Tax Resistance in “The Mennonite”, 1918–1939

This is the third in a series of posts about war tax resistance as it was reported in back issues of The Mennonite. Today I pick up in the period between the World Wars.

The Mennonite

A letter from a reader going by the initials “A.A.”, written , took The Mennonite editor to task for his position on buying war bonds:

[I]n your further argument about supporting the war, you seem to make no distinction between money given with the sole purpose in view of giving it support, and other money given or paid, in the way of taxes, or gain raised for food. You certainly ought to be able to make a distinction here. I do not raise grain for the express purpose of supporting the war, but as a necessity of life. If others misuse this grain for the purpose of destruction, that can not be properly charged to me. But if I buy a Liberty bond, etc., I am doing it with the impression that it is for the express purpose of supporting the war, because that is the purpose of the aid asked. It seems to me that you ought to be able to see a vast difference between those two motives.

But in general, The Mennonite and its readers seemed still to be very casual about the use of war bonds. The first issue of included a report from the Berne, Indiana congregation that included this remark:

On we assembled in our church in large numbers… Although the expenses were greater in than in any other year in this century, the people contributed for the promotion of God’s kingdom more liberally than usual. Not only dimes and dollars, but also War Saving stamps and Liberty bonds were offered.

Other casual mentions of war bonds and stamps were scattered through various issues. For example:

The issue included an article about the Funkite schism among Mennonites in the Revolutionary-era United States. Christian Funk was of the opinion that Mennonite colonists like himself should be loyal to the rebel colonial government, while the establishment position was that they should maintain their loyalty to the King. The article reproduces some of an booklet by Funk, explaining his position. Excerpts:

A tax of 3£, 10s. was now laid, payable in Congress, paper money. My fellow ministers were, however, unanimously of opinion that we should not pay this tax to the government, considering it rebellious and hostile to the king. But I have it as my opinion that we ought to pay it, because we had taken the money issued under the authorities of Congress, and paid our debts with it.…

…Cæsar had not been considered by the Jews, as their legitimate sovereign, and though they owed him no tribute, and that they had tempted Christ to find a cause against him. But Christ demanded a piece of their money, and asked what image and superscription it bore, to which they answered Cæsar’s; he then replied, ‘Render unto Cæsar that which is Cæsar’s, and unto God that which is God’s’ I remarked further — were Christ here, He would say: ‘Give unto Congress that which belongs to Congress, and to God what is God’s.” This displeased Andrew Ziegler, and rising said I would as soon go into the war as to pay the 3£ 10s., if I were not concerned for my life, and departed in anger.

Mrs. Harvey Gratz, in the course of asking “How Can We Teach Our Children the Principles of Peace?” in the issue, wrote:

In the past war the Mennonites were not as steadfast as they or as any other true Christian should have been. We bought liberty bonds because, oh, we thought we had do. Do we realize that perhaps our money was used to make shells to kill some one? One Mennonite made the remark during the world war, oh it is absurd to be a Mennonite in time of war. If this be true it is absurd to ever be a Christian! Let us therefore be steadfast and rely on Christ to stand firm in time of war as well as in time of peace.

A “Young People’s Committee” section of the included an article on how Mennonites can best support peace during peacetime. I may be reading too much into it, but I thought I detected a hint of war tax resistance subtext in the following passages:

We spend 72 per cent of our entire budget on wars past and future.

Such heavy war taxes leave little enthusiasm to grapple with social, educational, and industrial problems.

After studying the teachings and spirit of Jesus as we believe He should be interpreted many earnest disciples are concluding that no Christian can have a share in war.… Shall we as Christians and as His church to accept the demands of a sub-Christian world or be true to the way of Christ at any material cost and any personal distress? We believe this moral dilemma is the most important aspect of this problem. Very true Jesus commanded “Render to Caesar the things which are Caesar’s” but He also spoke, “And to God the things which are God’s.”

The same section of the issue meandered a bit on the topic of the separation of church and state and the possible conflict of God’s laws with man’s laws. Excerpts:

Separation of church and state has been a cardinal principle of Mennonitism. The laws of God as revealed in Christ and His Word are superior to man-made laws.…

This well-defined and historic principle, however, has created some curious facts in practice. We think it proper to pay taxes, but how a corrupt government may use that revenue is none of our concern.…

Is it not time to square ourselves with God and reality? Whether or not we like it we are a part of a social, economic, and political order. Living apart from it is impossible. To find out how to live in it and still do our Christian duty is our major problem.

A “jotting” in the issue returned to the story of the Funkite schism, but this time pointedly told it more from the point of view of the orthodox tax resisting Mennonites, and represented it as a question of paying taxes “for military support” whereas earlier tellings had portrayed the orthodox resisters as having been motivated by stuck-in-the-mud royalism:

During the period of the Revolutionary War in Pennsylvania, Mennonites became divided on the matter of paying taxes imposed for military support. A small faction in the Skippack District under the leadership of a minister named Funk took a liberal view of the matter and paid the tax. This party established several churches, the last of which became extinct about . One of those who refused to pay the tax owned a splendid clock of the “Grandfather” type. The tax collector seized the works in payment of the levy, but left the case in possession of the owner who promptly furnished it with new works. When a boy, the editor visited the home of a descendant of the owner of the clock and was permitted to examine it and the works with which it had been refurnished. It was an excellent time keeper.

A “Sunday School Lesson” meant for and focused on that ever-grovelling Romans 13, insisted, as Paul did, that government officials are instruments of God, even if they don’t realize it, and that therefore we should be obedient, even if some government officials are bad. There are some exceptions: “Laws that interfere with one’s conscience, laws that make murderers of men, laws that are aimed at the breakdown of religion are not real laws. They are counterfeit…” However:

Special emphasis is placed upon the paying of tribute. Paul commends it. So did Jesus when He said, “Render unto God the things that are God’s and unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” [sic] It is important that each one who benefits by the law do his part in its support. That means giving of our possessions toward that end. Some have taken the position that they are not of this world and so have no obligations to the powers of this world. Were that so it might mean that disobedience to all law were justified. In such matters, as in other things, we must take the example of Jesus. He paid His tax. There were many things in the government of His time that He could not approve by any means, but that did not prevent Him from meeting the obligations that citizenship imposed. As citizens let us bear in mind that there are two kinds of citizens, the good and the bad. Any one who would be like his Master certainly would want to be numbered with the good citizens.

On , George S. Stoneback preached an Armistice Day Sermon, taking as his text Ⅰ Samuel 30:24 — “As is the share of him who goeth down into the battle, even so is his portion who remains with the baggage, they shall share alike.” He said:

When David said it he was thinking in terms of spoils, but his principle is true in more aspects. The same can be applied to the responsibility for war.

Nobody wants war — yet the world is full of actual and potential warfare. Nobody wants war, and yet we are all actively preparing for it. Who is to blame? Who is responsible? The Japanese war lords? Mussolini? Hitler? France? To be sure — but they have a lot of company. They do not bear the responsibility alone; the world is full of baggage watchers who share alike in the responsibility for wars and rumors of war.

Every wage earner in the country is helping to finance America’s newest bid in the armament race. About a year ago this country launched a cleverly conceived system of wage tax. One cent on each dollar earned goes into a social security fund. We thought it would go into a separate fund, but even Senator Norris admits that the money is going in to the general treasury to “balance the budget,” to buy new battle ships, etc. We thought our money would be put into sound investments. If a rapidly depreciating battle ship is a sound investment, then we have not been duped. The United States is now building four new sixty-million dollar battle ships. It is hard to tell how much of your wage tax will be used to pay for them. How many people have protested? Some Mennonites in Lancaster protested, but only against receiving the fund once it comes due, not against paying the levy.

Finally, the Young People’s Committee were at it again in the issue, reinterpreting “Render Unto Caesar” in the other direction. Instead of trying to say maybe sometimes we should refrain from giving Caesar our denarius, the article argued that perhaps we should be more eager to give Caesar our two cents:

Unto the Jew of that day this [saying] could hardly mean more than the payment of taxes to the Roman Emperor. Caesar governed. That system of government did not place upon the Jews the duty to help solve complex problems of state. Caesar dictated, and the Roman legions marched. The commandment had a narrow scope.

Today, unto the Mennonites of America, this is a vital and challenging commandment. In a democracy the people are supposed to govern. To voice their desires is their duty. “Render unto Caesar” refers, then, not only to the payment of taxes, but also to the duty of informing our law-makers that the troops of the United States shall not march.

Such action does not interfere with our supreme allegiance to God; it intensifies this allegiance. Let us step out of the shadow of inactivity and into the sunlight of creative, Christian action for peace — sunlight which will help to dispel the shadows of war.

Either write to your representatives in congress when you consider the time opportune, or get in touch with Public Action, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, N.Y. This agency will inform you when critical measures are before congress and when and to whom you should write. This same agency issues the excellent Washington Information Letter.

Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s.

And here comes World War Ⅱ. Let’s see how The Mennonite copes with the taxes and bonds that will fund it… in our next episode.