History of Quaker War Tax Resistance: The Renaissance

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 the renaissance of Quaker war tax resistance during the Cold War. Much of what I have assembled here comes from my close look at the archives of the Friends Journal, the only Quaker publication from this period I have reviewed thoroughly, and so whatever editorial biases that publication may have had may also bias my history of this phase.

There is a lot that happens in this short period of time, and in some places my narrative is going to be condensed into a bunch of bullet-point-like summaries of the rapid-fire events to try to keep up with it all.


The Renaissance ()

The modern war tax resistance movement began in the wake of World War Ⅱ in the United States. There had been isolated war tax resisters here and there in other places in recent years, and there was a quiet war tax resistance tendency hiding under the surface of the Society of Friends, but things did not come out into the open in any organized and growing fashion until then.

Quakers were not in the forefront of this movement, but Quaker war tax resisters took courage from it, and it wasn’t long before they began trying to reestablish the war tax resistance traditions in the Society of Friends. The earliest mention of this that I have found from this period concerns Franklin Zahn of the Pacific Yearly Meeting, who was distributing a leaflet on war tax resistance as early as .

A report on the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting that year noted that the subject of war taxes had come up and had led to what sounds like a long and earnest discussion:

Few present felt it right to refuse to pay, nor yet felt comfortable to pay. Varied suggestions were presented: Send an accompanying letter expressing one’s feeling about war; live so simply that income is below tax level; make no report, but once a year send a check for nonmilitary purposes; engage in peace walks and other minority demonstrations; follow Jesus’ example of rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; beware of taking for granted the evils deplored, such as riding on military planes; associate more closely with the Mennonites, who share Friends’ concerns; rise above one’s own shortcomings through personal devotion; work to unite with all Friends Yearly Meetings in refusal to pay taxes. Nothing can be done unless there is a willingness to suffer unto death.[!]

The blinders put on during the Great Forgetting period were still evident. An article in a issue of the Friends Journal described “refusal to pay taxes for support of war effort emerging as a new testimony” [my emphasis]. Another article from the same issue, titled “The Quaker Peace Testimony: Some Suggestions for Witness and Rededication” didn’t mention taxes at all.

By this time some Friends in Switzerland had been refusing to pay war taxes (I would guess, under the tutelage of Pierre Cérésole).

In some Quakers in the Pacific Yearly Meeting began to sketch out the initial drafts of a legislative “peace tax” proposal which they envisioned would be a way for conscientious objectors to pay their taxes into a fund that the government could only spend on non-military items. The idea that there might be a legislative solution that could make tax-paying no longer an act of complicity with war would bob up throughout this period, until, by the end of it, the temptation of lobbying instead of committing to direct action would contribute to the eventual decline of war tax resistance in the Society of Friends.

also, the Yellow Springs Monthly Meeting issued a statement of support for war tax resisters, the first example of new institutional support for war tax resistance in the Society of Friends that I could find from the 20th century.

In there was a burst of excitement about war tax resistance in the Baltimore Yearly Meeting (yet a survey of 350 adults from that meeting found only two or three who were willing to consider actually becoming resisters; whereas almost half of those surveyed were totally unconcerned about their tax money going to the military).

A group of about twenty Quakers, organized by Clarence Pickett and Henry Cadbury, met at the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting to discuss war tax resistance, but they were unable to come up with a consensus statement. Quaker war tax resister Arthur Evans was imprisoned for three months for his tax refusal.

In the Friends Journal ended what strikes me as a policy of editorial embarrassment about Quakers and war tax resistance by publishing its first article devoted to the practice, and one that also full-throatedly advocated it. This started a debate in the letters-to-the-editor column and certainly caused more Quakers to confront the question, directly or indirectly.

By the tide was shifting rapidly. Before this time, individual Quaker tax resisters are unusual enough to highlight individually as being on the cutting-edge; after this, Quaker war tax resistance becomes commonplace enough that individual resisters are exemplars of a larger trend. In the New York Yearly Meeting promoted war tax resistance in an official statement, and promised financial assistance for any Quakers in the Meeting who might be forced to change jobs or to suffer other financial hardship for their stand. The statement in part read:

We call upon Friends to examine their consciences concerning whether they cannot more fully dissociate themselves from the war machine by tax refusal or changing occupations.

That was the most concrete advocacy of war tax resistance by a Quaker institution in years.

Franklin Zahn wrote a booklet on Early Friends and War Taxes to reintroduce Quakers to their own history and to further banish the Great Forgetting.

The support from Quaker institutions and publications at this point is often noncommittal and is usually vague about exactly how to go about war tax resistance, which taxes to resist, and how to deal with government reprisals. There is nothing like the specific, concrete discipline of earlier Quaker Meetings. This means that Quaker war tax resisters from this period are largely making it up as they go along, conferring with each other informally and organizing, when they are organizing, in groups like Peacemakers, the War Resisters League, and the Committee for Non-Violent Action — that is to say, with non-Quaker groups. (There was briefly something called the “Committee for Nonpayment of War Taxes” run out of Quaker war tax resister Margaret G. Bowman’s home in , but I have not found much about it.)

Quakers were using a broad variety of tax resistance tactics. Arthur Evans and Neil Haworth refused to pay some or all of their income taxes or to cooperate with an IRS summons for their financial records. Johan Eliot redirected twice the amount of his taxes to the United Nations to promote international federalism as a world peace strategy. Clarissa & Samuel Cooper lowered their family income below the tax line. John L.P. Maynard and Robert W. Eaton took pay cuts that reduced their incomes to the maximum allowable before federal income tax withholding was mandatory. Lyle Snyder stopped withholding by declaring three million dependents on his W-4 forms. Alfred & Connie Andersen stopped filing income tax returns. Some Quakers fled to Canada as taxpatriates to join the draft evaders there. Others deposited their taxes into escrow accounts and invited the IRS to seize the accounts while refusing to pay voluntarily. Lloyd C. Shank advocated “the ‘sneaky’ way” of tax resistance — what many people would call tax evasion — saying “‘cheating’ is only an oppressive government’s name for a good man’s refusal to murder.” Phone tax resistance was beginning to become widespread, and many Quaker meetings began resisting this tax on their office phones (one meeting was unable to reach consesus on resisting the phone tax and compromised by dropping its phone service entirely). People too timid to resist, and meetings unable to reach consensus on resisting, might instead write their legislators to urge them to enact some form of legal conscientious objection to military taxation. The most timid groups, like the American Friends Service Committee, urged people to pay taxes “under protest” or to match their war tax payments with additional payments to the AFSC.

Robert E. Dickinson had perhaps the most creative tactic of the bunch. He designed and built a set of furniture for his home that was formed of interlocking sheets of plywood such that it could be quickly disassembled and hidden away. He called this “my tax refusal furniture” and meant it to frustrate IRS attempts to seize furnishings from him for back taxes.

Two Quaker employees of two groups within the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting asked their employers to stop withholding income tax from their paychecks, and that Meeting tried to come up with a good policy to follow in such cases.

The fourth Friends World Conference was held in . The “Protest and Direct Action group” there “called upon Friends in countries party to the [Vietnam] conflict to ‘go as far as conscience dictates in withholding support from their governments’ war-making machinery,’ first by direct communication with those against whom the protest is made, and then if necessary by public witness and individual action, including the possibility of refusal to pay taxes for war.”

U.S. President Johnson called for a 10% income tax surcharge explicitly to fund the Vietnam War. This would be the first explicit “war tax” (other than, arguably, the phone tax) since World War Ⅱ, and its announcement prompted renewed interest in war tax resistance inside and outside the Society of Friends. Quakers were, because of this tax, better-enabled to quote the discipline of early Quakers on refusal to pay explicit war taxes as a way of explaining their own stands.

In 203 delegates from “nineteen Yearly Meetings, eight Quaker colleges, fifteen Friends secondary schools, the American Friends Service Committee National Board and its twelve regional offices, and nine other peace or directly-related organizations” met in Richmond, Indiana, to draft a “Declaration on the Draft and Conscription.” Part of this declaration mentioned the war tax concern:

We call on Friends everywhere to recognize the oppressive burden of militarism and conscription. We acknowledge our complicity in these evils in ways sometimes silent and subtle, at times painfully apparent. We are under obligation as children of God and members of the Religious Society of Friends to break the yoke of that complicity.

We also recognize that the problem of paying war taxes has intensified; this compels us to find realistic ways to refuse to pay these taxes.

After only of thaw, some seventy years of Great Forgetting have been melted away, and the Society of Friends has again reached a consensus that Quakers are compelled to refuse to pay war taxes.

President Johnson’s war surtax went into effect in , adding a 7.5% surtax to the income tax returns for , and 10% for (the tax would be extended at a reduced rate into and then abandoned).

Meetings all across the country were discussing and passing minutes on war tax resistance, though few would advocate it in specific and unreserved ways, most choosing instead to voice expressions of unspecified “approval and loving support” for Quakers who felt compelled to resist. In , the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting passed a relatively strong minute stating:

Refusal to pay the military portion of taxes is an honorable testimony, fully in keeping with the history and practices of Friends… We warmly approve of people following their conscience, and openly approve civil disobedience in this matter under Divine compulsion. We ask all to consider carefully the implications of paying taxes that relate to war-making… Specifically, we offer encouragement and support to people caught up in the problem of seizure, and of payment against their will.

The New York Yearly Meeting decided to begin resisting corporately by refusing to honor liens on the salaries of tax resisting employees (though it could not reach consensus on a refusal to withhold income tax from such employees), and, , by refusing to pay its own phone tax.

The American Friends Service Committee finally decided to do something concrete about the war tax question, but it was a little odd. They withheld and paid taxes from a war tax resisting employee and then sued the government for a refund. The strange structure of their process seems to have been a very deliberate way to structure a legal suit for maximum effectiveness, and it did (briefly) show some success. A court ruled in , on First Amendment freedom-of-religion grounds, that the government could not force the organization to pay the taxes of an objecting employee — alas, the Supreme Court almost immediately, and overwhelmingly, overturned this.

Also in , Susumu Ishitani, a Japanese Quaker, formed a war tax resistance group in Japan — the first example I am aware of from Asia.

By , the Friends Journal’s coverage of war tax resistance is less occupied with advocacy, debate, and the presentation of individual exemplars, and is more concerned with the practical aspects of how Quakers are going about it. The editorial stance shifts again, to one of more forthright advocacy. It is assumed that Quakers want to avoid paying war taxes, and the question is how to do so well.

The ending of the U.S. war on Vietnam did not seem to slow the enthusiasm for war tax resistance. In the Friends Journal devoted an issue to the subject for the first time. In Robert Anthony began another attempt to get the courts to legalize conscientious objection to military taxation. It went nowhere, but notably, in a letter to the court, his monthly meeting wrote:

We assert that the free exercise of the Quaker religion entails the avoidance of any participation in war or financial contribution to that part of the national budget used by the military.

If not exaggerated for effect, this statement would be among the strongest yet articulated by a Quaker institution in this renaissance period — not simply expressing support for war tax resisters, or encouraging Friends to consider resisting, but asserting that to practice the Quaker religion necessarily meant to refuse to pay war taxes.

In , Quakers met with their Brethren and Mennonite counterparts to draft a joint statement that encouraged war tax resistance — the “New Call to Peacemaking.” The Philadelphia Yearly Meeting asked its ongoing representative meeting to draft some formal guidance for Quaker war tax resisters for how they should go about it, and to set up an alternative fund to hold and redirect resisted taxes. (New England Yearly Meeting began its own alternative fund for resisted taxes .)

By this time war tax resistance is a core part of any discussion of the Quaker peace testimony, and there are increasing calls for Meetings to resist taxes as an institution.

In the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting approved a minute on war tax resistance that pulled its punches a bit:

Our strength and our security are derived from our belief in the reality of a loving God and the oneness of that of God in all people. In order to say yes to this belief, we must seriously consider saying no to payment of war taxes.

This “seriously consider” compares poorly to discipline of times past (e.g. “a tax levied for the purchasing of drums, colors, or for other warlike uses, cannot be paid consistently with our Christian testimony” [Ohio Yearly Meeting, 1819]). It also, some Quakers point out, sometimes pales next to the more direct and certain advice from some meetings that young Quaker men resist the draft.

As more Quakers and Meetings feel the pressure to take a stand on war taxes, the more timid ones are increasingly desperate to find ways to do so without actually having to resist. Silly ideas, like writing “not for military spending” in the memo field of their tax payment checks, and “peace tax fund” ideas proliferate. By , Quakers in Canada and Australia are floating their own peace tax fund legislation ideas.

Meanwhile, Quakers in England seem to have gotten the tax resisting bug. The Friends World Committee for Consultation and London Yearly Meeting stopped withholding income taxes from twenty-five war tax resisting employees in , putting the money in escrow. (This resistance was short-lived; after losing a legal appeal in , they went back to withholding.)

In war tax resistance, according to Friends Journal reports, was a “major preoccupation” of the London Yearly Meeting, and a “burning concern” at the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (where “unity could not be achieved”). Lake Erie Yearly Meeting encouraged its Monthly Meetings “to establish meetings for sufferings to aid war tax resisters.” Pacific Yearly Meeting started an alternative fund.

Smaller Monthly and Quarterly meetings around the country were beginning to take even stronger stands. The Minneapolis and Twin Cities Meetings approved a minute that asked “all members of our meetings to practice some form of war tax resistance”! The Davis (California) meeting passed a similar minute. Monthly Meetings are assembling “clearness committees” to help each other find responses to the war tax problem that are appropriate to their conscientious “leadings.”

also, the Friends General Conference promoted the idea of Quakers giving interest-free loans to them, a thinly-veiled (not explicitly stated) way of hiding assets from IRS:

…Friends loan money to F.G.C. at no interest, which F.G.C. invests to earn income which is used to support the varied programs of the Conference, such as publications, religious education curricula, and the ongoing nurture program. These loans provide regular dependable monthly income to the Conference, and reduce the interest income on which the lender must pay federal income taxes, while providing the lender with protection against unforeseen financial reversals. F.G.C. will repay the principal amount within 30 days after receiving a written request from the lender. All principal amounts are kept in insured investments.

In the Friends Journal, now edited by a war tax resister, devoted another issue to the subject. Non-resisting Quakers were now very much on the defensive. One complained that at the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting , taxpaying Quakers like him “were compared to the Quaker slaveholders of , and not a dissenting voice was raised,” but even he had to acknowledge that war tax resistance was “in the mainstream of Quaker thought, and therefore entitled to support from Quaker bodies.”

The meeting itself though could only agree to issue another minute that would “not urge” Friends to resist, but would “give strong support” to those who did.

In , the Friends World Committee for Consultation held a war tax resistance conference in Washington, D.C., and formed a standing “Friends Committee on War Tax Concerns.” , they held a conference for Quaker organizations that had war tax resisting employees. The conference was attended by 35 people, including representatives from 21 such organizations. They were united by an interest in supporting the war tax resistance of their employees in an open and honest fashion, in a way that included the redirection of the resisted taxes to beneficial causes, and that used the “clearness committee” process.

You definitely get the feeling that momentum is building and Quaker war tax resistance is having a vigorous revival. Unfortunately, though, it seems to me that this is the high-water mark. In surprisingly little time the tide will begin to recede. But there is still some forward progress to be made.

In the London Yearly Meeting declared:

We are convinced by the Spirit of God to say without any hesitation whatsoever that we must support the right of conscientious objection to paying taxes for war purposes… We ask Meeting for Sufferings to explore further and with urgency the role our religious society should corporately take in this concern and then to take such action as it sees necessary on our behalf.

The Friends United Meeting adopted a policy of not withholding taxes from resisting employees as well. The Philadelphia Yearly Meeting soon followed suit, and refused to withhold federal taxes from three war tax resisters on the payroll (after a legal battle, they would pay “under duress” ). The Baltimore Yearly Meeting also adopted such a policy, in .

In another conference for employers of tax resisting employees was held, this one expanded to include Mennonite and Church of the Brethren employers. The Friends Journal got an IRS levy on the salary of its editor, and it devoted a third issue to the topic of war tax resistance. Some Quakers begin using the tax resistance tactic in the service of other causes, such as opposition to capital punishment or nuclear power.

In an early sign of the receding of the war tax resistance tide, the Friends World Committee for Consultation retired its “Friends Committee on War Tax Concerns” in favor of a “Committee on Peace Concerns.” From here, sadly, it’s pretty much all downhill. In the next and final segment of this series on the history of Quaker war tax resistance, I’ll try to describe and explore the second “forgetting.”

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