Tax Resistance in “Gospel Herald”, 1901–1916

This is the third 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.

“Herald of Truth” logo, circa 1898

As the new century began, J.K. Zook explained the proper relationship between church and state in his article “The Law and the Gospel”.

In Zook’s reading, which seemed very much in the Mennonite mainstream, the Old Testament described a theocratic order in which the church and state were tightly linked. The New Testament, however, broke this bond. Christians should not expect worldly governments to follow the rules of human behavior set down in Jesus’s teachings — such governments at best might uphold the “Old Law” which is meant “to govern the natural man to which all civilized nations at least are amenable.” The gospel is designed to govern “the spiritual man in the church of Christ.” So, while Christians must return good for evil, governments should still be expected to return evil for evil under the old eye-for-an-eye code, and should not be held to the Christian standard, even by Christians. Zook then reiterates the lessons from Romans 13:

Therefore let every soul be subject to such as are under control of God’s appointed ministers to protect the righteous and with the sword to avenge His wrath, as He has in all past ages upon nations by nations, for their intolerable wickedness…

…Horrible as war may seem, yet it is the Christian’s positive duty to ask for them [His ministers who bear the sword] the blessings from heaven, and cheerfully contribute their allotted temporal portion of tax, custom, and all dues required whatever to support the government in executing God’s will.

“Gospel Witness” logo, circa 1905

Over several issues of Gospel Witness in , C.H. Smith covered the history of the Anabaptists (of which the Mennonites are one branch). I found these excerpts about early divisions between tax resisting and tax paying branches interesting:

Bullinger in his work on the Anabaptists mentions no less than forty sects in his time under that name. Among the most prominent are… 6. “The Free Brethren.” They were shunned by most of the others. They made the spiritual freedom a freedom of the flesh. They owed no tithes, taxes, and opposed slavery. Entered all sorts of disgraces. Had property and women in common. They taught that a Christian must hate all that might belong to him, even wife and child.

Of government there was no need by the Christian. It was a necessity, but only for the unrighteous. This is the view found in most of the confessions of faith issued by the large assemblages of the leaders as at Schleithem . This was the non-resistant attitude, held by the majority of the Swiss. Government was a necessity, was divinely ordained to punish the wicked and reward the righteous. A Christian, however, could not become a magistrate, although he must render obedience and pay his just taxes. He could not take up the sword to kill even at the call of his country. He could not take the oath. Christ taught him to say Yea, Yea; Nay, Nay.

Bullinger includes the attitude of non-resistance in his long list of things held in common by the large majority of Anabaptists. There were, however, two other well defined views regarding Civil Government; the one represented by Hubmeier and the other by John of Leyden. The former believed in government, paid all taxes, and obeyed all its ordinances that did not interfere with the free exercise of religion. It was proper to use the sword outside of persecution. The latter believed in the establishing of Christ’s Kingdom by the sword at the cost of sedition and revolution.

The refusal to pay tithes and taxes on the part of the more radical, had its germ in the teaching of the more conservative, many of whom taught that they really owed nothing to the government, but paid taxes simply to escape persecution. Stumpf, one of the early founders, and Grebel told Zwingli that they desired to found a church which should be made up of truly converted Christians who would live righteously, cling to the Gospel, and who should not be burdened with taxes or other usury.

J.S. Hartzler’s “Scriptural Gems for Daily Meditation”, in the edition, hinted that there might be some tax resisters in the flock who needed correcting:

My Country

 — Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. ―Rom. 13:1.

Occasionally we find people who are so over-conscientious that they want nothing to do with the laws of the land and in fact, but little with those who carry them out, at the same time they question whether it is right for them to pay taxes under certain circumstances, but they are ready to speak harshly of their rulers and dwell long and loudly on their corrupting influences. This is wrong. I have no right to withhold any of the taxes due to my country, (Rom. 13:6,7) nor to speak evil of its rulers, (Acts 23:5) but to honor them (1 Pet. 2:17) and pray for them, (1 Tim. 2:2). He who prays as he should will have no evil to say of his rulers.

“Gospel Herald” logo, circa 1916

The first mention I noticed of the Funkite schism among Mennonites was in the edition of the Gospel Herald, in an article which said in part: “The first schism in America was in on the question of paying war tax…”

A typical, though not universal, position among Mennonites was to refrain from voting in political elections, under the view that Christians belonged rightly to one of the “two kingdoms,” and politics to the other. Here is an interesting example of a Mennonite (Benjamin Weaver) trying to undermine this reluctance to vote (in this case, so that Mennonites could vote for alcohol prohibition):

We have many, doubtless, that vote not, for conscience’ sake, but here is a question before us, “Shall we say Yes, or No?” Someone says our vote would be authorizing someone else to exercise authority and use force to enforce the law. We should think not more so than our paying our taxes. Our Savior gave us an example in this when asked about the tribute money. The Apostle Paul appealed to Caesar…

An article in the quoted from a Schwenkfelders resolution issued during the American Revolution to the effect that they pledged to “carry in common and help each other to carry all fines in money that may be imposed on any of them or of their children on account of their refusal through conscientious scruples to render personal service in the war…”

In , representatives of the Swiss Brethren (immediate ancestors of the American Old Mennonite Church) met with their counterparts from the Zwinglian church (the state church) to haggle over theology. The edition of Gospel Herald reprinted some of the Brethren’s talking points from that discussion, including this one:

Of taxes and tribute. The Brethren said, “We have never taught that interest, tithes, tribute, taxes, etc., and whatsoever one owes, should not be paid… If any one among us should be found disobedient in regard to this duty and the government visited him with punishment, we could not object. We have willingly rendered to this and other governments what we owed, and any one of like faith with us, who would not do so, we would not tolerate it nor let him be unpunished… To refuse taxes to the government would be against God, and if we would do such things, we were of the evil one.”

Not much had changed by the early twentieth century. In reporting on an “Annual Bible Conference” held in , the Gospel Herald summarized one of the topics — “Christians’ Relation to the Government” — as follows:

Christians should render obedience to, pay taxes to, not speak evil of, and to pray for, the government. Christians should not go to law nor to war, but rather appeal to the Church to settle difficulties, using the Word of God as their weapon.

Reporting on a “Bible Conference” , “We should gladly and willingly pay our taxes,” was a conclusion that required no caveats. A filler quote from the edition read “Every good citizen will pay his honest taxes. It is just as big a sin to steal from the state as from a neighbor.”

Mennonites debated whether they ought to engage with politics at all, but the orthodox opinion was that that even should Christians make every effort to remain aloof from political affairs, they still ought to pay whatever taxes the state demands.

Finally, a historical note from the edition, which reprinted a petition from Pennsylvania Mennonites to their state House of Assembly, which explained their conscientious objection to military service, and said in part:

We are always ready according to Christ’s command to Peter to pay tribute that we may offend no man and so we are willing to pay taxes and render unto Ceasar [sic] those things that are Ceasar’s, and to God those things that are God’s although we think ourselves very weak to give God His due honor, He being a Spirit and Life and we being dust and ashes.

The petition also mentions that it was accompanied by a “small gift which we have given… to those who have power over us that we may not offend them as Christ taught us by the tribute penny.”