The Gospel-Visiter (later Visitor) started publishing in 1851, and its archives go back further than any other Church of the Brethren magazine I’ve yet come across on-line. So the hunt begins.
As always with this sort of thing, disclaimers apply: I’m not reading through each issue but using some simple text searches against magazines that have been scanned with optical character recognition software. Many of these old pages are difficult for such software to understand, and so some things are bound to be missed.
When searching for terms associated with taxation and commutation fines, the earliest examples I find are mentions of the usual bible verses about rendering to Cæsar, the miracle of the coin in the fish, and Romans 13 — and there’s no hint of tax resistance sentiment in how these episodes are interpreted. (For a good example of this, see “Essays on the Civil Law” starting on page 38 of the issue.)
In 1861, a reader wrote in to ask for an explanation of Romans 13:1–5. This time, the response from the editors was uncharacteristically wiggly, suggesting that Paul had penned this notoriously lickspittle passage for mostly pragmatic reasons and that we should not take it too strictly (source):
The Jews in the apostolic age were of a very rebellious disposition, and exceedingly opposed to the Roman government, and even pleading conscious in refusing to pay tribute, or showing any other mark of subjection; considering themselves as the subjects of God alone, and that all other authority over them was mere usurpation, and such as ought to be opposed. This spirit would be too apt to spread itself among the Gentile converts to Christianity, and might thus bring the Christians into inconvenience, and the more so, as Christians were considered at first as nothing more than a sect of the Jews. The apostle therefore teaching Christians to be subject to the laws of civil governments, as being ordained by God. We must understand the apostle to mean that the general principle of civil government is ordained by God, for the good of mankind, and that Christians should give their sanction to such government, as something that is in itself useful. But we must not suppose that the apostle meant that all the laws enacted by civil authority are ordained of God, and are to be obeyed by Christians. For it would be very absurd to suppose the apostle would teach Christians to obey all the wicked laws that are made by ungodly tyrants. The apostles themselves did not obey every requirement which those in authority enjoined upon as will be seen in the fourth chapter of the Acts.
A letter from John Kline, dated from rebel-held Virginia, is the first mention I found of fines for conscientious objection from military service (source):
Times however, dear brethren, are truly pretty squally and things uncertain. What will at last be the final result no man on earth can tell. Our brethren truly have much to pay, so much so, it will be a considerable burden for them to bear. Those that are able have paid for substitutes before the law of fines was in existence to rid themselves from going to the arm, from $600 to $1500, and now to help those that have not to pay, to pay the $500 fine falls heavy, yet it may be the means to relieve the brethren from some of the worldly burden, and do us good, and wean our affections to the heavenly treasures.
The magazine reprinted a letter from an Indiana government official who was responding to complaints about the operation of the conscription law and the exemption fines (source). The letter gives some details about how the mechanics of the exemption fine process worked (and how the law could be ambiguous in some ways), but what I found most interesting about the letter is how the writer makes it explicit that the exemption fines could be used to recruit substitutes to serve in the place of the objectors. (Sometimes elsewhere it was stated or implied that such fines would only be used by the government to pay for humanitarian expenses.) Excerpt:
The number raised by draft will probably fall one thousand below what was anticipated… This deficit can be properly supplied by paying the $200 equivalents of the conscientious exempts to an equal number of volunteers. There are probably one thousand of such drafted exempts able to pay the equivalent. Thus the able-bodied man who is exempt from military duty on conscientious grounds, furnishes the means by which another is induced to go, and the militia of the State is relieved from an unequal burden. As the conscientious exempt cannot volunteer or induce others to volunteer — as he cannot be drafted or aid any drafted man in procuring a substitute — as he cannot contribute money to war purposes — as his conscience forbids him to render any active aid to any war, the constitution requires some compensation for these exemptions…
There are about 1,250 drafted conscientious men in the State, who are required to pay $200 each, if able to pay it, if not able they are released from service without payment. Probably one thousand of those drafted are able to pay the sum required.… If any one thinks $200 dollars is more than an equivalent for exemption, let him ascertain the present price of substitutes, and he will be satisfied on that point. If the Government would permit all persons to be exempted on the payment of $200 each, thousands would avail themselves of the privilege.
In a petition to the Ohio legislature was prepared by some “German Baptist” elders (I think that’s the same as Brethren or Dunkers) that urged the legislature to institute a commutation tax (source). Excerpt:
[W]hile we love our country, and are as loyal to our government, and pay our taxes, our tribute &c. as cheerfully as any of our neighbors, and do not wish for any privilege, that we would not as freely accord to all, we feel bound in our consciences to refuse taking up arms against our fellowmen, and beg and entreat an honorable Legislature therefore to pass such a law, by which we could be exempted from what we cannot do conscientiously, that is from personal military service, from hiring substitutes, which still would put us under the ban of being disobedient, and if in order to perfectly equalize us with our fellow-citizens, your honorable body sees fit to lay upon us some extra burden for exempting us from such personal service, we would humbly suggest to lay an extra-tax on the property of non-combatants, as is the case in Canada and many European states and countries.
A letter from editor Henry Kurtz to a West Virginia legislator, dated mentioned some Brethren men who had been jailed in Virginia there the previous year for refusing to cooperate with press gangs (source), and noted their willingness to pay a commutation tax when it was finally made available. Excerpts:
Congressmen and others of high standing became interested in their case, and finally a law was passed, that such conscientious people should be exempted from military service by paying a fine of Five hundred Dollars. The papers stated that this fine had to be paid in specie, but this appears to have been incorrect, because it would have been impossible. The fine was paid in Confederate money or scrip, and the prisoners were liberated and dismissed to go home. We have learned since, that they were no further disturbed or required to perform military service: though they have suffered and still suffer much from the inevitable concomitants and consequences of war.
That those who are able should pay an equitable sum of money for the boon of exemption, we freely admit; but what shall those do who have not the means to pay such an equivalent, and are as conscientious as their wealthier brethren? We have been informed, that in Rockingham and adjoining counties our wealthier brethren had to pay their own fines, and besides contribute for the poor of their church to the amount of thousands of dollars. Not saying anything of the hardness of the case this may be possible in old settlements, where people had time to accumulate wealth; but it would be impossible in new settlements, such as are in your own new state, and many other places, where people have had scarcely time to open a farm in the wilderness, and make an honest living. If these cannot be exempted on such terms that they possibly can fulfill, we see no other way but they must emigrate to some other country, where they will be permitted to enjoy liberty of conscience to the full extent of the word. Should not a wise government prevent the expatriation of her best, most useful and most loyal citizens?
Another letter , from Henry Kurtz of Ohio (source) advocated that Brethren chip in to help each other pay these commutation fines, and proposed an example formula a congregation could use for this purpose. Excerpt:
To make the matter as plain as possible, we will suppose a church contains 150 brethren, one hundred enrolled, and twenty of the latter drafted, and fifty exempt on account of age &c. Now suppose again, of those twenty drafted, who altogether would have to pay $6000, fifteen could pay their own shares fully with $4,500 — it might be asked, would it be right, would it be fair and equal, would it be bearing one another’s burden in fulfillment of the law of Christ, if the church required of them the full payment of their own fine, and perhaps even ask of them a farther contribution toward the $1500 for those five (5) unable to pay? — Was it not much better, more according to the Gospel and more lovely, when brethren last fall distributed the whole sum to be paid among all according to the “true avails of their property” and according to the willingness of the mind, so that each bore an equal share of the burden?
(Another letter, from Philip Boyle, in an 1865 edition, shared a formula adopted by the Brethren at Pipe Creek, Maryland for sharing the cost of commutation fines across the congregation, and encouraged others to adopt something similar.)
An interesting letter to the editor from E.A. Teter, dated challenged Brethren to consider more carefully how to avoid the draft in a morally consistent way without voluntarily paying for war (source). Excerpts:
There was a draft to be made but in order to shun this draft, designing men of each township got up a subscription and went around to each man, telling them if they would pay so much, there would no draft be made. And now the brethren pay their share in with the world. And what is this money for? Why, it is to hire men to go to war. And what have we done now? Why, we have given our money to hire men to go yonder and kill our fellow beings. And is this according to the Gospel and our profession? “O yes,” methinks I hear a brother saying, “we must be subject to the laws of our land.” But must we take advantage of the laws of our land as it is in the case now before us; we will say, for instance, if every man in the township pays twenty dollars then we will be free from the draft this time. But brethren, is this right? and is there no more harm in paying volunteer money, or to hire substitutes, or to go to the battle field; than to pay our fine after being drafted? Some of our brethren here think the former plan the best, because it don’t take so many of our rusty dollars, to which our hearts are inclined to cleave so fast: while some of our brethren think it to be very wrong and inconsistent with the Gospel and the profession of our faith. We profess to be a harmless and inoffensive people: then why do we not live up to our faith? And why are we so easily made afraid? It looks as though we feared man, poor, feeble man more than we fear our heavenly Father.
…We are taught not to be conformed to this world, and in 1 Cor. 6:14. “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers;” which we fear has been done in paying money to hire substitutes, when we knew for what purpose it would be used.
The editor responded sympathetically but vaguely, and recommended that the question be brought up at the next Yearly Meeting.
In the issue appeared a note about a letter the magazine had received from “J.H.” in response to Ms. Teter (source). J.H. pushed even further in the direction Teter was urging:
“Is there no more harm in paying bounty-money, or in hiring substitutes, or in going to the battlefield, than to pay a fine after being drafted?” — as proposed by a sister some time ago. The sister’s opinion was that the last proposition was least objectionable, namely to wait till drafted, and then pay the fine. Brother J.H. is of an entirely different opinion, and asks: Suppose a brother is drafted, and then goes to pay his fine, does he not thereby subject another of his friends and neighbors to take his place? and adds, Where is a brother’s charity, who pays his fine under these circumstances?
We would fain give the brother’s whole letter, but our limits forbid, and other questions have taken the place of these. Hence we give only the conclusion of it.
“Let us be consistent. If there are those, as no doubt there are, who will wait and see whether God will strengthen their faith to hold out to the end after being drafted, I say their resolution is commendable.…[”]
In the edition, the editors gave a more concrete answer to Ms. Teter’s query, one that steered the conversation back from its increasingly radical direction:
In case a town or township agree to raise funds sufficient to prevent a draft, the question occurs, may brethren or non-resistants contribute to such fund with a good conscience? — In the fear of God we would reply, if no more than money is asked of us, and if we do, what we do, from a proper motive, not only to screen ourselves but our neighbors also from the draft in a lawful manner, we verily believe this can be done with a good conscience. What is done with the funds is no more our concern, as is our concern, what is done with other taxes we have to pay. Best let every one act according to his own faith, and not condemn others, if they act differently from the same principle.
A letter from “A. Pilgrim” (source) in the edition concerned the ethics of investing in government bonds. Excerpt:
I beg the privilege of calling the brethren’s attention to the query No. 16, of the last Annual Council, relative to the investment of money in government bonds. The answer was “considered not wrong to do so.” Then refer to query No. 35, relative to voting and paying bounty money. The answer to that query was, “We exhort the brethren &c.” (See answer to query 35, minutes of 1864.)
I fully concur in the decision of the latter query, but I am sorry to say I cannot altogether agree with the decision of the former. Our non-resistant principles are indeed very dear to us all as true subjects of the Prince of peace, but as we are all fallible creatures, we sometimes have to realize our short-sightedness in giving counsel. The advice not to encourage in any way the practice of war, seems to have been overlooked in the former query. According to my opinion, there is not much difference between paying bounty money and investing money in government bonds; both are voluntarily given and answer the same purpose in general. We are all aware that the government needs money for the prosecution of the war, and is applying it for that very purpose. The government is also paying from $600 to $700 bounty for recruits, and how very likely may some of this money be used to make up some of this bounty. It is true, we have no right to ask for what this money is intended, and indeed it would be unnecessary, for we know it is to encourage the war, and answers the means to prolong this unhappy struggle. Why should we not then rather withhold money and wait till the demands are made in the forms of taxes and fines, which the gospel requires of us to pay? Some say it is our duty to sustain the financial credit of our government. I find nothing in the gospel to enjoin such a duty upon us, but it requires us to honor the profession we make, by being holy as the Lord God is holy. If we live circumspectly in all our ways and actions, we present our bodies a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable before God, and thus sustain the credit of the kingdom of Christ in which we are the proper subjects. It may be a very safe deposit, and besides that a profit of 7 30—100 per cent annually, convertable into gold-bearing bonds, and is exempt from state and municipal taxation; but I hope my brethren will not suffer themselves to be tempted to yield to these liberal offers, if inconsistent to our non-resistant principles.
An article titled “Non-Resistance Defended” by “H.D.” appeared in the edition. It took a hard line on Christian non-resistance, saying for instance that because “[a]ll officers in the government are supported by the sword, and their duties discharged by virtue of its power,” that non-resistant Christians ought not to hold such offices, or vote for those who do, or petition those officers for assistance or redress. Nevertheless such Christians “are in duty bound to be obedient to all their laws and regulations, and to pay all taxes, duties, fines, or whatever rates or levies the government may see fit to impose upon them.”
This duty the apostle Paul says, we shall make conscience of, not from fear of the penalty which would follow a refusal, but for conscience’ sake. The kingdom of this world has power over the things of this world, and whatever portion of its goods we have possession of, when they ask it of us, it is our duty to give it. It is theirs, and they only ask their own when they demand it of us.
The article also touched on bounty money, hiring substitutes, and things of that nature, and tried to figure out where to draw the line:
We do not recognize those as true non-resistants who profess to have conscientious scruples about bearing arms, and yet… will not go to the battlefield themselves, but will hire substitutes to go and do that for them, which they say they dare not do themselves…
Since the commencement of the present war, when the war department called for fresh levies of troops, and when our own state was threatened with invasion, people have collected money to arm and equip militia for local or state service, and also for bounty to induce men to volunteer in the National service. This is not inconsistent for the world, or such as profess that it is the duty of christians to take up arms in defence of their rights and country. But it is certainly inconsistent in those who profess to be non-resistants to pay, or arm others to go and do what they say is wrong for themselves to do.
…how can those who profess to be disciples of Jesus Christ, and say as such, Christ has forbidden them to fight, join in with our opponents and pay men to go and fight for them or in their stead? Any one can see that there is no consistency here. If it is wrong for me to go, it is wrong for me to pay another to go for me.…
It is urged that we pay the commutation fee and the war tax and that these are used for war purposes, and that the case is parallel with that of paying to induce volunteering or buying substitutes.…
The commutation fee, and what is called war tax, is no more war tax than any other tax we pay to keep up the government, and I am no more violating my non-resistant principles if I pay one, than I do if I pay the other. I have said before all the estate or property we own we hold only by the tolerance and authority of the powers that be. The civil powers have authority over all property, and have right to demand so much of it as they have need of. This we acknowledge, and have no right to refuse giving it to them, or to ask what use they intend making of it. If I buy property with a ground rent or lien of any kind on it, that part or amount is not mine any more than if I had not bought the property. I have no right to withhold the payment of that money any more than I have a sum of money that I have borrowed, or any other debt contracted. Thus it is with land and all property.
The government originally owned all the land. It sold it to settlers under its patent. They hold it on condition of paying such rates and levies as the government may demand. Then when we pay whatever tax is asked of us, we only give to it its due, as we would pay any other debt due. And for this reason Paul says, “we shall do it for conscience’ sake.” Every honest man makes conscience of withholding anything which is due to another, and so every true christian makes conscience of returning his property fairly and faithfully to the officers of the government, and punctually paying what it requires of him with as little right to ask or inquire what use they design making of it, as they have to ask what use the person proposes to make of the money he has borrowed of us. There is therefore a very great difference between what we pay voluntarily, or without sanction of law, and what we pay on demand of the powers.
If a person comes to me and solicits a donation as a bounty to induce men to volunteer in the army, or to equip men to go and fight, by giving it I give a testimony that I have an interest in, and desire the cause to progress, when at the same time I do not know that I am not arming men to fight against what God designs to do. But if I owe a man a sum of money as a debt, and he comes and demands it, and tells me he intends it to arm and equip himself to go to war, I have no right to withhold payment, it is his own, and he has a right to do with it as he pleases. I would make no difference between paying a man to go to war, or going myself.
(You can add this to the long list of arguments of whether or not a tax is a variety of legitimate debt.)
And that takes us up through the end of the American Civil War, where I’ve stopped for now.