In The Core of Johnny Appleseed: The Unknown Story of a Spiritual Trailblazer, Ray Silverman shows how we can better understand the myths and facts of John Chapman (aka Johnny Appleseed) by understanding his Swedenborgian faith. We sat down with the author to get a perspective on what it was like to delve into the life of a legend.
SF: What was your first experience of Johnny Appleseed?
RS: I encountered Johnny Appleseed for the first time when I was a child—perhaps in elementary school. Johnny always struck me as a happy-go-lucky sort of person who loved nature and went about doing good for others. I suppose I was influenced by Walt Disney’s animated cartoon, Melody Time, which came out in 1948 when I was around four years old.
By the way, the cartoon is available on YouTube under “Melody Time Johnny Appleseed.” It is beautifully done, and includes the now-famous song “The Lord is Good to Me”—written for that film.
SF: How did you get interested in writing a book about him?
RS: Joanna Hill, executive editor at the Swedenborg Foundation, asked me if I would be interested in doing a book about Johnny Appleseed from a Swedenborgian point of view. She was thinking of a book that would be similar to the one I did last year for the Foundation, Helen Keller’s How I Would Help the World. I was interested.
But after I began to read the current research on Johnny Appleseed, I was more than interested: I was raring to go! I realized that a new book that saw Johnny from the inside out was absolutely necessary. In fact, I saw that an accurate portrayal of Johnny’s Swedenborgian faith could be a touchstone for clearing up inconsistencies, dispelling myths, and giving readers a clearer picture of this remarkable man.
I also saw that Johnny’s light-heated spirit, deep religious interest, and useful life could be a powerful and important model for contemporary readers.
SF: As you were doing the research for this book, what surprised you the most?
RS: My answer may surprise you, but here it is. As a child growing up in the traditional school system, history and geography were my least favorite subjects. To me, they seemed to be little more than memorizing long lists of names, dates, battles, and places. This had very little interest for me.
But when I began to study the story of Johnny Appleseed, history and geography came alive! I began to realize that Johnny’s story is inseparable from the America’s coming of age. Everything became interesting and significant, whether it was the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775 (Johnny’s father fought in it), the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 (it enabled Johnny to expand his apple tree business into Ohio and Indiana), or a petition for a New Church minister in Mansfield, Ohio, in 1822 (organized and signed by Johnny Appleseed).
Similarly, geography came alive. I traveled to many of the places where Johnny had traveled, walked the trails, sat by the rivers, and imagined what Johnny had done in those places. As I crossed the rugged but beautiful Allegheny Mountains, I imagined Johnny and the wagon trains crossing as well.
My most vivid experience was in Franklin, Pennsylvania, the site of one of Johnny’s earliest nurseries. There I was, at the confluence of the Allegheny River and French Creek, marveling as I watched the current run swiftly southward toward Pittsburgh. I knew that at one time Johnny had been on that river, perhaps floating downstream on a raft, on a sunny day, reading Swedenborg. And I loved the idea that the swiftly flowing Allegheny River would eventually join the Monongahela to form the powerful Ohio River, which in turn would become the mighty Mississippi, flowing south to the Gulf of Mexico.
Yes, I surprised myself with my newfound love for history and geography!
SF: How much do we really know about John Chapman, and is it difficult to separate the historical facts from the legends about him?
RS: For the most part, the stories about Johnny Appleseed have been handed down from generation to generation in a form of “whisper down the lane.” Some say he never married because he was expecting to have two wives in heaven. Others say that he never married because his true love died before they were married and he expected to be together with her again in heaven.
Which story do you go with? How do you know? Since there is no written record of what Johnny actually said about his love life, we cannot know for sure. But when we realize that Johnny was a Swedenborgian with an ardent love for the teachings of the New Church—and this can be documented—it becomes clear that the story about expecting to be reunited with his true love in heaven is more plausible.
Another story involves Johnny’s love and respect for nature. It is said that he had such a great reverence for nature that he wouldn’t harm a fly or kill a mosquito. On one occasion when mosquitoes were attracted to his campfire and dying in the flames, he put out the fire and slept in the cold rather then see a mosquito die. Johnny had a great respect for nature, but he did not worship it. As a Swedenborgian he worshiped the Creator—not the creation. So, again, seeing Johnny from the inside out—first and foremost as a Swedenborgian—becomes a way of discerning between historical facts and legends. In other words, the story about Johnny saving the mosquitoes is most likely a legend.
Beyond the legends, there is precise documentation of Johnny’s land holdings and nurseries—all of which we have carefully recorded in the book. It becomes clear that over his lifetime Johnny owned at least twelve thousand acres of land and planted numerous nurseries in nineteen counties (in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana). This kind of documentation helps to demonstrate that Johnny was not just a wandering, good-natured vagabond, but rather a skilled businessman and visionary entrepreneur who anticipated people’s needs and filled them. At the same time, it should be remembered that business was not Johnny’s primary love—it was the heavenly doctrines of the New Jerusalem.
All in all, there is a great deal of information about John Chapman, but it needs to be carefully analyzed in the light of Johnny’s faith. Swedenborg says that our faith is the essence of who we are and influences everything we do. That’s why this book is called The Core of Johnny Appleseed.
SF: What was Johnny Appleseed’s connection to Swedenborg?
RS: The story of Johnny’s connection to Swedenborg begins in 1784 when James Glen, traveling by sea to his sugar plantation in South America, stopped over in Philadelphia to give a lecture about Swedenborg. Among others who attended that lecture were Francis Bailey, the official printer of the United States Articles of Confederation; Hester Barclay, the first female convert to the New Church in the United States; and John Forrester Young, a twenty-two-year-old apprentice studying to become an attorney. These three people became the first receivers of the heavenly doctrines in America.
Five years later, after Young was admitted to the bar, he set up a law practice in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, just southwest of Pittsburgh. It was there, in Greensburg, that John Chapman met John Young, the man who introduced him to the New Church and became his Swedenborgian mentor. Under the guidance of John Young, who eventually became a judge, Johnny became a receiver of what he called “Good news, right fresh from heaven.” Johnny then went on to spend the rest of his life disseminating pages from New Church teachings, free of charge, throughout the frontier. In fact, his nursery business became a vehicle for enabling his larger love—propagating the truths of the New Jerusalem. Yes, he planted apple seeds in the American soil, but, more importantly, he desired to plant seeds of truth in the American soul.
SF: Why does Johnny Appleseed still hold such a fascination for us today?
RS: The first chapter opens with a quote from Walt Whitman: “Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road.” I think this idea is deeply ingrained in the American spirit. For many Americans there has always been an idea of unlimited possibility, exploration and adventure. As a youngster, my favorite books were Jonathan Goes West and Boy with a Pack by Stephen Meader. Like Johnny Appleseed, Meader’s characters leave their New England homes and head west traversing the rugged wilderness, floating down beautiful rivers, and encountering many adventures along the way. I think most of us have a desire to travel and see new sights, to take to the open road and have adventures along the way.
Johnny was both a spiritual and financial entrepreneur. Like Steve Jobs, he was ahead of his time, anticipating the needs of settlers before they arrived in a new location and meeting those needs with already-planted apple trees. Like Emanuel Swedenborg, he was ahead of his time, anticipating the spiritual needs of frontier folk with “Good news right fresh from heaven.”
Something was happening in nineteenth century America, something beautiful and exciting. It was a time of rapid economic growth as the country expanded westward. It was also a time of rapid spiritual growth as people were willing to take on new identities and new ways of looking at their spiritual lives. The story of Johnny Appleseed somehow captures all of this beautifully and reminds us that there is still plenty of room for exploration on the inner frontier of our lives.
SF: What do you hope that readers will take away from this book?
RS: Recent biographies of John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) have described him as a beloved yet kooky eccentric who espoused an equally eccentric religion. This, I believe, has done a grave disservice to both John Chapman and the New Church, tarnishing the beautiful ideals which Johnny incarnated. My hope is that people who read this book will gain a new appreciation of just how sane Johnny Appleseed was—perhaps far saner than any person of his time, yet so far ahead of them that they hardly understood him.
At the same time, I hope that Swedenborgians will enjoy seeing that a receiver of the heavenly doctrines can be a humble person who loves the earth, enjoys life, and can relate well with everyone. In other words, this book may help people understand that the New Church is not just for the intellectual elite, but for all people, everywhere, who love God, love their neighbor, and desire to do good.
In that regard, it could be a perfect gift to give to a friend, with a smile, and with the comment, “Here’s some good news, right fresh from heaven.”