Recovering a Heritage

A few contemporary stereotypes may be shaken by the realization that the major financial backing and organizational leadership behind the abolitionist movement were derived from the man who founded Dun and Bradstreet (the New York "credit-rating" firm) and his silk merchant brother, founder of the Journal of Commerce (a daily business newspaper). Lewis and Arthur Tappan were two of the most prominent and wealthy businessmen in pre-Civil War New York. Yet these two men so threw themselves into the reforms of the era that one tribute after Arthur's death affirmed that "in the slavery agitation, its beginning, its extent, its power, its results, it may bet said, without a question that Arthur Tappan was the pivotal centre of the whole movement."

The Tappan brothers were born in the late 1780s into a large and pious family in Northampton, Massachusetts. The Tappans lived for a time in the old house of Jonathan Edwards—not inappropriate in view of the Edwardsean piety that permeated the home under the influence of their profoundly Christian mother Sarah Tappan. Later, as apprenticed clerks in Boston, the brothers sat for a while under the preaching of Unitarian William Ellery Channing. Lewis embraced Unitarianism, serving in 1825 as treasurer of the American Unitarian Association. But in 1828 he created a sensation in Massachusetts by returning to the evangelical faith, explaining his action in a Letter From a Gentleman in Boston to a Unitarian Clergyman of that City.

The Tappan brothers became later in New York the major supporters of evangelist Charles G. Finney, supervising the building of his church and funding other pet projects. Lewis and Arthur Tappan were consistent advocates and practitioners of a form of evangelical religion that like the Wesleyan Revival of the preceding century found a positive role for "good works."

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