Tax Resistance in “Gospel Herald”, 1920–1940

This is the fifth in a series of posts about war tax resistance as it was reported in back issues of Gospel Herald, journal of the (Old) Mennonite Church.

“Gospel Herald” logo, circa 1939

Whew. There was a a lot going on during World War Ⅰ in the pages of Gospel Herald, as writers struggled to refine nonresistant conscientious objection to buying war bonds or otherwise contributing to the war effort. Even a few hints of war tax resistance started to peek out and look around.

Today I’ll keep it briefer and take us through the period between the world wars when these concerns seemed a bit more distant and abstract.

In the issue, Vernon Smucker wanted to make sure that Mennonites didn’t get a reputation for only grudgingly giving money to relief efforts in order to avoid having to buy war bonds:

During the war many of us were glad to give rather large amounts to relief work in lieu of buying bonds or subscribing to other war funds. This pressure is now no longer brought to bear on us, but let us not therefore grow negligent and slack in our giving. What sort of a testimony would that bear to the world? Did we give because we believed in doing good? Or was it largely because we didn’t have something to which to point which would make our refusal easier? Let us examine ourselves carefully. The world is waiting to see what sort of testimony we are bearing along these lines.

I noticed that the annual financial report of the Mennonite Board of Missions & Charities (printed in the issue) showed that the treasurer held $1,900 in U.S. Liberty Bonds and $15,680 in Canadian Government Bonds.

In “Church and State” (), David Garber imagined a conversation between a conscientious objector and a government official in which the objector not only explained why he couldn’t buy war bonds but could pay war taxes, but oddly seemed to suggest that the government fund its wars with taxes rather than bonds for that very reason!

Since according to Scripture I cannot conscientiously fight, and kill, you would say I am inconsistent if I should voluntarily buy Liberty Bonds, War Savings Stamps, or support Red Cross war activities, etc., and you would say well, for so it would be; for I would voluntarily be turning one crank of the war machine. But if the government would lay an equitable tax on all, for this we are commanded to pay to our government, besides this would put an end to this “mob violence” that is practiced.

In the issue, Harold Bender urged Mennonites not to let their guard down in the post-war period — “In Time of Peace Prepare for War” — but was careful to stress that paying taxes was still mandatory:

[N]onresistance is not merely made up of not bearing arms or refusing combatant service, but means a refusal to participate in any way in the war-machine. It is becoming increasingly clear that war is an effort of the entire nation, and not only of the soldiers on the battlefield.… There is little question among us now that our young men can do nothing else than refuse any service whatsoever which will promote war. But is it as clear to us that hiring a substitute (as was done in previous wars), or buying war bonds and thus furnishing the financial sinew of war, is just as impossible?

[I]t is clear that the nonresistant people will be allowed to practice their principle in war time only in case the state is disposed to be gracious and bestow the unmerited favor of exemption. From the human and worldly point of view, nonresistant people have no right to make the claim for such a special and gracious consideration unless they can show an unblamable record of obedient and worthy citizenship in all matters which do not involve the christian conscience. This means that nonresistant people must pay their taxes, of course…

In “Nonresistance in War-Time” (billed as a pastoral letter written under bishop oversight, and published in the issue), John L. Stauffer again stressed that nonresistance to war doesn’t go as far as refusing to pay war taxes:

We believe that the Bible requires not only the abstinence from the bearing of arms, but also from all other work connected with the prosecution of war and the destruction of life; whether direct through enlistment or by the draft, or indirect through the manufacture of war materials. We believe that what we do as Christians must glorify God and that therefore we are compelled to draw the line whenever our actions cannot do so. (Cor. 10:31.) As Christians, we cannot accept combatant or noncombatant service, neither can we consistently make investments that help to promote war. On the other hand, we believe it to be our Christian duty to pay taxes levied upon us by the nation in war-time as well as in peace-time; the responsibility for the use of taxes lies with the officers of administration, and not with the taxpayer. We believe in “rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” but we cannot consent to surrendering our bodies for military service, because the physical body of the Christian has been bought by our Lord and therefore belongs to Him. [Cor. 6:19–20]

The issue reprinted an article from The Lutheran Witness on “The Separation of Church and State.” It stressed the “two kingdoms” interpretation of the Render Unto Caesar riddle and again emphasized that Christians pay their taxes:

The earliest indication in the New Testament of a distinction between Church and State we find in the words of our Lord: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21). The Savior was answering the Pharisees who asked one of their trick questions: “Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar or not?” meaning: Shall we as members of the Jewish commonwealth pay taxes to the Roman emperor? When the Jews showed Him a Roman silver coin, the denarius, which bore the head of the ruling emperor, Jesus answered in the words already quoted. They mean simply that we owe the government one thing, obedience to its demands for taxes; and to God we owe something else. What that is, the Lord does not say here; but even a Pharisee would know that what we owe to God is obedience to His commands. The important thing is that here the two powers are distinguished as to the demands which they may make upon us and the duties which we owe to one or the other.

“Bible Teaching on Nonconformity” (Chester K. Lehman, ) mentioned the tension between “the nonresistant conscience” and war bonds, without seeming to want to take a definite stand on the issue:

Christians have the obligation to pay tribute and custom to and to fear and honor the “powers that be” (Rom. 13:6,7). This principle came acutely under test during the World War. The problem did not arise with reference to the payment of taxes some of the proceeds of which were definitely used to carry on the war, but with reference to the purchase of Liberty Bonds which was voluntary, the proceeds of which directly supported the war program. Here the nonresistant conscience asserted itself. The former was clearly within the teaching of Scripture, but the latter was voluntary and became a measure of one’s wartime patriotism. Men who were physically unable on account of the rigors of warfare could render their bit toward the winning of the war by the purchase of bonds.

Edward Yoder took a second look at Mennonite practices during the American Civil War, in “Peace Principles from a Scriptural Viewpoint” ():

If the man drafted proved he was a member of a religious body which forbade members to take part in warfare and also demonstrated that he had conscientious scruples against doing so, he was excused upon the payment of a fee of three hundred dollars (in the North). This fee was specified to be used for succoring the sick and wounded in hospitals. Many Mennonites paid this commutation fee, as it was called. Its payment seems to have been generally tolerated by the Church, on the ground that it was a form of taxation. In some instances well-to-do brethren in the congregation, or the congregation as a whole, paid the fee for young brethren who could not meet it themselves. In this connection it is interesting to notice that the Quakers generally refused to pay such fees, protesting that it was inconsistent with the principle of nonresistance.

Daniel D. Miller wrote of his experiences during World War Ⅰ when he refused to voluntarily give supplies for the war effort (“The Christian Attitude Toward the Government in Peace and War,” ):

There are three things that the Bible plainly tells us to do in regard to our attitude toward civil powers. We should pay our taxes, pray for them, and honor them.

…We ought to obey the government. I repeat again, we ought to be subject to the government as far as we possibly can.

If the government expects something of us, we should give them our best. One illustration: an experience that I have had and I hope none of you will think that I am boasting. When the war tension became high, so much of certain supplies was to be raised in a township and districts and certain counties. I remember, I had just been away for about four days. I came home during the night and in the morning, bright and early, there were the two gentlemen representing our township. I knew them well, and they knew me well. They came in and talked very nice. They said that they were arranging a quota and of course would have to canvass the township. They would have to give a report of every individual in the township as to what each would give; and if they would not give anything, why they would not give. I knew these men. They said, “We do not like to come here, but we have to give a report.” They were church members, but not Mennonites. I said, “Conscientiously I can’t do this.” They said, “Well, what report shall we give back?” I said, “There is not one of those head men that has not known me for some time.” I said, “You tell them that conscientiously I cannot do that. If you as a group think you ought to have a cow or a horse or a lot of wheat, you may take it; I cannot raise my hand. But I cannot voluntarily give it.” That afternoon two other men came back. They talked over the situation in the same manner. I said, “I am not making any remittance at all. Whatever you folks think that you ought to take of mine, here, you just come and take it. There will be no trouble about it, only I cannot give it. If you think you ought take it, it is yours.” I told them the same thing. And I am glad to say, not because of the saving of a horse or cow or wheat or anything else, they never came. They never took anything. I suppose, they made their report, but nobody said anything to me about it. The people were just as nice as before. I sympathized with those men that came to talk to me. They hated to talk to me, yet they felt it their duty. I was glad for their attitude.

Tomorrow, we’ll see how the Mennonite Church held up after the United States entered World War Ⅱ.