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Johnny Appleseed Compassion is Needed for Our Children Today

September 28, 2003

Bible Reading

This is what the Lord says . . . "I will go before you and will level the mountains. I will break down gates of bronze and cut through bars of iron. I will give you the treasures of darkness, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the Lord, the God of Israel, who calls you by name. For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen, I call you by name and bestow on you a title of honor, though you do not know me. . . . You heavens above, rain down righteousness; let the clouds shower it down. Let the earth open wide, let salvation spring up, let righteousness grow with it. I, the Lord, have created it."

(Isaiah 45:1-4, 8)

Read also: Matthew 21:33-44

Reading from Swedenborg

This is what the upbringing of children is like in heaven: through an understanding of truth and a wisdom about what is good, they are led into an angelic life, which consists of love for the Lord and a mutual love in which there is innocence. An example will illustrate how different the upbringing of children on earth is in many cases. I was on the street of a large city and saw some boys fighting with each other. A crowd gathered and watched this with great delight, and I was told that the parents themselves urged their children into fights like these. The good spirits and angels who were seeing all this through my eyes were so repelled that I could feel them shudder--especially at the fact that the parents were encouraging this kind of behavior. They said that by doing this they would at the very earliest age stifle all the mutual love and all the innocence that little ones receive from the Lord, and lead them into hatred and vindictiveness. So by their own deliberate practices they would shut their children out of heaven, where there is nothing but mutual love. Let any parents who wish well for their children beware of things like this. (Heaven and Hell #344)


Today we are celebrating the life, legend, and achievements of Johnny Appleseed, an eighteenth and nineteenth century pioneer, pacifist, and Swedenborgian Christian mystic. We are also honoring Children's Sabbath Sunday to support and address the needs and justice concerns of children all over the world.

Johnny Appleseed, whose given name was John Chapman, was an extraordinary man--one who deserves to be remembered in the history and folklore of our nation's pioneer days. Call him an eccentric or an idealistic and saintly loner, but one thing is certain: Johnny "Appleseed" Chapman showed the kind of compassionate and irrepressible vigor that founded our great country! His business intelligence enabled him to own twenty-two tracts of land totaling nearly 1,200 acres. His travels through Pennsylvania and Ohio make him a trailblazer, helping people tame the land. I enjoy an even more significant label for this special man: he was a true "love-blazer," who has been compared to St. Francis of Assisi.

With poor, under-educated homesteaders often unable to buy even small portions of Ohio acreage due to the selfish deviltry of wealthy Eastern landowners, their struggle for survival was immense. Johnny Appleseed worked as an earthly angel, always developing lands just ahead of settlers by planting apple trees, which survived all sorts of conditions.

Being a genuine Christian, he was as concerned about the settlers' spiritual health and well-being as he was about their natural health. Among the sin-focused, fear-inducing fundamentalists of the early frontier days, John Chapman spread a more humane, balanced, nature-sensitive, and spiritually hopeful Christian doctrine that he learned from the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg.

Johnny was known for arriving at the door-front of a settler's cottage with the pronouncement, "I've got good news fresh from heaven!" He tore out sections from Swedenborg's books and offered them to his friends, the settlers. From these doctrines he developed a theology of non-destructiveness. Like Swedenborg, Johnny felt that every living creature, person, and object buzzed with divine energy inflowing from the divine love and wisdom of God. Stories are told of Johnny putting out his camp fire one night because he feared he would kill passing mosquitoes, which he felt were another marvelous creation of God's handiwork.

He was well known for being especially fond of children. When he visited a pioneer family, he would tickle the children's imaginations by telling funny tales of his journeys--such as the time he was canoeing on an icy river and noticed that the ice floes moved faster than his craft. He put his canoe on one, and promptly fell asleep, only to find himself miles past his destination when he awoke. At meal times it is reported that Johnny would refuse his portion of food until the children's plates were filled.

I believe Johnny Appleseed's compassion for all living things offers insight into our modern crisis with the children.

The plight of children today includes poverty, violence, abuse, and neglect. Too many children face inadequate health care, education, and parenting. Today 3 children will die from abuse; 6 children and teens will commit suicide; 13 children will be murdered; 342 children will be arrested for committing a violent crime. And 2,660 babies will be born into poverty today. Proverbs 31:8 says, "Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute." Will we take the path of least resistance, of selfish indifference? Or will we take the road less traveled--one that will leave a positive moral and spiritual legacy to our children?

Perhaps you are saying to yourself, "How can one person affect such a massive monster?" My response: would you believe that one man in the 1800s, without car, phone, or shoes, planted hundreds of acres of apple orchards that helped pioneer families to survive? Each individual makes a difference. Every congregation makes a difference!

When Jesus told the parable of the wicked tenants, I believe he was speaking about the children of today--because the Divine's eternal eyesight was within him. We can see the abusers and the lazy faithful followers of God in this story who "beat one, killed another, and stoned another." If you, like me, sin at times by becoming numb to the crises of children around you, I pray that you hear the Word of God in Isaiah calling to you personally. It reads: "You may know that I am the Lord, the God of Israel, who calls you by name. For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen, I call you by name and bestow on you a title of honor, though you do not know me."

We must ask ourselves the sobering question, "Am I, and are we, doing what we can to derail the trend of child abuse and neglect?" As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, "The ultimate measure of a person is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy." I feel that the only way to approach such justice causes is to return regularly to the Source of courage, hope, and faith, who says to us, "I will go before you and will level the mountains. I will break down gates of bronze and cut through bars of iron."


Dear Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, as we survey the world around us, we find many things that are far from your heavenly ideal. And especially as we consider the plight of millions of children in this world, we are overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task. Give us the will and the means to do our part in bringing aid and comfort to your little ones. Give us the same practical, active compassion for the children, and for all living beings, that Johnny Appleseed displayed so wonderfully in his life. Amen.

Rev. Kit Billings