“Enslaved by African angels”: Swedenborg on African superiority, evangelization, and slavery in the Swedish Age of Liberty

This paper provides the first extensive study of Emanuel Swedenborg’s (1688-1772) views on Africans and slavery. Although significant scholarship has been devoted to Swedenborg’s influence on the British abolitionist movement in the 1780s-90s, comparably little has been written on the ideas which inspired this influence in the first place. This paper provides a first step to close such a gap, by exploring Swedenborg’s ties to networks and debates about evangelization, Africans, colonization, and slavery during the Swedish Age of Liberty (1719-1772). It shows that Swedenborg was the first Swede to condemn slavery as immoral in 1741; explains why he regarded slavery as a divine punishment in heaven for wicked European missionaries, and why he opportunistically presented Sub-Saharan Africans as superior, in contrast to the dismissive views of Linnaeus, Bäck, Kant or Buffon. More broadly, these early debates shed new light on the peripheral involvement of Sweden in the slave-trade during its so-called Age of Liberty. In this context, the paper analyzes how Swedenborg’s doctrines about African superiority and spiritual slavery re-harnessed biblical traditions about Africa and tropes about the bon sauvage, in a counter-example to narratives about the trope’s decline in the second half of the eighteenth century.

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