American Brethren and War Taxes in the 1920s

As far as I could tell from what was published by Brethren periodicals during World War Ⅰ, the ostensible pacifism of the Church of the Brethren became a cowardly retreat in the face of public pressure to join the war bond purchase drives. Today I examine the archives from the post-war period to look for signs of soul-searching in the wake of this capitulation.

The Annual Report of the General Mission Board, as found in The Missionary Visitor (source) crowed that “the war is over” and even went so far as to say that “Possibly the historian of future years will look back and recount, through numberless proofs, that the war was not fought in vain.” The Board compared its own struggle against Satan with the Allies’ victory in Europe, and said Brethren contribute to each: “[W]hile we have contributed our funds for Liberty bonds, and freed the world from autocracy, we must not cease our vigilance.”

In this vein, the magazine decided to market Brethren fundraising efforts as “God’s Liberty Loan”.

It is staggering to think of the amount of money that has been raised to finance the war, reaching the great sum of twenty-three billion dollars.

It is interesting to wonder how much of this large amount has been subscribed by the Church of the Brethren.

“Interesting” but not pauseworthy. The author goes on to make an estimate, by assuming that the typical member of the church makes a little more than the average national income and that “it would be expected that we contribute our proportionate share” to the war bond drives.

The Brethren Evangelist

The earliest issue of The Brethren Evangelist that I found in the archives comes from (41 years into its run). By then, anyway, it seems that they saw no inconsistency in Brethren and Brethren institutions trafficking in war bonds. The initial issue of that year noted that “The first Liberty Bond given to Kentucky Mission work was received as a Christmas Gift on Christmas morning,” named the donor, and asked that others follow their example to “send Liberty Bonds to be used to further the Home Mission work of the Brethren church” (source). A later article compared a mission fund drive with the Liberty Loan, saying “We [emphasis mine] raised billions for Liberty Bonds time and again. Now we are starting another drive.”

The Business Manager of Ashland College (a Brethren institution) wrote in to encourage donations in the form of Liberty Bonds, writing that “[d]uring the past year more than $20,000 in Liberty Bonds have been assigned to Ashland College in this way” (source). By this amount had risen to more than $50,000 (source). The Brethren in Falls City “could see that it was only good business to kill two birds with one stone, so they bought those Liberty Loans and gave them to the college” (source). An accounting of the endowment of that college, in a later issue, indicated that it held $29,800 in Liberty Bonds and $1,256.62 in War Savings Stamps (source).

A note in a issue tried to explain what happened: “Did we buy Liberty Bonds? We did. Not because we were especially in favor of war; not because we were investors. We gave because the spirit of giving and sacrifice was abounding.” (source)

A fundraiser for a Brethren project being pumped in a edition, on the other hand, said that “Liberty Bonds were bought, in a large measure not as an investment but to save the country’s credit” — so why don’t you donate them to us since you don’t really need the money (source).

By issue, a sanctimonious pacifism had returned, as shown by a reprint of a letter from another magazine in response to National Defense Day (source). The editorial note before the letter said that “[t]he Christian patriot who has a true vision of world peace and of the only way to its attainment will not remain silent and passive and allow national propaganda for militarism to go on unrebuked.” The letter itself told the story of a Belgian family, some members of which had been killed by poison gas in an American bombardment: “American gas shells, made by American girls, paid for by your grandmother’s liberty bonds [emphasis mine], handled by skilled American artillerymen, blessed by American clergy, valiantly gassed this Belgian maiden.”

But aside from this pointed mention, the subject of the Liberty Loan, Liberty Bonds, War Stamps, and things of that nature was for the most part just quietly dropped in the Brethren Evangelist, and writers went on preaching peace as though nothing had happened. (But I remember them that are in bonds.)

The Gospel Messenger

Meanwhile, what was going on over at the Gospel Messenger?

A article by I.V. Funderburgh on “Our Response” (to the war). He described the response of Brethren in part this way: “We pledge to the Red Cross; we subscribe for Liberty Bonds; we buy thrift-stamps; we conserve food, clothing, and fuel. Sacrifice! Yes, we do. ¶ But what of the summons, ‘Serve’? Oh, yes, we have served in responding to our country’s demand for money…”

In the issue, D.E. Cripe confronted the theory of war tax resistance more directly than I had seen done to this point (source):

Though we be strangers and pilgrims, while we are in the flesh, we can not avoid living in an earthly kingdom or nation, and therefore we have duties which can not be evaded. One of these is paying tribute or taxes. Even Jesus, through Peter, paid tribute, “lest we should offend them,” and he never asked what use would be made of the money. Paul says we should pay tribute, not only for wrath but for conscience’s sake. Very likely this tribute was turned into the treasury to support the Roman army, but Paul did not question this. After the Christian has paid his tribute, he has done his duty, and he is not responsible for the use that the Government makes of it.

In the issue, J.A. Vancil urged Brethren who had purchased war bonds to “put those Liberty Bonds to work for the cause of Jesus Christ? It was really the Lord’s money that purchased them, anyway.” (source) “If those Liberty Bonds were turned over to the church, there would be sufficient funds, from the accruing interest, to carry on all departments of the work of the church for the next five years. Then, at the maturity of these Bonds, there would be a vast available amount.”

The General Mission Board, in a fundraising notice in the issue (source), wrote:

Liberty Bonds

A brother writes and asks: “Can you accept Liberty Bonds in the Conference offering? Some of our brethren can give considerably more, if you can.” Most surely we can accept Liberty Bonds. Through them you have helped to free the world from autocracy. Now let us use them to free the world from the autocracy of sin. Send them in to us! We will put them to the Lord’s use.

An interesting note in the issue said that the following query had been sent to the Annual Conference (source):

We, the members of the Empire congregation, ask Annual Meeting of through the District Meeting of Northern California, to restate and define the position of the church upon war in all its phases, including the bearing of arms, drilling, buying war bonds, etc.

If the Annual Meeting took up this invitation, I haven’t yet found record of it.

The issue included an article entitled “In the War on War” by George Fulk. Fulk wrote that “[t]o a very considerable number of highly patriotic Christian citizens, perhaps no question of ethics more difficult of solution ever presented itself than that of the proper relation which they should personally bear toward service in the World War… With [some] it became a question as to the purchasing of liberty bonds, which meant the furnishing of the sinews of war.” This at least put buying war bonds back on the agenda as a problem and didn’t try to wave away what buying war bonds meant.

Fulk was back in to tell Brethren that they really must take a stand, because by default they were supporting war (source):

It is a stern fact also that persons are volunteering on both sides, and those who fail to volunteer, are being drafted on the side of war. Circumstances, speaking in very general terms, are doing the drafting. That is to say, circumstances have always been such, are now such, and promise indefinitely to be such, as to lead unfailingly to war unless counter-forces are brought to oppose. If we fail to join the counter-forces, we not only offer circumstances a clear road to war, but we contribute directly, through taxes, and other means, which necessarily conform to the present system of war, as a method of settling disputes.

But in general, war taxes were presented as something to be regretted, not resisted. The Messenger would sometimes allude to estimates that 93% of federal taxes being raised were going to pay for the expenses of the recent war. But rather than wonder whether anti-war Brethren ought to pay such a bill, this was usually just a lead in to a sales pitch about how Brethren ought to be just as willing to contribute to the latest church fundraising campaign.

A note in a issue concerned Kees and Beatrice Boeke, the European Quaker pacifists who were pushing the limits of nonviolent action. The note said that the couple “are likely to have their property seized again this year as last, because they can not, as a matter of conscience, pay their military tax.” The couple’s “unflinching testimony against war, and their fearless preaching of the Gospel of peace and good will to all men” was described in nothing but flattering terms (source).

A lengthy article by L.R. Holsinger on “The Christian’s Duty to the State”, from the issue, attacked war tax resistance more or less directly, which at least suggests that somewhere off the pages of the Messenger that heresy was alive:

The matter of paying taxes has been considered obligatory ever since government has been a realization. It was true thousands of years before Christ said, “Render, therefore, unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s.”… We therefore believe that in order to “Render… to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom”…, it becomes necessary to pay over our portion of the necessary funds to facilitate the effective and harmonious administration of the government of which we are a part. There come times, however, that the government engages in activities such as war which their consciences justly raise a question about, but the experiences of the recent war have been of such a nature as to cause many to feel that the awful cost, not only in money, but in morals, happiness, and life, is the penalty for their neglect and indifference both in religious and civic affairs. We are persuaded that if the amount of money and zealous effort that was expended each month during the war to promote it, had been expended during the ten years previous to the war to propagate the Gospel and promote the cause of the Prince of Peace, the history of the “world war” would never have been written, and the future generation would have “heroes” to admire and to emulate whose influence would not create a false patriotism which will result in a periodic repetition of a similar or worse upheaval but would hasten the day when “Nation will not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more”… The fact that we find ourselves a part of a government that engages temporarily in war may be blamed on us as Christians as well as others, and though we may be justified in absolute refusal to take the life willfully of any individual, we cannot find justification in refusal to pay taxes as long as the government functions as such, not only for the purpose of war which is incidental, but “for the people.”

I’ve left out some references to war savings stamps and liberty bonds listed as donations or as parts of the holdings of Brethren institutions. I saw very few signs that members of the Church of the Brethren — at least those who were represented in the periodicals of the period — had second thoughts about church-members or institutions trafficking in war bonds during World War Ⅰ. There were many complaints about the continuing arms race, and many of these highlighted the burden placed on the taxpayer, but this was never presented as something that a conscientious taxpayer could or should confront directly.