Tending and Harvesting the Gospel: Johnny Appleseed as Apologist and Evangelist

© Copyright 2014 by Gretchen Passantino Coburn

“Oh, the Lord’s been good to me; And so I thank the Lord; For giving me the things I need; The sun and the rain and the apple seed; The Lord’s been good to me.” (Chorus, The Johnny Appleseed Blessing)

Millions of people worldwide in many languages in the 21st century know at least the chorus to this simple mid-18th century prayer song named after a simple American nurseryman nicknamed “Johnny Appleseed” (real name John Chapman 1774-1845).  Best known for promoting apple orchards on the then-frontier of the new country of America, Johnny Appleseed was even more devoted to sharing his understanding of the gospel to everyone with whom he came in contact. He said his Bible was his favorite book in the world & wherever he went, he read out loud from it, told its stories to the frontier families he lodged with, & preached the gospel as he understood it. He considered himself first & foremost a missionary; secondarily a nurseryman. Nearly 175 years have passed since his death, & still today his words of faith influence millions of people. What a spiritual legacy! How can Christians today learn from the apple guy some principles of dynamic apologetics & evangelism that will bear fruit for many generations?

A caveat: What John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) abounded in was both good & bad. He was a tireless missionary who lived what he preached, communicated spiritual concepts in earthly illustrations, and used his mind and his mouth to persuade and convict others of their spiritual needs: however, he was deceived by a false gospel and promoted the peculiar heresies of Emanuel Swedenborg: rejection of essential doctrine, including the Trinity, salvation by faith apart from works, the unique deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, the atonement, etc. Swedenborg’s quasi-pantheism and emphasis on the distinct separation between the physical and spiritual as well as his peculiar views on marriage, vegetarianism, and other issues also influences. Other than the Bible, the writings of Swedenborg were most influential to him and he read from them to others. Chapman’s heresies definitely exclude him from the ranks of valid missionary, apologist, and evangelist, but for this essay he is a good example of techniques or principles that can be used for persuasive missions, apologetics, and evangelism.

First, he was committed to sharing his gospel everywhere, at any time, with anyone, as a part of his everyday life. He did not presume it was someone else’s job or that he should set aside particular parts of his day or life for spiritual things: he lived his faith before the world. This necessarily means he interacted with many people and developed relationships with non-believers as well as believers. He knew that words isolated from life and relationship had little power.

Second, he devoted himself to the Bible, the Word of God, and shared it with others. (Yes, his understanding was skewed and his interpretation flawed, but those aren’t the points I’m making here.) He read the Bible every day, was said to have read it through many times, and he used outside aides to understand it. (Yes, his Swedenborg aids were misleading, but the point is that he knew he needed help to know the Bible better.) He was said to be fond of saying that a day without the Bible was like a day without air, food, and water. As dedicated as he was to telling his gospel to others, he was dedicated to telling the Word of God.

Third, he understood that story communicates propositional truth more powerfully, memorably, and persuasively than mere rational, evidential, or factual verbiage. The very essentials of the Christian faith concerning God, Jesus Christ, man, sin, salvation (and their unique and infallible revelation in scripture) have come to us through the One True Story of Redemption (the Second Person of the Trinity becoming man, living and dying in our stead and on our behalf, rising immortal, reconciling us to God, and ensuring the final resolution of all things). The Bible is full of stories echoing, anticipating, depicting, and illuminating that One True Story. Jesus in his earthly ministry lived and told countless stories to point to that One True Story. So John Chapman lived his own life as a story of a Christian (skewed, but nonetheless attempted). He preached creation in relationship to God, and he lived in the midst of and cared for creation as though he really believed its connection to God. He preached kindness, compassion, and conservation, and he lived accordingly, whether it was planning and executing new apple orchards for the westward moving population, refraining from wanton destruction of plants or animals, or befriending everyone he met. He preached simple living and storing up treasures in heaven, and he lived frugally by the cast off clothing others gave him, the simple foods he prepared in the wild or accepted from hosts, and sharing what he didn’t need with those less fortunate. And he told stories, most from the Bible, always linking them to his understanding of the gospel.

Fourth, he forged a road where few others had gone, anticipating and preparing for those who followed, physically (through nursery planting and tending) and spiritually (through Bible study and honing his communication skills). Although he was born in Massachusetts, as a young adult he began his life as a nurseryman and itinerant preacher in Pennsylvania. Over more than 50 years of roaming, planting, tending, & ministering, he left his legacy in Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. As the new American pioneers moved westward, Chapman was usually at their forefront, predicting where significant settlement would occur and building nurseries and orchards on those sites. Annually he would return and tend to the fledgling trees, eventually selling them to homesteaders and using the profits to expand his work. All the while, he was leading physical migration, he was living faith movement. He didn’t wait for people to come hear his message, he called them to join him on the journey.

Finally, Chapman’s unique life and message were an investment in future generations by being focused on that which is lasting, whether it was the apple trees whose descendents continue to feed the hungry or the Word of God that endures and continues to give life to all who respond to its call. (Note: It is the true Word of God that endures & gives life, not the distorted word propagated by Swendenborg and copied by Chapman. Analogies never match exactly or they wouldn’t be analogies.) His investment in the future nourishment of future generations is testified to by the fruits we see today.

Speaking of Johnny Appleseed’s legacy, it is no coincidence that nearly 175 years later, his apples are remembered but his heretical gospel is virtually forgotten.

These five principles provide a strong strategy for successful apologetics and evangelism: be ready, always (1 Peter 3:15); preach the word, in season and out (2 Timothy 4:2); point to the One True Story of Redemption through all other stories (John 20:30); seek out the lost (John 4:34-38); and proclaim the everlasting gospel that brings eternal life to all who believe, now and in the future (Revelation 14:6).

Bonus Challenge: Here are the full lyrics to The Johnny Appleseed Blessing. What other missionary, apologist, and evangelist parallels can you construct from the verses? (And here’s a link to the Dennis Day Disney’s version for you to listen to & sing along with: The Lord’s Been Good to Me.

Oh, the Lord’s been good to me.
And so I thank the Lord
For giving me the things I need:
The sun, the rain and the appleseed;
Oh, the Lord’s been good to me.

Oh, and every seed I sow
Will grow into a tree.
And someday there’ll be apples there
For everyone in the world to share.
Oh, the Lord is good to me.

Oh, here I am ‘neath the blue, blue sky
Doing as I please.
Singing with my feathered friends
Humming with the bees.

I wake up every day,
As happy as can be,
Because I know that with His care
My apple trees, they will still be there.
The Lord’s been good to me.

I wake up every day
As happy as can be,
Because I know the Lord is there
Watchin’ over all my friends and me
The Lord is good to me.

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