Quaker War Tax Resistance Grew Out of Tithe Resistance

An important ancestor to American Quaker war tax resistance that helped to give it its shape and its rhetorical justification was the Quaker refusal to pay tithes to the established church in England (and some places in colonial America). These sorts of payments were also referred to in Quaker writings as “church rates” or “priests’ rates” or payment for “a hireling ministry.”

The way Barry Reay’s study “Quaker Opposition to Tithes” () tells the story, in the mid 17th century, there were a number of movements, including the Levellers, Diggers, and Seekers who opposed the tithes, and the Quakers obtained a number of converts from these movements perhaps to a large extent because of their own opposition to tithes. Reay points out many examples of people who first became anti-tithe activists of one sort or another, and only later became Quakers.

Although the Quakers did have scriptural and theological arguments against tithe-paying, Reay believes that their opposition was really based on more down-to-earth concerns: that the tithes were unfairly shouldered by poor, rural people; that they discouraged agriculture (by taxing gross production, not net profit); that corrupt, idle, and greedy tithe-farmers were parasitic on the productive members of society. It wasn’t just the clergy. Often, people outside of the clergy would obtain rights to a percentage of the tithes. About a third of the tithes collected in England ended up in the hands of such people. “In some regions,” Reay writes, “the figure was as high as 60 per cent, a regular and inflation-proof income.”

Because of this, there were strong vested interests in favor of the tithing system both inside and outside the church, with good reason to oppose this popular insurrection. They accused the anti-tithe forces of being objectively pro-Papist (indeed, they labeled the Quakers “disguised Jesuits”!) and claimed that the tithe system was not only Biblically sanctioned but based on an ancient social contract which everyone was bound to honor. Furthermore, they claimed that tithes were only the first target in a larger battle, and if the government were to give in to their demands here, pretty soon the Quakers would be demanding to be free of paying rent to the landlords as well.

As Quakers were not followers of the established church, another reason why they opposed tithes was because the tithes supported a church that they felt was spreading incorrect doctrine. They argued for a separation of church and state and for government respect of freedom of conscience in matters of religion. Churches and their ministers, they believed, ought to be maintained by the voluntary support of their parishioners or by their own labors, and not by mandatory, government-enforced tithes.

The Quakers tried to use the existing political process to have tithes abolished — petitioning parliament and supporting sympathetic candidates for election — but they also engaged in and incited civil disobedience. Reay writes: “The catalogues of Quaker sufferings for tithes conjure up a picture of chaos in many parts of the country, as goods were seized from recalcitrant Friends.”

The rhetoric of Quaker war tax resistance, which was a later development, borrows from the rhetoric of resistance to tithes, though because the issues are different, sometimes this mapping is awkward. In Samuel Allinson’s “Reasons against War, and paying Taxes for its support” he went so far as to equate paying war taxes with paying tithes:

It is thought to be wrong for Friends to pay taxes for war, a hireling ministry being thereby supported, which is not allowed by us to be consonant with Christ’s doctrine…

In other words, by paying war taxes, you are paying tithes to a ministry that is ministering the doctrine of war. Interesting, but a bit of a stretch.