According to Wikipedia, Jesus was first referred to as an “apple tree” in a poem written by “R.H.” in the London Spiritual Magazine of September, 1761. The poet was presumed to be Rev. Richard Hutchins, a Calvinist Baptist preacher. The text is as follows:
The tree of life my soul hath seen, laden with fruit and always green, the trees of nature fruitless be, compared with Jesus Christ the apple tree.
His 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 apple tree.
For happiness I long have sought, and pleasure dearly I have bought; I missed of all, but now I see ’tis found in Christ the apple tree.
I’m weary with my former toil, here I will sit and rest a while: under the shadow I will be, of Jesus Christ the apple tree.
This fruit doth make my soul to thrive, it keeps my dying faith alive; which makes my soul in haste to be with Jesus Christ the apple tree.
The first American appearance of these verses came in 1784 in the Divine Hymns and Spiritual Songs, compiled by Rev. Joseph Smith of New Hampshire. A possible biblical inspiration for them comes from the Song of Solomon: 2:3: “As an apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among young men.”
Were one to search for “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” on youtube, one would discover a half dozen musical settings of this elegant text. Easily the most familiar piece of music in this regard is by Elizabeth Poston (1905-1987), a British composer, whose music has several performances on the internet. Her very nice setting of the poem is for unaccompanied voices and is in four parts. There are also other settings of the text on youtube by Stanford Scriven, John Purifoy, and K. Lee Scott. My favorite presentation, however, is by Malcolm Archer (b.1952). His piece is simply titled “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” and was published in 2008 by Oxford University Press.
Malcolm Archer is the Organist and Choirmaster of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, and is the Director of Chapel Music at Winchester College. That first title alone makes him one of the most prominent church musicians in England. I found this Malcolm Archer anthem at the Musical Resources store in Toledo, Ohio, and this one discovery made the entire drive from Chicago worthwhile. The structure of the piece matches that of the poem. In other words, it is strophic. The first verse is sung in unison, the second verse is in four parts. The third verse is for men only, while the fourth verse is set for women only. tTe final stanza brings everyone back together. The piece is composed with an organ or piano accompaniment, and the choral parts are not hard at all. The choral line moves mostly by step. In short, the work is simple and lovely.
A limitless number of descriptions of Jesus are scattered throughout the Bible. “Lamb of God,” “Prince of Peace,” and “Son of Man” come to mind. He called himself the “Way, the Truth, and the Life.” And yet my attention is arrested by Jesus Christ “the apple tree.” Perhaps it is the distinctiveness of this designation that attracts me. I did not grow up around apple trees so familiarity with them cannot explain the allure. I have only been apple picking once or twice in my life. Maybe it is just that the text has inspired such beautiful music that keeps drawing me to it.
When I had finished selecting anthems for my church choir for our current season, I was actually worried that I would not be able to find any music even remotely as good as we are singing right now. However, on that recent trek to Ohio I found some 20 gems for next year. Several titles come to mind, but the cream of the crop was this Malcolm Archer anthem. And, although one anthem does not a season make, I was overjoyed to include this piece in next season’s schedule for my church choir.
Almost nothing gives me greater musical satisfaction than finding music the singers in the choirs I lead will like to sing. But the Malcolm Archer anthem goes even further. It speaks to my soul like no choral work has done in a long time. Perhaps I am compelled to feel that we all have been picked by God for a certain calling in this life. In our core as Christians, we go forth nurtured by Jesus Christ in all of His splendor, blossoming because of the tree He bore for us. We know that “under the shadow I will be of Jesus Christ the apple tree.”