John Churchman on War Tax Resistance in the Pennsylvania Colony

John Churchman was among the American Quakers who tried to persuade the Pennsylvania Assembly not to tread on the consciences of those Friends who did not want to pay to engage in the French and Indian War. Here’s how he tells it:

As the sound of war and public commotions had now entered the borders of these heretofore peaceful provinces, some solid thoughts attended my mind at Shrewsbury, respecting the nature of giving money for the king’s use, knowing the same to be intended for the carrying on of war. John Evans accompanying me homewards, we took three meetings in our way, the last being at Evesham; at which place I told him I felt an engagement of mind to go to Philadelphia, and he consented to go with me. When we came to the city the assembly of Pennsylvania was sitting, and we understood that a committee of the house was appointed to prepare a bill for granting a sum of money for the king’s use, to be issued in paper bills of credit, to be called in and sunk at a stated time by a tax on the inhabitants; on which account several Friends were under a close exercise of mind, some of whom being providentially together, and conferring on the subject, concluded it was expedient to request a conference with those members of the house who were of our religious profession. On applying to the speaker, who was one himself, we obtained an opportunity of conversing with them; after which we believed that an address to the assembly would be necessary; but we then being only few in number, consulted with several weighty Friends thereon; at length upwards of twenty met together, who after solidly considering the matter before us, were all of opinion that an address to the assembly would be proper and necessary; whereupon one was drawn up, which being considered, agreed to and signed by all of us, we went together to the house, and presenting it to the speaker, it was read while we were present; a copy whereof here follows, viz:

To the Representatives of the freemen of the province of Pennsylvania, in general assembly met.

The address of some of the people called Quakers, in the said province, on behalf of themselves and others.

The consideration of the measures which have lately been pursued, and are now proposed, having been weightily impressed on our minds, we apprehend that we should fall short of our duty to you, to ourselves and to our brethren in religious fellowship, if we do not in this manner inform you, that we shall at all times heartily and freely contribute, according to our circumstances, either by the payment of taxes, or in such other manner as may be judged necessary, towards the exigencies of government, and sincerely desire that due care may be taken, and proper funds provided, for raising money to cultivate our friendship with our Indian neighbors, and to support such of our fellow subjects, who are or may be in distress, and for such other like benevolent purposes. Yet as the raising sums of money, and putting them into the hands of committees, who may apply them to purposes inconsistent with the peaceable testimony we profess, and have borne to the world, appears to us in its consequences, to be destructive to our religious liberties; we apprehend many among us will be under the necessity of suffering, rather than consenting thereto, by the payment of taxes for such purposes; and thus the fundamental part of our constitution may be essentially affected; and that free enjoyment of liberty of conscience by degrees be violated, for the sake of which, our forefathers left their native country and settled in this then a wilderness.

We sincerely assure you, we have no temporal motives for thus addressing you; and could we have preserved peace in our own minds, and with each other, we should have declined it; being unwilling to give you any unnecessary trouble, and deeply sensible of your difficulty in discharging the trust committed to you, irreproachable in these perilous times. This hath engaged our fervent desires, that the immediate instructions of Supreme wisdom, may influence your minds; and that being preserved in a steady attention thereto, you may be enabled to secure peace and tranquility to yourselves and those you represent, by pursuing measures consistent with our peaceable principles; and then we trust we may continue humbly to confide in the protection of that Almighty power, whose providence has heretofore been as walls and bulwarks round about us.

Philadelphia,

A bill was however brought in by the committee of the assembly, and a law enacted for granting a large sum of money proposed to be sunk by a general tax.

When this service before related was over, in which I apprehended it my duty to be concerned, I returned home; but a close exercise remained on me as well as on the minds of divers other Friends, on account of the law now passed; and as care had been taken to apprise the assembly of the solid sentiments of Friends thereon, that we apprehended our charter respecting liberty of conscience, would thereby be affected; therefore a large committee of the yearly meeting, which had been appointed to visit the quarterly and monthly meetings, met at Philadelphia in , had a conference thereon, together with another committee nominated to correspond with the meeting for sufferings in London; and after several solid opportunities of waiting on the Lord to be rightly instructed, and being favoured with a renewed sense of the ownings of truth, many Friends thought they could not be clear as faithful watchmen, without communicating to their brethren their mind and a judgment concerning the payment of such a tax; for which purpose an epistle was prepared, considered, agreed to and signed by twenty-one Friends; copies thereof were concluded to be communicated to the monthly meetings, being as follows, viz:

That “epistle” he mentions, I reproduced on The Picket Line , so I’ll just link to that page rather than including it here.

The above excerpt comes from An Account of the Gospel Labours and Christian Experiences, of that Faithful Minister of Christ, John Churchman, late of Nottingham, in Pennsylvania (), pages 231–5.

As Isaac Sharpless related (in excerpts I posted ), this petition to the Assembly “was not very kindly received. The reply indicated that the signers had no right to speak for others than themselves, that they had not duly considered the customs of the past, particularly the grant of £2,000 in , and the address ‘is therefore an unadvised and indiscreet application to the House at this time.’ [Only] Four members of the Assembly dissent from this reply.” The grant was money given “for the Queen’s use,” which was the sort of catch-all grant the Assembly would give when the crown asked for military expenditures, as a way of providing plausible deniability for Quaker legislators who felt reluctant to explicitly vote for war requisition.

One thing I’m noticing in the documents I’ve been reviewing is how concessions like this — which seem like small, politic compromises at the time — end up being cited as precedent in later years by people who are trying to attack the Quaker peace testimony as hypocritical or to show it to have been historically flexible enough to be agreeable with the latest military tax or funding request.

In , Churchman further reflected:

Such build on a sandy foundation who refuse paying that which is called the provincial or king’s tax, only because some others scruple paying it, whom they esteem, yet I have now clearly seen, as well as heretofore, that the testimony of truth, if deeply attended to, will not be found to unite with warlike measures: and that it will, in the Lord’s time, be exalted above all opposition, and come to possess even the gates of its enemies; though it may appear mean and contemptible in the eyes of some nowadays, as the conduct of our primitive friends did, in diverse respects in the world’s view. And whosoever continues to trample upon or despise the tender scruples of their brethren, in relation to their clearness concerning war, will certainly find it a weight too heavy for them to bear.

My testimony on this account, so far as I have borne it, yields me satisfaction at this time: and the painful steps I have taken, on sundry occasions, both in public and private, to discharge my conscience in the sight of God, in giving faithful warnings to my brethren and countrymen, both in a civil and religious capacity, afford me comfort in this distressing season. I have clearly seen, and the prospect at this time adds divine strength to my soul, that the God of Truth is determined, in due time, to exalt the mountain of his holiness above all the hills of an empty profession; and all such who shall be admitted as clean inhabitants thereon, he wills them to be quite clean handed; and that they should become subject to the Lamb’s nature in every respect, and not shake hands with that nature which would tear and devour, nor in any shape contribute to the price of blood.

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