Samuel Fothergill Sizes Up Quaker War Tax Resistance in America

In , English Quaker Samuel Fothergill visited the North American colonies. He was impressed by the group of Friends in Pennsylvania, such as Mordecai Yarnall, John Churchman, John Woolman, Anthony Benezet, and John Pemberton, who were trying to put some teeth into the Quaker peace testimony and develop a policy on war tax resistance.

He saw this as a worthwhile reform, but one that was likely to divide the Society and leave some of its less-zealous members behind. In , he wrote:

The Assembly here [in Pennsylvania] have passed a law imposing a tax upon the inhabitants of this province; and as a great part of the money is to be laid out for military purposes, many solid Friends cannot pay it, which is likely to bring such a breach and division as never happened among us since we were a people; may it be finally conducive to the glory of the ever worthy Name, if it issue in the winnowing of the people.

Fothergill was one of the signers of the Epistle of Tender Love and Caution that these Friends sent to their fellow-Quakers to outline their concerns.

When he returned to England, though, he found Quakers there in an uproar about the resisters in Pennsylvania. Quakers in London, in particular, had become lax in their practices concerning the peace testimony, and some prominent Friends had significant investments in the colonial lands under threat from Indian and French invasion; in addition, the resisting Pennsylvanian Quakers were politically inconvenient at a time when English Quakers were trying to convince the crown of their loyalty and their good citizenship. Fothergill’s signing of the epistle made him notorious, and embarrassing to some English Friends.

On , shortly after his return, he wrote to John Churchman, saying:

I found in almost every mind a secret displeasure against the Friends who signed the epistle of caution and advice, and fully expected to be tried by the Meetings of Sufferings for being concerned in it. But innocently conscious of my own and friends’ integrity, and mindful of that which engaged us, I was quiet, and yet bold. I have this remark to make: although subscribing that epistle hath made me the butt of professor and profane, I never once repented it; I believe it was right, and leave the effect to Him whose ways are unsearchable yet faithful, just, and true.

The Friends who are among you from Europe will, I hope, be guided aright; they have great need to ask wisdom of Him whose gifts are perfect. Many here expect they will condemn that epistle, and censure the Friends who signed it; some think otherwise. But it is the promotion of Truth itself (not our names and our own honour) my soul begs.

However something peculiar happened between then and the London Yearly Meeting. The more English Friends discussed the zealous scruples of their colleagues across the pond, the more they started to sympathize. Even the two enforcers sent by the London Yearly Meeting (John Hunt and Christopher Wilson, “The Friends who are among you from Europe” that Fothergill mentioned in his letter) proved unconvincing, and returned home with some unwelcome advice of their own: on the subject of war tax resistance, they told their English colleagues, Friends should “be quiet in their minds, and not enforce their sentiments upon one another.”

By the time the London Yearly Meeting rolled around, those Friends who had wanted the meeting to go on record condemning the war tax resisters of Pennsylvania instead did what they could to keep war tax resistance off the agenda entirely, for fear that the meeting would stir up a cadre of English Quaker war tax resisters!

In , Abraham Farrington wrote to John Churchman about the sea change:

When Samuel Fothergill returned from London, the first time after his arrival [from America], I asked him how he fared. His answer was, “Not a dog did move his tongue, nor a friend opposed.” I have now been nearly two weeks in this city, and seven or eight months in this nation, and have not heard a word in opposition to what we did, respecting the epistle. The treaty we had with the Indians, I believe, has opened the eyes of thousands, and stopped the mouths of as many.

The treaty with the Indians refers probably to the actions of the “Friendly Association,” a non-governmental organization of Quaker pacifists in Pennsylvania who went around their intransigent government to negotiate directly with some Indian tribes in an attempt to bring the French and Indian War to a negotiated settlement.

There is also an interesting letter from Irish Quaker Mary Peisley, who was visiting Pennsylvania at this time. She wrote to John Pemberton, and said in part:

In regard to the matter proposed by you, I shall answer briefly, without entering into the debates on either side, and say that I am of the judgment that if you stand single and upright in your mind from all the false biases of nature and interest, stopping your ears to the artifices and pretexts of self-love, with all the fallacious reasonings of flesh and blood and the subtle whisperings of an unwearied enemy, you will find it more safe to suffer with the people of God than to enter on or undertake doubtful things, especially when you consider the use which has been, or may be, made of that tax. I had not the least view, when I took up my pen, of enlarging in the manner I have done: but I felt my mind unexpectedly opened, and feel a perfect freedom to allow you to show this to such of your acquaintance as may be in like situation with yourself, that is, undetermined: not however that I want to expose this, with any other view than to strengthen the minds of the weak and wavering, and if it might have the same service, I had rather my name should be concealed.