What role did God’s Word play in shaping the history of America? In our ninth episode, Aaron Groen, financial advisor in the Ronald Blue Trust Baltimore office talks with Alan Crippen, former executive director of the Faith and Liberty Initiative at American Bible Society in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, about how the Bible shaped the decisions and lives of some of America’s earliest entrepreneurs and visionaries.
Our conversation centers on three people: brothers and business partners Arthur and Lewis Tappan, and the lawyer and businessman John Winthrop.
Episode 9: Christian CEOs who Shaped the Course of American History with Alan Crippen
The Tappan brothers were early philanthropic capitalists or “social capitalists,” who owned a series of very successful businesses during the early- and mid-19th century. Social Capitalism is a utilitarian form of capitalism with a social purpose, a socially-minded form of capitalism, where the goal is making social improvements, rather than focusing purely on the accumulation of capital. One historian has said Arthur and Lewis Tappan had a “bigger transformative effect on America than any other brothers in our history.”
John Winthrop was governor of the Massachusetts Bay Company and is arguably the first Christian CEO in American history. He was one of the first business leaders to cast a vision for a nation based on biblical principles that would eventually become the United States.
In the 1800s, the world of American business was a free-wheeling circus where business ethics or consumer protections were rarely given a second thought. It was in this environment that the Tappan brothers took a radical approach to business, using their business to do social good. They both lowered the cost of goods for consumers and deployed their profits to bring about positive social change. They created what would become Dun & Bradstreet to help consumers and businesses know which businesses had good business practices. They also supported the American Bible Society, helped found one of the first racially integrated colleges in the country, and established the American Anti-Slavery Society.
While they had their struggles—including bankruptcy at one point—Arthur and Lewis Tappan played a key part in bankrolling the early anti-slavery movement, even funding the legal defense of the enslaved people on the Amistad, and then investing in bringing the gospel to their community in Africa.
Looking back, it may seem like the way the Tappans ran their business and invested in social change was common sense. But their decisions, informed by the Bible and their faith, came at great personal cost. Regardless of this cost, these brothers pushed ahead as pioneers of God-honoring business practices and generosity—truly some of the first great philanthropic-capitalists in American history.
American history was also shaped by the life of John Winthrop, who many think of as merely a political figure. Winthrop was actually one of the first great American CEOs, who came to America in pursuit of religious freedom AND business profits, as leader of the Massachusetts Bay Company in the 1630s. Winthrop embraced the “start-up” ethos: simultaneously incubating a business, a church, and a state in the new world.
Despite being a lay person, some historians say Winthrop preached the “most influential sermon of the millennium” in 1630. John Winthrop’s famous sermon, in which he exhorted his community of proto-Americans to forge a place in the New World that functioned as “a city on a hill [that] cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:14) would cast a social vision of the possible. As Alan Crippen put it, this sermon contained within it “the DNA of what would become the United States of America,” led by the principle that we are stewards of God’s resources for the betterment of all people.
“The glory of His power in ordering all these differences for the preservation and good of the whole, and the glory of His greatness, that as it is the glory of princes to have many officers, so this great king will have many stewards, counting himself more honored in dispensing his gifts to man by man, than if he did it by his own immediate hands.”
– John Winthrop
You can read the full sermon here: A City On A Hill by John Winthrop
Here was a faithful Christian business leader encouraging his fellow brothers and sisters to embrace the commands of Jesus. And through this faithful obedience they would forge new communities in America that were characterized by the love of Christ, through organizing new towns on biblical principles and establishing churches in each settlement.
John Winthrop’s words have served to inspire generations of American citizens for nearly 400 years. In fact, multiple American Presidents, from Reagan to Obama have cited and built upon Winthrop’s vision rooted in the words of Jesus. In this historic sermon, by a pioneering Christian CEO, Americans can still glimpse what is possible in a just and harmonious society established upon God’s laws: a shining city on the hill.
Listen in as we unpack how these early entrepreneurs and visionaries helped to transform American society through their business practices and their radical generosity.
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