Helen Keller Letter about Swedenborg (Oct. 10, 1926)

Kellerdesk.jpg“Of one thing I am sure; any effort is worth while that brings comfort to limited, struggling human beings in a dark, self-centered age; and Swedenborg’s message has meant so much to me! It has given color and reality and unity to my thought of the life to come; it has exalted my ideas of love, truth and usefulness; it has been my strongest incitement to overcome limitations. The atmosphere Swedenborg creates absorbs me completely. His slightest phrase is significant for me. His Divine Love and Wisdom is a fountain of life I am always happy to be near. I find in it a happy rest from the noisy insanity of the outer world with its many words of little meaning and actions of little worth. I bury my fingers in this great river of light that is higher than all stars, deeper than the silence which enfolds me. It alone is great, while all else is small, fragmentary. Were I but capable of interpreting to others one-half of the stimulating thoughts and noble sentiments that are buried in Swedenborg’s writings, I should help them more than I am ever likely to in any other way. There is a year of hard work before me; but I should like to begin it with the feeling that I had rendered my fellowmen such a spiritual service” (Helen Keller. Letter to Rev. Paul Sperry. 10 October  1926).

KellerandMacy.jpgThis is a portion of a letter written by Helen Keller in the fall of 1926 to Rev. Paul Sperry, a minister in the General Convention (now The Swedenborgian Church of North America). Sperry had first heard of Helen Keller through his Sunday school teacher, John Hitz, a friend of Keller and the man who introduced her to the works of Emanuel Swedenborg. In August of 1926, Sperry had written to Keller to ask if she would consider writing a book about Swedenborg. He had to wait until October for her reply, not because she was in any way ignoring him, but because she wanted to carefully consider whether she could meet such a challenge (see The New-Church Messenger, vol. CXXXIII, No. 19, Nov. 9, 1927, 336-337). Her letter made it clear that, although she had organizational and practical difficulties to work out concerning the proposed book, she strongly believed in the project. The book was published in 1927 under the title My Religion. A typed copy of the full letter from Keller to Sperry resides in the Academy of the New Church Archives, Swedenborg Library, Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania. It is reproduced below.

At the end of the letter, Keller mentions to Sperry her pleasure with “your sermon on my favorite quotation.” The Bible verse in question is Mark 4:28: “The earth bringeth forth fruit of herself; first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear.” (Sperry’s sermon can be found in The New-Church Messenger, March 10, 1926.) She also mentions a lecture on Swedenborg by Mr. Landenberger, which she describes as “a splendid summary of Swedenborg’s special teachings.” Keller may here be referring to Rev. L. G. Landenberger’s published lecture, Emanuel Swedenborg, Man of Science, Philosopher, and Theologian of the New Age.

Copy

Forest Hills, Oct. 10, 1926

“Dear Mr. Sperry:

Keller-Sperrypage1.jpgI have been having a bad conscience about not writing to you with regard to the new book on Swedenborg which you asked me to consider preparing. At first I thought I should answer your letter within a few days, after I had decided whether I could prepare such a book or not. The more I thought of it, the more deeply interested I became in the undertaking. I began trying to clarify in my own mind my impression of Swedenborg and his works. Had I a clear conception of his personality? How could I explain to an impatient and skeptical public his extraordinary claim of having been for twenty-seven years in daily communication with the spiritual world? Did I have a sufficient grasp of his peculiar experience to present it helpfully to others? I read everything I have in raised print on Swedenborg, and then, I confess, I felt overwhelmed by the subject. I was discouraged at the idea of writing a book about a man whose life was so unique, so wonderful that anyone who studies it must become as humble as a little child. 

Keller-Sperrypage2.jpgYet I was reluctant to tell you I could not do it because it would be such a joy to me if I might be the instrument of bringing Swedenborg to a world that is spiritually deaf and blind. I put off from day to day writing to you with the hope that I might have something worth while to send you—a plan, at least, of a book. I have written about forty pages, approaching the subject from different angles; but I am not satisfied. I am still listening for the right word that shall dispel all darkness and confusion.

Keller-Sperrypage3.jpgHowever, if there is no set time for publication, I might, with your assistance, manage to get the book together and finish it this year. You see I have no one to help me, in this particular kind of task, and of necessity I work very slowly. It takes time to look up the passages I want in my big Braille books, then it is tedious copying them, as I have to keep taking my hand off the page to write out a sentence and finding the place again. It would help me tremendously if there were some method of indicating the passages I wished to use, and you could arrange to have the copying done, also if you would be kind enough to suggest ways of constructing the book. For construction is not one of my strong points.

I had thought of beginning the book with a biographical and appreciative account of Swedenborg, followed by a long chapter on love—the sum and substance of his teachings—and short chapters on his conception of the attributes of God, of life, of happiness, immortality and correspondence or sacred symbolism, and ending with a chapter showing that Swedenborg’s message is like the rock smitten by Moses, yielding sweet streams of healing water, even an abundance of truths for those who hunger and thirst in their pilgrimage through an age of materialism and selfishness. But I am not sure that what I have in mind would meet the need of the present moment. I cannot read the books that would especially help me, and that hinders me a good deal. I am in arrears of several years with New-Church literature. I have repeatedly declined to speak or write on subjects that really interested me because I could not have read to me the current books on these matters.

Of course you are aware of the difficulties of presenting Swedenborg’s doctrines in a simple, direct and popular form, especially in this country. There is among us a distressing indifference to all things of faith, and an impatience at any effort to explain the laws of life in spiritual terms. I often meet minds so earnest and yet so helpless and plodding, it takes them half an hour to get from one idea to another of truths of the simplest nature. After I have tried to impart two or three thoughts to them, I detect a hopeless resignation in their manner, or they make frantic efforts to change the conversation. Really, Mr. Sperry, it hurts most people to ‘think.’ But I suppose we must keep prodding them one way then another until they learn to use the minds God gave them, if they are to realize greater possibilities of life.

Of one thing I am sure; any effort is worth while that brings comfort to limited, struggling human beings in a dark, self-centered age; and Swedenborg’s message has meant so much to me! It has given color and reality and unity to my thought of the life to come; it has exalted my ideas of love, truth and usefulness; it has been my strongest incitement to overcome limitations. The atmosphere Swedenborg creates absorbs me completely. His slightest phrase is significant for me. His ‘Divine Love and Wisdom’ is a fountain of life I am always happy to be near. I find in it a happy rest from the noisy insanity of the outer world with its many words of little meaning and actions of little worth. I bury my fingers in this great river of light that is higher than all stars, deeper than the silence which enfolds me. It alone is great, while all else is small, fragmentary. Were I but capable of interpreting to others one-half of the stimulating thoughts and noble sentiments that are buried in Swedenborg’s writings, I should help them more than I am ever likely to in any other way. There is a year of hard work before me; but I should like to begin it with the feeling that I had rendered my fellowmen such a spiritual service.

By the way, it has occurred to me that Mr. Landenberger’s lecture on Swedenborg would be a good model for the book you propose. What do you think, Mr. Sperry? It seems to me a splendid summary of Swedenborg’s special teachings, and I do not see why the New Church did not broadcast this lecture, so simple, illuminating and attractive, from shore to shore.

I wish I could have been with you at Haven, Maine. I hope you had a happy, restful holiday. I went south to visit my sister and her family, which partly explains my failure to answer your letter sooner.

I was much pleased to read your sermon on my favorite quotation in the ‘New Church Messenger.’ You have infinitely enriched the beauty of the text to me.

With kindest greetings, in which Mrs. Macy joins me, I am

                                                                                                                    Faithfully yours,
                                                                  Helen Keller”

Photos: The photograph (top) of Helen Keller reading braille dates to about 1907, the photograph of Helen and Anne Sullivan Macy to about 1909. Both are in the public domain, and are available from Wikimedia.org. (Copies can also be obtained from the Library of Congress.) The typed copy of Helen Keller’s letter to Rev. Paul Sperry is in the collection of the Academy of the New Church Archives, Swedenborg Library, Bryn Athyn, PA.

Further Reading:

Amazon link to My Religion (2007 edition)

Light in My Darkness (revised and edited edition of My Religion by Swedenborg Foundation)

Shining Soul: Helen Keller’s Spiritual  Life and Legacy (DVD from Swedenborg Foundation)

American Foundation for the Blind Helen Keller section

Questions and comments may be addressed to the editors at [email protected].  

March 18, 2010 | Posted by: Ed and Kirsten Gyllenhaal in New Church History Fun Fact