So far in our exploration of the hidden history of American magic, we’ve talked mostly about people whose place in this nation’s history has been forgotten—or, to be a little more frank, erased. The one exception, John Winthrop Jr., is tolerably well known by those who have some reason to recall the history of colonial Connecticut, but outside that limited circle, he’s hardly a name that drops readily off most people’s lips. As we proceed, though, we’ll also be talking about people who had a large enough role in American history that they can’t simply be ignored, but whose involvements in occultism and alternative spirituality have been swept under the rug.
There have been quite a few of those, including some very famous individuals, and the one at the heart of this week’s round of forbidden Americana is one of them. His name was John Chapman, but next to nobody remembers him by that moniker these days. You’ve heard of him, dear reader, as Johnny Appleseed.
My readers elsewhere in the world may find it helpful to know that Johnny Appleseed is an American icon, the subject of any number of children’s books as well as an unusually forgettable Disney movie. Barefoot, dressed in ragged clothes, and usually wearing a saucepan for a hat, he strides through the forests of our national imagination, planting apple trees wherever he goes. He was, as it happens, a real person, and the image I’ve just sketched out is not too far from the reality. What gets left out, or at most brushed aside with the verbal equivalent of a shrug and rolled eyes, is the fact that John Chapman was considerably more than an early American eccentric with a fondness for apples. He was a holy man and a religious visionary: to be precise, a missionary of the New Church, an organization founded on the visions of a remarkable Swedish scientist and scholar named Emanuel Swedenborg.
To understand the extraordinary life of John Chapman, in other words, it’s necessary to start on the other side of the Atlantic almost a century before his birth, and make the acquantaince of the astonishing figure who set Chapman’s career in motion and gave it its distinctive direction. Born in 1688, the son of a minister, Emanuel Swedenborg—that’s him on the right—received a first-rate education with a focus on the sciences, and spent four years in London when that was the center of Europe’s burgeoning scientific revolution, when the Royal Society got to listen to live lectures by people such as Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley. On his return to Sweden, he went to work for the government as an inspector of mines, and published scientific papers in geology, chemistry, metallurgy, and human anatomy, including a study of the human brain that introduced the concept of the neuron.
In 1744, however, Swedenborg began to have strange dreams, and in 1745 he suddenly began entering into visionary states in which he conversed with Christ and the angels. Being the kind of man he was, he immediately set out to research the spiritual world with the same thoroughness and attention to detail he had previously applied in his work as a chemist and a mine inspector. Sixteen books on the nature of the spiritual universe duly appeared, including the immense Arcana Cœlestia, a commentary on the Bible in eight volumes. His spiritual vision seems to have given him remarkable psychic gifts as well: when a fire broke out in Stockholm in 1759, for example, Swedenborg—who at that moment was dining with friends in Gothenburg 250 miles away—described what was happening to the other dinner guests. Every detail he reported turned out to be correct once news of the fire reached Gothenburg by more conventional means. He also became a minor legend among sailors on the routes linking London to Stockholm, because whenever he boarded a ship to make that voyage, the sailors could count on fine weather and a swift, safe passage.
The theology his angelic visitors taught him differed significantly from that of the Christian mainstream. He rejected the idea that the Trinity consists of three persons—to him it was simply the love, wisdom, and activity of one God—and he condemned conventional ideas of salvation by faith alone. To him, redemption involved not belief in a set of doctrines but an inner reorientation of the self toward divine truth, expressed in a life of charity toward all. Though he never married, he wrote extensively on sexual and marital love, to which he assigned a much greater spiritual importance than most other theologians then and now. The Second Coming? it happened in 1753, and was a spiritual event, not the cataclysmic end of the world (followed by eternal torture for most of humanity) that so many mainstream churches so loudly predicted. All in all, his theology was expansive, optimistic, and tolerant, and so inevitably it found listeners among those who chafed at the harsher and more dogmatic views of the mainstream churches.
Swedenborg believed that he had been chosen by Christ to restore the Christian religion to its original purity, and to help the existing church organizations clear away fifteen centuries or so of accumulated mistakes and misunderstandings. He had no interest in founding a church of his own. After his death in 1772, however, students of his teachings began to found reading groups, and since the existing churches showed no particular interest in having their mistakes and misunderstandings cleared away, some of these reading groups inevitably gave rise to independent churches. Britain had some of these, but it was in the newborn United States that the Swedenborgian movement found its largest following.
Inevitably, that following came to include a fair number of occultists. The same qualities of tolerance and orientation toward personal spiritual experience that drew colonial occultists to the Sixth-Principle Baptists drew many of their equivalents after the Revolution to the newly founded Swedenborgian churches. This is a pattern we’ll be following repeatedly in posts to come: a new religious movement is founded with features that attract occultists, they join it, and it flourishes for a time. Then, in the usual order of things, creeping respectability sets in, the new religious movement begins to settle into the standard mold of popular American religiosity, and the occultists generally drift away.
John Chapman found his way to the Swedenborgian movement when that trajectory was still in its very early stages. Born in Leominster, Massachusetts in 1774, he was apprenticed to a local orchardist as a boy and learned the apple-growing trade. At that time, apples were an important crop, and not primarily for eating: apple cider—hard cider, we’d say today, but the idea of alcohol-free cider was unknown in those days—was far and away the most popular beverage in the newly founded American republic, and was made, fermented, and drunk in quantities that seem gargantuan by modern standards.
When he turned eighteen and finished his apprenticeship, he and his half-brother Nathaniel joined the steady stream of pioneers heading west over the mountains into the Ohio River basin. They led a nomadic life for the next seven years, until Nathaniel settled in Ohio to farm. John had too much wanderlust in him to take up a farmer’s life, though, and continued his work as an itinerant orchardist. It was not long thereafter that he encountered the Swedenborgian movement; his wanderings brought him to Greensburg, Pennsylvania, where a local family hired him to establish an apple orchard for their farm. They were Swedenborgians, and they found in the young John Chapman not only a skilled orchardist but an attentive listener to the teachings of their faith. By the time he moved on, he had become a devout Swedenborgian.
He spent several years living in the Pittsburgh area, working at a variety of jobs, and finally began the wanderings that made him famous. One thing that very often gets missed in accounts of his life is that he was a businessman, not an unworldly mystic, and worked out an idiosyncratic but effective business model to meet his needs and pursue his passion for planting apple orchards. To provide himself with stock, he visited cider mills and picked seeds by the bucketful out of the discarded pulp, which cost him nothing but labor. Those went with him to the frontier, where he established nurseries—sometimes on property owned by a friendly pioneer, sometimes past the edge of settlement in the wilderness.
To make his wilderness nurseries, he would clear an area of scrub and surround it with brush fences to keep deer and other wildlife at bay. A temporary shelter of some kind—as often as not a simple bark shelter, of a kind he learned to make from the local Native American people—gave him a place to stay while he planted the seeds, and kept them watered and tended until they were strong enough to be transplanted. By then, the first homesteads would have begun to appear in the area, and Chapman would sell his saplings to the settlers for a “fipenny bit” each—a coin worth six and a quarter cents, 1/16th of a dollar, or the equivalent of about ten dollars in today’s money. With that income to cover his few needs, he would then circle back to Pennsylvania to get more seeds and more Swedenborgian tracts.
The business model I’ve just sketched out was largely defined by Chapman’s Swedenborgian beliefs, because the usual way of propagating apples—by grafting branches of an established variety onto a rootstock—was forbidden by his faith. European visionaries have an odd habit of offering detailed agricultural advice; Rudolf Steiner, who was Emmanuel Swedenborg’s early twentieth century Austrian equivalent, took that to the extent of founding the entire system of biodynamic gardening. One of Swedenborg’s teachings was that grafting was an act of violence to the tree, and so seeds were the only option Chapman could consider.
Yet that turned out to have strange consequences. Apples are among that odd class of cultivated plants that do not breed true from seed. Plant an apple seed, and the apples that grow on the resulting tree will have little in common with the apple from which the seed came. Many of the resulting apples are sour, mealy, and mushy, which is no problem in the world if what you want is raw material for making apple cider, and have pigs waiting enthusiastically to dispose of the leftover pulp. Plant hundreds of apple seeds in a wilderness nursery, however, and leave it to wild bees to pollinate them freely, and some of the resulting apples will be delicious new varieties. Thus one result of John Chapman’s life work was the emergence of hundreds of new apple varieties all over the upper Midwest.
The homestead laws at that time gave him an enthusiastic market. The Ohio Company of Associates, the organization chartered to encourage the settlement of the Ohio Territory, offered settlers 100 acres of land for free, so long as they carried out certain improvements on the property within a fixed time; planting an apple orchard counted as one of those improvements. Chapman worked mostly at or near the edge of settlement, where bringing apple trees from points further east was expensive and difficult, so he had no difficulty selling his saplings. He also found a receptive audience for his religious teachings, largely because he was by all accounts an extraordinarly pleasant man, unfailingly helpful and full of abundant good humor.
Read contemporary accounts of Chapman, in fact, and it becomes clear that his spiritual life was at the center of his work. He seems to have taken the Sermon on the Mount more seriously than almost anyone else before or since. When Jesus said, “Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall be be clothed?” that was enough for Chapman. He wore only such used clothes as people gave him, and more than once was seen striding through the woods wearing only a floursack with two armholes cut in it, and a tin saucepan on his head for a hat.
He slept in makeshift shelters in the wilderness or, if offered hospitality by a local settler, on the bare floor of a cabin; he ate simply, lived simply, and preached the Swedenborgian gospel to anyone who was interested in hearing about it. “Will you have some fresh news right from Heaven?” was his favorite opening line. He and the Native American peoples of the region had a mostly friendly relationship—he respected them and their ways, and they recognized him as someone who had been touched by a sacred power and treated him accordingly. He kept up this lifestyle until his death in 1845 at the age of seventy. (That’s a photo of him on the left as an old man—photography was just being invented in his last years.)
Even during his life, legends gathered around him, the kind of legends that gather around the saints and sannyasins of the East. Wild animals were said to show no fear of him; birds perched on his tinpot hat, and when he freed a wolf from a trap and healed its injured leg, it became the companion of his travels until it died. He was said to be skilled at healing, and is known to have planted medicinal herbs all over the Ohio basin. Dog fennel (Eupatorium capillifolium), which he planted widely, is still called “Johnnyweed” in Ohio; it’s currently classed as an invasive pest, but it’s a close relative of several very widely used medicinal herbs (Joe Pye weed and boneset) and is among other things an effective insect repellent: something that anyone who’s spent a summer in the Ohio River basin can appreciate.
Thus Johnny Appleseed was, in every sense of the word, a mythic figure. Writer Michael Pollan, in his book The Botany of Desire, recognized this and pointed straight to the archetype that seized John Chapman and raised him up to the borders of the superhuman: “Johnny Appleseed was bringing the gift of alcohol to the frontier. That’s why he was so popular. That’s why he was welcome in every cabin in Ohio. He was the American Dionysus. He was the guy bringing the booze.” This is true, of course, but anyone who knows more than a little Greek mythology knows that Dionysus is more than just the booze god. He’s the god who dissolves boundaries, the god who dances across the border between civilization and wilderness, between the human world and the world of animals, between wisdom and madness, between ordinary reality and the visionary state where Emmanual Swedenborg talked with angels and transcended space.
Those of my readers who know their way around Celtic mythology will recognize an even closer parallel to John Chapman in Myrddin Wyllt, the wild Merlin of archaic Welsh legend and poesy, an older and stranger figure by far than his later, watered-down namesake in Arthurian legend. Like Chapman, Myrddin led a nomadic life in the wilderness; like Chapman, Myrddin had a wolf as a companion; like Chapman, Myrddin was closely associated with apple trees—in fact, one of the most famous of the poems traditionally credited to Myrddin Wyllt, is titled Yr Afallenau (“The Apple Trees”) and in translation, begins “Sweet apple tree which grows in a glade,” a line one could very easily imagine John Chapman penning. In a very real sense, Johnny Appleseed was as much the American Merlin as the American Dionysus. It may not be accidental that he found his religion and began his astonishing career in Pittsburgh, which was one of the main early centers of the Welsh expatriate community in the United States.
Was Chapman an occultist? None of the available evidence suggests that he was. Rather, he was a holy man whose religion happened to be one that, then and later, attracted a good many people with occult interests. In a traditional society he would long ago have been recognized as a god (if that society was polytheist) or a saint (if it was monotheist); in our rather more clueless age, he was turned instead into a folktale, Disneyfied into a state of bland tastelessness that resembles nothing so much as artificial apple flavoring, and carefully stripped of every trace of his Dionysiac wildness and mythic force—everything, that is, that might render him unsettling to those who like their world nice and neat and anesthetized.
He was far from the only person who got that treatment. I suspect, for example, that most of my readers know who Helen Keller was. Did you know that she was also a Swedenborgian? That’s been scrubbed from her pop-culture biography just as systematically as it was scrubbed from John Chapman’s. For that matter, not many people these days realize that Swedenborgian churches still exist in the United States and elsewhere. (Those of my readers who might be interested can find plenty of fodder on the Swedenborgian movement online; here’s a link, for example, to the Swedenborg Foundation, which has all of Emmanuel Swedenborg’s spiritual writings free for the reading, and here’s a link to a Swedenborgian Bible study website.)
As the Swedenborgian movement found its feet in the United States, however, its ideas spread widely and veered in unexpected directions. The American occult community in those days was in the process of outgrowing its dependence on the traditions of the past, and was wide open to new ideas. Swedenborg’s visions in particular became an important ingredient in a bubbling cauldron of spiritual innovation. One of the consequences was the emergence of America’s first great homegrown occult philosopher, a figure in some ways as astonishing as Johnny Appleseed, and just as comfortable in the company of angels as Chapman and Swedenborg: the redoubtable Andrew Jackson Davis. We’ll talk about him two weeks from now.