The Spiritual Legacy of Johnny Appleseed

Rev. Kit Billings

Johnny Appleseed, born John Chapman, was a man of simplicity, compassion and earnestly deep Swedenborgian Christian faith.  He was a living testament to the belief that we can make a difference in the world through small acts of kindness and love.  Johnny Appleseed was a long-term New Church Christian, which means that he studied and applied the loving wisdom he found in God’s holy Word, allowing the great theology of Emanuel Swedenborg to add deep insights to his engagement in the Lord’s Holy Scripture. 

For those who are not aware, Emanuel Swedenborg was an 18th century Swedish Christian scientist, inventor and statesman.  Swedenborg served the Lord tirelessly, and he helped to bring into our world a beautifully loving and rational Christian theology for those wanting to make use of it in life.

The essence of Swedenborgian or New Church theology is this:

  • God is pure, infinite and eternal Love-and-Wisdom in One.
  • There can only be One all-powerful Supreme Being or God b/c having more than One would mean they would cancel each other out.
  • This One, all-powerful and merciful God is known throughout our world by many names, yet He is found most personally in His Divine-Humanity in Jesus Christ.
  • God gives us the power to open up and be conjoined with Him through a way of life centered in lovingkindness and faith flowing into service and usefulness.
  • God loves everyone unconditionally and mercifully, but He can only gradually save or regenerate us when we return His love through mutual love with Him and with each other.
  • We are designed to be freely able to approach, find and listen to the Lord by reading, reflecting upon and applying God’s Word and Commandments to our lives, everyday and forever.

As one of my fellow ordained Swedenborgian clergyman said it to me during a meeting this summer, our church and its faith and teachings are wonderfully geared towards anyone who is ready to spiritually work on themselves and grow—led by God.  Spiritual growth happens through many great pathways into God’s goodness and wisdom, and this faith that Johnny Appleseed loved so much is quintessentially geared towards doing so.

Anyone who examines the life and mission of Johnny Appleseed finds valuable lessons in his life that mirror biblical principles of love, charity and stewardship of the Earth.  In this sense, I believe that John Chapman’s life and great accomplishments are timeless—which is why I continue to enjoy reading and thinking about his life as an inspiration for my own.  But in addition to these great and saintly qualities, Johnny’s life was brimming with adventure, with a special closeness to nature and her animals, and  with daring feats of compassion—as when he literally was a brave paramedic to both Union soldiers and Native American warriors in the heat of battle!  He was a living American hero, therefore, worthy of our admiration.  I would like to share with you this morning, these 4 core principles of spiritual wisdom for all of us to take with us..

4 Principles of John Chapman’s Life

  1. Cultivating the Soil of Our Hearts
  2. Sowing the Seeds of Love
  3. Embracing Simplicity
  4. Connecting with Nature

1: Cultivating the Soil of Our Hearts 

As an apple orchardman, John Chapman meticulously prepared the soil before planting his apple seeds.  Following his example as spiritual gardeners in life, every one of us can choose to cultivate the soil of our hearts to receive the seeds of God’s Divine Love.  Emanuel Swedenborg taught that our hearts are the spiritual ground upon which the seeds of love and goodness can grow.  What are examples of things you do to cultivate your heart as fertile soil for love seeds to grow?

For me, I keep exposing my heart and mind to God’s Holy Word and I continue to spend time in worship and song, devoting my heart, mind and life to the Lord.  I then strive daily to apply God’s wisdom to my relationships with others, with family and with my friends.  And, I purposefully apply the Lord’s love and kindness into my prayers for my enemies, for those who have hurt me, or for people I feel are living selfish or cruel way of life.  That is one of the hardest and most difficult things I know of to do, but my experience of God’s Divine Love as it shines throughout God’s Word is that it is constant and universal.  

There is no one that God does not love and care for, which does not mean that everyone loves God back, nor does everyone try to apply lovingkindness to their life.  And yet, our Lord taught us to love one another, even our enemies who persecute us in life.  The impulses we can choose to cultivate if we wish are those of the hellish side of life—but that is not God’s way. 

2: Sowing the Seeds of Love

Johnny Appleseed’s journey was a selfless one.  He traveled tirelessly, but he also knew how to allow himself moments of rest and relaxation—which is what we all are meant to enjoy on God’s Sabbath Day.  Johnny understood this, which is why one day a passerby in the forest where John was living they saw him asleep in a canoe floating down a river.  But Johnny Appleseed understood as a young man learning the trade of apple orchardman that it involved a lot of work.  He worked hard to plant apple orchards for the benefit of the westward bound pioneer families, and he was smart to know that he needed to earn a meager living in doing his faithful charity by selling his orchards in timely ways.  He then used his earnings to buy more apple seeds and a replenishing supply of some of Emanuel Swedenborg’s books.  He then ripped out chapters of these books and traded them around amongst the settlers.

John knew that the many poor, barely-making-it pioneering American families pushing westward needed a self-replenishing and easy to store source of nutrition.  He found it in apple trees.  Johnny’s New Church (Swedenborgian) Christian faith taught him that real charity is willing to think ahead of time how one can be prudently and intelligently caring for others.  He saw the need happening before his eyes, in the eyes of hungry children and their parents, and he learned how he could make a positive difference for others moving west.  In this sense, Johhny exemplifies the Swedenborgian principle of charity or compassion—which is the act of selflessly loving and serving our fellow human beings as members of God’s family on Earth.  Just as Johnny scattered apple seeds back in his day, we can sow the seeds of love, compassion and kindness in our interactions with others everyday.

3: Embracing Simplicity

Johnny Appleseed lived a simple life, free from the trappings of material wealth.  He was content with the basics of life, and his focus was on doing good rather than acquiring possessions.  Swedenborg emphasized the importance of simplicity and detachment from worldly desires, teaching that true wealth comes from a life of spiritual abundance and love for otherse.  Spiritual wealth, he taught, comes when we learn, understand and value most deeply the loving wisdom and truth found in God’s Word, and we then apply it to our lives and relationships.  The Lord, of course, taught this in the Holy Land saying, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Mtt. 6:19-21)  John Chapman was about developing and using real spiritual abundance and love for others, putting into action the great truths of life God gives us in the Bible.

4: Connecting with Nature

Our amazing friend and spiritual pioneer, Johnny Appleseed, had a very deep connection with the natural world.  He saw the beauty and divinity of God in every tree, flower and creature he met in life.  Johnny’s relationship and connection to Mother Nature echoes perfectly with Swedenborg’s belief in the interconnectedness of the spiritual and natural worlds.  This connection operates like the old medieval Latin saying, which translated in English says, “As above, so below.”  It means that there is always a Correspondence between the laws and phenomena of higher and lower planes of Being and life.  Thus, God’s Divine Truth is symbolized by fresh, flowing water on Earth, which makes life possible as well as quenching our thirst for spiritual wisdom.  When we appreciate and care for the natural world as Johnny did, we align ourselves with God’s Divine order.

In reflecting upon the wonderful and very spiritual life of Johnny Appleseed, we are reminded of the profound spiritual lessons that can be found within the simplest of actions.  Just as Johnny scattered apple seeds across the American frontier, we can scatter the seeds of the Lord’s love and kindness wherever we go.  By cultivating the soil of our hearts, sowing the seeds of love, embracing simplicity, and connecting with nature, we can carry forward the legacy of Johnny Appleseed Chapman.  From all I’ve read and learned about him, that is what he would love for us to do.

May we all strive to be modern day “Johnny Appleseeds” of the spirit, planting the seeds of love, compassion and kindness in the world, and in so doing, drawing closer to the Divine Presence that unites us all.  

Rev. Kit Billings, his wife Penny, and their daughter Julia moved to LaPorte, Indiana in 2012, where he is Pastor of the LaPorte New Church, a historic Swedenborgian sacred space. Kit enjoys ministering with people of all ages, and supporting others in their journey of growth with the Lord.

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