Today I’ll try to summarize what I’ve gleaned from reviewing the archives of various periodicals associated with Brethren churches in the U.S., along with some supplemental material.
Caveats apply, for example:
- Some periodicals were not part of the Internet Archive’s “Brethren Digital Archives” collection, including The Vindicator, which started publishing in and may still be going today.
- Some issues of some periodicals were missing from that archive.
- Recent issues of some periodicals that are still in operation are not yet in the archive.
- The periodicals I reviewed were: Gospel Visitor, Christian Family Companion, The Weekly Pilgrim, The Primitive Christian and Pilgrim, The Brethren at Work, (Gospel) Messenger, The Inglenook, The Missionary Visitor, Our College Times / The Etownian, The Brethren Evangelist, Bible Monitor, Schwarzenau, Brethren Missionary Herald, The Pilgrim, Grace Theological Journal, and Ashland Theological Bulletin.
- Some Brethren periodicals published material in German, and I didn’t bother trying to delve into any of that.
- For the most part, I found content of interest by doing simple text searches on the optical-character-recognition scans of the periodicals. If the text was not legible to the optical character recognition, it would not come to my attention even if it were relevant.
The churches grouped here under the “Brethren” name are American branches of an originally Germanic group of Anabaptists that was forced to flee to America in the early-18th century. They’re sometimes called “Schwarzenau Brethren” or “German Baptists” or “Dunkers”. Brethren, along with Mennonites and Quakers, are considered the “traditional peace churches,” for their shared non-resistant (pacifist) beliefs.
There have been schisms aplenty among American Brethren. From what I could tell from the periodicals I reviewed, most modern war tax resistance was to be found in the Messenger, which is the organ of the “Church of the Brethren”.
The periodicals I reviewed go back to . I don’t have much to go on before that.
At the outbreak of the American Revolution, some Brethren joined with Mennonites in a declaration to the Pennsylvania Assembly that expressed their unwillingness to serve in the military, but stressed their willingness to pay taxes (and evidently included a supplemental donation).
In an annual meeting of Brethren unanimously concluded that it was improper to “pay the substitute money” — that is, to pay for substitutes to take the place of conscientious objectors in the militia. , noting that this instruction “has been overlooked here and there, and some have not regarded it (sad conclusion),” the annual meeting issued a follow-up, saying: “take no part in war or blood-shedding, which might take place if we would pay for hiring men voluntarily; or more still, if we would become agents to collect such money.”
As for war taxes, the statement was more permissive, saying that Brethren might pay them “in order to avoid offense” and such Brethren should not be faulted for this. But also, “if one does not see it so, and thinks, perhaps, he, for his conscience’s sake could not pay it, but bear with others who pay in patience, we would willingly leave it over, inasmuch we deem the overruling of the conscience as wrong.”
That suggests that there were war tax resisters among the Brethren at this early date, and their conscientious scruples were respected by the Church.
There’s a gap in the record, or at least in the record I stumbled on, between the American Revolution and the mid-19th century. The Gospel-Visiter starts publishing in , and in the years before the Civil War I wasn’t able to find any tax resistance sentiments there. When taxes are mentioned, Render Unto Caesar seems enough to settle the question, without much room for nuance.
When the Civil War hit, Brethren were once again forced to reckon with the military draft. Some ways people could abstain from military service when threatened with conscription included hiring a substitute to serve in one’s place or paying an exemption fine. Brethren typically were untroubled by the latter — and sometimes even lobbied the government to make such a commutation fine available to them — but often found hiring substitutes directly to be morally offensive (although not at all unheard of among Brethren). In addition, Brethren were often encouraged by their churches to contribute to funds to pay the commutation fines of financially disadvantaged Brethren who could not do so on their own. That said, there were occasional dissenting voices from Brethren who thought that paying the commutation fines was just another sinful way of hiring a substitute.
More controversial was the practice of contributing to community funds designed to hire substitutes for a whole region. Apparently, sometimes the military draft would operate by demanding a certain number of young men from a particular district. The district could somehow conscript those men from its ranks, or they could try to hire others on the open market to serve. Some districts attempted to exempt themselves from service in this way, and Brethren were conflicted over whether they could contribute to the community fundraising for such a purpose.
The issue of whether or not it was appropriate to invest in government bonds came up for the first time (that I noticed anyway) during this period. The Annual Council said, of investing in such bonds, “We consider it not wrong to do so,” but there was some debate, and it’s not even clear to me whether war funding (as opposed to more banal aspects of bond sales) was even at issue there.
After the Civil War
After the Civil War, discussion of these issues became less urgent and those that were left unresolved during the war stayed that way afterward.
During the Spanish-American War, mentions of war bonds in the Gospel Messenger did not include any qualms about whether or not Brethren ought to invest in such things — indeed they were downright enthusiastic about the bonds.
World War Ⅰ
World War Ⅰ was the most disheartening period for me, as in all of the sources I reviewed, Brethren and Brethren institutions completely capitulated to the “Liberty Bonds” mania, and loaned the government money expressly in order to help it carry on the war.
That said, there was intense government persecution of anti-war activity during this period. You could be imprisoned for trying to discourage people from buying war bonds. So the lack of evidence of such arguments in the magazines of the period may just be reflecting this censorship.
But full-throated endorsements of war bond purchases were not uncommon in Brethren publications, and for years after the war I kept finding examples of war bonds in the published financial statements of Brethren institutions.
Between the World Wars
Even after the war, when sober heads might have prevailed, most mentions of Liberty Bonds came from Brethren institutions putting in a pitch for Brethren to donate them to the institutions. One asked readers whether they ought to “put those Liberty Bonds to work for the cause of Jesus Christ? It was really the Lord’s money that purchased them, anyway.”
In the I start to see hints that there is a war tax resistance faction out there somewhere, but they for the most part don’t speak for themselves in the periodicals I reviewed — I infer them from some of the attacks on conscientious tax resistance from other authors.
In the , a “20,000 Dunkers for Peace” campaign began. The pledge these 20,000 Dunkers were to sign said, in part, that they would refuse to bear arms in combat “and, only under protest to pay taxes for military purposes.” This was the first explicit mention of war tax resistance (or protest at least) in decades.
A query was sent up to the Annual Conference about how one should go about making such a protest, and in , a report was issued saying that of course Brethren should pay all of their taxes, but they can write letters or pass resolutions or paste messages to their tax returns if they want to protest. The conference approved the report with no dissension.
That was pretty weak sauce, admittedly, but it seemed to open the door to hearing more radical points of view. Kermit Eby published a piece in the Gospel Messenger in late in which he called for pacifists to refuse all manner of economic cooperation with the war state. In an Annual Conference committee explicitly recommended that Brethren refrain “from the purchase of such as Liberty Bonds to finance war,” the first explicit renunciation of the Brethren position during World War Ⅰ that I found.
World War Ⅱ
And then the U.S. entered World War Ⅱ, and Brethren had to decide whether to capitulate to war fever again or to try to stick with their newly-refound principles.
The evidence is mixed. At first, in parts of the Brethren community at least, I saw continued reluctance to buy war bonds (though no war tax resistance). But the pressure continued to build. Bond drives tried to get 100% participation of neighborhoods, towns, or workplaces, and anyone who held out was tarred as disloyal and uncivil.
One way Brethren tried to deflect this pressure was through the sale of “Brethren Service Stamps” and “Brethren Service Certificates”. These were ways to donate money to Brethren service projects, or to the funding of camps for conscientious objectors. The donations were recognized by giving stamps or other fancy-looking papers to the donors that Brethren could show in place of their war bonds or war stamps as a way of demonstrating that they too were contributing to the public effort in their own way.
Brethren also joined with Mennonites to try to get the government to issue war bonds that weren’t called war bonds, so that they could purchase them without embarrassment. Eventually the government gave in, and issued bonds that were “not designated as ‘War Bonds’ ” and the Brethren Service Committee began taking orders for them — often overselling them, in either a dishonest or merely wishful way, as though they were actually going to pay for exclusively non-military projects.
Rufus D. Bowman surveyed Brethren churches in and found that adherence to conscientious objection to military service was dismally low, while “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.” Bowman would later be the first member of the Brethren to come out of the closet as a war tax resister in the pages of a Brethren journal.
The Early Cold War
The emerging non-sectarian pacifist war tax resistance movement caught the eye of Brethren editors, and I saw several mentions of the (non-Brethren) pioneers of this movement and their resistance in Brethren periodicals (particularly the Gospel Messenger). In , Brethren resisters began to emerge, with Floyd M. Irvin the most prominent of the early resisters. By the mid-1950s war tax resistance had become a topic of serious consideration in the Messenger, even in the sorts of articles that used to just matter-of-factly say “render unto Caesar” and call it a day.
In conscientious objection to military taxation was raised as an issue at the Church of the Brethren annual conference, and the Board approved a recommendation to “begin making explorations with agencies of government in order to find some acceptable alternative for persons who, because of religious training or belief, are conscientiously opposed to the payment of the portion of their income taxes that goes for military defense.”
This seems to have opened the floodgates, at least in the Church of the Brethren / Gospel Messenger branch. In and the letters-to-the-editor column was full of back-and-forth about whether war tax resistance was appropriate for Brethren, and the editor endorsed war tax resistance in an editorial. Many Brethren resisters were coming out of the woodwork, and defenders of the old unquestioning “render unto” position were put in the unusual position of having to defend what had been orthodox for ages.
The Vietnam War
A variety of symbolic forms of tax resistance as protest began to develop. In the lack of much official guidance from church authorities about whether, why, and how to resist, individual Brethren blazed their own trails: some reducing their income to non-taxable levels, some resisting all or part of their income tax, some resisting a token or symbolic amount, some beginning to resist the excise tax on their telephone bills.
In the General Brotherhood Board of the Church of the Brethren issued a new report urging the government to somehow accommodate conscientious objection to military taxation, but also explicitly listing war tax resistance as a possible legitimate Brethren response to the problem of paying taxes for war (something the Church hadn’t done as far as I could see since ). The Annual Conference issued a statement of its own based on this recommendation which “put in a permissive form” options like war tax resistance “leaving the action to the conscience of the individual.”
In I begin to see mentions of Brethren congregations resisting taxes corporately, beginning with a Delaware church refusing to pay the excise tax on its phone service.
In the Church of the Brethren General Board began to divest from government bonds, in protest against war spending, though it decided against phone tax resistance.
The Late Cold War
In a committee report to the Annual Conference on “The Christian’s Response to Taxation for War” threw some cold water on the emerging enthusiasm by noting that historical Brethren practice about war taxes had typically been to pay them without complaint.
In an early version of “Peace Tax Fund” legislation was developed, beginning a fools’ errand that continues to the present day. Excitement over the possibility of such a law would begin to crowd out mention of honest-to-goodness war tax resistance in the pages of Brethren periodicals.
In a few dozen Methodists, Mennonites, and Brethren met at Camp Mack and many signed a tax resistance pledge that was drafted there. , the first “New Call to Peacemaking” conference brought Brethren, Mennonites, and Quakers together, and also put out a statement advocating war tax resistance and church support for resisters. That was enough to make even the stodgy Brethren Evangelist take note, as they reprinted the conference statement over two issues.
In another committee issued another report to the Annual Conference, and one that gave much more encouragement to war tax resisters than the tepid report — taking its lead from the New Call to Peacemaking statement. The Church of the Brethren adopted that report as an official position paper.
In war tax resisters penalty funds began to be organized, with Brethren support, and one Brethren church started a war tax redirection fund.
In Brethren congregations confronted the issue of what to do when the IRS demanded they withhold taxes from the salaries of their war tax resisting pastors (some gave in, others resisted). The Annual Conference formally recommended on a supermajority vote that “congregations and church-related institutions give consideration to a range of extra-legal options” in such situations.
In the Church of the Brethren General Board refused to honor an IRS levy against two Brethren pastors.
By the end of the Cold War the wind had gone out of the war tax resistance sails. A remarkable surge of Brethren direct action against cooperation with military spending that had begun to sprout in the 1930s and then grew for fifty years, for the most part withered and died by the end of the century. This is a similar story to what I saw when I reviewed Mennonite and Quaker periodicals, and its cause remains something of a mystery.