Groping Toward a History of Quaker War Tax Resistance

At the upcoming national gathering of NWTRCC at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, I’m going to be presenting a summary of the history of war tax resistance in the Society of Friends (Quakers).

Preparing for this talk has been daunting. It’s a huge topic, spanning centuries and continents, and there are gaps and biases both in the historical record itself, and in my personal knowledge about it.

I’m also not a Quaker, and so am in the awkward and somewhat suspect position of trying to explain Quaker history to Quakers (I expect many of the attendees will be Quakers, particularly as Earlham College is a Quaker institution) as an outsider. Indeed I’m not Christian or even religious, so when I read a Quaker testifying that the holy spirit or “the light” or something of that nature is compelling him or her to take a certain course of action, I just have to sort of take it “on faith” that they know what they’re talking about.

So I’m going to ask you to indulge me as I think “out loud” on The Picket Line while I’m trying to organize my notes.

Most of the material I’m working with while assembling this history comes from two sources: the huge stash of documents I assembled into the collection American Quaker War Tax Resistance, and the archives of the Friends Journal. Both of these sources are biased towards reports of American Friends and Meetings, leaving out much of what may have been happening elsewhere. They also leave time gaps. The first stops at ; the second covers . I’ve tried to supplement this with material from other sources when I could find it.

There seem to me to be some distinct “periods” of Quaker war tax resistance:

The beginnings (~)
War tax resistance has been part of Quaker practice almost from the very beginning. George Fox paid his war taxes and counseled Quakers to do so, but Robert Barclay’s Apology published in reports that Quakers “have suffered much… because we neither could ourselves bear arms, nor send others in our place, nor give our money for the buying of drums, standards, and other military attire.”

The Pennsylvania experiment ()
Quakers ran the colonial legislature in Pennsylvania, founded by Quaker William Penn. This allowed them to put their pacifist principles to the test, which they did to some extent. But most commentators on the period portray the legislature as refusing to enact requested war funding measures mostly as a negotiating gambit, and that they eventually would cough up the war money in thinly-veiled ways. This led several individual Quakers to pledge to refuse to pay taxes to the Quaker government, which in turn led the London Yearly Meeting to come out against such war tax resistance. Eventually this tension became too great, and Quakers gave up government control in Pennsylvania.

The American revolution & aftermath ()
The conscientious Quaker dissidents in America proved influential and their ideas spread, even, eventually, to London, where the meeting found itself coping with a new, home-grown challenge to war tax paying. American Quakers suffered much during the American Revolution for their refusal to give material support to the rebel army, and some dissident Quakers broke off from their meetings because of this. A purifying and intensifying tendency began to rock the Society of Friends, in the aftermath of the war, which tended to strengthen the testimony against paying war taxes, but ended by splitting the Society.

The U.S. Civil War period ()
American Quakers identify with the abolitionist cause, which eventually becomes a war aim of the Union side in the Civil War. The society largely maintains its peace testimony and refusal to pay war taxes through the war, at least on an official level, but there is a slackening in how it is practiced and enforced, and in the aftermath of the war both are shadows of their former selves.

The great forgetting ()
War tax resisters are few and fairly quiet for decades. When war tax resistance is mentioned, it is as a relic of a former time like “thees” and “thous”. To the extent that it still remains on the record as a part of Quaker discipline, it is ignored as something belonging to another time. By and large, Quakers pay even explicit war taxes without complaint.

The thaw ()
A war tax resistance movement begins to coalesce in the United States, but it’s notable how few of its prominent members are Quakers. Eventually, though, this begins to embolden the remaining American Quaker war tax resisters and to rekindle interest in the Society of Friends.

The renaissance ()
The cold war nuclear arms race and the Vietnam War cause a resurgence of war tax resistance in the Society of Friends around the world, from Japan to Norway. By , pretty much all American Quakers must have confronted the issue of war taxes and made a decision about what to do about it. Some Meetings began resisting taxes as a group. War tax resistance becomes a central part of the Quaker peace testimony, and American Quakers who are not resisting in some fashion are on the defensive about it.

The second forgetting ()
The end of the cold war took some of the urgency out of the war tax issue for some Quakers, and those who still felt a concern about war taxes often looked for magical ways to make the issue go away without having to resort to actual tax resistance — such as “peace tax fund” legislation or increasingly desperate and fruitless legal appeals. Remnants of the renaissance period war tax resistance stands still exist, but have little vitality or momentum. Most mentions of war tax resistance in the Friends Journal are seen in the obituaries column.

In some of these periods, to be a Quaker was necessarily to be a war tax resister, as just about every household was subject to some sort of explicit war tax or militia exemption tax and the discipline of Quaker meetings required Friends to refuse to pay such taxes or to risk being disowned. In other periods, such explicit war taxes had vanished, and the government paid for war through less explicit, less transparent, more general-purpose taxes. In those periods, Quaker war tax resistance was more a subject for individual decision and debate and there was a less clear-cut orthodox opinion on how Friends should behave.