Brethren, War Taxes, and War Bonds during World War Ⅱ

The U.S. entry into World War Ⅱ gave the Church of the Brethren another chance to decide whether it would stick to its principles in the face of public pressure to join in the bloodletting. As we’ll see, the evidence is mixed, but at least this time around the Church avoided the total surrender to war fever that it exhibited in World War Ⅰ.

The Brethren Evangelist

The earliest mentions of war bonds I saw in the Brethren Evangelist were all of this basic opportunistic form (my paraphrase): “The government wants you to invest 10% of your income in war bonds; can’t you invest at least that much in our Mission Board?” There were also a few off-hand mentions of church institutions either investing some of their money in government bonds or taking government bonds as donations.

This mention was typical of the crass way this magazine saw war bonds largely as unwelcome competition for church fundraising (source):

Why not make your regular offering this year, and then make the added contribution of one of those “War Bonds” you have been buying. This would help us look to the future in a fine way, if enough of those bonds were given each year so they would mature year by year…

Remember Jesus believed in Benevolence — so must we.

There was not even a hint in the Brethren Evangelist during the war years that there was anything ethically wrong with buying war bonds, unless it interfered too much with your tithing.

Gospel Messenger

Things were a little different over at the Gospel Messenger.

The issue carried a resolution from the Brethren Service Committee that read in part:

Our citizens are being urged to help finance this war by many measures other than by direct taxation; and since [t]he official position of the Church of the Brethren involves nonparticipation in any war either directly or indirectly…

From there it did not counsel for or against anything specifically, but the flavor of the advice was for the reader to redouble his efforts for relief of war suffering and “look for the voice of God in his own Christ-enlightened conscience and obey that voice no matter to how great sacrifice and suffering it may lead.”

An Indiana section of the church held a peace conference on and “one subject of discussion was Shall We Buy Defense Bonds?” (source).

The issue carried “An Appeal for Patriotism” from W. Glenn McFadden, who noted that the defense bonds program had to bribe citizens with lucrative returns in order to get their financial support. McFadden said that instead he would buy a Brethren Service Certificate and ask nothing in return.

One issue noted without further comment that “Life insurance companies are putting well over half of all their funds for investment into United States government bonds. On the average, each policyholder is owner of $120 in government bonds through his life insurance policy.” I am not certain how to interpret this, but if it’s not just a piece of trivia, it sounds like a veiled warning for conscientious objectors to military funding.

A note in another issue said that an annual “United Pacifist Conference” of some sort had adopted “[a] resolution demanding that Federal tax money collected from religious pacifists be used by the government for nonmilitary purposes only.” This was only a one-paragraph short, and is the first I’ve heard of this conference or its resolution. It might have been an A.J. Muste project from around the time when he was beginning to explore war tax resistance.

Some church leaders from the Michigan district approved the following resolution, which seems to allude to the pressure to buy war bonds (source):

In harmony with the historic attitude of the Church of the Brethren, we the representatives of the southern churches of the District of Michigan, declare ourselves to be in favor of all things constructive and opposed to all things destructive; and that when demands are made of us which we cannot conscientiously fulfill, that our attitude should be nonviolent, and that we encourage the churches of Michigan in the purchase of Brethren Service certificates and stamps.

A page in the issue (source) read in part:

In war life and money are conscripted. Every nation demands of its citizens what they possess — service from the physically fit and money from everyone.

  1. Taxes

    Direct and indirect taxes are assessed against all citizens.

  2. Investment in War Bonds

    This is expected from all citizens who have investing power. To date the government makes such investment a voluntary matter but community pressures are almost equivalent to compulsion. Many persons with a conscience which prevents them from engaging in physical warfare are also deterred from voluntarily financing war.

The article went on to talk up Brethren Service Certificates, which helped to fund the Civilian Public Service camps for drafted conscientious objectors who were doing alternative work. There were also smaller-denomination “Brethren Service Stamps”, which were marketed to children in particular — “Children take their stamp books to school to indicate that, while they are not buying defense stamps, they are buying these stamps” — and also some so-called “peace bonds” and “peace stamps” that were meant as ways Brethren could participate in the bond drive mania without compromising their consciences. In all of these cases, the amount spent on bonds or stamps was a pure donation — the bonds could not later be redeemed for cash like war bonds could.

“Civilian Bonds”

The article shared a letter from Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau in which he authorized the issue of government bonds “which are not designated by their terms as ‘war issues’ ” — or, as he put it in another place “securities not designated as ‘War Bonds’ ” — so that conscientious objectors could plausibly buy them. Morgenthau’s language not so subtly indicates that this would be largely a fig leaf. The bonds would not be “designated” as “war issues” or “war bonds” but there was no suggestion that their proceeds would be spent any differently than any other government bonds. The accompanying article, however, went further and claimed that this new bond money was “to be used for civilian purposes” and would therefore be “a way to co-operate in government financing without violation of conscience.” I think that was wishful thinking at best.

The Brethren Service Committee was taking orders for the bonds immediately, via the Provident Trust Company of Philadelphia, who would send the bonds out to purchasers when the government got around to printing them up. In return for your order you would “without delay receive a reply which you may hold as tangible evidence to your community, if needed, to show that you are co-operating in financing the government.”

If memory serves, the Provident Trust Company ended up using the money to buy ordinary government F- & G-series bonds and then “registered” them as “conscience money” through some sort of hocus-pocus to distinguish them somehow from the bonds other people were buying without such conscientious decoration. (If you want to delve further, this was also a project that was covered extensively in The Mennonite, and you can see what I found in that magazine starting here.)

A later issue gave further instructions on the program, and included a coupon employees could use, if their employers were withholding money from their paychecks to buy war bonds, to request that they be used for “Civilian Bonds” or “Brethren Service Certificates” instead (source). The article explained the need for the new bonds: “For us who hold sacred [pacifist] convictions, it becomes very embarrassing to refuse the purchase of war bonds to meet a community quota. Our neighbors cannot understand and we are often looked upon as unpatriotic.”

A frequently-asked-questions section followed. This mostly covered the practical issues of how the bonds worked and how to purchase them, and didn’t include any questions about just how conscientious or civilian the bonds really were. The article seemed more careful than its predecessor in only implying without stating explicitly that the money raised by the bonds would not go to military spending. There was, however, this somewhat telling answer:

Question: Does the purchase of a Civilian Bond give credit on the county war bond quota?

Answer: Yes.…

Often, subsequent mentions of the Civilian Bond program were careful to say merely that the bonds were not explicitly designated for war expenses. But occasionally a stronger (and I believe, baseless) guarantee would be added, like this one from the issue (source):

The government assures us that the funds realized from the sale of these bonds are not used to finance the war.

Or this one, from (source), that you can just barely parse as not an outright lie if you try hard enough:

The historic peace churches through their committee have made arrangements that purchasers of government bonds may designate their money to be used in the civilian phases of our government program. Many citizens desiring to co-operate in the civilian program of the government but whose consciences do not permit them to aid directly and voluntarily in financing the war buy these bonds.

Or this carefully-constructed phrasing, from (source):

The peace churches have arranged with the government that… purchases may be made which constitute a designation that the money should be used in the civilian expenses of the government.

Purchasers of Brethren Service Certificates had more of a legitimately clear conscience, though they may not have found these certificates as useful as bonds in beating back the mobs of war bond enforcers, and of course they were also more expensive, being donations rather than loans. But here is an example of how one taxpayer used this program to help assuage his guilt for taxpaying:

Enclosed please find a check… representing double the amount of the tax which has been deducted from my salary this month. It is my conviction that the use to which this tax is being put — destructive alike of human life and of international goodwill — is incompatible with Christian ethics…

Since I can do nothing to prevent the withholding of this tax, I can at least protest the use to which it is put by trying to help counteract the damage it is doing to the cause of Christianity and democracy. I am therefore sending double the amount of tax to organizations which are maintaining and strengthening the principles of Christianity and of true democracy by constructive work of goodwill.

I intend to continue sending this amount, in addition to my regular contributions, each time I receive a salary check from which this tax has been deducted. As a receipt, the regular B.S.C. certificate will be ample.

Rufus D. Bowman

For the edition, Rufus D. Bowman wrote an article titled “Our Brethren Heritage Is Being Threatened”. One of these threats: “During World War Ⅱ the majority of the members of the Church of the Brethren are supporting the war system.” Bowman reported on the results of a survey he had conducted of Brethren practices that had reached 161 churches, representing about one-sixth of the Church of the Brethren. In that survey, “forty-six per cent of the churches reported that the members generally were buying war bonds and stamps, while sixteen per cent indicated that a substantial minority were buying them, and seventeen per cent said that a few were purchasing war bonds.” (Furthermore, more than 80% of Brethren draftees were going into the military without taking any sort of conscientious objector status, either noncombatant or civilian public service work.)

In a follow-up article in the edition, Bowman was back, and made “A Church-wide Call to Repentance”:

Along with the ministers all adults who have supported the war economically should repent. War cannot be reconciled with Jesus Christ. War is unchristian and is inconsistent with the most precious values of this universe. The kingdom of God is not built through hate, but through love. It is true that one cannot live without helping the war to some extent. When the writer takes the train there is a war tax on his ticket. But there are varying degrees of supporting the war and not supporting it. Where the individual is free to choose, the spirit and teachings of Jesus and the position of the Church of the Brethren are clear that church members should not support a system that destroys personality. Adults should repent of their part in this conflict.

In the edition, W.G. Willoughby took this now-that-the-war’s-over-let’s-repent thing and ran with it:

Let us confess to God and to one another that we have all shared in the dropping of bombs. We have participated in the mass slaughter of God’s children. Is the bombardier who released the bombs more guilty than the pilot who guided the ship; is he more guilty than the person who built the plane; is he more guilty than the person who bought bonds to pay for the ship, or is he more guilty than we who paid taxes to the government directing the whole operation?

The Etownian

The Etownian (Elizabethtown College student paper) covered a seminar held by Church of the Brethren officials who had been navigating the government’s conscientious objector / Civilian Public Service Camp bureaucracy (source). A paraphrase of remarks of M.R. Zigler included this: “The church must decide if it can purchase war bonds which are used to build more instruments of death, or if it should buy Brethren Service Stamps and Bonds which go to relieve suffering regardless of nation, race, or creed.”

The president of the student senate at Elizabethtown apparently decided in favor of bonds, when in a article (source), he wrote matter-of-factly that:

Today when we hear “Back the Attack” we know we must all cooperate by buying and investing in war bonds. Without this cooperation our Government would be helpless and we might as well learn the “goose step.” However, we know what we want and we will not let our Government down. We have pledged to cooperate and we are cooperating.

And a front-page banner in the issue urged that “every alumnus and former student will adopt the slogan, ‘Buy a Bond for Elizabethtown College’ ” (source).

The Brethren Missionary Herald

The Brethren Missionary Herald reprinted a statement from the Southern California District Conference on the propriety of non-combatant service, in its issue (source). It included this:

In the matter of the purchasing of Government Bonds, War Stamps, and working in defense industries, we hold that the line of Christian duty, as well as of Christian privilege, is sometimes a very difficult line to draw; and, in these matters it must be left to the individual soul to deal alone with his God.

A news brief in the edition showed that the West 10th Street Brethren Church of Ashland Ohio didn’t find the line too difficult to draw (source):

Rev. Charles Mayes, pastor, received $10.25 in war stamps in the church offering plates. Suggestion was made “that any other stamps appearing in the offering will be gladly received. These can either be converted into a war bond in the name of the church corporation, or turned over to some of our creditors as stamps, probably at face value. It honors the government to buy stamps even though the stamps may be turned into the church. The government will not lose and the church will thus gain.

A sidebar noted that “War Bonds Will Be Accepted” in the Thanksgiving Offering of the Home Missions Council, so the line was not apparently very difficult for the Council to draw, either.

“Militarism and hate are sweeping the Church today,” complained the editor in (source). “The gospel of love and grace has died in thousands of pulpits. Many church members are complaining that they cannot buy war bonds and support the Church, too.” I can think of one possible solution to that problem, but the editor had another in mind: buy war bonds and then turn them over to the church!

When the government instituted an additional “Victory Tax” to be withheld from salaries, the Brethren Conference of Southern California sent a protest to the government about it, after a special meeting held for this purpose on . Their protest was over the fact that the churches would be responsible for withholding this tax, which apparently they were not required to do for other taxes previously. This, they evidently found to be an egregious violation of religious liberty, and they insisted that pastors of their district pay the tax themselves without the church doing the withholding. Some lines were easier for the district to draw than others.

Bible Monitor

Clarence M. Stump took an unusually radical stand in the edition of the Bible Monitor, criticizing other Brethren for helping the government establish, fund, and operate Civilian Public Service camps for conscientious objectors. “Some say, going to camp is not fighting, but nevertheless it is a defense program. Trying to use one’s own power and not relying on God.” He recommended that draftees stand their ground and refuse to serve and take refuge in the Bible verse that says “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness sake.” So “Let us serve God and not Mammon. Let us not take offerings to send our young men to camp, but rather let us pray for our boys that they may be faithful to God.” (source)

See “Why Should I Give?” by O.L. Strayer in the issue, on the other hand, for a passionate defense of the camps. That defense included this admission:

We have paid taxes both direct and hidden for the carrying out of the business of the government. None of us can be so foolish as to say that we did not know that a portion of those taxes have been going for the upkeep of the fighting forces of the country, and yet we have not scrupled to pay, nay, we have taught from our pulpits that the Christian will pay his taxes faithfully.

One of the arguments for participating in bond drives and for turning a blind eye to war taxes was that everybody was involved in the war somehow, directly or indirectly, so there was no point trying to take a risky personal stand to try to extricate yourself from it. H.S. Bender of the Mennonite “Peace Problems Committee” tried to address this in an article reproduced in a issue of the Bible Monitor (source). Excerpts:

We are sometimes told that it is inconsistent for Mennonites to refuse to take part in the war because our Mennonite farmers are already in the war effort; hence all other forms of participation such as fighting, buying war bonds, working in war industry, must also be approved. The argument is clear and logical: if farming is taking part in war, then we cannot logically refuse the other things asked of us in military service, in war bonds, or in war work; then we must either quit farming or give up our nonresistant position altogether.

Bender took the position that while the produce of the farmer is used by those engaging in war, this is not the same as manufacturing military materiel, operating under military orders, working in a war industry, or working for the benefit of the war. While such a farmer does pay taxes, he did so just as much before the war. In short: farming remains a peaceful industry, even if it is conducted during wartime.

The propaganda arguments used against nonresistant farmers come from chiefly two sources: either from the militarists who do not at all want to strengthen Christian conscience against war but who want to break down this conscience to get more war participation; or from men with weak consciences and convictions, often from some one in war industries or in military service who desires an alibi to justify his own lack of conscientiousness.