John Chapman was an extraordinary man. He loved life—all life. Life here, and the life he believed awaits us when our time here is done. Now celebrated in song and story, he spent his days traveling through the American frontier at the dawn of the nineteenth century, planting seeds for an abundant life on earth and in the world to come.
“God forbid that I should build a fire for my comfort, that should be the means of destroying any of His creatures.” —John Chapman
“Greetings. I have come bearing great news right fresh from heaven,” he would say as he cheerfully called upon pioneer families throughout Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. The news he carried burst forth from the miraculous germ of life within each of the apple seeds that filled his ragged pockets and from the pages of the Swedenborgian literature he carried everywhere and eagerly shared with all.
“We can hear him read now, just as he did that summer day, when we were busy quilting up stairs, and he lay near the door, his voice rising denunciatory and thrilling—strong and loud as the roar of wind and waves, then soft and soothing as the balmy airs that quivered the morning-glory leaves about his gray beard. His was a strange eloquence at times, and he was undoubtedly a man of genius”, reported a lady who knew him in his later years.” (Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, November, 1871, page 834.)
Chapman was, indeed, a man of genius—a mind bathed in the light of spiritual enlightenment and gifted in the practical arts of the nurseryman. He had his eccentricities, to be sure, but his fellow pioneers admired his keen entrepreneurship as he traveled just ahead of America’s expansion West, purchasing prime tracts of land on which he planted nurseries for hardy apple trees, then selling the young trees to newly arriving settlers.
Once a nursery was organized, planted and protected by fences, Chapman would leave the budding operation in the care and management of a neighbor and move on to find new land where he could plant some more. By the time of his death in 1845, his nurseries occupied more than 1200 acres of fertile land throughout the Midwest, and his planting operations were renowned throughout America.
Sometimes Chapman sold his trees in barter, but more commonly on credit. The promissory notes he accepted never specified a date of repayment, and he never sought to collect debts that were not voluntarily and cheerfully paid. His charity was boundless, while he clothed himself only in rags and wandered barefoot in all four seasons. He was homeless by choice, a philanthropist by trade.
His charity and kindness were not limited to his fellow man, but were extended with equal generosity to all of God’s creatures. He purchased aged and infirm farm animals which would otherwise have been put down by their owners, provided for their comfort and care and allowed them the rest he believed was the due of those whose work is done.
John Chapman’s work was done on March 18, 1845. Those who had seen him just the day before said he had left them singing his familiar traveling song, a Swedenborgian hymn, “The Lord Is Good To Me.”
The Lord is good to us all when he sends his good news by means of such a messenger as John Chapman. His rewards, we know, are plenty for men like Johnny Appleseed.
Photo Credit: “Apple Time" by Prentice Mills.