John Woolman on the Reception to his War Tax Resistance Call

, I related John Churchman’s story behind the “epistle” that, as much as anything, launched the American war tax resistance movement.

John Woolman, in his Journal, gives a postscript that shows that war tax resistance was a hard sell even among Quakers:

Copies of this epistle were sent amongst Friends in the several parts of the province of Pennsylvania, and as some in the society who were easy to pay the tax spake… openly against it, and as some of those who were concerned in the conference… believed themselves rightly exercised in putting forward the epistle, they in the next Yearly Meeting expressed a willingness to have their conduct in that case enquired into, but Friends in the Yearly Meeting did not… enter into the consideration of it. When the tax was gathered many paid it actively and others scrupled the payment, and in many places [the collectors & constables being friends] distress was made on their goods… by their fellow members. This difficulty was considerable and at the Yearly Meeting at Philadelphia the matter was opened and a committee of about… forty Friends were appointed some from each quarter to consider the case, and report their judgment on this point whither or no it would be best at this time publicly to consider it in the Yearly Meeting.

At this meeting were our Friends William Reckett, John Hunt, and Christopher Willson from English, Benjamin Ferris from the province of New York, and Thomas Nicholson from North Carolina, who at the request of the Yearly Meeting all sat with us,—

We met and setting some hours adjourned until the next morning: It was a time of deep exercise to many minds, and after some hours spent at our second meeting the following report was drawn & signed by a friend in behalf of the committee:

Agreeable to the appointment of the Yearly Meeting we have met & had several weighty & deliberate conferences on the subject committed to us and as we find there are diversity of sentiments we are for that & several other reasons unanimously of the judgment that it is not proper to enter into a public discussion of the matter & we are one in judgment that it is highly necessary for the Yearly Meeting to recommend that Friends everywhere endeavour earnestly to have their minds covered with fervent charity towards one another, which report was entered on the minutes & copies sent in the extracts to the quarterly & monthly meetings.

Samuel Fothergill hoped that the difficult question of war tax resistance would help separate the wheat from the chaff in Quaker Meetings:

The Assembly here have passed a law imposing a tax upon the inhabitants of this province; and as a great part of the money is to be laid out for military purposes, many solid Friends cannot pay it, which is likely to bring such a breach and division as never happened among us since we were a people; may it be finally conducive to the glory of the ever worthy Name, if it issue in the winnowing of the people.

James Pemberton was saddened to note that this separation in the Quakers between war tax resisters and those who felt no scruples in complying with or enforcing the government’s demands was leading to not just a passive split, but one in which Quaker tax collectors were called upon to enforce the law against Quaker conscientious objectors:

Our situation is indeed such as affords cause of melancholy reflection that the first commencement of persecution in this Province should arise from our brethren in profession, and that such darkness should prevail as that they should be instruments of oppressing tender consciences which hath been the case. The tax in this country being pretty generally collected and many in this city particularly suffered by distraint of their goods and some being near cast into jail.

The House has been sitting most of the time since the election, and have as yet done little business; they have had under their consideration a militia law, which hath been long in the hands of a committee, and is likely to take up a great deal more of their time; also a bill for raising £100,000 by a land tax of the same kind as yours in England; if these pass it is likely Friends will be subjected to great inconvenience. As the former now stands, as I am told, the great patriot Franklin, who hath the principal direction of forming the bills, has discovered very little regard to tender consciences, which perhaps may partly arise from the observations he must have made since he has been in that House of the inconsistent conduct of many of our Friends. That it seems to me he has almost persuaded himself there are few if any that are in earnest relating to their religious principles, and that he seems exceedingly studious of propagating a martial spirit all he can.