum’ is the Latin word which Swedenborg used for such a building as we, in modern times, call a ‘church.’ Our translators use the English form of the same word, and it would seem, in this way, to have become the distinctive term among Newchurchmen of that early period for a house of worship dedicated to the Lord Jesus Christ. . . . We may see in this one of many illustrations of the great anxiety of those pioneers of the New Church to be utterly loyal to the Doctrines” (Schreck, 16-17).

Whether or not a New Church place of worship should be dedicated at all was a question considered at the third General Conference in April of 1791, shortly before the completion of the Birmingham Temple. “After considering the Question with some Attention, in which all present appeared to be fully agreed, the following Passage from Emanuel Swedenborg’s True Christian Religion, n. 126, was read in Confirmation of their sentiments: ‘A Temple (says he) must first be built, and that with the Hands of Men, and afterwards consecrated, and lastly sanctified by Prayer, that God would make it the Abode of His Presence, and unite Himself with His People assembled therein’” (Minutes of Conference, 1791. In Schreck, 17-18).

Members of the April Conference also discussed the issue of whether or not ministers of the New Church should wear special clothing. They decided in favor of priestly garments, and further agreed that they should be correspondential in nature. Ministers were to wear “an inner Purple Silken Vest, and also an outer Garment of fine White Linen, having a golden Girdle around the Breast…” (Minutes of Conference, 1791. In Schreck, 18). Rev. Joseph Proud, minister of the Birmingham Temple during its brief life, is shown wearing the prescribed clothing in a 1799 engraving.

The subject of correspondences was very much on the minds of those attending the Conference; they expressed the belief that the natural and spiritual worlds are connected through correspondences. There is evidence that some correspondential elements were introduced into the design of the Birmingham Temple. In 1916, the Birmingham Society held their 125-year anniversary (Schreck’s book was part of this celebration), and the events associated with it were reported in the New-Church Messenger. George H. Saunders wrote that he once had in his possession “his grandfather’s scrap book (he was an artist with architectural leanings), in which were two letters—one from the then minister of the Birmingham Society containing a sketch plan suggestion of the proposed New-Church temple with ‘correspondential’ dimensions as to length, breadth and height, with a request for my grandfather’s opinion thereon, and a copy of a letter in answer . . .” (George H. Saunders, “Letter to the Editor,” New-Church Messenger, August 2, 1916, 73).

birmingham4a.jpgFurther evidence for the introduction of correspondences into the building can be found in the Birmingham Church Manual of 1873. John Bragg II, whose family had first come into the New Church as a direct result of attending the dedication service in 1791, gathered together the traditions passed down in his family. The pews of the Temple were curved, and according to Bragg, “this arrangement was adopted in deference to the descriptions given by Swedenborg of worship in the heavenly Societies.” He also stated that the type of wood used for the pews was chosen “because of the correspondence of the wood” (Birmingham Church Manual, 1873. In Schreck, 24). Correspondences also may have played a part in the New Jerusalem Temple in Philadelphia built in 1817.

For more information about the Birmingham Temple, its genesis, dedication, and early demise, as well as the early history of the New Church in England, visit Eugene Schreck’s  Early History of the New Church in Birmingham online.

To find out how the Birmingham Temple became the target of a riotous mob less than a month after its dedication, stay tuned for next week’s New Church History Fun Fact!

The editors of NewChurchHistory.org would like to express their thanks to Rev. Norman Ryder and other members of The New Church Historical Society for their permission to place Eugene Schreck’s book about the Birmingham Temple online. The Society was formed in 1999 under the auspices of The General Conference of the New Church. Its objectives are to encourage the collection, preservation, and study of resources for the history of the New Church and of its institutions and individual members. The Society publishes an annual journal that may be of interest to many readers of New Church History Fun Facts. To join The New Church Historical Society, please write to Rev. Ryder at this address: [email protected].

March 15, 2007 | Posted by: Kirsten Gyllenhaal in New Church History Fun Fact