John Woolman’s Brother? Also a Tax Resister.

John Woolman strengthened the Quaker practice of war tax resistance significantly and is probably the best-known Quaker thinker in this area. His brother Abner also had some thoughts on the subject, which he left in his journal:

For some years past I have been thoughtful about the payment of money which was made some time before to defray military expences, and now (in ) was sinking by a tax, and my exercise was at times very great and I often looked round about and thought no ones state is like mine, neither did I know who to converse with. I often was alone endeavouring to have my mind still, and after some time it looked most clear to decline paying the money thus appointed to military uses, and when the officer came to my house to demand it I told him that I was most easie to decline paying of that tax.

The Vote

Helena Normanton wrote a series of articles on “Foundations of Freedom” for The Vote. In her column in the issue she scored a historical point for the tax resisters of her day (excerpt):

We need not spend time over the origin of the House of Lords. It originated, of course, from the feudal magnates (including bishops), whose advice the King voluntarily demanded. From the time of the Conqueror to that of Henry Ⅱ. it was little more than a convenient tool for the King, but in we hear of the first case of opposition to the Royal will — Becket successfully resisted the King on a question of taxation. In there was another episcopal tax-resister — St. Hugh of Lincoln. The Tax Resistance League should feel a thrill of pride in that the two originators of this time-honoured practice were both saints — and highly popular ones, too! Whether the House of Lords would rejoice in the fact that tax-resistance was begun in England by two of its members is not for such as I to say. I wonder.

The Monthly Repository of Theology and General Literature (volume 2, ) of London published a couple of letters on the subject of Quaker war tax resistance:

To the Editor of the Monthly Repository.


I have been reading lately with great pleasure, “Clarkson’s Portraiture of Quakerism,” and though I am not sufficiently acquainted with the sect of the Quakers to form an idea of its likeness to the original, I confess I think it a beautiful picture. But when I read the chapter on war, &c. I wished to have a Quaker by me to explain why they refuse to pay for a substitute if drawn in the militia, and yet pay, which I am informed they do, a tax avowedly styled a war tax, — namely, the tax on income!

As the Quakers are, we are now told, an informed, reading people, it is probable some of them may see this, and I will thank any one of them if he will, through the medium of your Magazine, explain this seeming inconsistency.

I am Sir, yours,

To the Editor of the Monthly Repository.

Thy correspondent P.M. having in a friendly manner requested that one of the Quakers will “explain why they refuse to pay for a substitute drawn in the militia, and yet pay a tax avowedly styled a war tax, namely, the tax on income,” I will endeavour briefly to explain this seeming inconsistency, as it is termed by P.M.

The Quakers or rather Friends, as being the name by which they call themselves, have always believed it to be their duty to “render unto Cesar the things that are Cesar’s,” by paying all taxes levied for its support by the government under which they live, considering that the governors and not the governed are responsible for the application of such taxes. The supposed difficulty occasioned by the specific avowal of the intended application of the income tax would not be removed by a refusal to pay that tax only, since there is scarcely a single tax, duty, or custom that was not originally exacted virtually, if not specifically, for the same object, neither can we suppose that the taxes paid to the corrupt and warlike government of Rome were less exceptionable in their appropriation, the payment of which was nevertheless authorized and enjoined by Christ and his apostles. See Matt. ⅹⅶ. 24 to 27. ⅹⅻ. 21. Rom. ⅹⅲ. 6, 7.

The Friends’ objection to pay for a substitute in the militia rests upon the same ground as their refusal to be hired by government to kill their fellow men; for as in this latter case they would by their own personal act, violate their principle against war of every kind, so they consider it an equal violation of their principle to hire another man to kill and destroy in their stead. In both these instances the act being all our own, by which we immediately promote and sanction “the sanguinary progress of human destruction that is going on in the world,” the responsibility is our’s also; whereas in the former case we conscientiously submit to the ordinance of our rulers who are placed over us for the salutary purposes of promoting the good and harmony of civil society. If the means they employ be not always such as we can approve, still the object itself is good, (Rom. ⅹⅲ. 1 to 4.) and the responsibility rests with them.


My weird obsession with the early years of Quaker war tax resistance brings me into contact with some of their other eccentricities. For instance, they used the archaic English second-person familiar pronouns (thee, thou, thy, thine) long after they’d gone out of fashion because there had been a practice of using the now-ubiquitous second-person plural pronouns as a sign of respect — you’d address a shopkeeper as “thee” but a magistrate as “you” — and the Quakers would have nothing of such distinctions.

They also, for similar reasons, refused to doff their hats to people or in offices of the high-and-mighty. For example, in , when Thomas Story went to court to help a couple of conscientious objectors, he wrote:

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 way by an officer. I replied we did not do that with any disrespect to him or the court, but our hats being part of our clothing we knew 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 will not be demanded, or 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 which receive honour one of another, and seek not the honour that cometh from God only?”

I bring this up because Pete Eyre, an anarchist activist from Keene, New Hampshire, was recently arrested for refusing to take off his hat in court.

It’s remarkable to me how many of the trappings of aristocratic presumption remain, mostly unchallenged, in the courts: The robes, the elevated bench, referring to the judge only indirectly through “your Honor” (like “your Majesty” or “your Highness”), having to stand and take off your hat when the judge comes into the room, and so forth. It ought to embarrass us. Imagine if the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve made a show of reading chicken entrails each time they released a statement.