James Johnston & Visionary Experience

James Johnston’s Diary

Over the past few months I have been interested by a book I found in the biography section of the library entitled Diary Spiritual and Earthly of James Johnston (published in 1881, though the diary was written much earlier on towards the beginning of the 19th century). This curious text seems to be the record of Johnston’s own visionary experiences, taking place in the same spiritual world as that described by Swedenborg.

While I have not read too far into the book yet (though I hope to finish it at some point), the gist is as follows. Johnston essentially begins to see ghostly figures that appear in his study. When he begins to question the figures, they answer him not by speaking, but by producing pieces of paper with their responses written on them from out of their pockets (apparently an outer pocket for worldly matters, and an inner pocket for spiritual matters). They then go on to confirm Swedenborg’s doctrines to Johnston and send him off on a spiritual mission to unite three specific people for some purpose that I haven’t read about yet. Needless to say, he spends some time in the spiritual world, meets various biblical figures and—from the parts I’ve skipped ahead to—seems to spend a great deal of time with Swedenborg himself; and a great deal of time convincing others (including John Martin, who published the diary after Johnston’s death) that his experiences are genuine.

For me, the text is fairly unique (in Western mysticism) in describing one individual’s mystical experience that has been constructed upon another’s. By this I mean that Johnston seems to project himself wholly into Swedenborg’s spiritual world.

If one looks at the experiences of various other mystics, there is often a personal touch to them by which they create unique theological systems (even if the broader points between mystics often overlap).

Blake, Swedenborg and Johnston

As an example, let us briefly glance at the differences between the theological doctrines of William Blake and Swedenborg. Both had visions, and their respective doctrines have a broadly similar moral compass; yet Blake favours a view of God as a single point of Energy (capital E) from which all animated abstraction flows, and which each human being then constructs into positive or negative experience through his free will (I think here of Blake’s Augeries of Innocence and the lines ‘it is right it should be so/man is made for joy and woe’). Meanwhile, Swedenborg favours a view that God is only love, that humanity is constructed (fairly literally) from this love and that to construct positive or negative experience one is either turning to, or away, from God through their free will.

The point is that a person’s given visions will always appeal on a personal level, and the constructs from this will always have the unique bent of the receiver. Not so, it seems, with Johnston and his projection into Swedenborg’s spiritual world. I wonder if this is because Johnston, in one key condition, seems to differ from many others who claim visionary experience: Johnston’s visions do not seem to be the product of a religious crisis.

Vision & Religious Crisis

Swedenborg, as anyone who is familiar with him will know, began having visions after a period of religious turmoil which manifested itself in his dreams, possibly as a result (as Wilson Van Dusen among others notes) of his scientific work being at variance to his religious belief. His visions eventually led to a point where both his scientific and his spiritual ideas could be unified.

Blake’s visions were presented to him as a defence against practises, under the name of religion, which he found to be odious and contradictory. And stretching back as far as the 17th century, to George Fox (pictured left), the founder of the modern Quaker movement, it seems that his ‘inner voice’ (the manifestation of God to him) came about as a strong reaction to ritualized forms of worship (he famously refused to acknowledge churches as holy places, calling them  ‘steeple-houses’ instead). Crisis it seems is a strong and important trigger for visionary experience to take place.

The Popularization of Visionary Experience

Returning to Johnston and his diary, he seems fairly nonchalant about his first encounter with spirits, rather casually mentioning in the opening paragraphs that they materialize and dematerialize in his room. Throughout the text he seems to demonstrate a surety of personal religious belief that goes back a long time before he started having visions. He continuously presents the right answers to the probing questions of various angelic figures, and acts in a rather casual ‘I’ve heard this all before’ manner to the wonders of heaven being described to him. This reaction is due, in part, to the fact that all Johnston is witnessing is that which he perceived as truth already.

What Johnston claimed to have experienced—direct contact with an afterlife and its population—was perhaps the domestication of something that would become, later in the 19th century with the emergence of Spiritualism, a wholesale belief for a larger demographic of society. With the gift of hindsight and the knowledge of Spiritualism’s subsequent popularity, we can look back at Johnston’s diary and already see the ground becoming fertile for a mass of the population to experience visions and revelations (or at least claim as much) without the need for crisis to occur. Why this is, I would hesitate to say at the moment, not knowing enough on the subject to draw any strong conclusions… but it does seem that, at this point in history, something fascinating was happening to do with how the social mass was constructing reality on a metaphysical level.

Anyway, I feel that I have been going on for long enough for one update, and I’ll probably pick up on this subject in my next post … Thanks for reading!

– Alex Murray (Assistant Librarian)

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