Johnny Appleseed – the missionary?

by Jim on 2 April 2008

Johnny Appleseed is a name that you’ve probably heard a lot.  I know I have.  That’s why I set out to learn a little more – you know, beyond the apples.

Johnny Appleseed

Johnny Appleseed’s real name was John Chapman.  He was born in the USA – well, what was to become the USA, in 1774.  Chapman was a pioneer, who, of course, grew apple trees.  Actually, he planted nurseries far and wide, hoping that they would provide food so that people would not have to go hungry.  He would travel back to care for and prune the trees, and sell the trees or tracts of land, or give them away.  You might call him an itinerant land developer.

But Chapman was driven not only by environmentalism or concern for the poor.  He was actually a missionary for the Church of the New Jerusalem, or Swedenborgianism.

Swedenborgianism was fairly new at this time, having come to the new world from England.  The movement was based on the works of Emanuel Swedenborg of Sweden.

In spite of the biblical sounding name of "church", the organization (still alive today, though small) is a long way off from traditional Christian beliefs.  Instead of teaching that we are saved by grace through Jesus, the teaching is that we are saved by belief and a life of good works (one church website writes,"God does not judge us, but we judge ourselves by what we love and how we live. People of every faith are saved if they live sincerely according to their religion.").

There is no Trinity, except for a trinity of being that exists in Jesus alone.  Jesus is not going to return suddenly – actually, he has come, or is in the process of coming.  There is no Satan as the Bible teaches – all evil comes from humanity.  Several books of the Bible are rejected – sometimes Swedenborg’s works are considered to be Scripture themselves.  Either way, the followers of Swedenborg believe that the Bible can be "properly" understood through his teachings.

The teachings of the movement were mystical – that is, you can’t simply understand Scripture by reading – there is a deeper, spiritual meaning that must be seen through Swedenborg’s writings.  This is why "true" Christianity was lost for so many years.

Chapman was a missionary for the Church of the New Jerusalem.  He carried with him materials by Swedenborg, and handed out literature whenever he could.  He shared these beliefs with people as often as he could on the frontier.  His opening line when coming to stay with a settler was "Would you like to hear some news right fresh from heaven?"

How successful was Johnny Appleseed in spreading these beliefs?  Well, we do know that the movement grew for some time, though it was never a large organization.  In the later 1800s there was a lot of controversy over how authoritative Swedenborg’s writings were.  The controversy was to split the people and begin an overall decline.

In spite of Johnny Appleseed’s rejection of many biblical teachings, he did accept and live by many that led many to admire him.  Chapman was concerned for the poor.  He did not accumulate wealth for himself (often dressing in the worst rags), but gave what he could to those in need.  His concern for the environment and desire to develop it to help others left a rich heritage.  Many of the orchards he planted have survived to this day (and are worth millions).  He had a deep concern for animals, even insects.

I would have to argue that his care for others (above himself) and the environment are very biblical ideas (Leviticus 19:18; Proverbs 12:10; Gen 2:15; Psalm 107:27-31).  However, his rejection of the God who has shown Himself in that Creation, and in the Bible, was tragic.  No matter how noble our lives may be, we cannot find true peace if we reject the peace God offers (1Thessalonians 5:17; Romans 5:1).

Man cannot live by bread alone – or apples – but by every word that comes from God’s mouth (see Matthew 4:4).

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Alan April 3, 2008 at 7:46 am

Awww. Disappointing. 🙁
Next you’re gonna say that Mother Goose was Wickan or that Nixon was a crook. Way to tarnish my childhood, James. Way. to. go. 😉

Jim April 3, 2008 at 8:01 am

Hey, how was I supposed to know Johnny defined your childhood?

Actually, I was just reading about the origins of Mother Goose…..

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