History of Quaker War Tax Resistance: The Thaw

At the upcoming national gathering of NWTRCC at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, I’m going to be presenting a summary of the history of war tax resistance in the Society of Friends (Quakers).

Today I’m going to try to coalesce some of the notes I’ve assembled about how the Quaker practice of war tax resistance began to reemerge after the Great Forgetting period.

The Thaw ()

In the Great Forgetting period, Quakers endeavored to overlook that war tax resistance had been an important part of putting the Quaker peace testimony into practice.

But during World War Ⅱ and the opening decade of the Cold War, a largely Christian pacifist war tax resistance movement began to coalesce, which included Quakers, but the most prominent members of which belonged to other denominations. This movement set the stage for the coming renaissance of war tax resistance in the Society of Friends.

A few of the earliest tax resisters of this period were Quakers. I’ve already mentioned Mary Stone McDowell, who carried on her resistance from the World War Ⅰ period (the only such example I’m aware of). There was also Arthur Evans, who was resisting perhaps as early as 1943, making him one of the earliest adopters of war tax resistance in this Thaw period.

But institutionally, the Society of Friends still had little interest in the subject. In the American Friends Service Committee, a major voice of the practical side of the Quaker peace testimony, put out an influential booklet: Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence. It mentions war tax resistance only once, and in an 18th century historical overview context, not as an example of a contemporary method of speaking truth to power in search of alternatives to violence. This is in spite of the fact that the committee that produced the booklet included among its members the war tax resisters A.J. Muste and Milton Mayer.

Instead, the leadership in advocating for war tax resistance and in organizing the fledgling modern war tax resistance movement largely came from outside the Society of Friends. Some of the more prominent war tax resistance promoters in this important period were Dorothy Day (Catholic) & Ammon Hennacy (often Catholic), A.J. Muste (sometimes-Quaker, but bounced around a lot), Maurice McCrackin (Presbyterian), Ernest Bromley (Methodist, later a Quaker), Ralph DiGia (not religious as far as I could tell), and Milton Mayer (Jewish, later a Quaker).

The work of this emerging group of resisters helped to encourage the remaining Quaker war tax resisters and to remind Quakers that war tax resistance wasn’t only something of the legendary past but was an available testimony to them in the present. The thaw in the Society of Friends had begun.

One of the first examples of this thaw was a particularly dramatic one. When four Quaker conscientious objectors in the United States were put on trial for evading the Korean War draft, the judge told them: “If you are not willing to defend this country, you should leave.” They took that advice seriously, and began to look for an alternative. They chose Costa Rica, a country that had abolished its standing army in . “We wanted to be free of paying taxes in a war economy,” recalls Marvin Rockwell, one of the emigrants. Seven Quaker families left the U.S. to found the community of Monteverde, Costa Rica, in . Rockwell later told a Friends Journal reporter: “I do not feel bad at all paying taxes in Costa Rica. The largest item in the tax budget is for education.”

From the Cambrian:


While we have to congratulate our readers on the discontinuance of the unlawful proceedings of the Rebeccaites in the counties of Carmarthen, Pembroke, and Cardigan, we regret to find, that in Radnorshire, they have commenced their work of destruction with much daring. About , Rebecca, with upwards of 200 individuals, all disguised, and well armed with guns and other weapons, entered the streets of Rhyader, and proceeded direct to the respective turnpike-gates, and in a very short space of time the north and east gates, as well as the two recently-erected gates adjoining the bridge, with the posts, &c., were entirely erased to the ground, and the toll-house of the latter wholly demolished together with the goods of the collector. Several volleys were discharged during the time of their effecting the operation, and the place is a scene of great devastation.

was a particularly wet one in England and Wales, with about 15cm of rain falling, more than any other month during . That, the many arrests (and the first convictions) of Rebeccaite suspects, and the onset of the cold season, may have all been factors in the diminishing of Rebeccaite activity.

Reading this article reminds me that by necessarily restricting myself to accounts of Rebeccaism in the English-language newspapers of Wales, I’m also getting an account from that segment of the media most likely to sympathize with and cater to the English-speaking ruling class there, and least likely to give voice to the largely Welsh-speaking participants in the Rebeccaite uprising.