Luke Howard Recounts an Episode of Quaker War Tax Resistance

The following comes from an interesting English magazine called The Yorkshireman, a Religious and Literary Journal by a Friend, specifically from volume 4 (), number 95. It is part of a series of articles that stretched over pretty much the whole life of the magazine, called “A Chronological summary of events and circumstances, connected with the origin and progress of the doctrine and practices of the Quakers”:

Enactment for raising “An aid and contribution for the prosecution of the War.”

Several members of our Society were brought into considerable difficulty by refusing to pay this demand. Richard Reynolds of Bristol, Dr. Jonathan Binns of Liverpool (some time Superintendent of the Institution at Ackworth,) and the Editor of this work were of the number. We construed the Act (all of us, I believe) upon the very face of the preamble, as a direct Military requisition personally made on the king’s subjects: and consequently knew not how to impute to the Executive branch of the Legislature (as in the case of an ordinary Tax on their property,) the military application of our share of the Fund so raised.

This, I believe, refers to the usual excuse Quakers gave when paying taxes that were largely going to pay for war but were also “mixed” with spending for other government programs. In such cases, Quakers would frequently say that they felt obligated to pay the tax and if the government then decided to spend some or all of the money on war, that was the government’s sin, not theirs. This excuse didn’t carry much weight when the tax was explicitly enacted to pay for war.

(See The Picket Line 1 February 2011 which has some more information on how Quakers dealt with that war tax.)

Friends (though they mostly complied) were generally uneasy with the payment of this Rate; and were at length relieved by its being converted into a Tax on Income, without any specific application by the terms of the Act. The following letter, written to his father (who procured his release, by paying it for him,) will be appreciated (the Editor hopes) with candour, by such of his Friends as remember the trying occasion to which it relates. He has not suppressed (as he might certainly have done) the passages that make against himself: and with regard to the payment of the Tax, by the Friend to whom it was addressed, he believes it to have been made from motives as pure as those which actuated his own conduct in the case.

Dear Father: I have received a paper from thee containing extracts from two Yearly Epistles, prefaced by some remarks on the subject of War-taxes. I have read them with attention, referring to the passages of Scripture cited, and again (as at many times heretofore) seriously reviewed the subject; and hope I shall remark upon them with proper deference to the judgment of a tender and beloved parent. I ought to premise that, on recollecting the conversation which occasioned thy writing [to me], I have found cause to condemn myself for indiscreetly, perhaps unjustly, reflecting on the Meeting for Sufferings; as well as for too much latitude of expression, otherwise.

I believe, after saying so much, I need not ask thee to forgive my weakness. But perhaps this may have occasioned a question in thy mind, whether my conduct in refusing to pay the “Aid and Contribution” has been dictated by any better motive than a spirit of opposition to the present war; or [at best by] a persuasion that the payment would not be consistent with my profession as a Friend.

I think proper [therefore] to state to thee the real grounds of my refusal, and distinguish them from any inconsiderate additions I may have made, in the course of a too unguarded conversation. I might add some arguments on war and taxes, taken generally — but shall not do it, except thou art desirous to hear them: believing that I might have done better not to have communicated on the subject with the few that I have [spoken to;] and that my present business is, rather to suffer for my belief, if it so please Providence, than to dispute, or persuade others: more especially while I am as yet untried with the suffering that may ensue. — 

I had acquiesced in the general opinion that Friends would pay the Tax, though not a pleasant one. On the first sight of the printed paper, containing the charge on us [the partnership in town,] I was forcibly struck with the title — and a degree of uneasiness raised which I could not shake off, though desirous to shun the subject. After suffering under it for some days, I got the Act; and on perusing it with attention my judgment was convinced that, if I should pay that charge, I could not acquit myself in the sight of the Almighty of knowingly and willfully joining in the prosecution of the War; and consequently in the destruction of my Fellow-creatures: which I was not conscious I had ever done hitherto; and fully persuaded I could not do, without incurring the Divine displeasure.

Soon after came the demand on me here [at Plaistow,] which was one of the greatest exercises [of faith] I have ever met with. For, I think, I suffered every argument that arose on behalf of the payment, as well as the dread of the consequences, and the powerful [influence of the] example of many Friends, whose judgments I could willingly have preferred to my own, to operate fully and perhaps too long. However, after looking on every side as long as I durst, I found no way to escape but by giving up to refuse: and I had no sooner done so, than my peace of mind as to that matter was restored. Neither have I yet seen sufficient cause to question the rectitude of my conclusion, though sometimes rather low [in mind] in the apprehension of the consequences.

From the circumstances and effects of this trial I am led to believe, I did not refuse this demand from any other motive than obedience to the requirings of Truth. At this time, I can truly say, I am far from a disposition to censure or condemn any individual, who is easy [in mind] to pay: believing:, that those whose judgment is otherwise persuaded may be as much in their places in paying, as I hope and trust I am in refusing. It is my earnest wish, that both those who refuse and those who pay may be preserved in that Charity which thinketh no evil. And then, whether it be the will of our Divine Leader, that we should advance further in our noble testimony for Peace, — or whether the persuasion, into which a few Friends (with my unworthy self) have fallen, be intended to bring us into suffering for our good, — or whether, in fine, we are in an error through weakness, — I am desirous to refer all to Him; in full confidence that, while we continue thus minded, we shall be preserved from strife, and favoured ultimately to unite in a right conclusion. So be it, says thy dutiful son — Plaistow, .

A children’s book cover for the book “The Man Who Named the Clouds”

The “Friend” of the journal title, and the editor of this series of articles, was, I think, Luke Howard (). Howard was part of the evangelical/biblical fundamentalist Quaker tendency (sometimes called “Gurneyite” in the writings I’ve reproduced at The Picket Line) that formed partially in reaction to the Hicksite movement, and he was also active in such areas as abolitionism, temperance, and animal welfare.

He was also a member of the Royal Society and is probably best known today for his work in meteorology, particularly the categorization of clouds (he’s the one who came up with the names “cumulus,” “cirrus,” and so forth).

The Yorkshireman was published between and .