An Attempted Debunking of Quaker War Tax Resistance Theory

Robert Gibbon Johnson assembled some lectures he gave into An Historical Account of the First Settlement of Salem, in West Jersey, by John Fenwick, Esq., Chief Proprietor of the Same; With Many of the Important Events that Have Occurred, Down to the Present Generation, Embracing a Period of One Hundred and Fifty Years ().

Johnson, by the way, is the fellow who, in American food legend, on this day in , publicly ate a bunch of tomatoes to prove to his incredulous fellow-townspeople that they were not poisonous.

While relating his history of Salem County, he decided to spend some time trying to debunk the theory behind Quaker war tax resistance during the American Revolution:

Thomas Story, in his journal, speaking of a 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 to 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, and he instances the example of Jesus Christ in paying his tribute money, and submitting to the Roman laws, though only an ordinance of men; and his apostles, likewise, as an example to his church through all ages then to come.” Again he says, “all are to pay tribute as justly (or equally) imposed by the legislature.” We, by the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, do freely pay our taxes to Cæsar, (or the powers that rule,) 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, (them,) or as needs be according to the constitution or laws of his kingdom, (or commonwealth.)

W. Penn says, “That since we are as large contributors to the government as our antagonists, we are entitled to as large protection from it.”

Samuel Bonas relates an argument he had with one Ray, a priest, who charged Friends with inconsistency, in that, while they actually paid and even collected a tax for the purpose of carrying on war against France with vigor, they refused to pay tithes and militia assessments. To which Bonas replies, “We are still of the same mind with Robert Barclay, that wars and fightings are inconsistent with the gospel principle, 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 laws of taxes, in rendering to Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s, or the congress, and he, or they, may do therewith what pleases he or them.

The writer goes on to say, “It is a received opinion among us that all wars without distinction are sinful:” hence arises this scruple against paying 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, when speaking of 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 peaceableness and love which God has wrought in their spirits, and by that law of life, mercy, goodwill, 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?”

Answer. — “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 to do so.”

Pennington, again, when treating on this peaceable principle professed by the society, says, “I speak not this against any magistrates or people 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.”

Another author, Finch, in a treatise called Second Thoughts concerning War, says, “It is evident that this great man (Pennington) 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 that this writer, though a great advocate for 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 philosopher’s stone, as a whole army of such warriors: and I am persuaded a due regard upon what may be urged upon his and my principle will require more benevolence and reflection of mind than can be expected from unthinking bigotry.” 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.”

Again, “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 your person and property, and your virtue and piety be a defense and a blessing upon his arms.”

At the first breaking out of our revolution, I have no doubt but that many Quakers were at a stand to know what course they had better pursue; their minds being agitated by the conflicting feelings of their religious sentiments, together with the fealty which they owed to the civil authorities of the country, and the natural bias of friendship which they must have had for many of those who had been their neighbors, and with whom they had lived upon terms of intimacy, but were now far away from their families and engaged in the strife of war; besides some of those, as officers or soldiers, or both, connected with them in all the endearing ties of consanguinity and affinity — all these impressions had a tendency to bewilder and distract their judgments.

But when their religious principles came to be publicly discussed, and pamphlets and other papers circulated among them — then they saw their way clear, not only to pay their taxes, civil and military, but many of them to unite heart and hand in the glorious cause in which their fellow citizens were engaged; and in this little county of Salem, I will name, as officers in the militia, the venerable and very aged Thomas Carpenter, Quarter Master; Major Edward Hall, Col. Whitten Cripps, John Smith, Adjutant; and there were others not now recollected — these were of the society of Quakers, and devoted themselves faithfully to the service of their country.

Often I find that critics of Quaker war tax resistance and Quaker pacifism have better-argued and more well-thought-out arguments than those they are arguing against. But Johnson’s argument, such as it is, isn’t very good. He does an okay job of piling up some Quaker authorities as a bulwark, but the argument he gives from behind them doesn’t amount to much.