Business Lessons from Levi Coffin

biz2When I recently began reading the memoirs of nineteenth-century Quaker abolitionist Levi Coffin, the first surprise was his account of area Quakers’ attitudes on abolition and Underground Railroad work. While they were anti-slavery in general, they were very much against helping fugitive slaves escape: “Levi, we think the way forward is through changing the law, not breaking it.” “Levi, think about your business and how it could suffer. We worry about your family.” Most Quakers in the region were so adamantly against Coffin’s Underground Railroad work that he and a small group of like-minded Quakers had to leave Western Yearly Meeting, which had voted against it.

While Coffin gives plenty of credit to others involved in the work, including many fugitive slaves who helped others escape, it’s also clear that he played a central, necessary role. Why was he so essential? What was it that he could do that others couldn’t? The answer is germane to the recent discussions of Quakers, business, and money, and it begs a fresh examination of our current, rather limited view of service.

In 1826, Coffin moved with many other Quakers from North Carolina to Indiana, and once he settled in Newport, he established three businesses, all of which were prosperous. He states clearly and repeatedly that his financial success is what allowed him to do Underground Railroad work, as it gave him the ability to keep a wagon and horses at ready; to hire drivers at all times of the day and night; to have plenty of food and extra clothes for those who arrived in rags, starving and cold. He had a large house, with the top floor devoted to hiding places and rooms where fugitives could stay. He also hosted many other people, who at times served as camouflage for the slaves; other guests were blissfully unaware of the large group of fugitive slaves residing one floor above them.

He not only owned three businesses, but also became the director of a local bank branch and had decision-making power on who received loans. His work with the railroad was fairly well known, and there was generous pay for capturing a fugitive slave. But the pro-slavery men wanted to stay on Coffin’s good side due to his bank position, and that position gave him the protection to continue his work.

Over the course of 30 years, Coffin helped thousands of slaves on their way to Canada. Surely there is no better example of how financial success can be a source of great service to others. Every nonprofit depends on donations to stay alive, including our own; many meetings have benefited from bequests and an endowment funded by Quakers who were financially successful in their lives.

Ten years ago, I had an opportunity to start my own business, a children’s book publishing company, and I did some soul-searching. How could I lead a life of service while running a for-profit business? I decided I could serve kids by publishing entertaining, kid-centric books they would love to read—books that would guide them into a lifetime of reading for pleasure. I also wanted to publish honest books, because any book that is true to life will have within it a lesson or two that kids need.

In spite of my tendency to choose books by their entertainment value, I’ve often published titles that reflect my Quaker values, though not in obvious ways. One example is the two books I published that teach children how to spot signs of fairies in the woods and mermaids at the beach. There is no glossary of plant and animal names at the back or a message on preserving wildlife habitats. But my hope is these books will make children stop and open their eyes and pay close attention to the wonders all around them. I hope they see nature as magical, because it is magical, and surely seeing the magic and wonder of nature will give them a healthy respect for it and a desire to preserve it.

Some Quakers, I am sure, would accuse me of stretching the concept of service. But maybe it would be a good thing if we Quakers found new and creative ways of serving others, including a greater presence in the business world. Think about a world where banks were run by Quakers. Think about a car lot full of ecologically friendly models, with fixed prices and total honesty about the cars being sold. Think about a builder who creates developments of affordable green-certified houses. I know we all like local businesses—I do too—but we shouldn’t automatically reject anything larger. A very large builder could provide great support to the alternative energy industry and practice, and the scale could well bring the cost down to much more affordable levels.

While I believe that capitalism must have restraints, I also think it is fair that I get greater rewards for greater efforts, greater risk, and greater responsibility. But I also try to be the business that I would want to work for: good pay, part-time work, flexible hours, more vacation time and holidays, paid maternity leave, all of which working mothers so desperately need. I am very much involved with a local Holocaust museum founded by an Auschwitz survivor who publicly forgave the Nazis. Her motto is “Forgiveness is the seed for peace.” The marketing and sales skills and experience I gained from Tanglewood Publishing have been put to good use for the museum, and I have the means to make donations that have a real impact.

Quakerism remains vital to my life, personally and professionally. Meeting for worship can be healing when I’ve been stretched too thin. I depend on my fellow Quakers to help keep me grounded, to remind me of the things that are important in life and of the need to stay focused on service (not acquisition), on patience and generosity. Those are not always my first instincts.

Let’s open our hearts, widen our thinking, and seek true diversity in our fellowship and new paths to serve others and make the world God’s kingdom on earth. Quakerism and business not only are compatible, but also can help and complement one another. Let us be open—in all ways.

Peggy Tierney

Peggy Tierney is the owner of Tanglewood Publishing, a children’s book publishing company, though she is currently on a break from publishing new titles to pursue personal volunteer and writing projects. She is a member of Sandy Spring (Md.) Meeting, but since moving to Indiana has been attending Bloomington (Ind.) Meeting.

1 thought on “Business Lessons from Levi Coffin

  1. This Friend speaks my mind. If Friends believe that there is that of the Spirit in every person, that needs to include businesspeople as well. My 50 years in business as employee, manager, owner, partner and business professor has been one where the Spirit has led me to better understand that we need to make our circles bigger. Quakers love of “Diversity” needs to include even those who understand how to bring goods and services to their neighbors. After all, its not WHAT you do, as much as HOW you do it.

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