Founders of the Massachusetts Bible Society - 1809

The Massachusetts Bible Society began on July 6, 1809 and is an ecumenical, Christian organization dedicated to promoting Biblical literacy, understanding, and dialogue. This blog lists brief biographies of our founders who gathered in the Massachusetts State House Senate Chamber on that historic day to sign the Charter founding MBS. Please visit our website:

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Mr. John Tappan

A bookseller by trade, Mr. Tappan was the Treasurer of the Massachusetts Bible Society from 1812-1835. Born in Brookline on July 26, 1781 and a member of the Federal Street Church, Mr. Tappan was involved in many of the benevolent societies of the day, but had a special passion for both MBS and the cause of temperance.

A founder of the United States Temperance Union, Mr. Tappan offered a $400 prize to Amherst College for the best essays on the subject given by a representative from each class of students. As a condition of the prize, he asked that all Amherst Students refrain from the use of wine, spirits, and tobacco for the entire college course. The students rejected that provision, but they did come up with the essays and apparently received the money anyway. Mr. Tappan also tried to promote his views with European governments, to predictably small effect.

In 1805 he was shipwrecked and adrift for several days with many others. In that time he made a large fork out of an oar, which he used first to catch fish to sustain them and then to attach a large silk handkerchief to alert rescuers. That same year he married the daughter of MBS founder Samuel Salisbury.

That inventiveness came in handy while he served MBS Treasurer during the War of 1812, when Bibles sent from the British Bible Society to one of the British Colonies were seized by American Privateers. When MBS determined that the Bibles should be restored to Britain, he first went to the Massachusetts Courts, trying to claim that the shipment was his own and simply should be restored to him. Of this claim the judge, after noting a number of irregularities in Mr. Tappan’s claim wrote:

“But there is another view, which is so decisive against his claim, that it is difficult to perceive in what manner it could ever have been sustained. Mr. Tappan is an American citizen domiciled in Boston, and now asserts an interest in an enemy's shipment made nine months after the war, in a trade between the enemy's ports. If there ever was a case, in which there could be no doubt that the traffic was illegal, it seems to me to be this case. Upon what pretence can an American citizen, after full knowledge of the war, claim to be rightfully engaged in a commerce with the public enemy, and in a trade too peculiarly his own, a trade between the mother country and its colony?”

The judge denied Mr. Tappan’s claim, but Mr. Tappan didn’t give up and purchased the shipment from the privateers on behalf of the Massachusetts Bible Society, who then made restitution to the British Society. Mr. Tappan died in 1871.

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