Brethren and War Taxes After the American Civil War

I continue my search through Church of the Brethren periodicals for mentions of tax resistance and related topics, starting where I left off at the end of the American Civil War, and going up to .

The Gospel-Visitor

With the Civil War receding into history, there was much less discussion of the dilemma in which Christian pacifists helped to fund warfare, and what there was was mostly backwards-looking.

A letter from an Indiana congregation appeared in the Visitor asking for help paying the old commutation fines of their members (source). Excerpt:

We have paid four thousand eight hundred dollars commutation money, with the exception of one. These drafted brethren were poor men, and unable to pay their commutation money without distressing themselves. One in particular sold his home to raise the money, as the draft came upon us suddenly and the money had to be raised speedily.

While the draft was pending, it was unanimously decided by the council of the church, that our beloved brother and elder, John Knisely should borrow the money on the credit of the church, and relieve those brethren that were or should be drafted. With much trouble this was done from time to time. Subsequently, those drafted brethren agreed and promised the church to pay their indebtedness with such assistance as the church could give them. The church is now indebted between seven and eight hundred dollars. Individual members not less than eighteen hundred dollars more. (The most of this we pay 10 pr. ct. interest for.) We wish also to state that our members are generally poor in this district of church.

In 1874, the Gospel Visitor merged with the Christian Family Companion.

Christian Family Companion

The first issue of Christian Family Companion included some notes about the Middle Pennsylvania District meeting of at which this query was discussed: “How is it considered for brethren to contribute money for raising ‘local bounty’ to procure volunteers in order to avoid the draft?” The answer the meeting came up with was: “Considered that under existing circumstances we are willing to bear with one another; but that no brother shall take an active part in raising such bounties” (source).

A later letter indicates that this sideways method of paying for substitutes was frowned upon both inside and outside of the church (source). Excerpt:

I have received a letter from Elder Henry D. Davy, in which he states that he had conversed with the Governor, and Martial of Ohio; and that they told him that all consciencious men who paid bounty money to clear townships, could not be exempt by paying $300. The Provost-Martial of the State said that those who had paid and did not know what the law was, would be excused for this time, but not hereafter. They said they did not consider a man consciencious who paid to others to do that which he would not do himself. I [William Chambers] say amen. Brother Davy states further that he had visited the brethren in the Miami Valley, and that they all agreed that they will pay no more money to townships, but they will stand the draft, and then help one another to pay their $300 commutation. May God help us all to do the same.

A later letter from Daniel Stone insisted that “the great majority of the Brethren have paid bounty money” and recommended the those who oppose the practice look with charity on those who did. An H.B. Brumbaugh also chimed in in similar fashion, saying that there is no harm in contributing money to a fund meant to hire substitutes and shield neighbors from the draft. Excerpt:

[W]hen our neighbors who have always been kind to us, come round, tell us that they do not feel like going, and if we give them some money, they can get the credit of men who are willing to go and thereby save them and us. When we give through such motives not for our own interest but for the good of our neighbors, where is the wrong, and who will demur against it… A brother that is not willing to give a few dollars for the good of his neighbor shows as great an attachment to the world and his money, as the one that gives, and as to the purpose for which the money is used there is not a particle of difference as it is all either directly or indirectly used for the suppressing of the present rebellion, and as long as they ask for nothing more than money, let them have it whether it be under the name of Commutation or Charity, to and for our neighbors.

An issue printed a form letter that it recommended brethren use when drafted, to collect statements from Elders certifying the draftee’s membership in good standing in the church and conscientious scruples, and to “petition[] that he may be allowed to pay $300 in commutation” rather than enlisting.

A query to the Annual Meeting of concerned the propriety of paying for a substitute to serve in the military in one’s place. Apparently the person who put forward the query was unfamiliar with the $300 commutation fine option, and the Meeting told him to take advantage of that instead, saying: “Where the government has provided for the exemption of brethren by commutation fine, it [hiring substitutes] should not be allowed.” Another question, about whether it is okay to contribute money to someone else outside of the church who is raising money to hire a substitute, was tabled.

A correspondent noted in an letter that in addition to being ethically shifty, hiring a substitute was no guarantee of getting out of the draft either: “[I]n Logan county, Ohio… I met with a kind brother… who had been driven from home… by the wicked oppressor, who wished to drag him into the confederate army after once honorably satisfying the law by hiring a substitute for the sum of $1100!”

As the war came to a close, the magazine noted that it had received several articles debating the bounty question, but told its readers: “As it is not likely that the brethren will again be required to pay bounty in the present war, we propose to drop the matter for the present.”

A letter in an issue concerned a campaign to compensate Peter Crumpacker, who during the war had spent $3000 to pay the commutation fines of poor Brethren who had been drafted in Virginia. According to the letter, committees of Brethren in Virginia had counseled “that brethren who had the means at command should not permit the poor brethren to be forced into the army, but come to their relief; And if one brother did more than others, towards aiding those poor brethren to pay their fines, it should be regarded as a common cause, and the brotherhood at large should bear the burden equally.”

A report on the Annual Meeting that year indicated that there was a query about whether it was right to invest in government bonds. But this had nothing to do with the government spending the bond money on war (which was “A. Pilgrim”’s objection to government bonds, see ♇ 18 May 2020), but: “The main objection advanced against investing in Bonds, was the fact of their being untaxable; it being feared that in this way, the burden of taxation would fall more heavily upon those members who were less able to bear it.” The Meeting recommended that Brethren not invest in bonds if their goal in doing so was to avoid taxes.

Another appeal to help reimburse the Indiana church that had gone broke paying the commutation fines of its members went out in an issue (the same appeal as the one in the Visitor mentioned at the top of this page).

A letter from an anonymous subscriber in an issue defended Brethren from the charge of being bad citizens, saying in part: “If we are conscientiously opposed to becoming warriors, personally, we sustain our fealty to the government by paying the equivalent the laws of war demand…”

In , after the merger with the Visitor, the magazine recounted the story of Civil War conscientious objector Tilghman Vestal (or “Vestol” in this version). Vestal was a Quaker, and so had a different attitude toward militia commutation fines (Brethren were encouraged to pay them, Quakers forbidden). Excerpts:

He was told that if he persisted in his course, he would be subjected to severe punishment, and finally would be shot for disobedience of orders. He replied that they had the power to kill him, but neither the Federal nor Confederate army possessed the power to force him to abandon his principles, or prove false to his religion. I [the unnamed author] remember endeavoring to persuade him one day to pay the $500, which the law provided a Quaker might pay, and be exempt from military duty, and asked him if he couldn’t raise that amount and pay it, and thus get rid of the troubles that I plainly saw ahead of him if he persisted in his course.

He said he could raise the money without any difficulty. “But,” said he, “suppose I pay the Confederate Government $500 — that will enable them to employ some one else to fight, and it will be equivalent to my hiring another man to do what I think is wrong to do myself. I can’t do that.

Vestal was interviewed by Henry Foote who at the time was a Confederate legislator. Excerpt:

Foote―“Young man, you are all wrong about this matter, even from a Scriptural standpoint. When Christ was upon earth he directed his disciples to pay tribute to Cæsar. The money thus paid went into the Roman Treasury, and was used in carrying on the wars of the Roman people.”

Vestol―“No, sir; you are mistaken about that. The Temple of Janus was closed at that time, and there were no wars going on.”

Foote―“I believe he knows more about it than I do. I don’t know whether the Temple of Janus was closed then or not.”

What’s remarkable about this is that the Brethren position on this matter of the commutation fines was closer to that of the Confederate than the Quaker, but the Quaker is the hero of the story because of his conscientious objection and willingness to suffer for his faith. This may have helped some Brethren look on the Quaker position in a more favorable light.