American Brethren and War Taxes in the 1930s

Today I share the results of my hunt for war tax resistance sentiment in the archives of Brethren periodicals from the 1930s up to the point of the U.S. entry into World War Ⅱ. A lot happened in this period, which came as a surprise to me after having viewed the vanishing of opposition to personal funding of war during and immediately after World War Ⅰ.

The Brethren Evangelist

Gandhi’s Indian independence movement was frequently mentioned in columns of Brethren periodicals, and usually in a sympathetic way. In the edition of The Brethren Evangelist, his tax resistance campaigns got a skeptical look in the light of Brethren teaching (source):

The Word of Christ inculcates obedience to the powers of civil government, the payment of tribute and tax money even to the emperors of Rome, the rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. Ghandi [sic] asks his followers not to pay certain taxes and foments a campaign of “civil disobedience.”

As a matter of fact, the “Way of Ghandi” is more like the method used by the English suffragettes of some years ago. And in some respects it is very successful as a political means.

George H. Jones saw the writing on the wall in a article that began: “That the United States is nearer war now than at any time in the past twenty years, no one doubts” (source). He urged conscientious objectors to war to prepare for the tough times ahead, and reminded them what had happened in the last war, for example:

The churches in many cases became simply the sponsors for drives to win the war by appeals for cigarettes and socks or chocolate and sweaters or Liberty Bonds to end the War for Democracy. These were the major needs that sounded to the dome in many Christian churches.

The Gospel Messenger

The Gospel Messenger was also publishing at this time, and had absorbed the previously independent Missionary Visitor.

In the issue of The Gospel Messenger, Ben Stoner announced the “20,000 Dunkers for Peace” campaign. The campaign aimed to get 20,000 Brethren (and other varieties of German Baptist and related sects) to sign a peace pledge. This brief pledge explicitly mentioned war taxes (source):

I, ⸺, as a part of my program for peace, refuse ever to bear arms or to coöperate, in any way, in armed conflict; and, only under protest to pay taxes for military purposes.

In the accompanying article, Stoner explained that the tax portion pledged the signer “to do all within his power to keep his tax money from being appropriated for purposes which are inconsistent with Christiantiy and the basic laws of our land.” However, this stopped short of tax resistance: “At present perhaps the best way of protesting the use of tax money for military purposes is through petition to Congress when appropriations are being considered.”

The issue printed the following query from one congregation, and noted that it had been passed up for consideration to the Annual Conference (source):

We, the Eglon congregation, petition Annual Conference through District Meeting of the First District of West Virginia to tell us how we can best protest against paying taxes for military purposes.

A report on the conference carried in the issue explained what happened next (source):

The paper protesting military taxes resulted in several speeches before it was decided to make the answer of Standing Committee the answer of Conference. And this was that the matter be referred to the Board of Christian Education for study and a report in . This seems a fair disposition of the problem in view of the fact that the question is involved and study needed.

The answer from the Board of Christian Education came (source):

  1. All lawful taxes should be paid. As Christians we differentiate between taxes for constructive and taxes for destructive purposes. Because war is unchristian, taxes for military and naval purposes should be protested.

    Not less than 70% out of our taxes paid to the federal government goes directly or indirectly for military and naval purposes. Some of these federal taxes are: income taxes, estate taxes, federal stamp taxes, and the federal tax on gasoline, etc.

  2. Ways of protesting against taxes for military and naval purposes.
    1. Paste a small sticker on your income tax returns and other payments made to the federal government, which reads as follows: “That portion of this tax devoted to armaments and war preparedness is paid under protest.” The Board of Christian Education will furnish these stickers.
    2. Write a letter once a year to your congressmen protesting against the appropriation of funds for military and naval purposes.
    3. Protest personally when paying federal taxes, such as the federal gasoline tax.
    4. Protest through resolutions from local churches, district, and Annual Conferences.
  3. We favor a further study of this problem with the purpose of helping to develop a sound theory of taxation.

A later report on the Annual Conference noted that this “Protesting Against Military Taxes” committee report was adopted by the conference “after a single question… There was no argument.”

A front-page editorial by J.E.M. in the edition, entitled “I Hate War”, touched on personal war funding in a couple of places:

Later in the seventies I saw the war stamps on match boxes, and learned of other stamps and taxes that had to be paid because of the depression caused by the Civil War. My hatred of war increased, for those stamps and taxes in hard times seemed stained with human blood and reeked with human flesh.

I have seen university students being trained for war, trained with money that you and I pay, and I hate war.

I am paying taxes to help pay for past wars and to prepare for the next war, and I hate war.

In a article, Kermit Eby tried to explain that when the war comes, the pacifist position, if taken earnestly, will be see as a threat to the war effort and dealt with accordingly, and that Brethren should prepare themselves with this in mind (source):

The major task in the last war centered in the task of keeping up the will to win; no effort was spared in its achievement. Most authorities on the “next war” believe that a greater effort will be made to mobilize the national sentiment needed. If this is true, several significant developments may be expected concerning which members of pacifist churches should be aware.

Membership in the Church of the Brethren means that each member is opposed to the use of war as a means of achieving the policies of his nation; that because of religious, economic, social, and other reasons he is unable to give intellectual assent to the war system. Having come to this conclusion, he refuses to support his government when to do so goes contrary to his conscience. The assumption of such a position automatically places one in opposition to the government at war. It is a situation in which there is no neutrality, no grey, simply white or black. The mere intellectual assent to a pacifist position amounts to intellectual sabotage, for it implies an unwillingness to go with the group. …[T]he success of war depends on the intellectual and emotional support given it, as much as on the material. Hence, the pacifist position is the first step in blocking the successful termination of the war. Furthermore, the greater the number of those who take the position of opposition, the greater the danger to them as individuals. A few pacifists could be tolerated as religious fanatics; many pacifists become a stumblingblock to the war machine, and, as such, they must be removed quickly. Frankly, members of a pacifist church should know that such a position may mean their removal from society, loss of jobs, persecution, and even death. The only hope in a pacifist move lies in the possibility of it becoming a mass movement of such proportions that no government would dare risk annihilating it entirely.

Membership in the Church of the Brethren is not a passive act. It puts one on record as an opponent of war. It classifies one as a public enemy in war time, along with enemy aliens, deserters, labor and professional agitators.

The statement in the resolution concerning the refusal to support war by the payment of taxes adds to the similarity with the left wing labor groups who oppose international war for economic reasons. The only distinction remains in the mind of the pacifist who ignorantly thinks that refusal to give economic support is non-aggressive in its opposition to the government at war. It is, in fact, a most dangerous form of obstruction. Since this is the case, a pacifist should be willing to accept the logic of his position and refuse all economic aid for support of war. To put the case simply, no Dunker farmer dare ask his son to support the position of the church by risking death in opposition to war when he is guilty of selling his farm produce at a profit. Wheat is as vital to war as soldiers, and we dare not refuse the former and advance the latter.

Finally, we must face the fact that even relief means support of the war system, for it releases others from the necessity of affording relief, it encourages the soldiers who are in need of relief, it gives support to the war by rehabilitating wounded for further service, it denies simultaneous aid to the enemy — no government would permit relief for its enemy. Relief supplies are secured by independent funds; thus direct economic aid is given which would otherwise not be supplied. More seriously than any of the above is the intellectual support which relief gives. To be consistent, we must intellectually sabotage the entire system even to relief and bravely accept the consequences.

This was such a radical departure from everything I’d read before that at first I wondered whether it had been intended as a sort of Modest Proposal meant to exaggerate the pacifist position to logical conclusions that would be unpalatable to the typical reader. But I think Eby was sincere.

The Annual Conference reaffirmed “our purpose not to participate in any war, and our protest against the application of such a large proportion of our taxes to military purposes” but did not elaborate (source).

In the Conference Committee on Counsel for Conscientious Objectors made a series of recommendations for that year’s Annual Conference “on the positions that our people should take in the event of war” (source). These included the following three varieties of “peace testimony to register our convictions and to avoid our participation in war-related activities:”

  1. The refraining from the purchase of such as Liberty Bonds to finance war.
  2. The renunciation of, or the sacrificial use of, profits derived from industry, farming, or invested securities as a result of war; sacrificing always during war periods to build a fund for the furtherance of good will and for the support of families who suffer because of their conscientious objections to war.
  3. The protesting against federal income taxes if used for military purposes.

This is the first explicit renunciation of the Church’s embrace of Liberty Bonds during World War Ⅰ that I have spotted. A later report on the Annual Conference was difficult for me to interpret, but I think the gist of it was that this set of recommendations passed. Rufus Bowman was a member of that Conference Committee, and in a later book on The Church of the Brethren and War he says that this was the high point of official Brethren opposition to war, at least up to the book’s publication in .

In the issue, Lorell Weiss predicted the trouble ahead, and how Brethren would be communicating their values to their children by their actions (source):

[T]here is a strong temptation to compromise principles for expediency’s sake. Furthermore, the choice between principles and expediency must be made not once but often, by both parents and children. We have not only to decide whether it is right to kill. Other questions press for an answer. Shall we buy defense bonds? Shall we assist in aluminum drives or patriotic demonstrations? Shall we remain discreetly silent and let our neighbors assume that we share the general war fever, or shall we boldly testify for what we believe?

A letter to the editor from Homer D. Kimmel (source) printed in the edition read:

This evening we heard a radio announcer advertising the sale of defense savings bonds with these words, “Buy a defense saving bond. The $18.75 that you spend for a $25 defense savings bond will buy five bayonets.” What a picture that calls to one’s mind! Five bayonets for five soldiers to tear the entrails out of five fellow men left lying helpless with their life blood flowing out on some ghastly battlefield! Yet all such are fellow men who love life no less than you and I.

Buy a defense saving bond! Buy some death, some pain and suffering, some heartache, tears, hunger and privation.

An article by James L. Houff in the issue noted how frequently the government was tapping people for war funding (source). Excerpt:

Every time we go to the movies we pay three cents to the government for defense. When we take a Sunday afternoon motor ride, about six cents out of every twenty goes to the government for tax. At the post office we are reminded by our postmaster that he has defense bonds for sale. Children are told they might help protect their country by buying savings stamps with their money instead of candy.

Bible Monitor

In the Bible Monitor of , B.F. Masterson tried to put all this talk of protesting war taxes to rest (source). Masterson advocated a strict distancing of the Christian believer from politics, of a sort that was going out of fashion elsewhere in the church. Excerpts:

Paul did not suggest to the churches to write letters to Ceaser instructing him how to manage his naval tactics, that is the chief commander of the army’s business.

The church is not supposed, from a New Testament view point, to take part in the transaction of civil government. The Jews who were under the Roman government, but not on good terms with it, conspired to draw Christ into politics when they asked Him, if it is lawful to pay taxes to Ceasar. He said, render unto Ceasar the things which are Ceasar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s, He did not suggest to the Jews to make a protest against paying a certain per cent of the taxes. He knew better than to get His foot in the trap.

[I]t does not pay for the church to enter into a confederacy with the world and for a Christian organization to advise, unsolicited, the commander of an army is beyond its jurisdiction and to protest against taxes that are applied for one[’s] protection is ungrateful to say the least, and would not coincide with the tenor of Christ’s doctrine. Jesus was entirely free from the spirit of nationalism. Although a Jew, He never protested against the Roman rule nor incited in His followers the spirit of rebellion.

The Bible Monitor also reproduced an article from the Gospel Herald (a Mennonite publication) in on the proper relationship between the Christian and the government (stand-offish for the most part), that included this section on taxes and Liberty Bonds (source):

Christians have the obligation to pay tribute and custom to and to fear and honor the “powers that be.”… This principle came acutely under test during the World war. The problem did not arise with reference to the payment of taxes some of the proceeds of which were definitely used to carry on the war, but with reference to the purchase of Liberty Bonds which was voluntary, the proceeds of which directly supported the war program. Here the nonresistant conscience asserted itself. The former was clearly within the teaching of scripture, but the latter was voluntary and became a measure of one’s wartime patriotism. Men who were physically unable on account of the rigors of warfare could render their bit toward the winning of the war by the purchase of bonds.

To sum up: the Church of the Brethren has come a long way since the willful blindness of the World War Ⅰ period, when Dunkers seemed happy to buy up war bonds with abandon. Now there is explicit precedent for refusal to buy war bonds, and even some hints of emerging tax resistance, or at least tax reluctance. But it remains to be seen whether this trend will survive Pearl Harbor.