History of Quaker War Tax Resistance: The Great Forgetting

At the upcoming national gathering of NWTRCC at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, I’m going to be presenting a summary of the history of war tax resistance in the Society of Friends (Quakers).

Today I’m going to try to coalesce some of the notes I’ve assembled about the “Great Forgetting” period in which the Quaker practice of war tax resistance seemed to all but disappear.

The Great Forgetting ()

In mentions of Quaker war tax resistance nearly vanish from the record.

When, during the Spanish-American & Philippine-American wars at , the U.S. government attached war taxes to rail tickets, to official documents like checks, and to inheritances, some Quakers were troubled by this and made some efforts to avoid the new taxes, but I only find occasional mention of these taxes, and nothing resembling official warnings from meetings or prominent publications that Quakers should not pay them. A report in the Friends Intelligencer about the (Hicksite) Philadelphia Yearly Meeting noted that “[t]he ninth query called forth regret that Friends had not maintained a stronger and more consistent testimony against war, but had paid the war taxes without protest.”

Things were slightly better, but heading in the same direction, in England. An newspaper article on how the Society of Friends was changing to conform more and more to the society around it, included the detail that “its dislike to war taxes is [now] so slight that one for the Egyptian war has not been refused by a dozen of its members!” In 1901, Charles H. Fox had his property seized and sold at auction for his refusal to pay income taxes that had been boosted to pay for war expenses in South Africa and China. This was considered unusal enough to prompt a number of newspaper articles. Some of his friends bought the auctioned property and returned it to him, so even in this case, adherence to traditional Quaker practices with regard to war tax resistance was slack.

The London Yearly Meeting during issued a number of formal statements amplifying and reasserting its peace testimony, but none of these mentioned war taxes, and it would take a lot of work to read any encouragement for tax resistance between the lines of any of the statements.

That meeting’s “query” concerning the peace testimony in asked Quakers if they were “faithful in our testimony against bearing arms, and being in any manner concerned in the militia, in privateers, or armed vessels, or dealing in prize goods?” A century later this language would have seemed archaic, and the advice no longer representative of how modern wars were fought and how citizens would be called on to support them. But when the meeting revisited and reworded this query, instead of moderninzing the language and adding more relevant specifics, they instead replaced the query with a vague generality:

Are Friends faithful in maintaining our Christian testimony against all war, as inconsistent with the precepts and spirit of the Gospel?

To which it was easy to answer “sure!” because it didn’t seem to ask anything specific.

In an “American Friends’ Peace Conference” was held in Philadelphia at which presentations were made over three days on the subject of peace, anti-war activism, international arbitration, and related topics. The papers presented at the gathering were later published. I looked through them to see how the subject of war tax resistance was treated at this gathering and found exactly one mention of war taxes in the entire book, from Haverford College’s president Isaac Sharpless, speaking on the question “To What Extent Are Peace Principles Practicable?”:

It is impossible to avoid giving aid and comfort to wars and warlike tendencies unless one goes to a desert isle and lives by himself. Even if we do not join the army we pay taxes for its support. I do not know that any peace man omitted to write checks after the opening of the Spanish War because stamps were necessary to make them legal, and these stamps were expressly a war tax.

That’s why I call this period the Great Forgetting. It isn’t that war tax resistance was formally rejected, or that it had become too onerous and had to be abandoned, it’s more as though it was lost in a sort of collective amnesia. (This is especially perplexing in Isaac Sharpless’s case, as he had written a history of the Quaker governance of the Pennsylvania colony, and certainly knew plenty about Quakers who had refused to pay war taxes without retreating to a desert isle to do so.)

By the beginning of the 20th Century, in a variety of debates concerning resistance to “church rates” and the Education Act by nonconformist Christians in the U.K., I begin to see references to Quakers that take for granted that they do not resist war taxes. Arguments along the lines of: “Just because you are conscientiously opposed to funding the state religion doesn’t mean you can just stop paying a tax. I mean, look at the Quakers. Everybody knows how conscientiously opposed to war they are, and they never refuse to pay their war taxes.”

(The forgetting came even earlier to Australia. An anti-war writer there in advocated war tax resistance this way: “The English Quakers refuse to pay Church rates for conscience sake, and it is time for tax-payers who disapprove of such wars as the Affghan, the Kaffir, the Chinese, and the New Zealand war to make a stand for conscience, and refuse to pay income-tax.” In other words: Quakers were not an example of war tax resisters, but an example of tithe resisters that war tax resisters could be inspired by when developing their own variety of tax resistance.)

But although Quaker war tax resistance had mostly gone dormant in England and the United States (and evidently, Australia, if indeed it had ever gotten a foothold there), I see occasional signs that it had not entirely died out. Some Quakers in the far outposts of the Quaker world were keeping the flame lit and reminding Friends elsewhere that there was an alternative to sorrowful resignation in the face of war taxes.

A edition of The Friend noted that the harsh enforcement of military conscription on the European mainland had reduced the ranks of Quakers there, but also said that “One Friend in Norway has been imprisoned five times for refusing to pay the ‘blood-tax.’”

In Switzerland, in , pacifist Pierre Cérésole began to refuse to pay his military tax. He was not yet a Quaker, but would later convert, and would help to reintroduce war tax resistance to the Society of Friends through his influence on Dutch Quakers Beatrice Cadbury and Kees Boeke.

The Boekes began resisting taxes in . They made waves with their radical and uncompromising testimony against war and against violent coercion of any sort. In the United States, The Friend of Philadelphia quoted a report from its London namesake on the Boekes, but astonishingly headlined the article “Testimony-Bearing of the Seventeenth Century Type” — seemingly ignorant of all of the Quaker war tax resistance that had happened in the 18th and 19th centuries! More evidence that an uncanny Forgetting had taken hold.

An English Quaker wrote in that he believed “no Friend, so far as is known, has declined to pay his war taxes, so called. Even the Friends who during the South African war [probably the Second Boer War, ] permitted the authorities to distrain upon their goods rather than pay the (then) war tax, and the still larger number who refused for years to pay education rates [a conflict about tax money going to sectarian education that peaked around ], have seen their ways to pay the much larger war taxes of today without demur.”

This is the case even though draft boards in the U.K., in order to test the sincerity of people applying for conscientious objector status, would sometimes ask them if they were using any luxury products like tea, coffee, cocoa, matches, tobacco, or movies, all of which had a war tax applied to them. Quakers who attended these hearings in the support of their own applications for conscientious objector status were thereby getting a long-overdue sermon on the connection between conscientious objection and war taxes, but it seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

When the United States entered World War Ⅰ, it adopted a new war funding method: rather than relying entirely on taxes, it encouraged citizens to invest their money in “Liberty Bonds” — that is, to loan the government the war money at interest. Pressure to invest in these bonds was enormous — how many bonds you were willing to purchase was seen as a quantitative proxy for the quality of your patriotism — and refusal to purchase bonds was seen as being tantamount to treason. Although the bond purchases were ostensibly voluntary, vigilante mobs were not above using violent coercion to force sales, or even, at times, to steal property directly from recalcitrant citizens.

I have found dozens of examples of reprisals of various sorts being taken against people who refused to buy Liberty Bonds. Most of them involve Mennonites, whose Quaker-like pacifism would not permit them to buy war bonds. (Many American Mennonites were also of German ancestry and had Germanic names, which probably didn’t help them avoid trouble.) Others involve socialists and other political radicals who saw World War Ⅰ as being an example of workers fighting workers for the sake of capitalists.

Notably absent are Quakers, with one important exception: Mary Stone McDowell. McDowell was fired from her teaching job in part for her refusal to promote war bonds to her students. (The New York Times used the occasion to editorialize that Quaker teachers should all resign their positions since their pacifist views clashed with the proper patriotism that ought to be taught in school). McDowell would resurface as a war tax resister in the years after World War Ⅱ as part of the new “Peacemakers” movement and so would help begin the thaw in the Great Forgetting that would eventually lead to a renaissance of war tax resistance in the Society of Friends.

Here I should note that there’s a discontinuity in the material I’ve been drawing on for my research. The ease of search and the ready availability of on-line books and magazines and newspapers and other archival materials through Google Books, Internet Archive, and many other such platforms, has made research like this much easier than in times not long past. But much material published is not as available due to copyright issues. For many such documents, it is difficult to even determine who the copyright holder is, and so the creators of the on-line archives have not made this material as available. So it’s possible that the seeming absence of evidence of Quaker war tax resistance in the period should not be interpreted as evidence of absence.