Tax Resistance in “The Mennonite”, 1914–1918

I started a series of posts about war tax resistance as it was reported in back issues of The Mennonite. Today I pick up where I left off, at the beginning of World War Ⅰ.

The Mennonite

The issue included an article about the “war revenue bill” being considered by Congress. The article made mention of which consumer goods would be taxed, but did not mention or hint at the possibility of avoidance or refusal by Mennonite conscientious objectors. The same is true of a article announcing that the war tax had gone into effect.

The United States entered the war, officially anyway, in . I know that some Mennonites resisted the frenzy of pro-war patriotism that followed, but The Mennonite itself clearly did not. The front page of the edition reproduced an extract from Report of Committee on Citizenship of the Eastern District Conference that, while it reaffirmed “our fundamental principles of peace and non-resistance” also counseled that:

There is abundant historical precedent of patriotic financial assistance given by Mennonite peoples to their governments in times of war in other countries to warrant us in recommending that our people subscribe liberally to government bonds as a means of financial assistance to our country.

We recommend that all our members who are able to do so, invest in government bonds.

An article on war taxes from the issue continued the trend of reporting on what would be taxed and how much without any hint that Mennonites should be troubled by this. Articles about the “Liberty Bond” drives reported on their “overwhelming success” and made no mention of the people (including many Mennonites, though you wouldn’t know it from reading The Mennonite) who were refusing to buy them for conscientious reasons.

The issue reprinted A Short and Sincere Declaration, which was said to have been delivered on behalf of German Baptists to “The Honorable House of Assembly” in . The declaration said that “we find no Freedom in giving or doing or assisting in Anything by which Men’s Lives are destroyed or hurt” but:

We are always ready, according to Christ’s command to Peter, to pay the Tribute, that we may offend no man, and so we are willing to pay Taxes and to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the Things that are God’s…

We are also willing to be subject to the higher Powers and to give in the manner Paul directs us:– for he beareth the Sword not in vain, for he is a Minister of God, a Revenger to execute upon him that doeth Evil.

Our small Gift, which we have given, we gave to those who have power over us, that we may not offend them as Christ taught us to pay the Tribute Penny.

This is an amalgam of three bible verses that are often used to excuse taxpaying and other concessions to government authority, and are the typical stumbling blocks for anyone trying to biblically justify tax resistance:

  1. Matthew 17:24–27 — Peter pays the temple tax via a miracle from Jesus
  2. Romans 13 — Paul says that worldly governments are God’s instruments and should be obeyed
  3. Matthew 22:15–22 (et al.) — Jesus answers, “Render unto Caesar…”

In the issue, A.D. Wenger gave a report from Camp Lee, where some 130 conscientious objectors, including Brethren, Quakers, and Mennonites, were being processed. “[Some] care for horses, work in kitchens, etc. Some work in hospitals or do clerical work. Others refuse to do any work that directly supports the war.” Some were imprisoned, fed on bread and water or not fed at all. “The lives of some were threatened.” Parents of some of those imprisoned tried to bring food but were turned away.

Wenger and some others tried to intervene by speaking with a General Cronkhite and Colonel Hunt, who were “severe” at first “but later were more mild and genial as they saw our position more clearly.”

They appeared to be satisfied if our people do not bear arms if they will only help along in some other way. They say the whole nation is in the war and that all are helping, whether soldiers or not, by special taxes, farm products, etc. What the government requires of us we must give. It is our duty to pay our taxes. “Pay ye tribute also.”

It is not until the issue that I find some evidence that Mennonites (if not The Mennonite) are conflicted about financially supporting the war. From the lead editorial of that issue:

The launching of the Fourth Liberty Loan has again reminded us that when once war is on its way, peace only comes at a terrible cost in men and means. Nearly two million of our countrymen are now overseas. Their return to peaceful vocations depends largely upon the support they get from home not only in munitions, but in the things that sustain life. A failure to give them the proper support would unquestionably prolong the war and cause greater suffering. The traditions of our church have been those of a peace sect and the question naturally arises in the minds of some “Can I consistently buy bonds now?” Buying bonds is supporting a government which is at war, but so is raising wheat or wool, or mining coal, or manufacturing lumber, since the government has decided to just what use these commodities are to be put. We know of Mennonites who refuse to have anything to do with bond-buying. Whether they are right or not is a matter we must let between their God and their consciences, but if they believe themselves to be right, we warn them that they must hereafter never touch a bond since their conscience has pronounced it an accursed thing, neither must they have anything to do with an institution that builds up its endowment with Liberty bonds, be it a school, hospital, or other benevolent institution.

It is our opinion that bonds, like money which they represent, are things belonging to the secular government. It is our duty as good citizens to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. We claim the protection and demand privileges of our government and are therefore in no position to be lax when it is in need of the use of our money. Mennonites have plenty of historical precedent in the matter of loaning money to the government in war times.

…[For example,] Mennonites, at the risk of life, sent a considerable sum of money to William of Orange to help him in his great struggle for Protestantism and liberty. …[And] during the Napoleonic wars, the Mennonites of Prussia rendered financial assistance to their government. No doubt the assistance given in both Holland and Prussia were important factors in determining the favorable treatment Mennonites were given after that in these countries. Bearing arms and participating in bloodshed are matters upon which people differ as to their right or their wrong, but concerning the matter of rendering to Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, that is, giving to the government that which already belongs to it, is a thing upon which the Master acted long ago. He showed us what our attitude should be. Does it become us to try and change or improve upon a course already laid out by our Lord?

The editorial was unsigned; the editor at this time was Silas M. Grubb

The issue included an article on “The Mennonites in Canada and the War” that noted:

The churches have also taken a very decided stand on the question of the war loan. There have been two such loans made in Canada and the Mennonites have been approached each time. The churches in Saskatchewan had a meeting and decided unanimously that they would have nothing to do with the war loan but instead would make a handsome contribution to the Red Cross. The feeling was the same among the churches in Manitoba, but here the canvassers made some of our people believe that the proceeds from their bonds would be used only for buying grain, and under that impression some subscribed to the loan. This year the government came to us with a definite promise that the money which came from the Mennonites should be used for relief purposes only, that a separate account would be opened in the treasurer’s books for this purpose, and that it should be stamped on the bonds taken by Mennonites that the money went to the relief account. Under these conditions the churches all have recommended their members to buy bonds. It is estimated that about half a million will be subscribed by the Mennonites of western Canada.