Christ, The Apple Tree

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December 18, 2011 Tags: Christ & New Creation

Today's entry was written by Mark Sprinkle. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

In last Sunday’s consideration of the “root” image for the coming Christ, I noted that the text of Isaiah 1:11 helps us understand Jesus to be not only the source of creation and salvation (the literal “root” of both), but also the means of their flourishing (as the growing “branch” or “shoot”) and their culmination (their “fruit”). The traditional American carol linked above goes even farther afield than the prophets for its image of Christ, turning to Song of Songs 2:3 for inspiration and a more specific tree image: it uses the familiar apple as a emblem of the very tree of life, emphasizing that the promise we have in Jesus goes beyond the merely material to encompass our complete shelter, nourishment, and passionate joy.

The text of the song (included below) was collected in New England or the Appalachians in the late 18th century, and was then set to an American Revolutionary War-era marching tune by Jeremiah Ingalls (1764-1838) of Newbury, Vt. According to early music scholar, performer and popularizer Thomas B. Malone, “Jeremiah Ingalls had a particularly successful run as a tavern keeper and church musician in Newbury between the years of 1709 and 1810, during which he published a book of fasola music called The Christian Harmony. This book contained not only the familiar fuging-tunes and anthems . . . but something rather new, folk-melodies with sacred texts, as well as call-and-response spirituals, and camp-meeting revival choruses.”

But though the lyrics’ narrative of individual spiritual weariness relieved by communion with Jesus is itself praise, and though the central drawn-from-cultivated-nature image of the apple tree reminds us of the inextricable linkage between the material world and its creator, it is the way the music is sung in this particular recording that has the most to tell us about how we might find our way forward though the overlapping contemporary cultures of science and Christian faith. This abridged version of the entire carol was recorded by Malone at the Weathersfield Meeting House in Vermont in June, 2005 during a celebration of the 200th anniversary of Ingalls’ book—an event that brought together new and seasoned practitioners of the traditional American form of congregational music known as “shape note” or “fa-so-la” singing.

Also called “Sacred Harp” music (for the instrument that God has provided to every individual and, hence, to every gathering of worshippers), shape note singing requires participants to have only limited technical knowledge in order to join voices and hearts in praise and celebration of the works of the Lord in creation and in human lives. The resulting music is much more about the act of making music together in community—perhaps especially in community with those you may have just met—as it is about making music to be listened to. There are other available versions of this tune (for instance, here you can listen to a snippet of a considerably more precise and “professional” version of the song from the album Carols from the Old and New World, sung by Theatre of Voices as directed by Paul Hillier), and the song text has been set to new music several other times this century (including the most well-known version by Englishwoman Elizabeth Poston and another by Stanford Scriven), but this version preserves the original song’s feel of a common struggle to find our way in the world as well as the specific words of the text. And though even the setting published by Ingalls can be sung by highly-trained musicians, a simple repertoire of harmonic rules, a specific notational style, and a basic commitment to the underlying goodness and truth of the music itself is sufficient to link groups of amateur singers across centuries as well as across miles; it is doubtful that the versions recorded in more formal settings are “better” or more true to the heart of the music and its message than are un-recorded, “come as you are” shape-note versions sung in the myriad church congregations where they are still (or are newly) being sung.

That tension between getting every note right, on one hand, and, on the other hand, understanding music as a means of expressing and deepening both human and divine relationships in sometimes motley company, is suggestive for thinking about the tension that exists between technical and popular understanding of science, among other fields where there is a divide between amateurs and professionals. Especially in a culture so enamored of specialization and compartmentalization as is ours, experts in whatever field perennially run the risk of missing the forest for the trees (apple or otherwise), of forgetting that knowledge and expertise are fulfilled when integrated into the context of the greater human community—made part of that wider conversation on meaning.

This does not mean, of course, that the depth and subtlety of knowledge gained by years of study, research and practice by professionals (scientists included) should or can be discarded by non-experts, either. Instead, it is a reminder that—especially for believers instructed by Paul to think of ourselves as co-equal and interdependent parts of Christ’s Body—the authority of knowledge must be both given and received in humility for the good of the whole church and, through the church and by its example, for the good of all. Those who understand, study, and contribute to music or any other great tradition of knowledge have a gift to offer non-experts, even if they hear the results of their gifts rendered as a “joyful noise,” rather than a “studio-quality” recording. For both sides of the amateur/expert divide, keeping one version in mind while listening to (or singing) the other gives the richest, most fruitful sense of the music (or science) as both worship and art, precisely because such an attitude and demeanor of self-giving emulates the life lived and given by Jesus, himself.

“Jesus Christ, The Apple Tree”

traditional, collected by Joshua Smith/arranged by Jeremiah Ingalls
(verses omitted in this recording given in italics)

The tree of life my soul hath seen
Laden with fruit and always green;
The trees of nature fruitless be,
Compar’d with Christ the appletree.

This beauty doth all things excel,
By faith I know, but ne’er can tell,
This beauty doth all things excel,
By faith I know, but ne’er can tell,
The glory which I now can see,
In Jesus Christ the appletree.

For happiness I long have sought,
And pleasure dearly I have bought;
I miss’d of all, but now I see
‘Tis found in Christ the appletree.
[refrain]

I’m weary’d with my former toil,
Here I shall set and rest awhile;
Under the shadow I will be
Of Jesus Christ the appletree.
[refrain]

I’ll sit and eat the fruit divine,
It cheers my heart like spir’tual wine
And now this fruit is sweet to me,
That grows on Christ the appletree.

This beauty doth all things excel,
By faith I know, but ne’er can tell,
This beauty doth all things excel,
By faith I know, but ne’er can tell,
The glory which I now can see,
In Jesus Christ the appletree.

This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,
It keeps my dying soul alive;
Which makes my soul in haste to be
With Jesus Christ the appletree.

This beauty doth all things excel,
By faith I know, but ne’er can tell,
This beauty doth all things excel,
By faith I know, but ne’er can tell,
The glory which I now can see,
In Jesus Christ the appletree.

This copyrighted recording was made available by Thomas B. Malone via a Creative Commons license on his website. The site is devoted to Ingalls' music and life, features similar recordings of many of his and others’ shape note arrangements and provides information on joining an annual singing event in Vermont, about which Malone says: “No experience is necessary, and books are provided.” Malone’s own page on the Apple Tree Carol is here, and the direct link to this mp3 is here.


Mark Sprinkle is an artist and cultural historian, and was formerly Senior Web Editor and Senior Fellow of Arts and Humanities for The BioLogos Foundation. A phi beta kappa graduate of Georgetown University, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. in American Studies from the College of William and Mary, where he studied how artworks embody complex relationships in different cultural contexts. Since 1996 he has been an independent artist and frame-maker, also regularly writing and speaking on the role of creative practices in cultural mediation and renewal, especially in the area of science and Christian faith. Mark and his wife Beth home-schooled their three boys, and are active in the local home-school community in Richmond, Virginia.


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