Lewis Tappan and the Amistad Slaves

Lewis TappanExcerpted from a message given at John Piper’s Pastors’ Conference in Minneapolis, Feb. 2004.

Arthur and Lewis Tappan were brothers, business innovators in the silk trade in New York City in the early 1800s.

Lewis was raised a Calvinist, but became a Unitarian. Later he had an encounter with God in which he returned to the faith of his childhood, a changed man.

The Tappans determined to use their company’s profits for Christian causes. Their business funded and managed various evangelical societies that distributed Bibles, tracts, and Sunday school materials. They founded the Magdalene Society, which ministered to unwed mothers in New York City.

In 1833, Lewis Tappan read a biography of William Wilberforce, the British parliamentarian used of God to bring down the slave trade. Tappan resolved to do whatever he could to further the abolitionist cause in America. Lewis Tappan helped found the American Anti-Slavery Society. From their business headquarters, the Tappans spearheaded fundraising drives for the antislavery movement, sponsored special speakers and revival meetings, and organized national mailings of abolitionist literature, mailings that went to the North and the South.

Tappan sponsored an evening church service with blacks and whites fully integrated, unheard of even in the North. This caused a riot. Rioters vandalized the Tappan company store. A mob gathered outside Lewis Tappan’s house, broke open the door, smashed windows, and hurled the family’s furniture out into the street. In the center of the street men set afire the Tappan family belongings, including a large pile of bedding, pictures, furniture, and window frames. Tappan’s family got out just in time.

Tappan founded the journal Human Rights, a newspaper called the Emancipator, and a children’s magazine called, Slave’s Friend. In a ten-month period, the Society mailed over one million anti-slavery pieces, mostly paid for by the Tappan’s business profits.

Predictably slave-owners were outraged at Lewis Tappan. The citizens of Charleston broke into the U. S. Post Office and hauled off mailbags from New York City. Slavery supporters burned the abolitionist mailings under the hanging effigies of Tappan and other abolitionists. One Southerner offered a $50,000 reward for Tappan’s head.

In 1836, Lewis Tappan opened a mailed package, to discover a slave’s ear. In another box he was sent a piece of rope warning him he’d be hung.

Tappan responded to this by placing in his breast pocket his only weapon, a New Testament. Tappan wrote: “We will persevere, come life or death. If any fall by the hand of violence, others will continue the blessed work.”

Something happened then, in the providence of God, that focused national attention on the horrors of the slave trade (as attention deserves to be focused today on the horrors of the abortion industry). A floundering ship in the Atlantic was boarded by the U. S. Navy. A group of Mendi Africans had overthrown the crew of the Cuban slave ship L’Amistad.

Lewis Tappan came forward to take care of the prisoners and hired legal help.

In the courtroom Lewis Tappan sat on a bench next to three little girls from the slave ship. He befriended Cinque, the leader of the rebel slaves. He provided the slaves with Bibles and literature.

Lewis Tappan was courageous and sincere but a naïve religious man. But he was a follower of Jesus, who made available the wealth entrusted to him to serve the cause of Christ and of freedom.

In 1839 The New York Herald compared him to Judas and said he deserved to be hung. (Those of us who’ve experienced misrepresentation in the media should console ourselves at how mild it’s been in comparison.)

By decisions of the court, the Africans appeared to be set free, but President van Buren asked the Supreme Court to reconsider the case. Tappan retained former President John Quincy Adams to argue their case before the Supreme Court.

Adams won the case. Although Adams gets the credit, Adams wrote to Lewis Tappan, “The Captives are free! But thanks, thanks in the name of humanity and justice to you.”

Tappan arranged for the Mendi Africans to return to their homeland. First, because that was just, and second so they could spread the gospel of Jesus to their fellow countrymen.

Now, what’s really remarkable, is that none of this was what Lewis Tappan did for a living. In his day job, Lewis Tappan established the nation’s first credit rating agency, the Wall Street and Merchant Exchange...which today goes by another name: Dun and Bradstreet.

Tappan put business profits into the Amistad Committee to spread antislavery information to other countries. He was a leader in the Underground Railroad. Believing the Fugitive Slave Law dishonored Christ, he helped slaves escape to freedom, rather than returning them to slavery. For that he could have gone to jail for many years.

When the Civil War ended, and there was emancipation, if anyone deserved to retire it was Tappan. So what did he do? He changed the name of the Amistad Committee to the American Missionary Association, which spearheaded missions in West Africa, East Asia, and the British West Indies. It also founded colleges for the Southern freed people, including Fisk University in Nashville, Berea College in Kentucky, and Howard University in Washington, DC.

A number of the Amistad prisoners came to faith in Christ.

There are a few surviving letters from the prisoners to Tappan. This one’s from Cinque, the one who stood in the courtroom and said “Give us free.” Keep in mind that this was written in English, which would be a third language for a Mendi African. So don’t let the syntax mislead you:

Dear Sir:

Cinque and Mendi people pray for Mr. Tappan all time....Cinque love Mr. Tappan very much, and all Mendi people love Mr. Tappan very much. I no forget Mr. Tappan forever and ever; and I no forget God, because God help Mr. Tappan and Mendi people.

                                             Your friend, CINQUE

And then a letter to Lewis Tappan from the slave Kinna after his return to Africa:

God is very great, very good, and kind. We have been on great water; no danger fell upon us; oh no. We never forget glorious God for these great blessings. How joyful we shall be! I never forget you. May God be blessed! Our blessed Savior Jesus Christ has done wondrous works. Oh, dear Mr. Tappan, how I feel for this wondrous work. I cannot write so plain because the ship rolls. Pray; Jesus will hear you; and if never see you in this world, we will meet in Heaven.

                                              Your true friend, KINNA

Amistad is the story of one small part of Lewis Tappan’s life. He was a follower of Christ who did not go off in the woods to live the simple life. He didn’t go to seminary. He worked hard to establish a profitable secular business, and then used the greater part of the money generated by that business to glorify Christ by bringing love, material goods, hope, the gospel and legal justice to the oppressed. To the glory of Christ.

Now, why have I taken valuable time to tell this story? Because Lewis Tappan, like R. G. LeTourneau and Stanley Tam, was a disciple who used money to make an eternal difference. Tappan, LeTourneau, and Tam weren’t missionaries or pastors. They worked at secular jobs. Like our people do.

We need to be inspired to raise the bar, to break the chains of mediocrity. People like us in every age, in the midst of poverty and in the midst of wealth, have risen above their culture and followed Christ.

Our people need to see it is not impossible to topple the idol Mammon and to exalt the risen Christ in our daily lives, our businesses, our financial dealings. Our people don’t just need to know about Hudson Taylor and Amy Carmichael and John Wesley. They need to know about R. G. & Evelyn LeTourneau, Stanley Tam, and Lewis Tappan. They need a vision for C. T. Studd’s words, “Only one life, twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.” And John Wesley’s, “I judge all things only by the price they shall gain in eternity.”

God’s calling on Lewis Tappan, R. G. LeTourneau, and Stanley Tam was just as great as his call on John Wesley, and they reached people in their God-given sphere of influence that someone like John Wesley could never have reached. They expanded that sphere of influence through their giving and reached the uttermost parts of the world even if they rarely left their own cities. And one day they will worship God beside people of every language and every tribe and every nation.

Let’s teach our people it’s good to work for a living. It’s good to make money for the glory of God, and spend it and give it for the glory of God. It is good to work enough to make more money than you need. Paul says in Ephesians 4, “He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may...” That he may what? Have just enough to live on? No, “...that he may have something to share with those in need.” We should work not only because it’s healthy, and to care for our families, but to use the excess income to help the needy and reach the lost.

Who are the Lewis Tappans in your church? The Stanley Tams? The R. G. LeTourneaus? And yes, the Amy Carmichaels and William Bordens and John Wesleys? Are they being sucked down into the black hole of materialism? Or are they being freed from the gravitational hold of Mammon because their pastors are giving them a new center of gravity, Jesus Christ? How many potential servants are being lost to Mammon, when the risen Christ beckons them to joyful life-changing, community-changing, world-changing service?

What are you doing to find such men and women and mentor them and challenge them to invest their treasures in heaven? What are you doing to become the kind of man whose counsel and challenge they would gladly follow, because they see Christ-centeredness rather than money- and thing-centeredness exemplified in your life? Those who work with junior high and high school and college...what are you doing to pour yourselves into our future church leaders who will set examples, for better or for worse, for generations to come?