Tax Resistance in “Gospel Herald”, 1946–1959

This is the seventh 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 1959

We are now up to the post-World War Ⅱ period and the Cold War is about to ramp up. Harold S. Bender gets us started with “Forward into the Postwar World with our Peace Testimony” (), which gives us some perspective on how wobbly the Mennonite nonresistance doctrine was even in regards to military service:

[O]f all the Mennoite men who were drafted, forty-one per cent entered the army and fifty-nine per cent stood by the faith of the New Testament and the Mennonite Church and went into C.P.S. To be exact, thirty per cent went straight into the army, ten into noncombatant service, and sixty per cent into C.P.S.

In , Ford Berg took a hard line on Romans 13 in “The Christian’s Obligation to the Government”, disputing in particular the idea that Paul’s advice to the Romans was given during a placid period of Nero’s reign and so shouldn’t be taken to apply to all governments at all times. (See yesterday’s Picket Line in which Edward Yoder tried to advance that gambit.)

Similarly, Lois Ann Weaver tried to quiet any Render-Unto-Caesar revisionists in the issue:

When Christ was questioned about the paying of tribute (taxes) He answered, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar’s, and unto God the things which be God’s” (Luke 20:25). We have no record of an unco-operative spirit or a voiced undertone of resentment on Christ’s part concerning the payment of taxes.

But what this tells me is that there were Mennonites out there who were chipping away at the Christians-Always-Pay-Their-Taxes edifice, enough so that the defenders of the orthodoxy felt it necessary to write such rebuttals.

There was a question of whether or not Mennonites should participate in blood drives run by the Red Cross, as the agency was apparently still doing this in a “race”-segregated way (e.g. only giving “white” plasma to “white” recipients) that was offensive to Mennonite teachings on common humanity. Ford Berg, in the issue, compared this to the relative lack of reluctance Mennonites had paying their taxes for war:

[I]f we are so touchy on this thing, perhaps we should recall that our tax money goes largely for war purposes, to which we carelessly respond that we are not responsible after we make our payments. Dare we apply this reasoning to the blood donations also? Both seem inconsistent, and yet…

Berg was also the first writer to introduce the Peacemakers to Gospel Herald readers. Recall that he was the one who took the hard Romans 13 line in . Here, though, in the issue, he just lets the Peacemakers’ war tax resistance action speak for itself:

Forty-eight men and women, including eight Protestant clergymen, in various parts of the nation refused to file Federal income tax returns as a protest against “bomb building” and war, it was announced by the Tax Refusal Committee of Peacemakers, a national pacifist group. “President Truman’s decision to begin the manufacture of the hydrogen bomb makes us even more determined than before to refuse to finance armaments. Building this newest and most terrible weapon is further indication of the extreme depth of moral degradation into which our nation has sunk.”

As with the coverage in The Mennonite around this time, the first mentions of war tax resisters are those from outside the Mennonite community. There is clearly some interest in this sort of witness or direct action, but it takes a while before Mennonites themselves put themselves forward. Here’s another example, from the issue:

Twenty-five Quaker residents of Fair Hope, Alabama, have decided to emigrate to Costa Rica so that they may be free from military demand and from paying “war taxes.” Said their spokesman, “Our economy has become so involved with military effort throughout the world, that a person can hardly make a living here without being a part of that system.” A spokesman for the American Friends Service Committee said this would be the first instance in American history that a group of Quakers had left the country because of their religious pacifist convictions.

On the Mennonite Church, in General Conference, adopted “A Declaration of Christian Faith and Commitment with respect to Peace, War, and Nonresistance.” These were the sections that dealt most directly with taxes:

[W]e cannot apply our labor, money, business, factories, nor resources in any form to war or military ends, either in war finance or war industry, even under compulsion.

[I]n wartime, as well as in peacetime, we shall endeavor to continue to live a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty; avoid joining in the wartime hysteria of hatred, revenge, and retaliation; and manifest a meek and submissive spirit, being obedient to the laws and regulations of the government in all things, including the usual taxes, except when obedience would cause us to violate the teachings of the Scriptures and our conscience before God.

The issue included an article on “Nonresistance in Eighteenth Century Pennsylvania” by M. Alice Weber that related the story of the war-tax-related Funkite schism in the early American Mennonite community, and also mentioned Quaker refusal to pay war taxes.

The first instance I saw of a Mennonite suggesting that Mennonites should take action to address the problem of their taxes going to the military was in the article “Give Caesar — Give God” by Christian L. Graber in the issue. Excerpt:

A large part of the Federal Taxes are used to support the military budget. If we do not deduct all that the government allows us to deduct, but rather pay a higher tax than we would need to pay, we are to the extent of such overpayment lending our voluntary support to the military program. Good stewardship forces us to face this issue.

But this idea was taken as a reductio ad absurdum by Barney Ovensen, who was defending nonresistance against another Christian who was arguing that Christians should not be pacifistic (“Why It Is Not Right for a Christian to Fight”, ). Excerpt:

McQuilkin says the man who pays taxes is just as guilty of killing as the man who actually joins the army and kills. If this is true, every Christian is guilty — for we all are told to pay taxes to “Caesar.” But where did McQuilkin learn this doctrine? From Christ? Of course not. From the apostles? No. It is an awful thing to use the wisdom of this world in order to make void the “foolishness” of God.

The issue brought news of another example of war tax resistance from outside of the Mennonite community:

For the third year in succession a woman pastor at Great Barrington, Massachusetts, has paid only 25 per cent of her federal income tax, because she is opposed to the large percentage of the national income used for war. In a letter accompanying her tax return this lady says, “I cannot conscientiously pay more of my tax because at least that proportion of our national income is now used for war. I believe it is wrong to kill human beings. I believe that today war only increases the evils we are fighting and it will, if we persist in it, degrade us, destroy our liberties and our spiritual values, and eventually destroy us and our civilization.” In the past two years a lien was placed against this pastor’s salary to collect the unpaid tax. Probably the same method will be used again this year.

The issue briefly quoted A.J. Muste on why he refused to file a tax return, but made no comment.

A series of notices in , , , and noted with alarm what a high percentage “of the taxpayer’s dollar” in the U.S. was devoted to military spending.

The annual sessions of the Virginia Conference, held , passed a resolution that indicates the attitude of unconcern was still dominant:

Resolved, That we gratefully acknowledge the sincere efforts of our government to provide for the welfare of its citizens; that we counsel our people to pay their taxes cheerfully…

An editorial by Paul Erb in the issue, “On Paying Taxes,” seemed to acknowledge that war tax resistance was in the air — not approving of it, but indicating that in any case there was a right and wrong way to go about it.

In our obedience to law, we reserve the right to obey God rather than man, if we are asked to do something contrary to our consciences. But we do not think it is wrong to pay lawfully imposed taxes and customs, even tough some of the money maybe used for purposes which we cannot approve, like military preparations and war.

If anyone has conscientious scruples about paying taxes, he should be honest and aboveboard about it. Certainly a Christian could never justify dishonest tax or import reports. Yet a brother who is in business writes us of his certain knowledge that some Mennonites falsify their reports, and cheat the government out of some thousands of dollars.

“The Christian and the State” by Wilbur J. Miller, found in the issue, reiterated the traditional hard line on Romans 13.

“Mennonites and Bomb Tests” by Ronald & Elaine Rich () matter-of-factly presented war tax resistance as a possible Christian option:

Christians have responded to the challenge of this issue in various ways. A few have refused to pay the proportion of their tax that is used for military purposes. Some have voluntarily limited their income to the low level that is tax exempt.

I assume the following note, found in the issue, again refers to A.J. Muste:

A Presbyterian clergyman in New York has refused for the fourth consecutive year to pay the major part of his income taxes which he says are earmarked for military expenditures. He pays only 20 per cent of his taxes and gives the rest to charities. “The time has come,” he says, “when responsible clergymen must join in a common protest against the government’s present suicidal policy of reliance on military might.”

Ditto with this one, from the issue:

A Presbyterian pacifist minister who refused to pay the part of his federal income tax which he felt would be used for war purposes is now serving a six-month term at Federal Prison camp at Allenburg, Pa.

I’m not sure what if anything was behind the reluctance to mention his name.

A “Sunday School Lesson” (Alta Mae Erb again) in the issue asserted that when Jesus asked his interrogators to show him a coin, and then gave his Render Unto Caesar answer, what he meant by all that was: “With these coins they paid their poll tax. Jesus meant that this tax was among the things of Caesar.”

On , Melvin Gingerich testified before a Senate committee on a military conscription bill. His testimony included the following phrase: “We who have uneasy consciences because of the disproportionate share of our tax money which is going into military expenditures in contrast to that which is going into nonmilitary foreign aid…” This, I thought, was a long way from Romans 13 and its insistence that Christians pay their taxes not grudgingly but “for conscience’ sake,” and shows how that norm was shifting.

Amish Farmers and the Social Security Tax

While this was going on, there was another tax resistance fight in the greater Anabaptist community. The Amish, who placed a high value on mutual aid and on reliance on God and who therefore did not purchase insurance, were resistant to being roped in to the federal government’s Social Security system. Many refused to apply for benefits. Some refused to pay withholding taxes.

The first mention of this I noticed was this, from the issue:

The Federal International Revenue Service [sic] has ordered the seizure of livestock of Amish farmers in certain Ohio counties. These farmers have refused to pay taxes which go for social security, which the Amish are opposed to.

Other mentions of this conflict included:

  •  — the Amish farmers bought their horses back from middlemen who had bought them at a tax auction
  •  — a bill was introduced that would exempt Amish from Social Security
  •  — Amish refuse refund of overplus from auctions of their goods
  •  — Amish petition government for an exemption from the Social Security law
  •  — the Amish reportedly win such an exemption (but this turns out to be exaggerated)
  •  — three work horses are seized from an Amish farmer for back taxes
  •  — letters of protest hit the local papers after an Amish farmer’s horses are seized for taxes
  •  — the IRS announces a crackdown on Amish social security tax resisters
  •  — the IRS announces a moratorium on seizures from Amish Social Security resisters, and a Senator goes on record siding with the Amish on this
  •  — debate on a possible exemption continues in Congress
  •  — a Gospel Herald editorial sympathizes with with Amish resisters
  • and  — more exemption legislation is proposed
  •  — apparently they’re still debating whether or how much to exempt the Amish from Social Security in Congress