War Tax Resistance in the Church of the Brethren

I’ve done some deep dives into the archives of American Quaker and Mennonite churches in the past, to try to discern how their attitudes towards war tax resistance developed over the years. I’ve so far neglected the third church in the “traditional peace churches” trinity: the Church of the Brethren. (Part of what has held me back has been that when you search for “Quakers” or the “Society of Friends” you get what you’re looking for; similarly “Mennonites”; but if you search for “Brethren” you get a whole ton of things other than the Church of the Brethren.)

Here is my first attempt to discern the outlines of war tax resistance in the Church of the Brethren, from a quick review of a few on-line sources. It is certainly very incomplete:

American Revolution

In , Brethren and Mennonites issued a joint declaration to the Pennsylvania Assembly that set out their objection to military service, but also said:

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 those things that are Caesar’s and to God those 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… Our small gift, which we have given, we give to those who have power over us, that we may not offend them, as Christ taught us by the tribute penny.

, the Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren issued a statement on recommended practice for Brethren on explicit war taxes and militia exemption fines. The recommendation was never to pay for a substitute to serve in the military in one’s place, or to pay money to the government for that purpose, but instead to wait for the government to fine one for not serving and then pay the fine. Optionally, rather than paying the fine, one could passively wait for the government to use its collection enforcement process. Excerpt:

If a brother bears his testimony that he cannot give his money on account of his conscience and would say to the collector: “If you must take it, then use your authority, I shall not be in your way” — with such a brother we should also be satisfied. But concerning the tax, it is considered that on account of the troublesome times and in order to avoid offense, we might follow the example of Christ (Matt. 17:24–27). Yet, if one does not see it so and thinks perhaps, he for his conscience sake could not pay it, but bears with others who pay in patience, we would willingly go along inasmuch as we deem the overruling of the conscience to be wrong.

Some Brethren evidently accompanied their taxes with a request that the money be spent “for the needy” but without any real expectation that the government would honor such a request.

During the period before the American Civil War there was some debate over whether or not Brethren should resist mandatory militia training. The law allowed conscientious objectors to decline to participate in such training if they paid fines for the privilege, but some Brethren felt that it was less objectionable for a conscientious objector to turn out for militia training than to pay a fine that would fund the military. The Annual Conference of took up this question and answered that paying the fine was indeed less objectionable than “learn[ing] the art of war, and the most appropriate method of shedding our fellow-creatures’ blood.”

American Civil War

During the American Civil War, the Annual Conference of issued an exhortation to Brethren “not to encourage in any way the practice of war.” Among the specific recommendations:

[W]e think it more in accordance with our principles, that instead of paying bounty-money, to await the demands of the government, whether general, state, or local, and pay the fines and taxes required of us, as the gospel permits, and, indeed, requires. Matt. 22:21; Rom. 13:7.

In Rufus D. Bowman’s The Church of the Brethren and War, 1708–1941, he characterizes this as “Inconsistencies in the Brethren Peace Position,” saying that:

The discouragement against the hiring of substitutes was mild and shows that the church had not thought through the implications of its peace position. There was no organized protest against the payment of war taxes but rather a submission to what the government demanded. The church advised its members not to give voluntary efforts for the raising of war money, but held that the gospel required the payment of fines and taxes. The peace position of the Brethren based upon the teachings of Jesus was applied more to the overt acts of war than to the economic and moral problems of the whole war system. The Brethren leaders then probably would not have said that all war is a sin.

An 1864 law in the North permitted draftees who could show themselves to be consistent conscientious objectors to military service to avoid combatant service by paying a $300 exemption fine which, according to the terms of the law, was “to be applied to the benefit of the sick and wounded soldiers.” In a congregation sent a query to the Annual Conference concerning a potential member who had hired a substitute to serve in the military in his place. The Conference then explicitly encouraged Brethren conscientious objectors to pay the $300 exemption tax rather than serving in the military or hiring a substitute:

Since the law has exempted brethren from military duty, by paying a tax in lieu of service, we consider that Brethren do wrong to resort to other means, unless they are ignorant of the provisions of the law.

(This is in contrast to the position of much of the Society of Friends, which considered a tax in lieu of military service to be forbidden.)

In the South, things were worse. There was no general mechanism at first for permitting conscientious objection in the Confederacy, though those who did not want to serve could hire a substitute to serve in their place, and some Brethren apparently took advantage of this. Some individual Confederate states had laws that allowed for exemption fees similar to those in the North. When one large group of Brethren tried to make a run for it when they expected to be drafted, they were captured. An investigator examined the prisoners; this is an excerpt from his report:

Some of them had made exertions to procure substitutes. One man had sent the money to Richmond to hire a substitute. Others had done much to support the families of volunteers. Some had furnished horses to the cavalry. All of them are friendly to the South and they express a willingness to contribute all their property if necessary to establish their liberties. I am informed a law will probably pass exempting these person from military duty on payment of a pecuniary compensation. These parties assure me all who are able will cheerfully pay this compensation. Those who are unable to make the payment will cheerfully go into service as teamsters or in any employment in which they are not required to shed blood.

The expected law was passed, and the Brethren prisoners were released. The exemption for conscientious objectors in the Confederacy cost $500, which was a considerable sum, and it became a policy in the church to encourage wealthier members to pay the exemption fines for men who could not afford it themselves. But the exemption in the Confederacy was also a less confident one. Some Brethren found themselves imprisoned in spite of having paid the fine, and in Jefferson Davis said that in his opinion the exemptions should be abolished (the exemptions were eventually abolished, but the abolition did not take effect until the South had lost the war).

Bowman summarizes the position of the church during the Civil War as follows:

In the early days of the war, some of the Brethren hired substitutes. The church members preferred to pay taxes instead of using the system of substitutes. But the records do not indicate that the Brethren clearly recognized the inconsistency with their peace position of employing substitutes or paying heavy war taxes to keep free from participation in armed conflicts. The Society of Friends protested continually against war taxes. The Brethren and the Mennonites took the position that they should pay what the government required. The Brethren felt that the gospel required the payment of fines and taxes.

World War Ⅰ

The Liberty Bond program — ostensibly voluntary loans to the government’s war effort — was the focus of the debate about conscientious objection to war funding during World War Ⅰ in the United States. Rufus D. Bowman writes:

The Brethren Bought Liberty Bonds

While no records are available, it is generally known among the Brethren that many members of the church bought Liberty Bonds during World War Ⅰ. It was not universally practiced. Some members refused to help finance the war program. But the writer recalls the strength of the war propaganda, the community pressure, and the fact that Brethren farmers and businessmen put thousands of dollars into Liberty Bonds. The church had not analyzed the economic implications of its peace position. Up to this time in the history of the Church of the Brethren there had been no general and effective protest against helping to finance the war system.

World War Ⅱ

In , the Eglon congregation sent a query to the Annual Conference asking “how we can best protest against paying taxes for military purposes.” The Conference referred the query to its Board of Christian Education, which answered the following year:

  1. All lawful taxes should be paid. As Christians we differentiate between taxes for constructive and taxes for destructive purposes. Because war is unchristian, taxes for military and naval purposes should be protested

    Not less than 70% out of our taxes paid to the federal government goes directly or indirectly for military and naval purposes. Some of these federal taxes are: income taxes, estate taxes, federal stamp taxes, and the federal tax on gasoline, etc.

  2. Ways of protesting against taxes for military and naval purposes.
    1. Paste a small sticker to your income tax returns and other payments made to the federal government, which reads as follows: “That portion of this tax devoted to armaments and war preparedness is paid under protest.” The Board of Christian Education will furnish these stickers.
    2. Write a letter once a year to your congressman protesting against the appropriation of funds for military and naval purposes.
    3. Protest personally when paying federal taxes, such as the federal gasoline tax.
    4. Protest through resolutions from local churches, district and Annual Conferences.
  3. We favor a further study of this problem with the purpose of helping to develop a sound theory of taxation.

In Bowman’s book, he writes that “[h]ow general these protests were carried out is not known” but that the mail he received as a member of the Board of Christian Education at that time “indicate[s] that there was a growing church consciousness that paying taxes for military purposes was wrong.” One example of this form of protest was the “One Hundred Twenty Thousand Two Hundred Thousand Dunkers for Peace” (“Dunkers” was another term used to describe Brethren) campaign from the early 1930s. It aimed to get members of the church to sign a pledge that included the line: “I further declare that, because of conscientious convictions, I cannot engage in war, and do protest the appropriation of my taxes for military purposes.

In , the Pipe Creek congregation sent a query to the Annual Conference asking for legal guidance that would be helpful to students attending schools where military training was a mandatory part of the curriculum. In answer to this, the Conference set up a committee to come up with general recommendations for Brethren students who were conscientious objectors to war. In the committee issued a report with some “initial recommendations on the positions that our young people should take in the event of war.” Among the “[t]ypes of services considered not consistent with the historical position of the church” were listed “[t]he purchase of Liberty Bonds to finance the war” and “[t]he paying of Federal income tax, if used for military purposes, except under protest.” (“Liberty Bonds” is a term specific to World War Ⅰ.)

A committee report reiterated this from a different angle, stating that among the “[t]ypes of peace testimony to register our convictions and to avoid our participation in war-related activities” was “[t]he refraining from the purchase of such as Liberty Bonds to finance war” and “[t]he protesting against federal taxes if used for military purposes.” In Rufus Bowman’s book, he states that this policy “still represent[s] the official position of the church” (as of ) and is “the farthest the church had gone in considering the economic implications of its peace position” (Bowman was the committee chairman).

Cold War and Vietnam War

The Church put out a position paper on “Obedience to God and Civil Disobedience” in that was meant to address, among other things, “laws which require payment of taxes for war purposes.” The statement mentions war tax resistance several times in passing, but does not address it directly with a firm recommendation either way. Instead, the paper recommends a process through which Brethren can go when they may be called to civil disobedience, and counsels that Brethren treat each other with respect whether or not their consciences call them to civil disobedience.

A “Statement on Position and Practices of the Church of the Brethren in Relation to War” put the Church on record as being in “complete dissent” from the assumption “that an overwhelming share of our Federal taxes must be devoted to military needs.” That statement put the Church policy on war taxes this way:

The Church and Taxes for War Purposes

While the Church of the Brethren recognizes the responsibility of all citizens to pay taxes for the constructive purposes of government we oppose the use of taxes by the government for war purposes and military expenditures. For those who are conscientiously opposed to paying taxes for these purposes, the church seeks government provision for an alternative use of such tax money for peaceful, nonmilitary purposes.

The church recognizes that its members will believe and act differently in regard to their payment of taxes when a significant percentage goes for war purposes and military expenditures. Some will pay the taxes willingly; some will pay the taxes but express a protest to the government; some will refuse to pay all or part of the taxes as a witness and a protest; and some will voluntarily limit their incomes or use of taxable services to a low enough level that they are not subject to taxation.

We call upon all of our members, congregations, institutions, and boards, to study seriously the problem of paying taxes for war purposes and investing in those government bonds which support war. We further call upon them to act in response to their study, to the leading of conscience, and to their understanding of the Christian faith. To all we pledge to maintain our continuing ministry of fellowship and spiritual concern.

In , the Church issued a recommendation from a committee that had been formed specifically to address the Church’s corporate payment of the telephone excise tax and whether it would be proper for the Church to invest in U.S. government securities. The formation of the committee was accompanied with a note that a “growing number of Brethren and Brethren institutions… are either withholding the telephone tax (and/or income tax) or struggling with the problem.” The Annual Conference also approved a recommendation that it “reaffirm its fellowship with and prayerful concern for all those Brethren who have in light of their New Testament faith and Brethren heritage, chosen to withhold payment of taxes for war.” The following are excerpts from the report of that committee:

That the payment of federal taxes inevitably involves one in war and preparation for war is self-evident… Yet when the Christian understanding is applied to this issue, the matter immediately becomes complex and problematic. On the one hand, our calling is to obey God rather than men, to witness for Christian peace and presumably, also, to protest the evil of war. But on the other hand, the New Testament makes it clear that the Christian just as certainly has been called to stand alongside his fellowmen, to participate in their common life, and to take a responsible role in the larger world.

Regarding taxes, then, the first calling would seem to imply that the Christian should entirely divorce himself from that society which has dedicated its energies to the waging of war and refuse to support it in any way—including, of course, tax support. However, the second calling would imply a Christian obligation to participate fully in the social effort of humanity—including, of course, the payment of one’s fair share of taxes. The problem is to find the proper balance between these two callings.

This finding of balance is complicated by the difficulty in distinguishing between “war taxes” and other taxes when the government itself makes no such distinction. Still further complication is introduced when the question arises as to whether one actually is able to withhold tax money or in any way affect the amount that ultimately is spent for war purposes. The matter is not an easy one.

New Testament Guidance

As we turn to the New Testament we realize that the early Christians had to seek the same balance that we do; undoubtedly there have been few if any times in history when a Christian’s tax bill did not include “war taxes.” And it is certain that money paid to the Roman Empire went not only to support war but also idolatry, slavery, and other evils as well.

The New Testament, of course, is consistent in its opposition to war and violence; yet at every point where the particular issue of taxes is raised, the counsel is to pay them; no explicit precedent for withholding them is to be found.

Paul, in Romans 13:4–8 (NEB), speaks in terms of general principle: “You are obliged to submit. It is an obligation imposed not merely by fear of retribution but by conscience. That is also why you pay taxes. The authorities are in God’s service and to these duties they devote their energies. Discharge your obligations to all men; pay tax and toll, reverence and respect, to those to whom they are due. Leave no claim outstanding against you, except that of mutual love” (cf. 1 Peter 2:13–17).

When faced with the specific question of paying taxes to Caesar, Jesus’ response was “Pay Caesar what is due to Caesar, and pay God what is due to God” (Matthew 22:15–22; cf. Mark 12:13–17 and Luke 20:19–26). The intended implication would seem to be that what belongs to God is much more inclusive and in every way prior to what belongs to Caesar. And yet if Jesus’ statement means to indicate as legitimately belonging to Caesar, it is precisely that coin of taxation which Caesar himself had minted.

Finally, in Matthew 17:24–27, Jesus, in order “not to cause offense,” shows himself willing to pay even that tax which, he asserts, could not rightly be claimed of him. The reference may be to the temple-tax, although Jesus does speak of “earthly monarchs” collecting it. Be that as it may, the temple came under just as strong a judgment from Jesus as the state did. And it seems clear that the Gospel writer wants to use this incident to teach, with Paul, that the liberty of the Christian is not a license for him to disregard his civic obligations in matters such as tax payment. Certainly, all of the above texts must be held in tension with such commands as obeying God rather than men, separating oneself from evil, not conforming to the world, and so on. But the evidence is that, in this tension, the New Testament Christians found their proper balance to include the paying of taxes rather than the withholding of them…

The Brethren Tradition

Historical research… indicates that the official position of the church consistently has been that of paying all taxes, including some that were much more directly “war taxes” than any that can be so identified today. Indeed, even the possibility of withholding taxes was given almost no consideration until very recently. When such consideration was given, the church in every instance granted the right of conscience to tax resisters even while declining to recommend their action. It should be noted, too, that some of the Brethren who have been most honored for their peace witness also took a stand in favor of paying taxes; the person’s position regarding tax payment was not made a test of his commitment to Christian peace.

The Current Situation

One complicating aspect of tax resistance is the fact that tax monies are not clearly differentiated into military and non-military categories; most of the functions of government are financed out of the same general fund. Money withheld (if that actually is possible) is withheld as much from the humane programs of government as from military programs; and it takes some care to make it clear that what one is protesting is war and not taxation in and of itself. In our day, the telephone tax comes the closest to being an explicit “war tax”—although even that situation is debatable…

The Christian’s problem is further complicated by the fact that he cannot actually withhold taxes, deprive the war effort of funds, or prevent his money from being used for war purposes—short of doing without a telephone (and perhaps other items subject to federal excise taxes), keeping his income below taxable level, or resorting to questionable dodges… Whatever taxes the individual does not pay voluntarily, the government is able to collect by means of liens and confiscations (and penalties which have the effect of actually increasing the amount of one’s money that goes to the government).

In its effect, then, tax resistance must be understood simply as one means of registering strong and dramatic opposition to war—a protest which may or may not be more effective than other means of protest. In fact, unless it is also accompanied by some other form of witness, tax refusal, in and of itself, has the disadvantage of being sheerly negative protest against war rather than a positive witness to the Prince of Peace and his way.

The Finding

We find no specific biblical counsel directing that taxes should be withheld, while we do find some calling for the payment of taxes even to a sinful, militaristic government. However we can appreciate the fact that a number of Brethren, out of a truly Christian aversion to war based on the total Spirit and life of Jesus and the overall teachings of the New Testament do feel led of God to make protest by means of tax refusal. But whatever action the Christian takes, it should mark a serious and dedicated effort to realize the lordship of Jesus Christ and become obedient only to him. It should never be merely the practice of a current political technique on the one hand or a heedless and cowardly way of avoiding trouble for oneself on the other.


  1. Although the Brethren cannot agree as to whether tax withholding is proper, they all can recognize the propriety of using the means of dissent which the social order itself recognizes and provides. We recommend, therefore, that all who feel the concern be encouraged to express their protests and testimonies through letters accompanying their tax returns, whether accompanied by payment or not, in correspondence with appropriate legislators and officials, and in other such ways.
  2. We recommend, also, that both the denomination and individual Brethren give strong and active support to appropriate legislation providing alternative tax arrangements for peaceful purposes for those persons conscientiously opposed to war.

A Final Plea

We plead for a mutual and brotherly honoring of one another in this matter. To those whose reading of Scripture leads them conscientiously to pay their full tax requirement, may they recognize the sincere Christian intention of the withholders in their desire to protest against what the New Testament clearly identifies as the sinfulness and demonism of war. To those who because of their Christian conviction conscientiously feel that they must withhold payment in some degree, may they realize that their brethren who pay are themselves striving to be obedient to the instruction of Scripture and dare not be assumed to be any less dedicated to the Prince of Peace than are those who withhold.

Finally, we would consider it most unfortunate if, because of the taxation issue, the church allows its peace emphasis to become focused upon this one particular technique of anti-war protest and so be diverted from the much more important matters of deepening our biblical and theological understanding of the Christian peace position and of being about the positive work of reconciliation at all levels of human interaction through our witness to Him who is our Reconciliation.

More Recent Years

A Church statement on “Christian Lifestyle” included a focus on war taxes, and seemed to move the ball forward considerably. Excerpts:

[O]nly recently have we become sensitive to the fact that about half the federal taxes we pay personally is used for past, present, and future wars. Our money destroys life and global resources in defiance of the will of God. We pray for peace while paying for war.

We recommend Annual Conference strengthen and extend the denomination’s historic peace witness through the following actions: (Points a through e are based on recommendations of the New Call to Peace-making Conference, Green Lake, Wisconsin, ).

  1. to call on congregations, districts, and the General Board to place high priority on study and discussion of:
    1. war tax resistance, including Biblical examination of the Christian responsibility to civil authority,
    2. consideration of refusal to pay the portion of their federal taxes used for militarism as a response to Christ’s call to discipleship and obedience,
    3. pledging by congregations and individuals of spiritual, emotional, legal, and material support to members who resist war taxes,
    4. exploration by the General Board, congregations, and church-related agencies for release from the current legal requirement to collect taxes by withholding the income taxes of employees, especially that portion of taxes used for military purposes,
  2. to affirm that the open, non-evasive withholding of war taxes is a legitimate witness to our conscientious intention to follow the call of discipleship to Jesus Christ,
  3. to consider the creation of a peace fund by congregations, the General Board, or the New Call to Peacemaking for handling the alternative “tax” payments of members who are conscientious objectors to war taxes.
  4. to lend support to members who as a peace witness choose a lifestyle that reduces taxable income or increases their tax-deductible contributions to minimize tax liability,
  5. to call on congregations, districts, and the General Board to participate in research and planning in local areas aimed at the conversion of plants from the manufacture of weapons to the production of civilian goods.

Also with reference to taxes for war, Brethren are urged to work for legislation that will enable alternative tax arrangements for persons conscientiously opposed to war. Annual Conference previously endorsed such efforts in 1973, in the Statement on Taxation for War, and in 1978, in the Statement on the World Peace Tax Fund.

There was also a “War Tax Consultation” statement that is not included on the Church of the Brethren website for some reason. Maybe I’ll find that later if I keep digging.

Finally, in , the Annual Conference appointed a committee to take up the question of “Taxation for War” again. That committee made its report in . The report reviews the 1969–1983 statements described above, concludes that the Church had settled on a policy of considering war tax resistance a legitimate witness without actually recommending it, and noted that some Brethren continued to find that lack of active support insufficient. Having summarized the work so far, “the committee does not feel led to write yet another position paper at this time,” but did recommend that Brethren “develop a heightened awareness of the war tax issue” and engage in “extensive and thorough study and discussion of earlier position papers on the war tax issues.” It assembled a study packet of the existing material, which was sent out to various Brethren bodies for that purpose.

The sources I used: