Tax Resistance in “Gospel Herald”, 1864–1865

This is the first in a series of posts about war tax resistance as it was reported in back issues of Gospel Herald, journal of the (Old) Mennonite Church.

I was crazy enough recently to go through 133 years of back issues of The Mennonite (associated with the General Conference Mennonite Church), and, apparently my penance not yet completed, I decided to forge ahead with the journal of another major Mennonite group.

The Mennonite Church, sometimes called the “Old” Mennonite Church, and not to be confused with the General Conference Mennonite Church, coalesced among Swiss Brethren emigrants in late-18th century Pennsylvania, though the first of its congregations there date back as far as . From there, (Old) Mennonties spread into Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and beyond, and would eventually have congregations in many parts of the United States and Canada.

The Herald of Truth began publishing in under editor John Fretz Funk, “[t]he most important figure in the life of the (Old) Mennonites in the nineteenth century,” according to An introduction to Mennonite history: a popular history of the Anabaptists and the Mennonites (Cornelius J. Dyck, ; J.C. Wenger wrote the chapter on the Old Mennonite Church, which I used for this summary).

In , The Gospel Witness began publishing under editor Danel Kauffmann. It bought out The Herald of Truth in and merged the two magazines to form Gospel Herald, which continued under Kauffmann’s editorship.

“The Herald of Truth” logo, circa 1864

The Herald of Truth began publishing in the middle of the American Civil War, which gives us the opportunity to immediately contrast the Mennonite Church point of view on conscientious objection to war with that of their cousin “peace church,” the Quakers. For example, Quakers by and large at this time were unwilling to take up arms in the military, to serve in the military in noncombatant roles, to pay for substitutes to serve in their place, or to pay “commutation fines” in lieu of service if they were drafted. (In practice, however, many Quakers did not go along with this official position.)

Mennonites were not so strict. A more typical Mennonite position would forbid military service or the paying of substitutes, but considered the payment of commutation fines to be a reasonable compromise, and indeed expressed gratitude to the government for permitting it.

For example, here is editor John F. Funk in , reviewing Daniel Musser’s pamphlet Non-Resistance Asserted. He writes “I am highly pleased with the contents. I believe it contains my own views on this subject through out, and would recommend it to be read by all who profess to maintain this important doctrine [nonresistance].” Mussen writes of the latest Union military draft:

[T]he powers again ordered a draft without exempting any for conscience’ sake. The request was personal service or three hundred dollars of money. The personal service they [the nonresistants] could not render. The money belongs to the kingdom of this world and they [the government] had a right to demand it as their own. Paul says; We shall pay tribute and custom to who it is due, and says we shall do so because of the duties the Government has to discharge. They now ask our person or the money, the latter is theirs and we make conscience of the duty to pay it, and feel that it would be wrong to refuse to do so.

However, he writes that it is improper for nonresistant people to offer financial inducements to others to enlist in order to meet the enlistment quota for a region and spare nonresistants from being drafted:

But how can those who profess to be disciples of Jesus Christ, and say as such, Christ has forbidden them to fight, join in with our opponents, and pay men to go and fight for them, or in their stead? It is said, “It is to avoid the draft;” but by what means? Inducing other men to go in our stead! Any one can see that there is no consistency here. If it is wrong for me to go, it is wrong to pay another to go for me.

A report of a Conference Meeting in Indiana, carried in the edition, included this note:

[T]hrough the kindness of our government, our people are yet allowed to pay their commutation money, instead of giving personal service, for which our hearts should ever rise in gratitude and praise to the giver of all good. The brethren here raised about 2000 dollars to help those who are drafted pay their fines.

The issue included this editorial, in which Funk put the arguments he’d quoted from Musser’s pamphlet in his own words:

A serious consideration

Since the present war commenced, many serious and important questions have presented themselves to the minds of many persons, and to none more so than to those who maintain and adhere to the doctrine of non-resistance.

The question has been asked by very many, whether it is right for a non-resistant to hire and send into the army a substitute; and whether right or wrong, this has sometimes been done; but it is now generally admitted to be wrong, and thee is probably, scarcely a single one who professes to hold to the doctrine of non-resistance, that would be willing to send a man to do that which he himself is not permitted to do, and which he considers altogether against the gospel of Jesus Christ, whose footsteps we all desire to follow. In my own mind I am fully persuaded that it is wrong, and if we do it we assume the terrible responsibility of violating our conscience and breaking the commands of the Savior, besides acting inconsistently before the eyes of the world.

During the recent drafts, however, another question presented itself to the minds of nearly all non-resistants. It may be stated as follows: “May a non-resistant connect himself with a township or district organization and pay a certain amount of money to secure himself and the township against the draft?[”] It is my purpose in this article to consider this question, though I do it with the full consciousness that I am writing upon a very delicate and a much-disputed question — a question upon which many of the brethren hold different views, and some indeed hold that it is our duty to aid such an organization, without asking any question as for conscience’ sake. Now I do not wish to interfere with the views of any one or to write merely for the sake of argument, but as one standing in the position where I do, I cannot keep my own conscience free, unless I try to do my whole duty — I write for the love of souls, I desire that all should know the whole will of God and I pray, that knowing it, we may all strive to do it. Let us therefore in the spirit of Christian love consider it, knowing that we must all give account of these things at the great judgment day.

In my humble opinion the latter question is very similar to the first and may be decided in the same way, namely as inconsistent. The reason why I think so is as follows. The rulers and law-makers of our country recognize the fact that there are communities of people, forming a part of the inhabitants of the country, who always have and still do maintain the principle of non-resistance. And the privilege of maintaining this principle has always been guarantied to them, even by the first framers of the constitution of our land; and by the grace of God, if we are faithful and true, may we not hope, that as civilization advances, this principle shall become more and more popular — be more and more respected and recognized through all future times?

In consideration of these non-resistants, Congress has made a law, and it was sanctioned by the Chief Magistrate, which provides a way through which they can do their share of the duty devolving upon them as citizens of this country, without violating their conscience. This law provides that they “shall be assigned by the Secretary of War to duty in the hospitals or to the care of Freedmen, or pay the sum of three hundred dollars, to be applied to the benefit of the sick and wounded soldiers.” Thus far the Secretary of War has always directed the money to be paid, so that none, thus far, have been compelled to go even in to the hospitals.

Now a non-resistant may comply with either of the above conditions without violating his conscience; for should he be ordered into the hospital, his duty would be to take care of the sick and wounded, and this is a work which all may do, freely and heartily; yea, it is our duty to relieve suffering wherever found, and the Bible requires us to be subject to all the requirements of the government as long as we are not required to do anything by which we violate our conscience, and the Law of God.

In the second place if we are required to pay the commutation fee, we can do that also, inasmuch as the law provides that it shall be applied to the benefit of the sick and wounded soldiers; thus in this case also our money is not used to carry on the war, but to relieve suffering, but even if it were, we would still be justified in paying it without questioning what use was made of it afterwards; for we pay our taxes and the responsibility of applying them rests with the officers of government and not with us, as Jesus also gave us an example when he sent Peter saying: “Notwithstandng lest we should offend them, go thou to the sea, and cast an hook and take up the fish that first cometh up: and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a piece of money: that take and give unto them for me and thee.” Hence, for conscience’ sake, there is no occasion — no necessity for a non-resistant to pursue any other course than that which is here laid down by the government, and whether any other course can safely and consistently be followed is very doubtful.

The difference between paying the commutation fee to the government, and a certain amount to a town organization is simply this: In paying the commutation fee, we give to the government what it demands of us in the same manner as we pay our taxes, which is our Christian duty as every one will admit, both according to the precepts and the example of Christ, as well as that of the apostles; besides this money is not used for war purposes, but goes to relieve the sick and suffering ones in hospitals. In paying a certain amount to a society or to a township organization, we give that amount for a certain purpose, and that purpose is to pay men to go as soldiers in the army to engage in war, a thing which we ourselves cannot do for conscience’ sake, and which government does not even ask of us, because as a conscientious people they have kindly remembered us and provided for us another way, which we may take, and to which the most sensitive conscience cannot find a single objection. In the latter case, also, the money is given voluntarily to this special purpose, and for this reason we are responsible for the use we have made of it, for we are stewards of God, holding in trust that which He has committed to our care. In the former case it is demanded of us by those in authority over us, who have power to demand it, and as already stated we pay it for conscience’ sake, as a debt we owe to the government and are no longer responsible for the use they make of it.

But it may be urged that we should do this as an act of mercy and kindness to those around us. Now, allow me, my dear brethren, to speak my mind plainly. I pray that God may direct my thoughts so that I may be able to explain his truth fully and give no offence. I wish to say this: If we can do a certain amount of good by paying our money in this manner, we can certainly do more good by going directly into the field. We can fill a place there, and thus permit another to stay at home; and this would be the greatest possible love that we could show to our neighbor, that we would be willing to give our life, if need be, to save his. But few would be willing to do this, and Paul says: “Shall we do evil that good may come? God forbid.” And government does not require any thing that we cannot do with a good conscience.

It may be urged that we are in this way assuming a dangerous position. There is no danger in submitting to law, but there is danger in breaking the law. If, we trusting in God, our only hope and our strong tower, and in patience possessing our souls, when the draft takes place, are willing to pay our commutation fee, then we are submitting to the law exactly, doing just as the law provides and directs; if we take any other course we are not submitting to this law, and are very liable to take steps which might preclude us from the benefits of it afterwards. Oh, let us be very careful to keep ourselves consistently non-resistant!

Again it is said; Some are not able to pay, and others are not willing to pay so much. Among most of the congregations where drafts have taken place, the brethren have contributed towards helping each other pay their commutation fees, and this is the proper way.

I have now given my views plainly, I may be mistaken and have formed incorrect conclusions. All that I ask is that we may all read carefully and pray earnestly for wisdom and strength to understand rightly, to act wisely and keep a conscience void of offences. “Prove all things, hold fast that which is right and good.[”]

This was followed by an article that urged Mennonites to form mutual aid accounts to help pay the commutation fines for conscripted Mennonites who are too poor (or who come from congregations that are too poor) to pay them themselves.