Richard Yoder responds in a letter: “I am grateful that there seems to be a renewed emphasis on the historic peace witness of the Mennonite tradition, including war-tax resistance and redirecting of our tax dollars to life-giving activities. The nature of warfare has changed from the past when the military needed our bodies to now needing our dollars to pay for high-tech warfare. So in the same way Mennonites in the past found a way to say no to participating in war through conscientious objection, we now need to do the same with our tax dollars.”
A Glasgow man whose apartment keeps getting flooded has accused the city of negligence for signing off on the building’s construction, and is refusing to pay his council tax as a pressure tactic.
While I was researching the history of Brethren attitudes towards war taxes, I came across Samuel F. Sanger’s The Olive Branch of Peace and Good Will to Men: Anti-War History of the Brethren and Mennonites, the Peace People of the South, During the Civil War, .
It included this Quaker document that I hadn’t come across before:
To the Honorable The Legislature of Virginia:
Your petitioners, members of the Religious Society of Friends (called Quakers), desire respectfully to call your attention to that portion of the Governor’s Message in which he recommends the repeal of the law exempting certain Religious Denominations from military duty by payment of a tax.
In his remarks on the subject, the Governor, doubtless unintentionally, does great injustice to, at least one of those Sects, the Friends.
He assumes that the payment of said tax is an acknowledgment on the part of those paying it that some aid is due from them to the Government in the prosecution of the war:
on the contrary we have paid said tax under protest, it being one of the established principles of our Society from its rise unto the present day, that a Christian has no right to take up the weapons of a carnal warfare for any earthly consideration;
yet we believe it our duty as good citizens, “To be in subjection to the powers that be,” and as the exemption law, both of the Confederate and State Governments omitted to make any provision for distraint where the tax was not paid, it seemed to present the subject in a matter similar to that in which the Savior directed the tribute money to be paid — “That we offend them not.”
The discipline of every Yearly Meeting of our Socity prohibits its members from taking part in any way in war;
from mustering, or paying any fine imposed for not mustering, requiring its members in all such cases, quietly to submit to any distraints for said fine, and prohibiting them from concealing their property, or in any way evading said laws.
We believe that the Constitution of Virginia does, in those clauses which secure to every man the right to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience, afford ground for exemption to the members of our Society, as it is well known that we worship God not only as “Wonderful, Counsellor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father,” but also as the “Prince of Peace.”
Therefore a bill exempting those who worship him as the Prince of Peace, to wit:
Friends and Dunkers (Brethren), instead of being unconstitutional, as the Governor suggests, would, it seems to us, only be a provision to carry out the great principle set forth in the Virginia Bill of Rights, Sec. 16, viz.:
“That religion, or the duty we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence, and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience;
and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love and charity towards each other;”
and we have come to ask Christian charity at your hands, because, while we judge not for others, for ourselves we believe that by taking up the weapons of carnal warfare, even in the defense of our dearest rights, or life itself, we would endanger the welfare of our immortal souls.
Here there’s a break in what Sanger includes, which he summarizes this way: “The Petition then quotes freely from the early Church Fathers, Authors, and Reformers to prove that this belief is not original with the Friends; and produces from the prophecies of the Old and precepts from the New Testament, the Scripture in support of Peace Principles…”
The petition then concludes:
We have thus endeavored in meekness, to render a reason of the hope that is in us, and trust that the honorable Legislature of Virginia will not be behind the Roman Government, which under several Consuls, allowed exemption to the Jews from military duty on account of their religious scruples, and seeing that we are a peaceable people, ever desiring to render unto Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s, we pray that we may be allowed the privilege under the Government of this noble Old Commonwealth, which we honor and love, as loyal and true citizens should, to render unto God the things that are God’s according to the convictions of our consciences, and therefore pray that we may be required to perform no military duty;
for we consider the throwing up of a battery, or the driving of an ammunition or other team, as much an act of war as fighting in the ranks.
We own no God but the God of Love, Truth, Peace, Mercy and Judgment, whose blessings we invoke, and whose wisdom we implore to be with you in your legislative deliberations.
The petition is signed by John B. Crenshaw, clerk of the Virginia Half-Year’s Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, and dated .
Sanger’s book also tells how Brethren dealt with the same issue.
Unlike the Quakers, they were typically untroubled by paying militia exemption fines.
Early in the Civil War, however, the Virginia government did not recognize conscientious objectors at all, apparently.
Anticipating the draft, a number of conscientious objectors fled North.
72 were captured during their flight.
After some desperate lobbying on their behalf, the Confederate Congress passed an exemption act allowing for conscientious objectors to be freed from military service obligations on paying a $500 fine.
On the passage of this Act of Congress, special council meetings were called to provide funds to pay the fines of the poor brethren, who were unable to pay this heavy tax.
Great liberality was shown in the raising of this fund, as evidenced by one of the original subscription papers in my possession.
As soon as sufficient funds were secured, a committee was sent to Richmond, the redemption money was paid, and the release of these imprisoned brethren was obtained as well as those imprisoned in Harrisonburg.
Great joy was experienced throughout the churches in the South on their release.
Sanger also relates the story of Gabriel Heatwole, a Mennonite who was among the 72 captives freed in this way.
He expresses strong gratitude for those who lobbied for the Exemption Act and who did the fundraising to free him and his fellow-captives.