Philadelphia Quakers Maintain War Tax Resistance During American Civil War

On , members of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting considered how to apply their peace testimony to tax resistance in the midst of the Civil War. The gist of their conclusion: “Friends — while in accordance with the injunction, ‘Render to all their dues; tribute to whom tribute is due, custom to whom custom’ — they have not scrupled to pay the taxes and duties levied for the general purposes of the government — cannot conscientiously and consistently pay money — however small or large the sum — levied solely for warlike purposes, or in lieu of military service; whether to hire a substitute to do that which we believe to be sinful, or as a tax for the exercise of the right of liberty of conscience.”

From a Meeting of the Representatives of the Religious Society of Friends in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, etc., held in Philadelphia . To the Members of the Yearly Meeting of Friends of Philadelphia.

Dear Friends:

In considering the present state of our beloved country, afflicted by the desolating war brought about by a wicked rebellion, our minds have been affectionately turned towards you, with strong desires that amid the contending passions and angry strifes which agitate many, we may not become forgetful of the responsibility resting upon us, but keep continually in view that we are called to give proof, in all our conduct and conversation, of being the meek and harmless disciples of the Prince of Peace.

We feel the seriousness of thus addressing you at the present time, and are solicitous that each one who is concerned to maintain the principles and testimonies of the gospel which we as a people have professed to the world, may gather to the unction received from the Holy One, which the apostle declared to the believers, abides in you and will teach you of all things, and is truth and no lie; that so we may all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.

The position occupied by Friends in relation to war, to the right of liberty of conscience, and the duty of citizens to obey the laws and support civil government, is sometimes misunderstood for want of a just appreciation of the ground upon which we act. From its rise, the Society has ever entertained and declared views upon each of these subjects, consonant with the doctrines set forth in the gospel.

It has always believed that civil government is a divine ordinance, designed to promote the welfare and happiness of mankind, and that it is a Christian duty to live quiet and peaceable lives under it, in all godliness and honesty; to obey all laws which are not incompatible with the precepts of our holy Redeemer, and cheerfully to bear our full share of the public burdens.

While acknowledging their allegiance to government, and yielding to the powers that be, the right of exercising all the functions necessary for promoting the good of the people, Friends have ever held, that they, in common with all other Christians, are amenable to God alone for the exercise of liberty of conscience, which is an inherent and inalienable right, and that no earthly power possesses authority to take it away. The Great Author of our being requires that we should love Him above all, and worship Him in spirit and in truth. This can only be done as we yield humble obedience to his will, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures, or by his Spirit in the heart. Where any believe that will is thus made known to them, it is their duty to act in accordance therewith, and thus show their love and fidelity to Him who is their Creator and their Judge; and it is their right to do this without being hindered or molested by their fellow-man, provided, in all their actions, they have due respect to the rights of others, and violate none of the laws of Christian morality.

The tenor of the gospel establishes these truths, and the New Testament history of the Apostles shows, that they claimed and exercised the right of liberty of conscience — a conscience void of offence towards God and towards man. In pleading for it at the present time therefore, we are advancing no new claim; for since the day when it was declared we ought to obey God rather than man, down to the present time, true hearted Christians have often suffered wrong and outrage therefor; many laying down their lives rather than flinch from the performance of what they conscientiously believed to be their religious duty.

From the earliest rise of our Religious Body it has uniformly maintained a steadfast testimony against all wars and fightings, as arising from the corrupt propensities and lusts of man’s fallen nature, agreeably to the testimony of Holy Scripture; and as being contrary to the pure and peaceable religion of our Lord Jesus Christ, the great object of which is to bring “Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace, good-will towards men.” His glorious advent was foretold by the Prophet Isaiah under the character of the Prince of Peace, “upon whose shoulders the government should be,” and that “of the increase of his government and peace there should be no end.” His Kingdom is righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost. Within it therefore there can be nothing that will hurt or destroy, but all must be harmony and love. He enjoins upon all to submit to this government and enter this heavenly enclosure. In order to do this, He teaches them to love their enemies, to do good to them that hate them, and pray for them who despitefully use them and persecute them. He declared that He came “not to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” He drew a clear and strong contrast between the imperfect dispensation of the Mosaic Law and that of His blessed gospel, showing that the former had allowed the retaliation of injuries, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” but that His commandment now is “I say to you that you resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.” In the prayer which our Savior gave his disciples, He makes the measure of the forgiveness they are to ask from their Father in heaven, to be that which they show to those who offend them, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” adding, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you: but if you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” These are solemn words, applicable to every one, and which leave no room for the indulgence of those passions in which war and fightings originate and are carried on.

We know of no course of reasoning consonant with the New Testament, nor any circumstances, which can release us from the obligation to obey these plain and positive precepts of our Lord, or that can reconcile with them, the dreadful business of war. We have no more license to indulge in its cruel and revengeful spirit, than had the immediate followers of Christ; neither do we find any narrower limit allowed us for showing our love and good will to man.

The religious obligation resting on us to act consistently with our Christian faith, is paramount to any which could bind us, to yield an active compliance with the laws for maintaining or enforcing the performance of military duty. Friends are restrained from any participation in war or military measures, not from any want of loyalty to the government, nor from a disposition factiously to obstruct the execution of the laws, nor yet to shelter ourselves from danger or hardship; but because the requirements made, in this particular, contravene what we believe to be the will of God, and we are bound to obey Him rather than man.

The wickedness and enormities of the rebellion which has plunged our country into the horrors of war, devastated many portions of it, caused a fearful sacrifice of human life, spread want and misery, and filled so many hearts and homes with sorrow, are abhorrent to our principles and feelings; and it is our fervent desire that it may please the Almighty Ruler of Nations, to quench the spirit of rebellion and anarchy, to stay the effusion of blood, and once more to establish peace and order throughout our afflicted land. But our religious belief as much restrains us from taking part in this war as in any other, and we claim the right of liberty of conscience, to act according to this belief, in this, as in every other article of our faith.

We are aware that large numbers of our fellow citizens look upon war in a different light from ourselves. While we mourn that it is so, we do not interfere with their liberty of conscience, and they can make no just claim to oblige us to conform our consciences to theirs, or to inflict punishment upon us if we do not so conform.

The founders of the government of the United States upheld this principle, when they declared, in the first amendment to the Constitution, “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It is evident that “the free exercise of religion,” guaranteed in this deliberately adopted amendment, does not relate merely to the holding of abstract doctrines, but to the protection of the people in the exercise of all acts springing from their religious principles, which do not infringe on the rights of others or violate the laws of Christian morality. Inasmuch, therefore, as the testimony against war has formed a part of the religious faith of the Society of Friends for more than two hundred years, a fact of which the framers of the amendment and those who adopted it could hardly have been ignorant, it is reasonable and fair to conclude that the conscientious scruple of Friends against participating in warlike measures is conceded and fully protected by the above amendment; and that they are entitled to exercise and fully enjoy it, not only in virtue of their natural and inalienable right of liberty of conscience, but by the great charter of our national government, the instrument which secures the privileges and immunities of the citizens, and limits and controls the action of Congress and of every other department of the government.

Consistently with these views, Friends — while in accordance with the injunction, “Render to all their dues; tribute to whom tribute is due, custom to whom custom” — they have not scrupled to pay the taxes and duties levied for the general purposes of the government — cannot conscientiously and consistently pay money — however small or large the sum — levied solely for warlike purposes, or in lieu of military service; whether to hire a substitute to do that which we believe to be sinful, or as a tax for the exercise of the right of liberty of conscience. To exact such a fine or tax from those who withhold compliance with the law on conscientious ground, they feel to be inflicting a penalty for the religious faith of the sufferer; to be contrary to the spirit and precepts of the gospel, and subversive of our inalienable right, as well as an infringement of the free exercise of our religion guaranteed in the Constitution. As well might we be required to pay because we believe in the divinity and atonement of Jesus Christ, in the Scriptures having been written by holy men of old as they were moved by the Holy Ghost, or because we decline to support a paid ministry, as that money should be demanded, or a penalty inflicted on us, because we believe the New Testament forbids all war, and that as Christians we cannot fight.

The object to which the penalty or commutation money may be applied does not change the principle. The money is demanded as an equivalent for military service or the price of liberty of conscience: it is not a mere voluntary gift; and though it may be used for that to which, under other circumstances, Friends might freely contribute, the principle involved is the same; to pay it is an admission of the right of government to interfere with the religion of the citizens. Though the money may be applied to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, the payment of it in lieu of military service is a practical avowal that human power may coerce a man’s conscience; and consequently that government may establish, by penal enactments, a State religion, and compel a man to pay towards its support; and virtually admits the persecutions of Friends and others, in past ages, for conscience sake, to have been a justifiable exercise of civil authority.

For our beloved friends, who are liable to the military draft, we feel deep and tender sympathy, and a Christian solicitude that, whatever may come upon them, they may not give way to fears or discouragement; but, in quietness and confidence, commit their cause to the keeping of Him who is wonderful in counsel and excellent in working. We believe it will contribute to their strength and stability, not to lend a willing ear to unsettling reports and suggestions which may be abroad, respecting the consequences of not obeying the draft, but cultivate inward retirement and humble waiting upon the Lord; and should any be called to suffer in support of our precious testimony, strive to bear it in the gentle non-resisting spirit of the Lamb of God, who, when He was reviled, did not revile again, when He suffered He threatened not, but committed himself to Him who judges righteously.

The present is a serious and affecting crisis in the history of our country; and the position of Friends, as the advocates of peace on gospel ground, is one of great responsibility. We have no doubt of the solidity and rectitude of this ground, nor any fear of the consequences of standing upright upon it in the meek and unresisting spirit of Christ. To all who do so, we believe Divine help and support will be granted in the needful time. Let, then, dear Friends, all our actions show that our profession of a conscientious testimony against war is a reality. Keep clear of business of any kind which depends for its emoluments on its connection with war. Sorrowful indeed will it be, if any of the professed advocates of peace are found engaged in business which, in the eyes of a quick-sighted world, may cause the sincerity of our testimony to the peaceable principles of the gospel to be doubted, and give occasion for the charge of inconsistency, if not of hypocrisy, to be made against our religious profession.

We deem it cause of thankfulness that we live in a land where so many blessings and privileges are enjoyed, under a mild and liberal government; and desire that we all may evince our gratitude, by an uniformly peaceable and orderly demeanor; by a faithful performance of our civil duties, and a loyal and ready submission to the constituted authorities, in conformity with our religious principles and as set forth in our Discipline, which says “We cannot consistently join with such as form combinations of a hostile nature against any, especially in opposition to those placed in sovereign or subordinate authority; nor can we unite with or encourage such as revile or asperse them.”

The favor of those in authority has often been extended to us, and demands our grateful acknowledgment; yet the kindness received, or harshness, should it be inflicted, is not to increase our loyalty or limit our obedience. We are bound conscientiously to render dutiful submission and scrupulous fidelity to government, when under suffering from those in authority, as well as when partaking of their favor.

The war in which the country is engaged has given rise to great suffering among those who were held in slavery. A very large number released since the conflict begun are thrown upon the world in a state of extreme destitution, and under circumstances of great difficulty in providing for their wants. Long dependent on others for a scanty subsistence, and, after life-long toil, poorly requited, turned abroad without means, multitudes have perished from want, and many are dying daily from disease caused by exposure and insufficient food and clothing. Children of our common Father in heaven, these, and those who shall be brought under similar circumstances, have strong claims on our sympathy and aid, and we are glad to observe that Friends are manifesting a lively interest in their welfare, and liberally contributing to the supply of their needs. We trust this will continue and increase, and that Friends will not grow weary in their efforts. In carrying out this work of Christian benevolence, it is important that such measures should be adhered to as will convey the relief directly to the objects it is intended for, and avoid all complications with military or other arrangements, which would compromise any of our religious principles.

May we all, dear Friends, allow the considerations which are herein brought before us, to rest with weight upon our minds and incite us to watchfulness and prayer; that we may be redeemed from everything which leads to contention or discord, or betrays into unfaithfulness; and cultivate in ourselves those heavenly dispositions which make for peace; thus evincing that we are really the meek and self-denying followers of the merciful and compassionate Redeemer.

Signed by direction and on behalf of the meeting aforesaid,
Joseph Snowdon, Clerk.