Brethren and War Taxes in the Gilded Age

Today I continue observing the evolution of attitudes toward war taxes and related subjects in the Church of the Brethren via archives of Brethren periodicals, this time from the 1876–1899 period.

The Primitive Christian and Pilgrim

The Primitive Christian and The Pilgrim merged in 1876.

In , the magazine republished a series of articles representing a debate between a Baptist and a “Tunker” (Brethren) over whether Brethren doctrines were sound Christianity. One of these touched on war taxes briefly, as the author defending Brethren wrote (source):

Our brethren cheerfully paid “tribute” to civil authorities wherever they were during the uncivil war and paid the fines imposed upon them, whether North or South, but did not take part in the quarrel and did not shed human blood.

(The debate, and that quote, also appeared in The Brethren at Work that year.)

Another article in an issue detoured briefly to recap some of the debate in the church about war taxes during the American Revolution (source). Excerpt:

At the beginning of the Revolutionary war, various difficulties arose in the church. One was in regard to the paying of tax. — Some seem to have thought that our peace principles would be compromised by paying the tax that would go to support the war. Others viewed the subject differently. The counsel of our ancient brethren in regard to this matter, was similar to that given by the apostle in cases we have referred to. They thought the tax might be paid according to the example of Christ, Matt. 17:24–27, but they say, “If one does not see it so, and thinks, perhaps, he, for his conscience’s sake could not pay it, but bear with others who pay in patience, we would willingly leave it over, inasmuch as we deem the overruling of the conscience as wrong.” See Minutes of Annual Meeting, .

In the magazine reprinted a local news article about a “German Baptist or Dunkard” named George Grisso. It mentioned that during the War of 1812 Grisso had been drafted “but as his church opposed all war and taught that all disputes should be settled by peaceful methods, he hired a substitute…”

The Brethren at Work

The Brethren at Work began publishing in .

An issue covered a debate between a Baptist and a Brethren, and in the course of so doing, described the Brethren position on war taxes thusly (source):

We obey man when it does not conflict with God’s teaching, but prefer obeying God rather than man. We pay tribute, and in this way respect those who are over us, but take no part in war. We do not resist, but submit.

The Primitive Christian and The Brethren at Work were absorbed into Gospel Messenger in .

The Gospel Messenger

In searching for mentions of taxes in these various archives, I frequently came across debates having more to do with congregations taxing themselves to raise funds for various things. This in turn was tangled up in concern about a hireling ministry, and about the corruption of wealthy churches of other denominations that seemed parasitic on their flock. The position that the church ought to be supported by voluntary donation only was defended by a D.E. Cripe in an article (source). Excerpts:

We hold that taxation is contrary to the teaching and principle of the Scriptures; that it is unjust, and takes away the blessing of giving.

In conclusion, we would say, there is no instance recorded in all the Scriptures where God approved of a taxation. Jehoiakim taxed Israel to pay tribute to Pharaoh, but he was a very wicked king. The Roman emperors also taxed Israel, but we have no account that any of God’s servants ever did. Ananias and his wife died, not because they kept back part of their property and did not pay a stipulated sum, but because they tried to deceive the apostles and make them believe they paid in all their money, when they had not done so. If the Brethren once feel sure their money is required for a good cause and will be judiciously applied, then they will contribute freely, without being asked.

This anti-tax point of view was in the specific context of the debate over mandatory church tithing, and is not indicative of a broader anti-tax sentiment, but I thought it was noteworthy. (For a good statement of the ordinary render-unto-Cæsar teaching, see this column from an issue.)

Some Civil War reminiscences by B.F. Moomaw were published in . One chapter begins with the narrator remembering matter-of-factly that “a distant relative of mine, — Jacob P. Moomaw, now an elder in the church, then in the army in Eastern Virginia, asked me to assist him in getting [hiring] a substitute” to take his place in the army. The author later writes:

Shortly after, the question was moved in Congress to repeal the substitute law, upon which another brother and myself went to Richmond, to get up an influence against its repeal. This we attempted by getting some of the members of the house, who were our friends, to try to prevent its passage, but the advocates of the bill were too many, and our cause failed. Then the only alternative was for the boys to refugee, and they went over the line by the hundreds.

This seems to suggest that hiring substitutes was not frowned on nearly as much as previous excerpts I had found have suggested. Another data point in that regard is an obituary for John Brenneman in the edition, which noted that in , while in Indiana, “he was drafted, and a substitute cost him $1000.00. This crippled him financially and he never fully recovered.”

An article by D.E. Price on What Relation Does the Christian Sustain to Civil Government? put the contrast between conscientious objection to military service and obedience to taxpaying succinctly:

While it would be a violation of the principles of the Gospel, to give anything voluntarily, or in any way encourage carnal warfare, yet it is our duty, by way of taxation, to give all we have, if demanded, and give up ourselves, rather than resist; and let them do with us, and our property, as they may see proper.

The issue relates an incident that has a whiff of the apocryphal about it, but the gist of which is this: During the Civil War, two recently-converted Brethren were drafted, and at first their attempt to pay a $300 commutation fine for conscientious objector status was denied, with the authorities asserting that they had become Brethren in order to evade the draft and that their scruples were not genuine. Two members of the church intervened on their behalf by visiting the state (Indiana) governor, and eventually persuaded him to allow the draftees to pay the fines and get exempted.

The Spanish-American War of was accompanied by a menu of new war taxes. The first mention of these I found was in the Gospel Messenger, in an article which began: “Only a few days ago the war revenue tax went into effect, but already it is evident that the aggregate amount, to be realized by this measure, will be far in excess of the anticipations. While the tax is comparatively small, it is so well and thoroughly distributed over the entire population that vast sums will be thus obtained. It is an illustration of the fact that large amounts can readily be secured if all are willing to give systematically, even a few cents only, from time to time.” (source). Hold your breath… will this be a call for war tax resistance? But no. There is “a lesson to us as a church” to be drawn from this war tax, but that lesson apparently is that Brethren should be tithing to the church every week, even if they can only do so in small amounts.

The lead editorial in that issue also excitingly announced the latest war bonds, with nothing said to discourage people from investing in them:

Some time ago the Government decided to issue bonds to meet the expenses of the war with Spain. Two hundred million dollars is the amount to be issued. The bonds will bear three per cent and may be paid by the Government at the expiration of ten years, though they do not fall due for twenty years. The intention is to make this a popular loan. And to accomplish that purpose blanks have been sent out to all money order post offices and to about all the banks. No one is allowed to subscribe for more than five hundred dollars of the bonds. The Government has not tried this time to get more than the face value of the bonds, as it has done heretofore, and as it could easily do now. Those whose subscriptions are received first, will be first served. Subscriptions will be received by the Government up to . If by that time the small subscribers have not taken all of the issue, larger subscribers will have a chance. It seems now that there will be no bonds left for those who subscribe more than five hundred dollars. This gives persons of small means an opportunity to make an investment that is absolutely safe. The interest they will receive is the same as is regularly paid by banks. The interest is payable quarterly, and the principal is entirely safe, which is not always the case where money is put in banks. Hitherto only wealthy, and in most cases extremely wealthy men, have held the bonds. This fact has led some people to think that the wealthy persons were favored by the Government. Such was not the case. The Government wanted gold, and so sold the bonds to the men who could furnish it. This time any kind of money now issued by the United States will be received in payment. The way in which the bonds are being subscribed for shows the confidence all classes have in our Government. Every bondholder feels directly interested in the affairs of our country, and will be anxious to have the finances of the United States on a good basis. This popular loan is wise policy from more than one standpoint.

A follow-up editorial in the issue doubled down on the enthusiasm with still no hint that there might be a problem.

In addition, a query in the asked whether it would “be better for the Mission Board to lend the endowment funds to the Government, and get Government Bonds, rather than the way they are now doing?” (source). The response did not mention anything about possible ethical problems with loaning the government money, but simply said that it did not make business sense to buy such bonds at that time.

The impression I get is that the problem of paying for war had fallen so far off the radar since the Civil War that even voluntary payments for war bonds did not seem to raise any debate.