Isaac Gray on Why Quakers Should Pay Taxes, Even to the Rebel Congress

I was finally able to get my hands on a microfiched version of Isaac Grey’s pamphlet A Serious Address to Such of the People called Quakers, on the Continent of North-America, as profess Scruples relative to the present Government: Exhibiting the ancient real Testimony of that People, concerning Obedience to Civil Authority. Written Before the Departure of the British Army from Philadelphia, , by A Native of Pennsylvania.

This was the second edition (the first one was bought up in toto by the Meeting in order to suppress it).

The work intends to show that good Quakers have always supported their de facto government, even when that government has been freshly installed via revolution, coup, or what-have-you. Therefore, American Quakers should support the Continental Congress — this, even though that Congress is engaged in rebellion against what was, until recently, considered the government, and even though Quakers stubbornly refuse to concern themselves with “setting up and putting down kings and governments.”

The pamphlet includes several pages of arguments for paying taxes. Here are those excerpts:

…[T]he present revolution is the work of the Lord, and according to the plan and design of his providence, and [the precedents and observations I have cited] tend to prove the safety and propriety of a submission to the powers which now rule: But it may be objected in justification of the present scruples and refusal by some, that the present powers and government are usurped and contrary to law: To this it may be answered that the same objection would have held good under every revolution which has heretofore been brought about, as they must no doubt have been contrary to the authority of the preceding powers, and by their friends and adherents been deemed usurpations, which might also have been alleged against the present constitution of Great Britain…

It appears to me that it is for those who choose not to have any hand in the formation of governments, to take governments such as they find them, and comply with their laws, so far as they are clear of infringing religious rights and matters of faith toward God: It cannot perhaps be found that friends, ever since they were a people, ever refused to assist in the support of government, but have ever held it right and necessary to comply with the laws of the various governments under which they lived; for as, according to our own repeated declarations as a society… the “setting up and putting down Kings and Governments is God’s peculiar prerogative, for causes best known to himself, and that it is not our work or business to have any hand or contrivance therein, nor to be busy bodies in matters above our stations.” Whether then can such a people, by any means, undertake to weaken or oppose the present government, seeing these things are allowed to belong only unto God, is a matter worthy of consideration.… Let us then, I beseech of us, attend to the above-mentioned profession and declaration, and see that if we are to have no hand in such matters, it may be uniform, if not on one side, neither on the other; for our declaration is that we have no hand “either in the setting up or pulling down,” neither by this way or that way, as a religious society, there is no distinction made of what King or of what government, if not as to one, so neither as to another: if not by encouraging, so neither by discouraging.

…[I]t may not be amiss to add something on the subject of the payment of taxes.

For this purpose, I shall produce an epistle of George Fox… where he advises,

All friends everywhere, who are dead to all carnal weapons, and have beaten them to pieces, stand in that which takes away the occasion of wars, which saves men’s lives, and destroys none, nor would have others; and as for the rulers that are to keep peace, for peace sake, and for the advantage of truth, give them their tribute; but to bear and carry weapons to fight with, the men of peace, (who live in that which takes away the occasion of wars) they cannot act in such things, under the several powers, but have paid their tribute, which they may do still for peace sake, and not hold back the earth, but go over it, and in so doing friends may better claim their liberty.

William Penn, in an address to the high court of parliament, … tells them that

We both own and are ready to yield obedience to every ordinance of man, relating to human affairs, and that for conscience sake; and that in all revolutions, we have demeaned ourselves with much peace and patience, disowning all contrary actings; and that we have lived most peaceably under all the various governments that have been since our first appearance;

which could not have been said with propriety, unless they had submitted to the civil ordinances of men, as above declared.

Thomas Story, in his journal… speaking concerning a law made to enforce the bearing of arms, which he disapproved, yet in the course of the debate, which he had with the judge of a court, says,

I began with the example of Christ himself for the payment of a tax, though applied by Cæsar unto the uses of war, and other exigencies of his government

and was going to show the difference between a law that directly and principally affects the person in war, requiring personal service, and a law which only requires a general tax, to be applied by rulers as they see cause;

for though we as a people readily pay such taxes impartially assessed, yet as the kingdom of Christ is not of this world, his servants will not fight, though they may and ought to pay taxes, according to the example of Christ their head:

For more of this Thomas Story episode, see The Picket Line, .

And what that instance and example was, he relates… where he says that

The Lord Jesus Christ obeyed all the righteous laws both of Jews and Romans, so far as his condition in this world subjected him to them: For though he was and is the peaceable Savior, and came not destroy men’s lives, but to save them, yet in obedience to the laws of men, where not opposite to or interfering with the laws of God, he wrought a miracle to pay a poll-tax, where in strictness the law did not require it of him, nor of his disciples; for having Roman privileges by virtue of an old league between the Jews and Romans, whereby they were as children and not strangers, nevertheless to obviate all occasion of offense, he submitted to it, though only an ordinance of men, and his apostles likewise, as an example to his church through all ages then to come.

Though this example is generally well known, it may not be improper here to recite it, which was thus:

And when they came to Capernaum, they that received tribute-money, came to Peter, and said, does your master pay tribute? He said yes. And when he was come into the house, Jesus prevented him, saying, what thinks you, Simon? Of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute; of their own children or of strangers? Peter said to him, of strangers. Jesus said to him, then are the children free. Notwithstanding, lest we should offend them, go you to the sea, and cast a hook, and take up the fish that first comes up, and when you have opened his mouth, you shall find a piece of money: That take, and give to them for me and you.

Matthew 17:24–27.

It is here remarkable that our Savior appears to have revolved in his mind the whole nature of the case, and of the demand that was made; for upon Peter’s informing the tax-gatherers that his master paid tribute, our Lord took occasion to remind him by a gentle reprehension, that he had gone further in his reply than he was bound to do, or than was requisite from the nature of their condition and circumstances; and immediately upon Peter’s entering the house, prevented his speaking by making use of a very strong and lively argument to convince Peter that he had been quite as quick as was necessary; and that instead of being bound to pay the tax, they were, according to the custom of the country, exempt and free; yet notwithstanding this freedom and privilege, or without the least objection to the use to which they money might be applied, though the Romans were in general heathen idolaters, and about that time, as appears from history, actually engaged in war on several sides, and the character of their emperor Tiberius marked as debauched, unjust, cruel, tyrannic, sanguinary, and inhuman. Yet Christ our Lord, though clothed with majesty and power above all the laws and powers of this world, and was thereby able to have subdued all things unto himself, and made them subservient to his will, was so tender of giving uneasiness to the powers that then bore rule that he ordered Peter, by producing an astonishing miracle, as we have read, to comply and pay the tax for this very striking reason, “lest we should offend.”

Thomas Story before-mentioned, in his journal… says, “That the sufferings of the faithful in Christ, in all ages, have not arose from the breach of any laws relating only to civil government, which they do readily observe and conscientiously obey.” And in the same page adds, “That as there always is and must be, in the nature of things, a great and necessary charge attending government, (a kingdom or state being but as one great house or family, and no private or particular family can subsist without charge) for that cause, all are to pay tribute, as justly (or equally) imposed by the legislature.”

The said author, in a conference had with the Czar of Muscovy, says,

Though we are prohibited arms and fighting in person, as inconsistent (we think) with the rules of the gospel of Jesus Christ; yet we can, and do, by his example, readily and cheerfully pay unto every government, and in every form, where we happen to be subjects, such sums and assessments as are required of us by the respective laws under which we live. For when a general tax was laid by the Roman Czar, upon his extensive empire, and the time of payment came, the Lord Jesus Christ [according to scripture, Matthew 25, as recited by Thomas Story] wrought a miracle to pay a tax, where yet it was not strictly due; we, by so great an example, do freely pay our taxes to Cæsar, who of right has the direction and application of them, to the various ends of government, to peace or to war, as it pleases him, or as need may, according to the constitution or laws of his kingdom.

I think this must be referring to Matthew 17, not 25 as the pamphlet says.

William Penn… says, “That since we are as large contributors to the government as our antagonists, we are entitled to as large protection from it.” Now this saying could not have been true, unless they paid all the public taxes, in common with other men, which no doubt their antagonists did; and by analogous conclusion, if we, under the present dispensation, refuse to contribute to the government under which we live, how can we expect to be entitled to its protection, not only at present, but in case the Almighty should see meet further and fully to establish it?

The said author… in answer to some objections made against the society, observes among other things, that it was said, “The Quakers will not support civil government,” etc. To which he answers, “This is also untrue upon experience; for what people, (says he) under government, pay their taxes better than they do.”

Samuel Bownas, in the account of his life, relates an epistolary argument he had with one Ray, a priest, who charged friends with an inconsistency in that, while they actually paid and even collected tax for the purposes of carrying on a war against France with vigor: They yet refused to pay tithes and militia assessments. To which Samuel Bownas replies,

We are still of the same mind with Robert Barclay, that wars and fightings are inconsistent with the gospel principles, and still lie under sufferings with respect to the militia, being careful to walk by the rule of Christ’s doctrine; and yet do not think ourselves inconsistent in actively complying with the law of taxes, in rendering unto Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s, and he may do therewith what pleases him.

Where it may be well to observe, that he there speaks of taxes as due unto Cæsar; thereby no doubt meaning the power that for the present bears rule, whether Emperor, Protector, King, or Congress.

From what has been observed, I think it may plainly appear, that friends heretofore have been so far from censuring or condemning their members on such occasions, that they have rather encouraged the payment of taxes, (except those in lieu of personal service) and advised a submission to the powers that bore rule, under the various governments and revolutions in which they lived; but if this be doubted, or any thing has been advanced that is not conformable to the truth, it will be well for any one to point out the same; but if they are consistent with reason, justice, and truth, it will be well to be cautious how any thing is acted opposite thereto; and while we declare that we cannot have a hand in public revolutions, (as belonging unto God) by promoting and encouraging, we may beware of taking an active part by opposing and discouraging, whether as to non-payment of taxes, or other civil acts; and then of consequence none can, with propriety or consistency, be censured or condemned concerning the same, especially in cases where no precedent for censure or condemnation can be found in the history or proceedings of friends.

As it is queried by some, whether Friends paid their taxes under the government of Oliver Cromwell, although there is as great or greater reason to conclude they did, than there is to suppose or prove that they did not; yet it may be observed that the practice of friends, ever since the time of George Fox, has been to keep a particular account of the sufferings they sustained, and the amount thereof, when it was on a conscientious or religious account, which have been recorded, and transmitted down to us from time to time: Now as it never yet has appeared in the accounts of friends sufferings, that anything was taken from them on account of taxes, even under Cromwell’s government, the committee of safety, or any of the then powers, which, if on a religious account, they had refused to pay, would have amounted to a very considerable sum, equal, if not superior, to any recorded by them, and would no doubt have been taken particular notice of among their other sufferings; but as nothing of this kind appears, it is therefore more than probable, and may be very safely concluded, that they submitted in these respects to the several governments, of what kind soever, under which they lived; and that they paid their taxes for the support of those governments, in common with other men, according to their uniform practice as a people.

To the above testimony of the dead, let us attend also to one of the living, an anonymous author, though well known to be Timothy Davis, a worthy friend and minister of the gospel; in a letter to some of his intimate friends on the subject of paying taxes to the present government, printed at Watertown, about two years ago, and sold by B. Edes, near the Bridge, has fully declared his sentiments in the following manner:

Here, Grey inserts a long excerpt from Davis’s pamphlet. See The Picket Line for the whole thing.

The matter now under consideration is serious. Many valuable members of society, both public and private, at this time, in different places, do not think themselves called or bound to join in the refusals and scruples which some make, and many more who have not yet fully considered the matter will probably be of the same mind; if this be allowed, which I believe may safely be done, will it not be exceeding hard that they should be denied the privileges of that society, in whose ways they have been educated, and whose religious principles they profess and hold, and to which they are closely attached? In time past, though there was diversity of sentiments with regard to some matters, yet we bore one with another without censure, in that spirit of condescension and brotherly regard, which is peculiarly characteristic of the followers of the Lamb, and shall we now, in very similar cases, give up that Christian temper, cast one another off, and produce a separation, when love and union might be preserved as well as in former days, and for which there is probably as much occasion as ever there was since the foundation of the province.

If indeed we think it proper as a society to maintain an opposition to the present powers of government, in civil as well as religious respects, it may preclude the use of the present observations, or at least render any service, which might be expected from them, very improbable; but as that would appear to be so contrary to the profession we have made, as well as inconsistent with our established principles, that I presume it cannot really be the case: I have therefore taken the freedom of laying these observations before us for our serious consideration.

Never was there a people more deeply interested in the event of public proceeding, than we now are. We are considerably numerous in various parts of the continent, and particularly so in this State. We are not only interested ourselves, but future generations may likewise be deeply affected by the part we now act. I wish us therefore so to conduct, as that Jew nor Gentile, or the church of Christ, either at this or any future time, may have just occasion of offence.

Now, notwithstanding what has been offered, as there may be some who may allege that their scruples and non-compliance with the demands of the present government, as to civil affairs, arises from a principle of conscience, which I am sensible is a very delicate point to touch upon, yet as I have no other end in view, but the good of society, as well as individuals, I would therefore beg them to consider that conscience, according to the general idea annexed to it, is a very sacred thing. Let us therefore be cautious how we apply it to common, civil, and merely human affairs, lest we make the plea for it upon more important occasions of too light estimation: It is deeply expedient for us to consider its nature, or what we are to understand thereby in religious affairs, and what are the proper and fit objects and subjects thereof, which may be necessary to claim and assert as independent of the power of the civil magistrate: For this purpose let us observe Robert Barclay’s sentiment of the matter, who, in the latter part of the 5th and 6th proposition, after speaking of the light of Christ, and the light of man’s natural conscience, says,

To the light of Christ then in the conscience, and not to man’s natural conscience, it is that we commend men: This, not that, it is, which we preach up and direct people to, as to a most certain guide unto eternal life.

From hence we may safely infer, that no objection arising from any thing short of the light of Christ, can be sufficient to operate with the professors of Christ our Lord, as a Christian church, in their proceedings and determinations; so that it essentially behooves them, certainly to know that it is altogether from the illumination and power thereof, and not at all from the other, that they are actuated: This appears to be absolutely and indispensably necessary for the right and true support of a pure Christian testimony, and which I heartily wish may be deeply and sufficiently attended to by all the active members of society; for in vain is it to endeavor to lift up a standard to the nations, unless in and by that power alone which is able to strengthen for the work; without which pure and unmixed qualification it will prove too large and too heavy, so that being beaten and driven by the winds, it will fall to the ground, to the shame and confusion of those who attempted to erect and support it.

The said author, in the 14th proposition of the apology, treating of the power of the civil magistrate, said,

The question is first, whether the civil magistrate has power to force men in things religious, to do contrary to their consciences, and if they will not, to punish them in their goods, liberties and lives? This (says he) we hold in the negative. But secondly, as we would have the magistrate to avoid this extreme of encroaching upon men’s consciences; so, on the other hand, we are far from joining with or strengthening such libertines, as would stretch the liberty of their consciences to the prejudice of their neighbors, or the ruin of human society. We understand therefore by matters of conscience, such as immediately relate betwixt God and man, or men and men, as to meet together to worship God in that way which they judge is most acceptable unto him; and not to incroach upon or seek to force their neighbors, otherwise than by reason, or such other means as Christ and his apostles used, viz. preaching, and instructing such as will hear and receive it; but not at all for men under the notion of conscience, to do anything contrary to the moral and perpetual statutes generally acknowledged by all Christians; in which case the magistrate may very lawfully use his authority.

The doctrine here preached is excellent both for those in, as well as those under authority, as it may clearly appear from thence that “in things religious,” such as he there mentions, he apprehends the magistrate has no just power, and that conscience may safely be pleaded; but observe the care and caution with which he writes, and how positively he excludes from that sacred claim “any thing that is acted contrary to the moral and perpetual statutes generally acknowledged by all Christians.” But it may be asked, what are those moral and perpetual statutes? I at once take it for granted that the laying and paying of taxes for the support of human and civil governments, and acknowledging the authority of the same, are material parts; seeing they have been very generally assented and submitted unto by Christians of all sects and denominations, at and from the personal appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ, in all countries, and under all revolutions, down to this very day; and without which “human society” could not be supported, but inevitably verge into confusion and ruin: From which I would as concisely as possible, according to the worthy author’s manner, and nearly in his own words, lay down a position, and then draw and prove what I apprehend to be an undeniable and conclusive argument, as follows:

  • Position: That it is unlawful and improper to counteract the moral and perpetual statutes generally acknowledged by Christians.
  • But the laying and paying of taxes for the support of human and civil governments, and acknowledging the authority of the same, are of those moral and perpetual statutes, etc.
  • Therefore it is unlawful and improper to counteract them.

If the cause of refusal and non-compliance were a matter of mere faith and conscience toward God, the case would be exceedingly different, and there would probably be no dissent; but as it appears to be only of civil concern, and relates solely to human affairs, it is therefore apprehended not censurable by the church, or properly cognizable thereby:

According to a note at the end of the pamphlet, the remainder of the text after this point was “added by a Friend of the Author’s, who was entrusted with the publication while he was in the country, with a discretionary power to add whatsoever he thought necessary.” The arguments that follow have a strong resemblance to those in An address to the people called Quakers, concerning the manner in which they treated Timothy Davis, for writing and publishing a piece on taxation which came out several years later (see The Picket Line, ).

And here I cannot but remark one reason why I believe many among us are led into a mistake, and scruples arise against paying of taxes for want of a well informed judgment. It is a received opinion among us, that all wars without distinction are sinful: Hence arises this scruple against paying of taxes for the support of war; but this is not the genuine doctrine of our ancient friends, as will fully appear in the following extract from the writings of Isaac Pennington, where speaking to what he very properly styles “a weighty question concerning the magistrates protection of the innocent,” it is to be observed that this enlightened author views magistracy and defensive war as the same thing, or, if I may use a simile as one building (though consisting of diverse parts) standing on the same foundation. The question is as follows:…

Whether the magistrate, in righteousness and equity, is engaged to defend such, who (by the peaceableness and love which God has wrought in their spirits, and by that law of life, mercy, good-will, and forgiveness, which God, by his own finger, has written in their hearts) are taken off from fighting, and cannot use a weapon destructive to any creature


Magistracy was intended by God for the defense of the people; not only of those who have ability, and can fight for them, but of such also who cannot, or are forbidden by the love and law of God, written in their hearts so to do. Thus women, children, sick persons, aged persons, and also priests in nations (who have ability to fight, but are exempted by their function, which is not equivalent to the exemption which God makes by the law of his spirit in the heart) have the benefit of the law, and of the magistrates protection, without fighting for the defense of either.

Now if magistracy be appointed by God, and if it be magistrates duty to defend such, who are either not able, or cannot for conscience sake defend themselves; is it possible any can be right who lay waste this ordinance, or speak of such defense as sinful? If any man be appointed by God to defend my life, is it possible that God can authorize me to call him a sinner for doing his duty? or is it possible that I can, consistent with my duty, refuse him that tribute which is absolutely necessary to enable him thus to defend me? But had I much greater abilities to speak to this subject than I am conscious of, no reasoning of mine could be of equal authority with the author above quoted. Hear him therefore again… where, treating on this peaceable principle professed by the society, he says,

I speak not this against any magistrates or peoples defending themselves against foreign invasions, or making use of the sword to suppress the violent and evil-doers within their own borders; for this the present state of things may and does require, and a great blessing will attend the sword, when it is uprightly borne to that end, and its use will be honorable; and while there is need of a sword, the Lord will not suffer that government, or those governors, to want fitting instruments under them for the management thereof, who wait on him in his fear to have the edge of it rightly directed; but yet there is a better state which the Lord has already brought some into, and which nations are to expect and travel towards.

A candid and judicious author, to wit, Richard Finch, in a treatise called Second Thoughts concerning War… after the above quotation, further adds,

It is evident that this great man holds forth plainly the divine economy I have hinted at above. We see it was his judgment that men using the sword, in this gospel day, may be God’s instruments; and that herein, though not come to the better state or summit of Christian perfection, they may yet be good enough to use or direct the sword to be used religiously in God’s fear: When perhaps many would think that religion in all, instead of using the sword, would if regarded, lead directly from the use of it; but it seems this writer, though a great advocate of our doctrine, thought otherwise; and I profess myself to be his proselyte, though at present, if there are a few persons so pious, I should almost as soon expect to find the philosophers stone, as a whole army of such warriors: And I am persuaded a due regard to what may be urged upon his and my principle, will require more benevolence and reflection of mind than can be expected from unthinking bigotry.

Again the same author,

I admire the wisdom and charity of this writer, in his prudent and generous concessions, though some may think he thereby gives his cause away; but I believe them so essential to the preservation of it, that what he writes is the very truth, and that without such concessions it will be impossible to maintain our ground against a keen adversary. All attempts to explain and defend our doctrine, which go upon the literal sense of the precept, or consider defensive war as a thing in itself wicked, how specious soever worked up or received by shallow judges, instead of honoring and serving, have injured a good cause by multiplying many if not needless absurdities and contradictions upon all such ill-judged attempts to state and clear the controversy.

The same author…:

The sword then which in tenderness of conscience you can not draw, may in another (whom for wise reasons it has not pleased God to lead in the manner he has done you) become the outward providential means to preserve you and others, as well as himself; upon which principle his arms may protect thy person and property, and thy virtue and piety be a defense and blessing upon his arms.


King William the Third was a great warrior, and a great blessing to England, as he interposed for its deliverance in a trying time, when the liberty of the subject, under a specious solemnity of preserving it, was secretly undermined; and the great duke of Marlborough, instead of being convinced of our principle, was a glorious instrument in a warlike way. From what has been laid down we may strongly conclude, that though a measure of divine grace, according to scripture, is given to every man, yet there may be an infinite diversity in degrees, and all things considered, it seems even impossible that it should by the giver, in every age and person, be designed to make precisely the same discoveries, and exalt to the same degrees of knowledge and perfection.

The above doctrine corresponds with a matter of fact, wherein the apostle Paul himself was nearly interested: It was at the time when upwards of forty of the Jews had “bound themselves under a curse, saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul” (Acts 23:16–24):

And when Paul’s sister’s son heard of their lying in wait, he went and entered into the castle, and told Paul. Then Paul called one of the centurions unto him, and said, Bring this young man unto the chief captain: for he has a certain thing to tell him. So he took him, and brought him to the chief captain, and said, Paul the prisoner called me to him, and prayed me to bring this young man to you, who has something to say to you. Then the chief captain took him by the hand, and went with him aside privately, and asked him, What is that you has to tell me? And he said, The Jews have agreed to desire you that you would bring down Paul tomorrow into the council, as though they would enquire somewhat of him more perfectly. But do not you yield unto them: for there lie in wait for him of them more than forty men, which have bound themselves with an oath, that they will neither eat nor drink till they have killed him: and now are they ready, looking for a promise from you. So the chief captain then let the young man depart, and charged him, See you tell no man that you has showed these things to me. And he called unto him two centurions, saying, Make ready two hundred soldiers to go to Cesarea, and horsemen threescore and ten, and spearmen two hundred, at the third hour of the night. And provide them beasts, that they may set Paul on, and bring him safe to Felix the governor.

It is evident here that the apostle’s life was preserved through the interposition of the chief captain; and Paul hesitated not to put himself under his protection, although he had been previously assured of the Lord’s particular providence and protection; the Lord having stood by him, and said, “Be of good cheer, Paul, for as you has testified of me in Jerusalem, so must you bear witness also at Rome.”

Upon the whole, much more might be produced to show that it is perfectly consistent with the doctrines of Christianity, and the practice of friends to acknowledge allegiance to the government that God, in the course of his providence, has thought proper should take place, and to conscientiously pay our proportion of taxes for the support thereof; but it is hoped the above is sufficient with every unprejudiced mind.