History of Quaker War Tax Resistance: The Beginnings

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).

Today I’m going to try to coalesce some of the notes I’ve assembled about the first period of Quaker war tax resistance — between the founding of the Society of Friends and the establishment of the Quaker colony in Pennsylvania.

The beginnings (~)

George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends, was not a war tax resister. We know this because he explicitly advised Quakers to pay a war tax and also because his daughter kept good records of the family finances, which explicitly list “Souldiers pay” among the expenses.

But the fact that Fox had to write a letter encouraging Quakers to pay war taxes indicates that the question was a live one in the Society from the beginning. The Quakers did refuse to pay legally-mandated tithes to the establishment church, so a tradition of conscientious objection to taxation was there to draw on, and some Quakers quickly drew the logical conclusion that as pacifists they should also refuse to pay to the priesthood of Mars.

Fox, though, hoped to end the persecution of the Society of Friends by a suspicious government, and thought that by presenting them as both thoroughly pacifist (and thus no military threat to the government) and as willing taxpayers (and thus of direct assistance to the government), he could best make his case. If Quakers refused to serve in the military and also refused to pay war taxes, he worried, the government might find the Quakers to be more trouble than they’re worth, complaining “How can we defend you against foreign enemies and protect everyone in their estates and keep down thieves and murderers?”

But a number of Quakers must have disregarded Fox’s advice, because as early as you start to see entries in the “books of sufferings” maintained by the Society about the persecution of Quakers for refusing to pay things like “Trophy Money,” the “Charge of the Trained-Bands,” the “Charge of the Militia” and other war taxes of that sort.

In , Quakers became aware of another anabaptist sect, the Hutterites in Hungary, who were also practicing war tax resistance.

In , in Robert Barclay’s influential defense of Quaker principles, An Apology for the True Christian Divinity, he states that Quakers “have suffered much in our country, 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.”

By this has started to become codified into an official discipline in some places. One Meeting had this query for its members that year:

Do you bear a faithful testimony against bearing arms, and paying trophy money, or being in any manner concerned in the militia, in privateers, letters of marque, armed vessels or in dealing in prize goods as such?