Thomas Story on Militia Tax Resistance by Quakers in American Colonies

Thomas Story, an English Quaker convert who lived in America , left an account of Quaker conscientious objection to conscription and military fines in America at that time:

This being , the governor of New England was preparing to invade Canada, a French colony on the same continent; and there being many Friends at that time within that government, who could not bear arms on any account, as being contrary to our conscience, and sentiments of the end and nature of the Christian religion, which teacheth not to destroy but to love our enemies; and the people of New England, willing to take advantage of the occasion to oppress us, made a law to this effect: “That such of the inhabitants of that government, as being qualified or able to bear arms, and being regularly summoned, should refuse, should be fined; and refusing to pay the fine, should be imprisoned, and sold or bound to some of the queen’s subjects within that colony, for so long a time as by their work they might pay their fines and charges.”

On we went to an appointed meeting at Bristol on the Main, where two of our young men, viz. John Smith and Thomas Macamore [another version says “Macomber”] were prisoners; being impressed by virtue of this law, to fight against the French and Indians, under the government of Boston. The meeting was in the prison, and several of the people came in, and some were tender: after the meeting, having exhorted the young men to faithfulness, we went in the evening back into Rhode Island, and next day to Newport, to their week day meeting; where I was much comforted in the Divine Truth in my own mind, but had no public exercise.

After I was at meetings at Portsmouth and Newport, also at Bristol, where the two young men were prisoners; being in the prison with them, and many other Friends present, we were favoured with a good time in the presence and love of God together; and the same evening had a meeting at the house of one Job Howlands. The prisoners not being called before the court that day, Thomas Cornwell and I went to Colonel Byfield’s, about a mile from the town, next morning. When we went in he was very boisterous, reproaching Friends in general as a sort of people not worthy to live on the earth; particularly those of Rhode Island and New England, who would not go out nor pay their money to others, to fight against a common enemy so barbarous as are the Indians; wishing us all in the front of the battle until we had learned better; charging us with many errors and heresies in religion by the lump; instancing only our refusing to fight, and believing a sinless perfection in this life.

When he had a little vented his fury, I, being over him in the Truth, returned upon him and said: “I was sorry we should find him in that temper, and that too in his own house, especially on such an occasion, when we, being strangers, were come only to request a reasonable favor of him, he being judge of the court; and that was to desire him to consider the case of our Friends as a matter of conscience towards God, and not of cowardice, nor of obstinacy against rulers or their laws.”

[H]is anger being much over, he became more calm and friendly, and told us what he intended to do with the young men, our Friends; and that was, to send them to the governor at Boston, that seeing they would not fight nor pay their fine, they might work at the fort till they had paid it by their labor. We said: “That was hard, it being only a case of conscience with us, in which we ought to obey God and not man, whatever may be the consequence of it.”

Thus conversing together we walked into the town; and notwithstanding his former passion, being now much altered, he took us kindly by the hands in the street, before many people, when we parted. After this we went to the prison to see the young men, and acquainted them, that we could find little ground to expect any favour; at which they seemed altogether unconcerned, being much resigned to the will of God at that time; and we stayed with them in prison most of that day, they not being called into the court till the next afternoon.

The prisoners being brought into court, Thomas Cornwell and I, and many other Friends went in with them; and though we had our hats on, the judge was so far indulgent as to order us seats, but that our hats should be taken off in a civil manner by an officer. I said: “We did not keep them on with any disrespect to him or the court, neither did any of us at any time; but our hats being part of our clothing, we know not any harm nor intended any affront to the court by keeping them on: and though religion be not in the hat, yet where it is fully in the heart, the honour of the hat is not demanded, nor willingly given or received by the true disciples of Him who said: ‘I receive not honour from men; but I know you, that ye have not the love of God in you. How can ye believe, who receive honour one of another, and seek not the honour that cometh from God only?’ ”

The prisoners being at the bar, the judge asked them the reason of their obstinacy, as he called it. The young men modestly replied, it was not obstinacy but duty to God, according to their consciences and religious persuasions, which prevailed with them to refuse to bear arms or learn war. But the judge would not, by any means, seem to admit there was any conscience in it, but ignorance and a perverse nature; accounting it very irreligious in any who were personally able and legally required, to refuse their help now in time of war, against enemies so potent and barbarous as the French and Indians; with repeated false charges against us as a people; saying: “Since we could pay to public taxes, which we knew were to be applied to the uses of war, why could we not pay those which were by law required of us, instead of our personal service and to excuse us?”

Then I stood up and desired leave of the court to speak, which was granted; and said: “If the judge please to keep the present business of the court, concerning the prisoners, I would, with leave, speak to the point of law, in the case; but if he thought fit to make it his business to continue to charge us as a people with errors in matters of religion, I should think it mine to answer him in the face of the court; public, and undue charges, laying a necessity for, and excusing as public answers; adding, that I could give the court a distinction and reason, why we could pay the one tax, and yet not the other. not the other. Most present being desirous to hear these reasons, 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 on to show a 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 affects not the person. For though we readily pay such taxes; 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.

The judge perceiving how inconsistent this would prove to their present purpose, interrupted me; but several of the justices wished to hear me further on the subject.

There are multiple versions of Story’s journals out there, and they differ. Another version of the Life has a very different version of this short paragraph, which reads: “The judge interrupted me, saying, I would preach them a sermon two hours long, if they had time to hear me.”

Then Thomas Cornwell, a Friend of good repute and interest in Rhode Island, desired them to be careful what precedent they made upon this law; since neither he nor any of us knew what might be the effect of it, or how soon it might be any of our cases; and that it would be very hard upon us to be sold for servants. He then demanded a precedent, where, at any time, in any other of the queen’s dominions, any of her subjects ever sold others of them, for the payment of taxes laid by their fellow-subjects, on any pretense whatsoever, where conscience and duty towards God, and Christ the Lord, was the only cause of refusal: adding, that he could never pay any of those taxes, though he should be sold for payment of them.

Truth came gradually over them, and things grew very heavy upon them, though they still persisted in their own way;…

Another version of the Life adds at this point: “and John Smith, one of the prisoners, said to judge Byfield, that he also must come one day to judgment, before a greater judicature, and therefore desired him to be careful what he did.”

…at last the court adjourned till towards the evening, and then ordered the young men to be returned to prison, there to remain till some person or persons appear to pay the sums demanded, or shall tender to take them into service, for such time as the justice and sheriff shall think reasonable; or until the governor, by warrant, shall remove them to the castle near Boston, where they are to work as prisoners for such time as their services will pay the sums now due, with other charges that may become due, and then to be released.

This comes from The Life of Thomas Story, Abridged by John Kendall, Revised and Considerably Enlarged from the Folio Edition Written by Himself by William Alexander Vol. Ⅰ. (), pages 267–78.