Studia Swedenborgiana

Vol. 5 January,  1984 Number 2 

Sadhu Sundar Singh and the New Church

by Eric J. Sharpe

During the 1920s, the attention of Christians in practically every part of the world was seized and gripped by the work, witness and personality of an Indian Christian preacher, Sadhu Sundar Singh.1 In the Hindu tradition, a sadhu (literally, "one who is on the right path") is a holy man, saint or seer, one who has renounced the world for the sake of the path which leads to enlightenment. The phenomenon is not uncommon in India; but where Sundar Singh differed from the majority was in his being a Christian.

Sundar Singh was born on September 3rd, 1889, in the village of Rampur, in northern Punjab. His name suggests that he was of Sikh stock, but if he was, Sikhism left practically no trace in his life, and in later years he was in the habit of referring to his religious past as having been Hindu.2 He received a primary education in a school run by the American Presbyterian Church, but conceived a deep dislike of Christianity, a dislike which reached a climax in about his fourteenth year, when he performed a public burning of at least part of a New Testament. Shortly thereafter he was seized by remorse -- or perhaps fear -- and claimed to have been on the point of suicide when he was arrested by a vision of Jesus, who spoke to him and commissioned him for service. He was baptized on his sixteenth birthday, and almost at once assumed the life-style of a sadhu. From time to time he associated with other spiritual pilgrims, and indeed attended an Anglican theological college for a couple of years, but mostly his way was a solitary one. He was mentioned for the first time in missionary literature in an article published in an Anglican journal in 1908.3 The first book about him appeared eight years later, in 1916.4

It is practically impossible to know anything with certainty about what Sundar Singh was doing between 1908 and 1916. Certainly he fasted and prayed. Certainly he travelled -- but where? In later accounts (of which there were many) he was said to have trekked back and forth into and out of "Tibet," where he had had a series of hair-raising adventures. He was said to have discovered a secret Christian brotherhood among Hindu holy men. He claimed to have met a Christian Maharishi of vast age. Many times he was, on this evidence, on the verge of martyrdom. But always he emerged battered and bruised, but alive. Whether Sundar Singh had ever penetrated physically into what we now know as Tibet is, however, open to some doubt,5

In 1916, as I have said, there appeared the first of a flood of books about the Sadhu. Written by an Indian Christian, Alfred Zahir, it contained most of the miracle and adventure stories which were to be so energetically discussed a decade later.6 Many of these were repeated a couple of years later in another little book, written by Sundar Singh's "spiritual mother," Rebecca Parker (the wife of a missionary of the London Missionary Society). Mrs. Parker's book Sadhu Sundar Singh: Called of God (1918) was to be reprinted several times; it was translated into several European languages, and reviewed by some outstanding scholars. However, it was the next book about Sundar Singh which brought him to world attention.

In 1920 Sundar Singh, having become fairly well known in India, undertook his first preaching tour to the West. This was a round-the-world journey which took him to Europe, the United States and Australia. It was on the whole uncontroversial, but a meeting which took place in Oxford further helped to precipitate the later crisis in the Sadhu's life and ministry. At that time there was in Oxford a young Indian research student, A. J. Appasamy (who later became an Anglican Bishop in India); he persuaded the noted theologian and New Testament scholar B. H. Streeter that there was that in Sundar Singh's life and witness which was worthy of examination.7 The two together interviewed Sundar Singh at considerable length, and in the following year they published the results of their findings as The Sadhu, in which the visionary aspect of Sundar Singh's life was first brought out into the open. It was also in this book that the name of Emanuel Swedenborg was first mentioned in connection with Sundar Singh.

The Streeter-Appasamy book was significant in other ways. It carried the subtitle "A Study in Mysticism and Practical Religion," and had the effect of announcing to the Christian world that Sundar Singh was that rara avis, an actual living "mystic" (previously, although numerous works on mysticism had been published in western countries, most had treated the subject as belonging rather to the past than to the present of religion).8 Sundar Singh, however, exhibited all the signs of being a living mystic. He had seen visions and he had heard voices; he spent long hours in prayer and meditation; and yet his proclamation was clearly identifiable as Evangelical to the core. Streeter did not believe that his readers ought to attempt to seek after trances, visions and voices on their own account: on the contrary, he considered them dangerous, since they are so easily counterfeited9 But he was prepared to allow the genuineness of the Sadhu's own experiences, while being disposed to explain them on psychological rather than on supernatural grounds (a rationalistic style of explanation which annoyed some other western interpreters, notably Friedrich Heiler in Marburg, though this is not a subject we can discuss further on this occasion),10

At an early stage in their narrative, Streeter and Appasamy passed in rapid review some of the classical mystics whom Sundar Singh claimed to have read during and since his student days. They wrote:

It was apparently at Lahore that he first came across the Imitation of Christ, a book which he has read frequently since... He has read a life of St. Francis -- by whom or when he could not remember, that is the kind of detail in which he takes no interest. At some time he has dipped into A1-Ghazzali and other Sufi Mystics. He has also read in this way something of Boehme, St. Theresa, St. John of the Cross, and a very little of Swedenborg [my italics] and Madame Guyon. We fancy that he only made the acquaintance of these last five in comparatively recent years, but could learn nothing definite from him about dates.11

It is worth bearing in mind in respect of later contacts between the Sadhu and the New Church, that his first contacts with Swedenborg's writings may on this evidence have been established during his brief student days. At least they predated his first visit to the West in 1920.

On the question of when, where and how Sundar Singh might first have come into contact with the writings of Swedenborg, such evidence as there is, is entirely circumstantial. However, there had been a Swedenborgian presence in India since 1850; and in 1917 the Rev. S. J. C. Goldsack of the New Church undertook a six-month missionary tour in India, during which time he delivered forty or so public lectures, at least one of them in Lahore (where Sundar Singh had been a divinity student a few years previously). He also presented volumes of Swedenborg's works to ten public libraries, and his assistant, Natha Singh, was a Sikh like the Sadhu and came from the same district in India.12 It would then seem from Streeter-Appasamy as though Sundar Singh's reading of the classical mystics began during his student days in Lahore. One of these was, on Sundar Singh's own testimony, Swedenborg.

Sundar Singh's second tour to the West took place in 1922. During the month of April he visited Uppsala, Sweden, where he was the guest of Archbishop Nathan Soderblom (whose contacts with, and impression of, the Sadhu I have discussed at some length elsewhere.)13 Among other things, Soderblom took him on a sightseeing tour, in the course of which he entered Uppsala Cathedral and saw the tomb of Swedenborg. Later Soderblom was to write that Sundar Singh had been impressed by three things in the Cathedral -- the shrine of Sweden's patron saint, St. Erik; a medieval cope bearing ,, an embroidered picture of the birth of Christ, and Swedenborg's tomb, "For Swedenborg like him was a visionary."14 The words are Soderblom's; nevertheless, it is hard not to conclude that Sundar Singh would have been as interested as he so evidently was, had he not already had some acquaintance, however superficial, with Swedenborg's reputation and writings. This at least bears out what Streeter and Appasamy had written in the previous year. Soderblom for his part did not believe that Sundar Singh's knowledge of Swedenborg was very deep; in a little book published earlier in 1922 he had written that

Christ is the object of Sundar's divine worship. His knowledge of Swedenborg is very superficial. It is certain that the Indian mystic would feel repelled by Swedenborg's interminable descriptions and dry mechanical imagination. But he would not have much difficulty in appropriating Swedenborg's Christocentric faith in God.15

This judgment -- "very superficial" -- clearly comes direct from Streeter and Appasamy. On the other point, the Sadhu's possible reaction to reading Swedenborg, Soderblom could not have been more mistaken.

Also during this visit to Sweden in 1922, overtures were made to the Sadhu by members of the New Church, Mrs. Georgine Nordenskjold and Pastor David Rundstrom (and perhaps others), in the attempt "to interest the Sadhu in Swedenborg and the New Church."16 Pastor Rundstrom gave the Sadhu a copy of Arcana Coelestia, which the Sadhu acknowledged in a letter dated May 7, 1922. It is also of more than passing interest that in an article published in Swedish in 1959, Eric von Born (a prominent member of the New Church in Sweden) expressly stated that "He [the Sadhu] had earlier [i.e. before 1922] read Heaven and Hell, and now had the opportunity to get to know at least the first volume of Arcana."16 I regret that I have not found any independent corroboration of this statement concerning Sundar Singh's earlier acquaintance with Heaven and Hell. But it could very well be true. If true, it would help to explain at least some of the resemblances between the Sadhu's visions and those of Swedenborg.

In Sweden, there were others who were prepared to compare the two visionaries. While the Sadhu was still in Sweden, on May 8, 1922, Major Oswald Kuylenstierna a friend, though apparently not a member of the New Church -- published a short article in a leading Stockholm newspaper, Svenska Dagbladet, pointing out that although Sundar Singh was in many ways Swedenborg's diametrical opposite, having no scholarship and no interest in theology, nevertheless on the visionary level, there was a "striking resemblance" between the two.15 Interestingly enough, no one in Sweden seems to have wanted at that time to suggest that the Sadhu might be a danger to the New Church cause. From the Evangelical Christian side, no one (it is safe to say) suspected that the Sadhu might be showing more than a passing interest in Swedenborg.

Leaving Sweden, Sundar Singh moved on to other European countries, including Switzerland. A report of his meeting in Lausanne, first printed in the Swiss journal Le Messager de la Nouvelle Eglise was translated and reprinted in New Church Life (July 1922) under the slightly odd heading "A Hindoo Visits Lausanne." It identified Sundar Singh as "the new apostle of the Lord," and also noted that several members of the New Church had been present at his addresses; these members "... rejoiced from the bottom of their hearts to think that the light which they have so long tried to disseminate was perhaps on the point of dawning."16 Apparently Sundar Singh taught in terms similar to Swedenborg. "Here is a man who, like Swedenborg, has had his spiritual eyes opened. As in Swedenborg's case, the Lord was pleased to manifest Himself before him. He has been in the spiritual world..."20 However, the New Church Life reporter (E. E. Iungerich) was slightly uneasy at this display of enthusiasm. Although he believed that "everything that happens on earth, whether good or bad, is being turned to the ultimate advantage of the New Church," still he felt moved to remind his readers that "the Second Coming of the Lord takes place by means of the Writings of Swedenborg," and that such interest as that shown in the Sadhu might turn people's attention away from the Writings, and toward the world of the spirits. Sundar Singh might therefore have to be coupled with Oliver Lodge and Conan Doyle as false teachers.21

The possibility that Sundar Singh might be no more than another spiritualist clearly troubled the New Church at this stage. In America they had strictly nothing on which to base their judgment apart from the Streeter-Appasamy book of 1921. In November 1922 W. H. Alden published, again in New Church Life, an article severely critical of Sundar Singh on these grounds.22 Its burden was that no one ought to claim, or to attempt to obtain, direct revelations from the Lord. Sundar Singh seemed to be doing precisely that. Furthermore, his credentials seemed to be open to some doubt: he "... is a Sadhu in the Hindoo sense, but claims to be a Christian Sadhu...,,23 Alden went on to state bluntly that "here is a man who never heard of Swedenborg," and yet "... he devotes himself to the promulgation of the same message as that proclaimed to the Christian world of the West by Swedenborg." How can such things be?24

In point of fact, Sundar Singh had heard of Swedenborg. As we have seen, according to Streeter-Appasamy, among western mystics read by Sundar Singh prior to 1920 were Boehme, St. Theresa, St. John of the Cross, Swedenborg, and Madame Guyon. And his visit in April 1922 to Swedenborg's tomb in Uppsala, Sundar Singh evidently knew enough to recognize in Swedenborg a fellow-visionary.

Alden was disposed to explain much else in Sundar Singh's message in terms of a Hindu's "... capacity for strong emotional experience.''25 Thus he had made various Bible episodes his own; and he had an unhealthy attraction to martyrs and martyrdom. Otherwise "... he has no new conception of Christianity, no thought of it different from that represented among Evangelical Christians";26 he had some true notions concerning the Lord and the spiritual world, but these were mixed with a great deal of falsehood. Alden's conclusion was that the mind of the Sadhu was a prime candidate for invasion by "enthusiastic spirits." Sundar Singh's initial vision, therefore, was not a vision of Jesus, "but was induced by enthusiastic spirits who simulated the Lord, and who have since attended the Sadhu's steps with a succession of apparent miracles."27 The remainder of Alden's article was devoted to an exposure of the wiles of these spirits, who "... do not deceive by open lies; they take hold upon the imagination by the semblance of truth which so much resembles the real truth as to deceive those who desire the truth. The evil is subtle . . ."28

But as I have suggested, there might have been another explanation of the resemblances between Sundar Singh's visions (or rather the explanation which he gave to those visions) and some aspects of the teaching of Swedenborg, namely, that Sundar Singh had already read at least one of Swedenborg's books. Much else might become clearer if that book should prove to have been Heaven and Hell.

Up to this time, the western world had had to judge the content and the character of Sundar Singh's visions almost entirely from what had been recorded in Streeter and Appasamy. In his tours and other preaching engagements, he had avoided the subject of visions, probably because he recognized that the Evangelical Christians with whom he chiefly associated would be unwilling to take them seriously, and might perhaps even have been hostile, had they known of the nature and character of his visionary experience. To the extent that visions were acceptable in Evangelical circles, they had to conform to the record and terminology of the Bible. This some of the Sadhu's visions perhaps did; but not all. At least it was not permissible for Evangelicals to converse with the spirits of the departed on "the other side," a circumstance which inevitably suggested the error of spiritualism. And there the matter rested for the next four years. Sundar Singh's visions presumably (indeed certainly) continued, though he refrained from speaking of them in public. But in 1926 he broke his silence.

Sundar Singh's "visionary" book, Visions of the Spiritual World, first appeared in 1926. It told simply of his experience in the realm of the spirit and of his conversations with "angels." Mostly it seemed orthodox enough. After all, "angels" were part of Christian mythology, and the book could, if the worst came to the worst, be explained away as a work of the pious imagination. There was no reason for the Evangelicals to suspect Swedenborgian influence, since they were simply unaware that the Sadhu had any contacts in that direction. Nathan Soderblom was one who noted a certain resemblance, however, and in the foreword to the Swedish translation of Visions he stated that

This little book shows better than the Sadhu's earlier writings that his visions can hardly be called ecstatic, but rather communicate definite insights in visionary form. The visions are based not on the emotions but on reflection. They present exhortations and doctrines. The imagination is subordinated to a definite point of view. They remind one of Ezekiel or Swedenborg . . .29

This, however, he considered to be more a matter of style than of content.

The contents of Visions of the Spiritual World puzzled many members of the New Church. Most had no way of knowing what the Sadhu had been reading over the past few years, and they were struck by his little book's Swedenborgian overtones on the one hand, and by discrepancies on the other. John Whitehead, writing in The New-Church Review (October 1927), expressed the matter perfectly clearly:

Is it possible that Sadhu Sundar Singh has been reading Swedenborg; and then has had visions which reflected the ideas derived from Swedenborg? Or did he really receive direct information from heaven? The close resemblance of his ideas to those taught in Swedenborg, the divisions of the spiritual world, expressed in the same terms, seem as though he had first gained his information from Swedenborg, and then the spirits had confirmed him in it.

It would be interesting to know more of this case, including the previous knowledge which Sadhu Sundar Singh had, and especially whether he had previously read Swedenborg.30

Precisely the same point was made by John Goddard a month later in The New-Church Messenger (November 2, 1927):

He describes the spiritual world in terms so similar to Swedenborg's that we question whether he is not familiar with Swedenborg's writings, and has not either consciously or otherwise, drawn from them... the whole description so closely accords with that of Swedenborg, that we cannot help asking for an explanation.31

In Goddard's view, the matter might be resolved by postulating the Sadhu's having been granted a "supplemental revelation." But the stronger likelihood was simply that he had been reading Swedenborg in a supposition which was of course by this time entirely correct.

Goddard, however, was sufficiently intrigued by the possibility of direct borrowing to write to the Sadhu, by way of his London publisher, to ask whether he had in fact been reading Heaven and Hell. Sundar Singh replied on December 26, 1927. His letter read in part:

. . . I want to say that after my book on the "Visions of the Spiritual World" was published, some friend sent me a copy of "Heaven and Hell," and I was glad to see that this wonderful man of God [Swedenborg] also had similar experiences. I should very much like to read about this seer and saint.32

This is a very puzzling letter. Read as it stands, it appears to be a piece of simple deception, or at least an act of concealment. Sundar Singh had been the recipient of gifts of books from Swedenborgian admirers since 1922, quite apart from the possibility (already mentioned) that he had read Heaven and Hell before 1920. We should remember, however, two things: first, that by this time, Sundar Singh was in a declining state of health and might have had some difficulty in recalling events of the past; and secondly, that he may have had some fears that his Evangelical Christian friends might be displeased to learn of his reading habits. (This is not very likely, but it is at least a possibility.) A third possibility is that Sundar Singh, who obviously did not know Goddard, was at this stage prepared only to tell him what he thought he wanted to know. Unfortunately, Goddard did not publish his own letter to Sundar Singh, and we therefore have no way of knowing in what terms it was expressed.

Sundar Singh had not mentioned the name of Swedenborg in his little book. However, there is one passage which (as it later transpired) might be taken to be an oblique reference. The Sadhu is conversing with a group of angels, and he asks them to tell him their earthly names. One replies that each has received a new, heavenly name, known to none save the Lord himself and the one who has received it. What purpose would be served by revealing earthly names? It appears that at about this time, Sundar Singh had become convinced that one of these "angels" had while on earth been none other than Swedenborg himself.

Approximately two years after the publication of Visions, Sundar Singh wrote to the Secretary of the Indian Swedenborg Society, A. E. Penn, to claim that he had in fact been in contact with the "angel" of Swedenborg for some years, without knowing it:

I saw him several times some years ago, but I did not know his earthly name. His name in the spiritual world is quite different just according to his high position or office and most beautiful character. He is exceedingly happy and always busy in helping others.33

A few days previously he had written to the same A. E. Penn to thank him for sending him Arcana Coelestia (a copy of which, as we have seen, he had had in his possession for a number of years already):

I value this great treasure very much and shall read carefully as told by the most venerable Swedenborg [my italics]... After I have finished touring I hope to write something about my conversation with Swedenborg in the Spiritual World.34

We have previously seen that late in 1927, Pastor John Goddard of Newtonville, Massachusetts, had opened a correspondence with the Sadhu. This continued for a couple of years, indeed until the Sadhu's final disappearance in 1929. More copies of Swedenborg's books were sent to him (by the end of his life Sundar Singh must have had a very considerable Swedenborg library). On May 30, 1928, he wrote to Goddard to thank him for a parcel of books, including Heaven and Hell (yet again), Conjugial Love and Divine Love and Wisdom.

I am glad to see that many things which I have seen in the spiritual world and heavens are exactly the same as Swedenborg has described and written in his works... Yes, I have seen the venerable Swedenborg in my visions several times . . .35

On November 12, 1928, he writes:

Yes, I have talked with the venerable Swedenborg and some other saints and angels about the hells, although I am unable to explain adequately all that they told me . . .36

And on January 2, 1929:

With regard to the doctrine of reincarnation and transmigration also, I have conversed with Swedenborg and some other Hindu saints who, after entering into the spiritual world, have accepted the Lord as the only true God and Saviour and also those who have not yet accepted Him. They all say that reincarnation is impossible . . .37

It is incidentally in this letter that Sundar Singh makes what is perhaps the only direct reference anywhere in the correspondence, to the writings of Swedenborg. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it was to Heaven and Hell, n. 256.38 And in a still later letter, dated March 11, 1929, he confirmed that he had found in the spiritual world "... scenes and things almost the same as Swedenborg has described in Heaven and Hell."39

Interestingly enough, the name of Swedenborg was never mentioned in Sundar Singh's correspondence with his "spiritual mother," Mrs. Parker, and only once in a letter to Soderblom. Writing to Soderblom on November 13, 1928, he asked whether he might perhaps be able to publish the record of his conversations with Swedenborg in book form.40 Soderblom appears not to have answered, evidently feeling that the Sadhu had on this occasion passed beyond the bounds of the theologically acceptable. (I may perhaps be permitted to add that it was the reading of this letter which first aroused my interest in the subject of this paper).

In March 1929, Sundar Singh was visited in Subathu by A. J. Appasamy, Streeter's collaborator in the 1922 book with which the debate began. He reported on their meeting as follows:

He spoke . . . with real enthusiasm of Swedenborg's books. When Sundar Singh's book Visions of the Spiritual World, was published, the Swedenborg Society sent him some of Swedenborg's writings, pointing out that in some respects Sundar Singh's experience was similar to Swedenborg's. These books . . . he has read with much interest. "Swedenborg was a great man, philosopher, scientist and, above all, seer of clear visions [said the Sadhu to Appasamy]. I often speak with him in my visions. He occupies a high place in the spiritual world. He is a glorious man, but modest and ever ready to serve. I, too, see wonderful things in the spiritual world, but I cannot describe them with the accuracy and ability which Swedenborg has. He is a highly-gifted and well-trained soul. Having read his books and having come in contact with him in the spiritual world, I can thoroughly recommend him as a great seer."41

Sundar Singh (who was by this time in a very precarious state of health) left Subathu for "Tibet" somewhere around April 18, 1929, the date on which his final letters to his friends were written. He was never seen or heard of again.

For some time his whereabouts remained a subject of discussion. After all, it was argued, he had been in Tibet before, and might reappear as mysteriously as he had vanished. Controversy followed him. Appasamy's article had aroused the wrath (or at least the sorrow) of some Evangelicals in India, one of whom wrote to him that his endorsement of Swedenborg was "appalling," and warned him that very many in India would take a lead from him; therefore he should not grieve the Spirit of God in this way: "I again appeal to you to earnestly seek to know the will of God in this matter."42

New Church publications continued to refer to Sundar Singh as an "ardent student of the works of Swedenborg."43 Letters were written to him by Swedenborgians, affirming that "... we have for a number of years been somewhat in touch with your life and work."44 In 1931 The Helper printed the account of "an English Sadhu," one George Leik, who claimed to have come across the Sadhu in a remote cave, where he was occupied with the interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, "so that the ordinary man-in-the-street might understand it" though this was undoubtedly a mere piece of pious fantasy.45 At least the mystery of the Sadhu's disappearance helped in the creation of the legend

echoes of which are still to be heard today, more than half a century later.

It is the legend of Sundar Singh which has so far prevented the West from fully realizing what manner of man he was, and from recognizing the presuppositions which he brought to his encounter with Christians (and others) in the West. I do not propose on this occasion to attempt to analyze Sundar Singh's character in retrospect. But there are a couple of points which are worthy of comment.

The first is that in all his dealings with Christianity, Sundar Singh was supremely indifferent to questions of theology, and was in all likelihood unaware of the varying interpretations of the Christian message which kept churches and denominations apart. In the strictly formal sense he was, I suppose one must say, an Anglican; in every other sense to claim the Sadhu to have been a member of the Anglican Communion is patently absurd. In religious terms he was a "loner," accepting fellowship when it was offered but in no way dependent upon it. His reading appears to have been eclectic and uncritical, and there would seem to be little doubt that he approached the writings of Swedenborg simply as "Christian" books, which differed from the others simply and solely in the recognition which they have to the visionary dimension of spiritual experience. Even had he known that other Christians were less than enthusiastic over some of the dimensions of Swedenborg's teachings, he probably would not have cared (though at the same time it must be admitted that his failure to mention the name of Swedenborg in his correspondence with his Evangelical "spiritual mother " does rather suggest that he was unsure of her reaction).

He accepted Swedenborg's testimony concerning the spiritual world because he had found no other Christian who seemed prepared to say anything at all about it, and because his own immediate experience bore out the truth of that testimony. Further, the New Church did not mercilessly condemn "the heathen" to everlasting torment, as the more extreme Evangelical Christians were in the habit of doing. If the Evangelicals were right, then Sundar Singh's own beloved mother would have been condemned to eternal suffering; on this point Swedenborg spoke with an altogether milder voice.46 The Hindu alternative -- rebirth on the earthly plane was again denied by the New Church, as it was by all other Christians. But the majority did not allow that there might be further spiritual development beyond the grave. On this point, Swedenborg offered a dimension of hope which was lacking in the missionary mainstream.

Sundar Singh therefore accepted the testimony of Swedenborg on these other matters. But that did not make him a Swedenborgian in any formal sense. He cared nothing for denominational divisions, and he made no move to ally himself with the New Church, other than at the level of reading. Perhaps the New Church might have justifiably claimed him as an "anonymous Swedenborgian," but the Sadhu would probably have seen little point in any such claim.

The second point proceeds from the first. Throughout his life, the one thing needful in the Hindu's spiritual pilgrimage was denied to the Christian Sadhu -- the guidance of a personal guru. Both in India and the West Sundar Singh had encountered thousands of Christians, most of them worthy but dull. For Rebecca Parker he had deep personal affection. Soderblom and a few others aroused in him a measure of admiration. But from none of them could he gain any guidance on the most central aspect of his own personal religious life

visionary experience. On reading Swedenborg, for the first time he found a Christian who understood visions. In a word, Swedenborg became the Sadhu's personal guru. And if Swedenborg had given testimony to the continuance of a life of service beyond the grave, then the fact of Swedenborg's having died so many years earlier was no barrier to the continued communication of guru and disciple. Swedenborg was still alive; in vision he could be approached, and he could still teach. In Sundar Singh's spiritual dimension, he did precisely that. Some will no doubt feel this to have been no more than wishful thinking on the Sadhu's part, and the New Church may well be of a divided mind on the issue. But that the last years of Sundar Singh's life were rendered bearable by this series of visions cannot be doubted. At least the writings of Swedenborg opened up to the Sadhu a dimension of Christian spirituality which he had otherwise failed to find among his more conventional Christian acquaintances and friends.

There are of course many other aspects of the story of Sundar Singh which I have not attempted to discuss in this paper. In conclusion, however, I should like to say that I believe it to be high time to reopen the "Sundar Singh file," not least in view of some of the superficial and silly things which have been written about him in recent years.47 He deserves to be known as he was; not in the half-light of romantic piety. Perhaps the full story can never be told, but in those parts of it which can be reconstructed, the New Church will have a much fuller role to play than has ever previously been acknowledged.


I should have been unable even to begin the study of which this paper is a by-product, were it not for the help of Pastor Olle Hjern in Stockholm and Dr. William Ross Woofenden, both of whom supplied me with material to which otherwise I would not have had access. My thanks to both of them.

*The phrase "New Church" in this article is used to refer without differentiation to one or another of the organized branches of the Swedenborgian Church worldwide.

1 The fullest Sundar Singh bibliography of which I am aware is in Paul Gabler, Sadhu Sundar Singh (Leipzig 1937), pp. 173-189. The only reasonably modern biography is A. J. Appasamy, Sundar Singh: A Biography (London 1958, Madras 1966), but this is far from being definitive. I have approached some aspects of his work in three articles, "Sadhu Sundar Singh and his crincs: an episode in the meaning of East and West." in Religion VI/1 (Spring 1976). pp. 48-66; "Christian Mysticism in Theory and Practice: Nathan Soderblom and Sadhu Sundar Singh," in Religious Traditions 4/1 (1981), pp. 19-37; and "Nathan Soderblom, Sadhu Sundar Singh and Emanuel Swedenborg," in E. J. Sharpe and A. Hultgard (eds.), Nathan Soderblom and his Contribution to the Study of Religion (not yet published).

2 Some earlier interpreters paid disproportionate attention to Sundar Singh's supposed Sikh heritage, for instance Friedrich Heiler, Sadhu Sundar Singh: Ein Apostel des Ostens und Westens (4th ed. Munchen 1926), pp. 4-19. Sundar Singh appears never to have mentioned the Sikh scripture Guru Granth Sahib. He did on the other hand claim to have learned the Hindu Bhagavad Gita by heart while still a child.

3 S. E. Stokes, "Interpreting Christ to India: a new departure in missionary work," ill The East and the West 6 (1908), pp. 121-138. In 1910, Stokes also published a children's book, Arjun: the life-story of an Indian boy (2nd ed. London 1911) in which there appears an Indian evangelist Karthar Singh, who was probably also modelled in part on Sundar Singh. An alternative possibility is that the tales told in this book provided Sundar Singh with the models for some of his adventures. Stokes and Sundar Singh were both members of a quasi-Franciscan Anglican order for a few years in the late 1900s. Another was the later associate of Tagore and Gandhi, Charles Freer Andrews.

4 Alfred Zahir, Shaida-i-Salib (Agra 1916); English translation, A Lover of the Cross (Agra 1917). I regret that I have never seen a copy of this book.

5 "My own view is that the Sadhu was essentially an honest man, but that he hardly knew where the border line between fact and fiction came. I do not believe that he was ever in Tibet in his life; but I am sure that he firmly believed that he had been. His was a vivid imagination, and he quite often imagined that he had experienced things when in reality they were really the fruit of his own imagination. I believe that this is not rarely one of the effects of fasting." Letter: Bishop Stephen Neill to the present writer, April 17, 1975.

6 Concerning this debate, which I have not attempted to discuss in this article, see Sharpe, "Sadhu Sundar Singh and his critics," cited in note 1 above.

7 Letter: Streeter to Sundar Singh, March 8, 1920: "I feel that I have got a new light, both from talking to you and from reading Mrs. Parker's book, on the meaning of some things in the New Testament." What these "things" were, may be deduced from Streeter, The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins (London 1924), pp. 191-195; they had to do with the manner in which the Gospel material had been orally transmitted.

8 For a further discussion of this subject, see Sharpe, "Christian Mysticism in Theory and Practice," cited in note 1 above.

9 "To him Ecstasy may not only be without danger, but may bring actual profit. It is not so with the rest of us... The specious Visions and Revelations which come by the easy path of a facile trance-practice, whether in ourselves or others, we are mistaken to admire, we are demented if we seek." Streeter and Appasamy, The Sadhu (London 1921), p. 155f.

10 For Heiler's reaction, see Apostel oder Betruger? (Munchen 1925), p. 96f.

11 Streeter and Appasamy, op. cit., p. 18.

12 H. N. Morris, "Christianity in India," in The New-Church Magazine (October-December 1951), p. 72.

13 Cf. Sharpe, "Nathan Soderblom, Sadhu Sundar Singh and Emanuel Swedenborg," cited in note 1 above.

14 Soderblom, Sundar Singhs budskap urgivet och belyst (Stockholm 1923), p. 129.

15 Soderblom, Tre livsformer (Stockholm 1922), p. 30.

16 Nya Kyrkans Tidning 84/2 (1959), p. 28.

17 Eric yon Born, in ibid., p. 25f.

18 Svenska Dagbladet (Stockholm), May 8, 1922.

19 New Church Life (July 1922), p. 413f.

20 Ibid., p. 414.

21 Ilbid.

22 W. H. Alden, "Sadhu Sundar Singh," in New Church Life (November 1922), pp. 633-641.

23 1bid., p. 633.

24 1bid., p. 634.

25 lbid., p. 634.

26 1bid., p. 636.

27 lbid., p. 637.

28 lbid., p. 639.

29 Soderblom, foreword to Syner fran andevarlden (Swedish translation of Visions, Stockholm 1926), p. 6.

30 J. Whitehead, "The Visions of Sadhu Sundar Singh," in The New-Church Review (October 1927), p. 502.

31 J. Goddard, letter to the Editor of The New-Church Messenger (November 2, 1927), p. 326.

32 Reproduced in letter from J. Goddard to the Editor of The New-Church Messenger (February 29, 1928), p. 140.

33 Reprinted in The Helper (January 2, 1929), p. 5.

34 1bid.

35 The correspondence with Goddard is to be found in full in Appasamy's biography, having previously appeared in The Helper (Appasamy, op. cit., pp. 215-219). Very recently a German translation from Appasamy was published in Offene Tore 5/1983, pp. 195-200. Appasamy otherwise maintains the fiction that Sundar Singh had no knowledge of Swedenborg's writings, and no contact with Swedenborgians, prior to the publication of Visions of the Spiritual WorM. This quotation is taken from Appasamy, op. cit. (Indian edition), p. 216.

36 1bid.

37 1bid., p. 217.

38 The point here has to do with the unacceptability of the Hindu doctrine of transmigration. Cf. G. F. Dole's translation of Heaven and Hell (New York, revised ed., 1979), n. 256.

39Appasamy, op. tit., p. 218.

40 "I have seen in mv Visions your noble countryman Swedenborg, he is a most wonderful personality. He has told me several interesting facts. Do you think it would be useful if I wrote my conversation with him in book form?" Sundar Singh to Soderblom, November 13, 1928 (Uppsala University Library). On October 15 he had written in similar terms to A. E. Penn: "After I have finished touring, 1 hope to write something about my conversation with Swedenborg in the Spiritual World." The Helper (January 2, 1929), p. 5.

41 National Christian Council Revieu' (March 1929) offprint p. 4. Also quoted verbatim in Appasamy, op. cir.° p. 215.

42 Reprinted in The Helper (July 3. 1929), under the title The Sadhu's "'Declaration of Independence" (p. 3). Cf. H. N. Morris, "Christianity in India," in The New-Church Magazine (October-December 1951), p. 73.

43 The Helper (April 10, 1929), p. 7.

44 The Helper (April 27. 1929), p. 6.

45 The Helper (October 21, 1931), p. 4f.

46 For this observation I am indebted to Pastor Olle Hjern of Stockholm.

47 Most recent literature on Sundar Singh has been in the pious paperback category, and has been based entirely on the uncritical literature of the 1910s and 1920s. In this category belong Cyril J. Davey, The Story of Sadhu Sundar Singh (Chicago: Moody Press 1963) and Janet Lynch-Watson, The Saffron Robe: a life of Sadhu Sundar Singh (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1975). The section on Sundar Singh in Robin Boyd, An Introduction to Indian Christian Theology (Madras: CLS, 1969), pp. 92-109, though it calls him "a central and crucially important figure in the history of Christianity in India" (p. 108), treats the question too exclusively in theological categories, and minimizes the visionary component in the Sadhu's spirituality. It would be a pity, were earlier books on the Sadhu simply to be reissued, without a closer examination of his background and context. Significantly, Boyd appears totally unaware of there having been any connection between the Sadhu and the New Church.