Christain Tax Resistance in the U.K.

In its issue, Third Way (a UK-based Christian magazine) published a retrospective on Christian tax resistance in Britain, in reaction to the ongoing poll tax resistance:

Can’t pay, won’t pay: a Christian precedent

by David Bebbington

Civil disobedience is currently in the air for the euphemistically-named Community Charge (or “Poll Tax”) seems to favour the rich at the expense of the poor. Some have announced they will not pay an unjust tax and many Christians affirm that they feel bound in conscience to refuse payment. Opponents are aghast, seeing such behaviour as subversive of the rule of law. Yet there is a Christian precedent.

In the Evangelical Nonconformists of England declared en masse that they would not pay the portion of their rates that went towards elementary education. They had long nursed an educational grievance. they had been compelled to send their children to school, but in many areas — especially in the countryside — the only school was run by the Church of England. Children of Nonconformist parents were taught from the Book of Common Prayer in an Anglican atmosphere. The only alternative was to withdraw the children under a conscience clause from religious instruction and to expose them to ostracism

Religious “indoctrination”

Nonconformists were eager to see a Liberal government impose public school control over all elementary schools so that religious discrimination should cease. Instead, a Conservative government entrenched the Anglican schools within the national education system. Previously the schools had been aided from taxation, but now they were to be financed by local rates, which were customarily designed for specific purposes.

Nonconformists concluded that one purpose of this was to indoctrinate the young in the teachings of a Church from which their parents conscientiously dissented. The Church of England possessed a growing Anglo-Catholic party whose view of the way of salvation hardly differed from that of the Roman Catholic Church. Chapel children, it seemed, were to have their souls imperilled at their parents’ expense. The cry “Rome on the rates!” was raised and a passive [sic] movement sprang up.

Some Nonconformists, especially among the Wesleyians and Presbyterians, thought rate refusal scandalous. Their fellow Free Churchmen were declining to obey the law at the same time as benefitting from the rule of law. In a democracy there was the possibility of reversing government policy by returning the Liberals at the next election. So why then the need to resort to extra-constitutional methods?

The bulk of Nonconformists, however, took up the cause with enthusiasm. There were sermons on Bible Passive Resistance drawing encouragement from the example of Shadrach, Meshach and Adednego in the book of Daniel. Leeds Free Church Council went to prayer and then, by 89 votes to one, resolved in favor of rate refusal. John Bunyan was quoted to show there were two ways of obeying the law: I may do as the law directs or else, if the law infringes conscience, “I am willing to lie down and suffer what they shall do to me.” Nonconformity was roused to resistance.

Pantomimic martyrdom

The first rate refusal occurred in Spring . The procedure was that after an automatic summons and a court hearing, sufficient goods were distrained to pay the amount owed to the local authority. Items confiscated in Coventry included bicycles, a microscope, a gold watch, a half-plate camera and (from a minister) an Alphabetical Arrangement of the Words in the Hebrew Talmud, translated into German.

The goods had to be put up for sale at auction. Normally a friend of the owner would buy the property back on his behalf. But the process could become a ritual. John Clifford, the Baptist minister who led the whole protest and subsequently appeared in court 41 times up to the First World War, set aside a few silver trowels give [sic] him at chapel stone-layings for regular distraint. The procedure often approximated “pantomimic martyrdom,” as it was known at the time.

Yet the experience could be far worse. Some protesters insisted that nobody should buy their property at the auction. Then there was no alternative to imprisonment, usually for seven days but sometimes for up to three months. For men of Christian character and unimpeachable respectability it could be a trying time. Sleep was fitful, food awful and a sense of isolation acute. In the three years of the movement up to there were 70,880 summonses, 2568 auctions and 176 imprisonments. The grievance was given ample publicity.

Significant legacy

With the election of a Liberal government in , the momentum of protest slackened. It was expected the Liberals would sweep the offending legislation away. However, resistance by the House of Lords frustrated all efforts at reform. Rates continued to contribute to Anglican and Roman Catholic schools for as long as rates were levied.

Passive resistance faded away without achieving its aim. Nevertheless it bequeathed a significant legacy. Mahatma Gandhi, then a young Indian lawyer in South Africa, read reports of Nonconformist efforts and recognized the potential of civil disobedience as an instrument for mobilizing a mass movement. Gandhi’s thinking, in turn, was a powerful influence over Martin Luther King, who led the campaign for black civil rights in America. Passive resistance exercised on conscientious grounds was to have a noble future.

“The lieutenant said, ‘Have you seen enough?’ speaking savagely, almost as though I had been responsible for these deaths. Perhaps to the soldier the civilian is the man who employs him to kill, who includes the guilt of murder in the pay-envelope and escapes responsibility.”

―Graham Greene, The Quiet American