Tax Resistance in “The Mennonite”, 1886–1914

A while back I went through as many back issues of Friends Journal as I could find, to try to tell a story of the recent history of war tax resistance in the Society of Friends (Quakers) in the United States.

I’ve lately been going through back issues of The Mennonite in an attempt to do the same with American Mennonites. Some preliminary notes:

  • My searching technique was not very sophisticated:
    • I relied on the volumes of The Mennonite whose page images have been scanned in at the Internet Archive. Most of those are text-searchable, but the searchable text is uncorrected optical character recognition output and so probably makes a hash of much of it. In many volumes, the text close to the spine is difficult or impossible to read in the scans, and the OCR wouldn’t register it correctly.
    • I usually relied on simple searching for “tax” and “taxes,” occasionally supplementing this with searches for “bonds” and “stamps” (during the World War periods when those were other ways citizens financially supported the military). This likely missed some relevant discussion.
  • I couldn’t find a copy of the volume, and I think The Mennonite did not publish in ; in any case I did not find any issues from those years.
  • In the more recent years there are a lot of mentions of Peace Tax Fund-related activism. I didn’t bother to keep track of most of these, as I wanted to concentrate on war tax resistance proper. I will make mention of some of the highlights of this activism, and of where it intersects with (and sometimes undercuts) war tax resistance, but there’s much I’ll omit.
  • There’s a lot I don’t know about American Mennonites, about which institutions (and magazines) are broadly representative and which only represent certain tendencies or subgroups. So some of my summaries may be uninformed or missing nuance.

I’ve just completed a first pass through the available volumes, , bookmarking pages that caught my eye. My first bird’s-eye impression, before trying to synthesize things, is that support for war tax resistance went from being mostly unthinkable in the early issues to being a frequently-discussed majority position by and then quickly faded by .

The Mennonite

In the earlier issues I reviewed, I saw very little concern about paying war taxes. It was usually taken for granted that Mennonites are to Render Unto Caesar and to look the other way when Caesar spends what’s rendered. A typical example of this comes from Frederick Yeakel’s “The Things Which Are Caesar’s” from the issue. He begins by describing in general terms the concerns an American citizen might have for his or her country, but then says “the foregoing medley of queries and propositions… are concerning the things which Christ has very succinctly designated as ‘Cæsar’s’ — and the Master’s teaching is that we shall on the whole submit ourselves to the existing order of things.”

Thus we often experience a feeling of relief, tempered with gratitude, though otherwise much annoyed and perplexed, that Christ was so emphatically an upholder of law and government, and so unreserved in his recommendation that men should pay their taxes. When we remember that Joseph and Mary took a long and arduous journey to Bethlehem merely in order to be taxed, and that by a decree of a Roman Emperor, also that doubtless Christ, from early childhood, had much to hear of Israel in bondage, and under heavy tribute to a hierarchy not that of David or Solomon, so that when his enemies sought to impeach his loyalty to Rome in the matter of tribute money, the Saviour might, to our way of thinking, have replied with perhaps a show of hesitancy, rebuke or in strong disapproval. But strong, firm and clear comes the answer, “Render therefore unto Cæsar the things which are Cæsar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”

Christians are thus left with little room for doubt or evasion as to their duties toward the government under which they stand at the time. They may yield with grace to wrongs and injustice imposed by the powers that be without incurring God’s displeasure.

A brief item in the issue showed that Mennonites might even voluntarily tax themselves to support the military:

The Mennonites in Russia met recently to consider the financial support of the wounded soldiers in the present war, and their families. It was decided that a regular tax of five Kopekes per desjatine of land per month as long as the war lasts be levied.

In the , the Russian Mennonites were mentioned again. By this time the disastrous Russo-Japanese war had been lost and republican reforms had eroded some of the Czar’s authority. Russian Mennonites had worked hard to get the Czar to accommodate their conscientious objection to military service and there was some question as to whether the new government would honor this. In the course of the article on this subject, it was noted that during the Russo-Japanese war “Mennonites paid what was practically an exemption tax” for their privilege of conscientious objection. I note this because in contrast, Quakers had a long-standing tradition of refusing to pay such exemption taxes.

In the issue, editor Isaac A. Sommer noted that “[t]here are are present about a dozen branches of Mennonites” and wondered if it could be determined from among them, perhaps in some sort of General Conference, “[i]n what fundamentals do the Mennonites agree?” John Horsch, in Gospel Herald (a magazine which I have not otherwise yet investigated) took up the challenge, but chose rather to note where the different divisions disagreed. For example, the doctrine of “Nonresistance”:

We hold that this designation loses its meaning where members in good standing are permitted to serve in such worldly offices as policemen, and the like, as is the case in certain bodies of Mennonites.

A follow-up editorial (signed “G.”) in The Mennonite attacked Horsch’s piece from beginning to end with the sort of thorough fisking that only internecine battle really brings out. Of Horsch’s concern about nonresistance, G. wrote:

If it is wrong to be a policeman it is just as wrong to recognize his authority and accept his protection, or indirectly contribute toward his support by paying taxes for that purpose.

Of course if G. were to apply this same logic to the traditional Mennonite position of conscientious objection to military service, this would mandate tax resistance as well, but I saw no evidence that G. considered this or that anyone else noticed it. This is more evidence that war tax resistance was not prominent in The Mennonite readership’s consciousness at the time.

An article on “Lessons to be Learned from the History of the Persecutions of Our Forefathers for Their Religion” in the issue included two paragraphs about the struggles of Mennonite conscientious objectors to war. During the American Revolution, the author writes:

Sometimes [the German Mennonites in Pennsylvania] neglected the paying of the taxes levied by the continental government. e.g. In one of the families of which I know there was a hall clock case from which three separate sets of works had been removed and sold by the officials to satisfy war taxes which the owner refused to pay.…

During the civil war many of the brethren were practically made beggars by the frequent necessity of purchasing substitutes, some having been several times drafted.

That’s the first mention of Mennonite war tax resistance I could find. It concerned resisters from long ago, and even so it was introduced semi-apologetically, with the author explaining that the resisters during the American Revolution were “German in their sympathies and… taught to respect the king above all things” and so were out of sympathy with the rebel cause — implying that it was this, and not pacifist scruples, that led them to refuse to pay rebel war taxes.

The included a lead editorial by editor Carl van der Smisen on the subject of “Church and State”. The editorial mostly was a sort of vaguely mournful reflection on the ongoing national election campaign of , and on the balancing act of Mennonites who wanted to consider themselves primarily citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven but who felt obligated to attend to at least some of the nitty-gritty of improving the kingdoms of the earth. In the course of this, van der Smisen writes:

Are we doing our duty, do we give Caesar what is Caesar’s if we pay taxes irrespective of the use that is made of these taxes?

The question raised, however, remained unanswered.

An article in the issue concerned a war tax bill being drafted by Congress (it’s unclear to me whether this was in anticipation of the imminent World War Ⅰ or to pay for ongoing U.S. interference in the Mexican civil war). In any case, the article is very much in a just-the-facts mode, describing which commodities would be taxed and how much. “[T]he following will give you some idea of how each individual would pay a share” the list began. No hint is given that these taxes might be avoided or refused by pacifist Mennonites.

This concludes part one. In the next post in this series, I’ll explore how The Mennonite covered war tax resistance during World War Ⅰ.