Book Review: “Johnny Appleseed: The Man, the Myth, and the American Story” by Howard Means

Howard Means’s new biography of John Chapman (aka Johnny Appleseed) has been garnering some publicity since its publication on April 12, including generally favourable reviews in the Wall Street Journal and the Boston Globe, and an interview with the author on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” The reviews all discuss the book’s focus on John Chapman’s Swedenborgianism as the driving force behind his itinerant lifestyle.

Means calls Chapman “the New Church’s most famous North American disciple.”  That’s disputable: Helen Keller was a New Church disciple (I plan on reviewing her essay “How I Would Help the World,” originally part the introduction for an edition of Swedenborg’s True Christian Religion, and published earlier this month by the Swedenborg Foundation as a standalone book).  A search for her name results in more than triple the number of hits for “Johnny Appleseed.”  But Chapman was probably the more ardent evangelist of the two, and his Swedenborgianism may be more widely known.

Before getting around to the New Church content, a few thoughts on the book as a whole.  According to Means, there are scant trustworthy historical records when it comes to who John Chapman really was.  We have stories and legends, as well as transaction records of his land dealings, but few reliable first-hand accounts exist.  This probably helps explain why a large portion of the book discusses life in the frontier and the lives of Chapman’s contemporaries rather than focusing on Chapman himself.  Although some of these forays seem awfully tangential – there are nearly five pages devoted to the story of Benjamin Thompson, Jr., whose only connection to Chapman is that he was first cousin to Chapman’s mother Elizabeth – they do provide a good picture of the kind of world that Chapman inhabited.  It was a remarkably violent world, in which people routinely lost body parts in barroom brawls, and the picture makes Chapman’s gentleness all the more remarkable.

The best parts of the book focus on the way that John Chapman the man became Johnny Appleseed the legend – something that began to take place almost as soon as Chapman arrived in Warren, PA, in 1797.  Over the years, John Chapman became John Appleseed and finally Johnny Appleseed, and his legend continued to develop in the years after his death in 1845, from his first appearance on the national scene in a Harper’s Magazine article in 1871, to the 1948 Disney animated adaptation of his story, through various incarnations as environmentalist, pacifist, and even economist.  The real John Chapman seems mostly lost in the legend – but that seems to have been true even in his own time.

What is certain about John Chapman was his devotion to spreading the Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg.  Along with his apple seeds, he spread chapters from the Heavenly Doctrines wherever he went, famously declaring them to be “good news fresh from heaven.”  Means writes,

Apples certainly made Chapman famous.  They gave him his nickname and committed him to American folklore and mythology.  But what animated him, what gave his mind and actions depth and texture, was a dead Swedish metallurgist-turned-mystic and would-be holy man named Emanuel Swedenborg.

The phrase “would-be holy man” makes me cringe – Swedenborg would have been the first to confess that he was not holy – but the gist of the statement is right: the driving force behind Chapman’s wanderings seems to have been a dedication to spreading the New Church.

To understand Chapman, you have to understand Swedenborg.  And while Means gets a lot of things right in his presentation of New Church teachings, there are a few errors – some minor, and a few major.  This is not too surprising – he relies on second- and third- hand accounts of people who were children when Chapman visited their families, and even their parents whom Chapman visited probably didn’t understand a lot of the religious talk that came from Johnny.  Means does get a lot of things right.  His description of the New Church concepts of heaven and hell (found on pages 107-108) is accurate: they are both real places, and we make our home in one or the other based on what we love and how we live.

But there are a few points of doctrine that Means doesn’t get quite right.  On page 121, he writes, “Swedenborg dismissed the Holy Ghost, denied the trinity…”  He does go on to state more correctly that Swedenborg did not deny a trinity, but contended that the trinity existed in one Person, Jesus Christ.  The statement about the Holy Ghost is puzzling – while Swedenborg denies that the Holy Spirit is a separate person of God, he does not deny that the Holy Spirit exists and is active.  Rather than being a separate person, the Holy Spirit is God’s influence and activity.

The bigger errors come in a misunderstanding of the New Church view of asceticism and of marriage.  Means quotes Chapman’s Fort Wayne Sentinel obituary:

He was a follower of Swedenbourgh [sic], and devoutly believed that the more he endured in this world the less he would have to suffer and the greater would be his happiness hereafter.

If Chapman did believe that earthly suffering was earning him eternal happiness, he didn’t get that idea from Swedenborg.  Arcana Coelestia 1947 discusses the meaning of Psalm 15, which discusses the good man as swearing to “afflict himself”:

“Affliction” does not mean that we should plunge ourselves into poverty and wretchedness, or that we should renounce all bodily delights, for in this way evil is not mastered and subjugated; and moreover some other evil may be aroused, namely, a sense of merit on account of the renunciation; and besides, man’s freedom suffers, in which alone, as in ground, the good and truth of faith can be inseminated.

If Chapman was as devoted to Swedenborg as he seemed to have been, he would have been well aware of this teaching.  He would have hated the idea that he was “meriting” heaven by making himself miserable.  Means is probably much closer to the truth when he speculates that perhaps Chapman was emulating the people of the Most Ancient Church, the golden age that was represented by Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden.  The people of that age lived in harmony with nature, and they saw the presence of God’s life in everything.  In all likelihood, Chapman was not living in the wild in order to suffer – he was living in the wild because in some ways, that’s where he could see heaven on earth.

And yet Means writes, in relating a story of Chapman dismissing a Universalist (i.e. all are saved) tract, “He hadn’t denied himself the pleasures of children or the joys of the flesh in this world for that!”  The implication, it seems, is that Chapman’s Swedenborgianism not only led him to some idea of meritorious suffering, but also to a life of celibacy.

And it’s here – and in other areas related to marriage – that Means shows the biggest misunderstanding of New Church doctrine.  Abstinence until marriage is considered a virtue in the New Church, but complete celibacy – i.e. never marrying – is not.  True, Swedenborg himself never married, and there’s certainly no sin in that.  But neither is it virtuous.  Conjugial Love (or Married Love) states in no uncertain terms, “The state of marriage is to be preferred to a state of celibacy” (156).  While it may be true that Chapman told people he stayed with that he had a future wife waiting for him in heaven, this is just as likely to have been an expression of Chapman’s trust that eventually he would be married – whether in this world or in the next – as it was to have been the result of some sort of prophetic vision compelling him to avoid marriage in this world.

What Chapman almost certainly did not tell any of his hosts was that he had two virgins waiting for him in the spirit world whom he would marry.  If he did say this, it directly contradicted everything in the doctrines that he risked his life to promote.  And yet Means reports this as equally plausible to the stories of Chapman telling his listeners that he would marry one girl.  Means writes,

Like Swedenborg (or as Swedenborg was understood), Chapman was in frequent “spiritual intercourse” with departed spirits – in Chapman’s instance, two spirits of “the female gender, who consoled him with the news that they were to be his wives in the future state, should he keep himself from all entangling alliances in this.”

First of all – and I don’t think Means intended this – it should be noted that Swedenborg’s “spiritual intercourse” has nothing to do with sexual intercourse – it simply means “interaction,” and modern translators have it as such.  In any case, it’s unfortunate that Means relates this story of Chapman’s “future wives” without any comment on how repugnant this idea would be to a Swedenborgian.  An entire chapter of Conjugial Love is devoted to explaining why polygamy is sinful and why true marriage can only exist between one man and one woman.  In the chapter of Heaven and Hell on marriages in heaven, Swedenborg writes,

The angels declare that marrying several wives is wholly contrary to Divine order, and that they know this from several reasons, one of which is that as soon as they think of marriage with more than one they are alienated from internal blessedness and heavenly happiness, and become like drunken men, because good is separated from its truth in them. (HH 379)

The story of Chapman expecting to marry two wives, then, is extremely suspect, and the repeated reference to it mars the book.

But these errors are not original with Means – he repeats them from the various stories and legends that sprung up around Chapman.  And they are in fact a good illustration of one of Means’s main points: that it is difficult to separate the stories and legends from the man himself.  I do wish Means had run his manuscript by someone more familiar with New Church teachings – a few of the more blatant errors could have been caught.  And for myself I wish he’d done less to paint Swedenborgianism as one more eccentricity, as a religion of the past (one particularly cringe-inducing passage reads, “Of all the survivors [of the religious upheavals on the frontier], almost none is more obscure today, yet more representative of nearly everything that was going on in those early decades of the nineteenth century, than the Church of the New Jerusalem”).  Still, the book in the main does succeed in doing what it sets out to do: providing an entertaining and engaging look at the (often distant) relationship between the real-life John Chapman and the legendary Johnny Appleseed.

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About Coleman Glenn
  • Glenn


    To understand Chapman, you have to understand Swedenborg. And while Means gets a lot of things right in his presentation of New Church teachings, there are a few errors – some minor, and a few major. This is not too surprising – he relies on second- and third- hand accounts of people who were children when Chapman visited their families, and even their parents whom Chapman visited probably didn’t understand a lot of the religious talk that came from Johnny. Means does get a lot of things right. His description of the New Church concepts of heaven and hell (found on pages 107-108) is accurate: they are both real places[.]

    I find this paragraph to be confusing. Are Swedenborg’s teachings and New Church teachings equivalent? A reader might think that they are, as it is said that to understand Chapman, one needs to understand Swedenborg, and then it is New Church teachings rather than Swedenborg that is discussed.

    But if Swedenborg’s teachings and New Church teachings are equivalent, why are the New Church concepts of heaven and hell, with respect to their both being real places, at variance with what was taught by Swedenborg? Swedenborg taught that heaven and hell not real places, but, rather, are states of mind.

    It is true that Swedenborg made frequent mention of places in the spiritual world, but it is also true that he did so with the understanding that they are not places as such, i.e., are not real places, but instead are appearances of places; they are reflections or representations of the quality of the states in which people are.

    Since you have been trained in New Church theology, while I myself have not, I have to assume that you have it right when you say that the New Church concept of heaven and hell is that they are real places. But since this is at variance with what Swedenborg himself taught, I’m left wondering why it is New Church teachings, rather than Swedenborg, that are discussed after saying that an understanding of Swedenborg is necessary in order to understand Chapman.

    Also, when it is said by people unfamiliar with Swedenborg’s conception of a trinity that Swedenborg denied the trinity, they are speaking the truth and stating a fact. Since they are relatively unfamiliar with Swedenborg’s conception of a trinity, the trinity with which they are familiar (and which has had wider acceptance and has been in existence longer than Swedenborg’s relatively unknown conception), is what they are saying that Swedenborg denied. They are not saying that Swedenborg denied his own conception of a trinity, but that he denied the trinity with which they are familiar and know.

    Whether Swedenborg’s conception of a trinity is more accurate, truer and better supported by scripture is a question separate from the question of whether Swedenborg denied the trinity those who know relatively nothing of Swedenborg’s trinity are familiar with. Swedenborg did deny it. And he railed against it. In fact, he called it a fantasy and an abortion. How is this not a denial? To deny that Swedenborg denied it is to deny the truth.

    You may assert that Swedenborg’s conception of a trinity is better, superior and truer in nearly if not every way, and you may even be right in making such an assertion. Nonetheless, this goes to another question, and in no way disproves the claim that Swedenborg denied what those who are unfamiliar with Swedenborg’s trinity know as the trinity.

    And you may believe that their conception of the trinity is false, and you may might even be right. But, again, this goes to another question, and does nothing to counter or change the fact that Swedenborg denied the conception of the trinity that millions upon millions of people know and have known.


    • Coleman Glenn

      Thanks for the thoughts, Glenn.

      Good point about heaven and hell not being “places” – that was sloppy writing on my part. What I meant was that Means accurately describes the way that Swedenborg describes the spiritual world not as something abstract, but as containing the same sorts of things we’d see here: houses, gardens, palaces, streets, shops, etc.

      It is a true that Swedenborg denies a trinity of persons, which as you say is what most people think when they think of “Trinity.” But I still don’t think it’s accurate to say that he denied the trinity, since he did write things like, “It is a certain and established truth, that God is one, and His essence is indivisible, and that there is a Trinity” (Brief Exposition 44) I’d have been happier Means had written something like, “Swedenborg radically re-interpreted the doctrine of the Trinity,” rather than saying he denied it – but I understand why he put it the way he did, and he did go on to explain Swedenborg’s concept of the trinity accurately.


  • Glenn


    Thank you for the clarifications.

    It might be noted that as Swedenborg held that heaven was a not a place, so too did he hold that the things ‘contained’ in heaven (houses, gardens, palaces, etc.) are said to be real, but are not real things per se.

    For example, a happy person will experience happy thoughts, and an angry person will experience angry thoughts. If happiness and anger are called affections or states, then it can be said that the thoughts experienced by a happy person or an angry person are reflections or representations of the affection or state in which s/he is. Neither happy thoughts nor angry thoughts exist separate from or independently of the one who experiences them; rather, they are functions or products of underlying affections or states.

    Likewise, the things ‘contained’ in heaven (houses, gardens, palaces, etc.), are said by Swedenborg to be reflections or representations of the affection or state in which the perceiver happens to be. They do not have an existence which is separate from and independent of the perceiver. Rather, they are, according to Swedenborg, instantly created by the Lord as a response to, and in accordance with, the quality of affection or state of the perceiver. They are not real things per se, but appear to be real. And these appearances serve to represent non-material things, i.e., qualities of affections or states.

    Swedenborg put it this way (i.e., one of his translators put it this way), “[E]verything to be seen in the spiritual world [which includes heaven] is created instantly by the Lord, as for instance are the houses, parklands, food and so on. These are created to correspond to the interiors of angels and spirits, that is, to their affections and the thoughts that spring from them.” (True Christian Religion 794) A more modern translation of the same passage puts it this way, “…The things in that world are created to correspond with what is inside the angels and spirits, namely, their feelings and thoughts.”

    I agree with you that Swedenborg offered a ‘radical reinterpretation’ of the trinity. I also think that in coming to an understanding of Swedenborg, it is helpful to realize when his ‘radical reinterpretation’ of the doctrine of the Trinity took place. And to realize when his reinterpretation took place, it is helpful to know when it did not occur.

    It did not occur prior to the truth (that God is one, etc.) having become “certain and established”; rather, it took place subsequent to this truth having reached the status of “certain and established”. That his radical reinterpretation was subsequent (to the truth having become certain and established) may be reasoned from the fact that Swedenborg acknowledged that that God is one, that His essence indivisible, and that there is a Trinity, was already certain and established.

    Swedenborg was adamant in asserting that the notion of “three persons” begets in a person’s mind the additional notion of three separate and distinct Gods, i.e., a trinity of Gods. It was for the purpose of forestalling the formation of this additional notion in people’s minds that Swedenborg radically reinterpreted the doctrine of the Trinity. But I’m not sure everyone would agree that Swedenborg knew better than they whether they hold a polytheistic belief in three Gods separate and distinct from one another. And I’m not sure whether Swedenborg realized that his adamancy on this point comes across as conflicting with his clear, truthful and willing acknowledgement that the oneness and indivisibility of God is certain and established.

    At any rate, my interest in Means’ book has been piqued by your review, and, though my reading queue already is overflowing, I hope to be able to get to it eventually.

    Thanks again,

  • Coleman Glenn

    Hi Glenn,

    You’re absolutely right that the things in heaven come into existence because they correspond to states within the spirits there. But I think they are still real, since the spirits experience them as real – more real, in fact, than the material objects in this world. A few passages that I really like on this:

    “Nevertheless, the things that appear before the eyes of angels in heaven and are perceived by their senses appear to their eyes and senses as fully living as things on earth appear to man, and even much more clearly, distinctly and perceptibly. Appearances from this source in heaven are called real appearances, because they have real existence.” (Heaven and Hell 175)

    “The garments with which angels are clothed, like all other things with them, correspond; and because they correspond they have real existence (see above n. 175).” (Heaven and Hell 178)

    “That the garments of angels do not merely appear as garments, but are real garments, is evident from the fact that angels both see them and feel them, that they have many garments, and that they put them off and put them on, that they care for those that are not in use, and put them on again when they need them.” (Heaven and Hell 181)

    “The representations that come forth in the other life are appearances, but living ones, because they are from the light of life. The light of life is the Divine wisdom, which is from the Lord alone. Hence all things that come forth from this light are real; and are not like those things that come forth from the light of the world. Wherefore they who are in the other life have sometimes said that the things they see there are real things, and the things which man sees are in comparison not real; because the former things live, and thus immediately affect their life, while the latter things do not live, thus do not immediately affect the life, except insofar and in such a manner as the things in their minds which are of this world’s light conjoin themselves fitly and correspondently with the things of the light of heaven” (Arcana Coelestia 3485).

    Of course, just as with the Trinity, this is different from the common idea of what it means for something to be real. But I love trying to see the world in this way. I tend to think that water is real and it corresponds to something abstract called “truth,” but the reality is that truth is the more real thing, and water exists here because there is truth in the spiritual world.

    Thanks again for your responses.


  • Glenn


    Of course, just as with the Trinity, this is different from the common idea of what it means for something to be real.

    Yes, it is different from the common idea of what it means for something to be physically real.

    At the same time, it might be recognized that there also are common ideas of what it means for something non-physical to be real. A few examples, rather than an explicit definition: honesty, integrity and truthfulness. We can know that these non-physical things are recognized as real simply by considering the nature of people’s reactions when they have been dealt with dishonestly, when they find themselves on the wrong end of unethical behavior, and when they discover they have been lied to.

    It may be that the non-physical clothing worn by angels in Swedenborg’s spiritual world are more real than the physical clothing worn by people in this world, but when it comes to non-physical things, people in general are more interested in things like honesty, integrity and truthfulness in this world than they are in things like angel’s wardrobes (or houses, palaces, gardens, etc.) in the spiritual world.

    Also, many people recognize that there are non-physical things which are more real than physical things–witness those who’d rather retain their integrity than obtain material things dishonestly.


  • Glenn

    What is above, in conjunction with what is below, shows that a little common sense can go a long way.

    In number 4529 of the Arcana Coelestia, Swedenborg writes of A certain person (who had been famous and renowned in the learned world because of his expert knowledge in botany) heard in the next life, after he had died, that flowers and trees were to be seen in that life also.

    Swedenborg goes on to write of this person that, At this he was astounded, and because botany had been the delight of his life he was burning with the desire to see whether what he had heard was true. He was as a consequence taken to the paradise gardens where he saw very beautiful plantations of trees and very lovely flower-beds extending very far. Because he had now entered into his heart’s desire he was allowed to wander through those grounds and not only to see each thing growing there but also to pluck it, hold it up to his eye and examine whether it was really what it appeared to be.

    He writes some more about the things said to be visible in the other life. And then tells it like it really is–But these things are comparatively unimportant.

    Those things are comparatively unimportant? That’s just what common sense says.

    But why are they comparatively unimportant?


    People who possess true intelligence and wisdom (in which those representatives originate), dwell in a state of happiness which is such that the things which have been mentioned belong among those that are not so important.

    In other words, being in intelligence and wisdom (or truth and good) is more important (and therefore more useful) than being enamored with things that are realtively unimportant.

  • Thomas Christopher

    I have a question about John Chapman, which I hope someone knowledgeable about the New Church can answer. A modern writer (Michael Pollan) has asserted that the apple trees John Chapman sold were intended to supply apples for “hard” (alcoholic) cider. Pollan’s reasoning is that apple trees raised from seed generally produce mediocre, crabapple-like fruit that would be useful for little else than cider-making. However, as a horticulturist I know that seedling trees could have served pioneers as understocks — that is, if they were able to obtain shoots of superior apple varieties, they could have grafted them onto Chapman’s seedling trees to produce desirable apple crops in a matter of a few years. Would it be likely that a New Church missionary would be promoting the use of alcoholic beverages?

  • Glenn

    According to Wikipedia’s entry for ‘Cider’, During colonial times apple cider was consumed as the main beverage with meals because water was often unsafe for drinking.

    Assuming the truth of this assertion, do you know when the practice ceased to be prevalent? I myself do not.

    But I do wonder whether it would be likely that a horticulturist would imply that alternatives to the consumption of unsafe drinking water should have been fewer than they were.

  • Coleman Glenn


    Sorry for the long delay in getting back to you. Good question about whether Chapman would likely have been promoting the use of alcoholic beverages – I was wondering the same thing as I read the book. Swedenborg was opposed to drunkenness, and so if Chapman thought that the primary use of his apples was for people to get drunk, I doubt he’d have planted them. On the other hand, as Glenn points out, there were people who drank cider for reasons other than to get drunk, and the New Church is not opposed to alcohol on the whole when used in moderation. But I really appreciate your insight, and I’m inclined to think that Chapman was intending the trees for more than just cider, even if that was part of the story. My gut feeling is that if they were just for cider someone would have mentioned that fact earlier than Pollan, but I haven’t done the research.