British Nonconformists Refuse to Pay Taxes in “Passive Resistance”

A century ago, British Nonconformists (that is, people who were not members of the official church) responded to government funding of establishment church schools with a campaign of tax resistance. Today I’ll share some contemporary newspaper excerpts that covered the campaign.

The following comes from the edition of The San Francisco Call:


When the new education bill was under consideration in Parliament a number of the more earnest opponents of the feature of the bill providing for the support of church schools declared that if the Government undertook to collect taxes for the support of such schools they would refuse payment. The programme thus defined, became known as the policy of “passive resistance” and was the chief object of political discussion in the kingdom until Chamberlain’s imperial tariff issue distracted popular attention from the subject. The opponents of the measure, however, are standing by their guns, and we learn from our London exchanges that the passive resistance movement has already become formidable and is steadily extending throughout the country.

The Westminster Gazette deems the issue of sufficient importance to devote almost an entire page of a recent edition to publishing a record of the summonses that have been issued to compel the payment of taxes by the resisters. It appears that the first act of resistance occurred on , when four residents of the parish of Wirksworth were summoned before the local magistrates for refusing to pay the school taxes. Warrants were issued against their property and the sales took place without disturbance. , the day of the publication of the Gazette, upward of 3000 summonses were issued and the number of distraint sales amounted to sixty.

In most cases the resistance was strictly passive and no attempt was made to interfere with the officers in the sale of property seized for taxes, but at times there were evidences of a feeling that may give rise to trouble later on should the number of resisters ever become large enough to encourage a resort to an active resistance in place of a passive one. Reviewing the movement in another issue the Gazette says: “In large numbers of cases proceedings have not yet been taken and several months must elapse before the full extent of the resistance can be adequately measured.”

A careful study of the summonses shows that a majority of the resisters who have thus far been brought before the courts belong either to the Baptist, Congregational or Primitive Methodist churches, but other free churches are well represented, notably the Wesleyans. Some surprise has been felt at the indifference to the issue of the Society of Friends, as the members of that church were strenuous leaders in the former battles against church rates. Members of the “Passive Resistance Committee” are quoted as saying that upward of 400 local leagues have been formed to resist the tax and that the movement is still extending.

In describing the manner in which the distraint sales are received by the public the Gazette says:

“There was some feeling displayed at a sale of the goods of Passive Resisters at Colchester yesterday, the Rev. T. Batty, a Baptist minister, and the Rev. Pierrepont Edwards, locally, known as ‘the fighting parson,’ entering into discussion in the auction room, but being stopped by the auctioneer, who said he did his work during the week and he hoped they did theirs on Sundays. At Long Eaton the goods of twenty-three Passive Resisters were sold amid demonstrations of hostility to the auctioneer. A boy was arrested for throwing a bag of flour. Six distress warrants were issued at Loughborough, in Leicestershire, while at Brighton the magistrates made orders in nearly one hundred cases. There was much demonstration in the court, the magistrates after one outburst leaving the bench and ordering the room to be cleared. Some people were put out, but others clung to their seats and would not move. The chief constable appealed to all to leave quietly, but realizing the ugly aspect of things, he consented to act as mediator and ask the magistrates to proceed on the understanding that there was no further disturbance. Thus the situation was saved.”

It will be remembered that when the tariff question was precipitated by Mr. Chamberlain some of the opponents of the education bill declared that the new issue had been raised solely for the purpose of evading the educational issue. The charge was unfair, but there can be no doubt that the Ministers were quite glad to get away from the denominational controversy which was threatened. Even as it is, however, there is going to be trouble with the law, and in some localities the struggle between the magistrates and the resisters may become quite serious before all is over.

Here’s more, from the New York Times:


“Passive Resistance” Movement Against the Education Act.

The Rev. R. J. Campbell of the City Temple Says He Will Refuse to Pay Rates for Sectarian Purposes.

There was a remarkable scene at the City Temple in the City Temple at the mid-day service , when the pastor, the Rev. R.J. Campbell, the successor of the late Dr. Parker, announced his adhesion to the “Passive Resistance” movement against the education act.

Mr. Campbell, who may be regarded as the head of the Nonconformists in this country and as voicing their determination, said he would tender payment of the portion of the rates which was not devoted to sectarian purposes, but that the collector would have to seize his hall clock and other chattels for the balance. The congregation, numbering about 3,000 persons, stood up and cheered lustily for several minutes.

The pastor added that he had heard that Colonial Secretary Chamberlain was likely to advocate the imprisonment of those who participated in the “Passive Resistance” movement, but he believed that if Mr. Chamberlain imprisoned him (Mr. Campbell) his days as a colonial secretary would be numbered, for Nonconformity represented half the religious life of the nation.

The English Nonconformists, after the introduction of the Education bill in the House of Commons, made many threats that they would refuse to pay the taxes to carry out the provisions of the bill, but since the passage of the act these threats became less frequent and up to it was supposed that the idea of fighting the measure in the way suggested had been abandoned.

It now seems that the Nonconformist leaders have decided to carry out their original plan, and another bitter religious conflict is consequently expected.

R.W. Perks, M.P., who was one of the most active opponents of the Education bill before its passage, speaking at Oxford on at a meeting convened by the Free Church Council of that city, said that, if they had been told two or three years ago that a Government would come into power and make it one of its cardinal measures to sweep out of existence the great school boards of England and to strengthen the priestly control over the elementary education of their children, they would have said that it was beyond belief. There were certain cardinal features in the education act which they as Free Churchmen never could and never would admit. First of all, in every voluntary school in the country the majority of the foundation managers were not elected by the people, and that must be reversed. In the second place, they had 14,000 appointments of headmasters and headmistresses in the voluntary schools where the masters and mistresses were subjected to sectarian tests, and none of these appointments could be legally held by Nonconformists. This was bad, because it limited the area of choice, and because it was a serious temptation to a boy or girl to change religious opinions simply for the purpose of securing a public appointment.

In conclusion Mr. Perks said he did not believe it was their duty to pay a rate for the propagation of a faith or tenets which they believed to be obnoxious in the sight of God.

These remarks were received with loud cheers.

Some Americans got into the act, according to the San Francisco Call:

The first foreigners to join the “passive resistance” movement against the educational act are two American taxpayers living at Wimbledon, the Rev. R.W. Farquhar, formerly pastor of Portland, Or., and E.H. Gaston, who at one time lived in Chicago. They have both refused to pay the education rate and consequently their household goods will be seized and sold at auction to satisfy claims for a few shillings.

A follow-up article from the same paper reads:

Property of Americans Seized.

The police have seized several pieces of silverware belonging to the Rev. R.W. Farquhar, formerly of Portland, Or., and E.P. Gaston, who at one time lived in Chicago, two American taxpayers living in Wimbledon, who were the first foreigners to join the passive resistance movement against the education act. The silver was sold by auction to satisfy the rates, amounting to a few shillings, which they refused to pay. The pieces include wedding gifts and church presents made to them in the United States.

A New York Times article noted that the movement seemed to be growing:

…This movement, far from showing any signs of subsiding, is every day gathering new strength throughout the country.

Magistrates in many places openly express their sympathy with those who from conscientious motives refuse to pay the education rate. Auctioneers frequently decline to sell goods upon which distraints have been levied. Crowds, numbering in some cases thousands of people, assemble to give their support and sympathy to these lawbreakers for conscience’ sake.

With a fine affectation of indignation the church party publishes letters and articles innumerable denouncing the tactics of the resisters as subversive of law and order and as leading direct to anarchy. Nothing makes any impression on the resolution of these irreconcilable Nonconformists, who maintain that they are prepared to go to prison rather than pay taxes for what they regard as Romanizing education calculated to imperil the Protestantism for which their forefathers fought and suffered. One fiery spirit declared the other day that he would be delighted to suffer martyrdom at the stake rather than obey this law.

Passive resistance, in short, is rapidly producing a state of things which no government can afford to ignore. Its result will ultimately be the removal of the grievances which weigh so heavily on the “Nonconformist conscience.”

By , things were looking up (The Washington Bee ):


British Court Decides People Need Not Pay for This Instruction

London. — A decision given by the court of appeals leaves the question of religious education in Great Britain in a peculiar position. The education act of was intended to compel local authorities to pay for religious instruction in the voluntary [publicly-funded, private] schools, and led to the notorious “passive resisters” movement under which numbers of nonconformists refused to pay the rates levied to cover this expenditure for church schools. In the meantime the county council of the west riding of Yorkshire refused to pay teachers for the time devoted by them to religious instruction. The board of education then sought the assistance of the courts in the matter, with the result that the court of appeals decided in favor of the Yorkshire council.

If this decision should be upheld by the house of lords, whither the case now will be carried, it will practically accomplish by a stroke what the bill now in parliament of Augustine Berrell, president of the board of education, aims at, and, furthermore, it may possibly enable a large number of “passive resisters” to bring action for false imprisonment.

The entire trouble appears to be due to careless drafting of the bill of .

An article from the Washington Herald looked at the state of the campaign:

Passive resistance continues to resist in the most active manner among the members of the Passive Resistance Leagues throughout Great Britain. The education bill of the government having been destroyed by the bishops and the temporal peers, the passive resisters have issued new and very vigorous manifestos for sympathy and recruits. Every man who has been to prison for refusing to pay the sectarian school rates declares he is willing to go again, though it costs him 30 shillings every time, and a working man declares he will withhold payment of the tax, even if it does cost him 6 shillings 3 pence to keep back the rate of 11 pence. There is very little that is passive about the resisters, except the manner they meet imprisonments and fines for their refusal to pay taxes they think — and rightly think — unjustly imposed. Their energy, force, and determination in their conscientious stand for freedom and self-government in educational matters are indisputable.