On this day, December 16, 1835, Lewis Tappan saw fire destroy much of the business he shared with his brother on New York City's Pearl Street. The Tappans' situation worsened with the 1836 financial collapse. Demands from British creditors increased, and southern customers began taking their business elsewhere because the Tappans urged the abolition of slavery. The company owed over $1,100,000 (a far greater sum in that day than now). Many evangelical Christians could not believe that such a disaster could befall the Tappans: they had done so much good for others. The Tappans, however, did not complain, but tightened their belts and moved into a boarding house. They put all their know-how and contacts to work and repaid all of their debts--with interest--in 18 months.
Reared in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1786, Lewis was not always evangelical, although his parents were. In 1804, when Lewis was fifteen, he left home for Boston with eight dollars in his pocket and the small Bible his father had given him. In the strange city, Lewis attended William Ellery Channing's Federal Street Church, a center of Unitarianism. Channing's warmth drew many of Boston's elite. Unitarianism was good for business, and to Lewis seemed more natural and cosmopolitan than the Christianity of his parents. But Unitarians denied the divinity of Christ.
Fortunately for Lewis, the Rev. Lyman Beecher moved to Boston to battle Unitarianism. Beecher emphasized God's salvation through a Redeemer. Lewis began attending prayer meetings. He questioned Beecher about the Trinity. Beecher explained that the Scriptures taught the existence of three divine intelligences and that these somehow were one.
Searching his Bible, Lewis realized that Unitarians prayed too little, gave too little to charity, and followed the world's fashions. They neglected the beauty and mystery of God and said little about repentance. Lewis fell to his knees. "I felt a constraining influence to address God in three persons, and then pray to Jesus. I was unwilling to rise until the scales had fallen from my eyes."
Lewis accepted an offer to enter business with his brother Arthur in New York City. Lewis managed daily operations, supervising clerks and bookkeepers, interviewing new employees, stocking samples, and overseeing shipping. Though Arthur Tappan & Co. made over a million dollars annually, the Tappan brothers lived modestly. They believed their money was entrusted to them by God to do good with.
Numerous volunteer associations were spreading Christian truth among the masses; Arthur and Lewis were actively involved with many of them: the American Bible Society, the American Tract Society, the American Home Missionary Society, the American Education Society, the American Temperance Society, the American Sunday School Union, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, and the American Seaman's Friend Society. The brothers helped build Broadway Tabernacle for evangelist Charles Finney and heavily supported the newly-formed Oberlin College, open to blacks and whites alike.
Lewis suffered for his convictions. Because he spoke out strongly against slavery and for racial equality, pro-slavery mobs burned his home to the ground in 1834. However, whether it was in business or in social reform, Lewis Tappan saw God as his companion in all he did. He was often unpopular, but his commitment to use his wealth for the good of others never faltered.
- Condensed and adapted from a draft by Diana Severance, Ph.D.
Last updated June, 2007.