Excerpts from the Journal of John Woolman

Excerpts from The Journal of John Woolman:

When I was at Newbegun Creek a Friend was there who labored for his living, having no negroes, and who had been a minister many years. He came to me the next day, and as we rode together, he signified that he wanted to talk with me concerning a difficulty he had been under, which he related nearly as follows: That as monies had of late years been raised by a tax to carry on the wars, he had a scruple in his mind in regard to paying it, and chose rather to suffer distraint of his goods, but as he was the only person who refused it in those parts, and knew not that any one else was in the like circumstances, he signified that it had been a heavy trial to him, especially as some of his brethren had been uneasy with his conduct in that case. He added that from a sympathy he felt with me yesterday in meeting, he found freedom thus to open the matter in the way of querying concerning Friends in our parts. I told him the state of Friends amongst us as well as I was able, and also that I had for some time been under the like scruple. I believe him to be one who was concerned to walk uprightly before the Lord, and esteemed it my duty to preserve this note concerning him, Samuel Newby.

A few years past, money being made current in our province for carrying on wars, and to be called in again by taxes laid on the inhabitants, my mind was often affected with the thoughts of paying such taxes; and I believe it right for me to preserve a memorandum concerning it. I was told that Friends in England frequently paid taxes, when the money was applied to such purposes. I had conversation with several noted Friends on the subject, who all favored the payment of such taxes; some of them I preferred before myself, and this made me easier for a time; yet there was in the depth of my mind a scruple which I never could get over, and at certain times I was greatly distressed on that account.

I believed that there were some upright-hearted men who paid such taxes, yet could not see that their example was a sufficient reason for me to do so while I believe that the spirit of truth required of me, as an individual, to suffer patiently the distress of goods rather than pay actively.

To refuse the active payment of a tax which our Society generally paid was exceedingly disagreeable, but to do a thing contrary to my conscience appeared yet more dreadful. When this exercise came upon me, I knew of none under the like difficulty, and in my distress I besought the Lord to enable me to give up all, that so I might follow him wheresoever he was pleased to lead me. Under this exercise I went to our Yearly Meeting at Philadelphia in , at which a committee was appointed of some from each Quarterly Meeting to correspond with the meeting for sufferings in London, and another to visit our Monthly and Quarterly Meetings. After their appointment, before the last adjournment of the meeting, it was agreed that these two committees should meet together in Friends’ school-house in the city, to consider some things in which the cause of truth was concerned. They accordingly had a weighty conference in the fear of the Lord, at which time I perceived there were many Friends under a scruple like that before mentioned.*

As scrupling to pay a tax on account of the application hath seldom been heard of heretofore, even amongst men of integrity who have steadily borne their testimony against outward wars in their time, I may therefore note some things which have occurred to my mind, as I have been inwardly exercised on that account. From the steady opposition which faithful Friends in early times made to wrong things then approved, they were hated and persecuted by men living in the spirit of this world, and, suffering with firmness, they were made a blessing to the church, and the work prospered. It equally concerns men in every age to take heed to their own spirits, and in comparing their situation with ours, to me it appears that there was less danger of their being infected with the spirit of this world, in paying such taxes, than is the case with us now. They had little or no share in civil government, and many of them declared that they were, through the power of God, separated from the spirit in which wars were, and being afflicted by the rulers on account of their testimony, there was less likelihood of their uniting in spirit with them in things inconsistent with the purity of truth. We, from the first settlement of this land, have known little or no troubles of that sort. The profession of our predecessors was for a time accounted reproachful, but at length their uprightness being understood by the rulers, and their innocent sufferings moving them, our way of worship was tolerated and many of our members in these colonies became active in civil government. Being thus tried with favor and prosperity, this world appeared inviting; our minds have been turned to the improvement of our country, to merchandise and the sciences, amongst which are many things useful, if followed in pure wisdom; but in our present condition I believe it will not be denied that a carnal mind is gaining upon us. Some of our members who are officers in civil government are, in one case or other, called upon in their respective stations to assist in things relative to the wars; but, being in doubt whether to act or crave to be excused from their office, if they see their brethren united in the payment of a tax to carry on the said wars, may think their case not much different, and so might quench the tender movings of the Holy Spirit in their minds. Thus, by small degrees, we might approach so near to fighting that the distinction would be little else than the name of a peaceable people.

It requires great self-denial and resignation of ourselves to God to attain that state wherein we can freely cease from fighting when wrongfully invaded, if, by our fighting, there were a probability of overcoming the invaders. Whoever rightly attains to it does in some degree feel that spirit in which our Redeemer gave his life for us, and through Divine goodness many of our predecessors, and many now living, have learned this blessed lesson. But many others, having their religion chiefly by education, and not being enough acquainted with that cross which crucifies to the world, do manifest a temper distinguishable from that of an entire trust in God. In calmly considering these things, it hath not appeared strange to me that an exercise has now fallen upon some, which, as to the outward means, is different from what was known to many of those who went before us.

Some time after the Yearly Meeting, the said committees met at Philadelphia, and, by adjournments, continued sitting several days. The calamities of war were now increasing; the frontier inhabitants of Pennsylvania were frequently surprised, some were slain, and many taken captive by the Indians. And while these committees sat, the corpse of one so slain was brought in a wagon and taken through the streets of the city in his bloody garments, to alarm the people and rouse them to war.

Friends thus met were not all of one mind in relation to the tax, which, to those who scrupled it, made the way more difficult. To refuse an active payment at such a time might be construed into an act of disloyalty, and appeared likely to displease the rulers, not only here but in England. Still there was a scruple so fixed on the minds of many Friends that nothing moved it. It was a conference the most weighty that ever I was at, and the hearts of many were bowed in reverence before the Most High. Some Friends of the said committees who appeared easy to pay the tax, after several adjournments, withdrew; others of them continued till the last. At length an epistle of tender love and caution to Friends in Pennsylvania was drawn up, and being read several times and corrected, was signed by such as were free to sign it, and afterward sent to the Monthly and Quarterly Meetings.

* Christians refused to pay taxes to support heathen temples. See Cave’s Primitive Christianity, part Ⅲ, p. 327.

One evening a Friend came to our lodgings who was a justice of the peace, and in a friendly way introduced the subject of refusing to pay taxes to support wars, and perceiving that I was one who scrupled the payment, said that he had wanted an opportunity with some in that circumstance, whereupon we had some conversation in a brotherly way on some texts of scripture relating thereto, in the conclusion of which he said that according to our way of proceeding it would follow that whenever the administration of government was ill, we must suffer distraint of goods rather than pay actively toward supporting it. To which I replied: men put in public stations are intended for good purposes, some to make good laws, others to take care that those laws are not broken. Now if these men thus set apart do not answer the design of their institution, our freely contributing to support them in that capacity, when we certainly know that they are wrong, is to strengthen them in a wrong way, and tends to make them forget that it is so, but when from a clear understanding of the case we are really uneasy with the application of money, and in the spirit of meekness suffer distress to be made on our goods rather than pay actively, this joined with an upright uniform life may tend to put men a thinking about their own public conduct.

He said he would propose a medium: that is, where men in authority do not act agreeable to the mind of those who constituted them he thought the people should rather remonstrate than refuse a voluntary payment of monies so demanded, and added: civil government is an agreement of free men by which they oblige themselves to abide by certain laws as a standard, and to refuse to obey in that case is of the like nature as to refuse to do any particular act which we had covenanted to do. I replied: that in making covenants, it was agreeable to honesty and uprightness to take care that we do not foreclose ourselves from adhering strictly to true virtue in all occurrences relating thereto. But if I should unwarily promise to obey the orders of a certain man, or number of men, without any proviso, and he or they command me to assist in doing some great wickedness, I may then see my error in making such promise and an active obedience in that case would be adding one evil to another — that though by such promise I should be liable to punishment for disobedience, yet to suffer rather than act to me appears most virtuous. The whole of our conversation was in calmness & good will. And here it may be noted that in Pennsylvania, where there are many friends under that scruple, a petition was presented to the Assembly by a large number of friends, asking that no law might be passed to enjoin the payment of money for such uses which they as a peaceable people could not pay for conscience sake.

From “A Plea for the Poor”:

The way of carrying on wars, common in the world, is so far distinguishable from the purity of Christ’s religion, that many scruple to join in them. Those who are so redeemed from the love of the world as to possess nothing in a selfish spirit, their “Life is hid with Christ in God,” and these he preserves in resignedness, even in times of commotion.

As they possess nothing but what pertains to His family, anxious thoughts about wealth or dominion have little or nothing in them to work upon, and they learn contentment in being disposed of according to His will, who being omnipotent and always mindful of his children, causes all things to work for their good. But where that spirit works which loves riches; works, and in its working gathers wealth, and cleaves to customs which have their root in self pleasing. This spirit thus separating from universal love, seeks help from that power which stands in the separation, and whatever name it has, it still desires to defend the treasures thus gotten. This is like a chain where the end of one link encloses the end of another. The rising up of a desire to obtain wealth is the beginning. This desire being cherished moves to action, and riches thus gotten please self and while self has a life in them it desires to have them defended. Wealth is attended with power, by which bargains and proceedings contrary to universal righteousness are supported, and here oppression, carried on with worldly policy and order, clothes itself with the name of justice and becomes like a seed of discord in the soil. And as this spirit which wanders from the pure habitation prevails, so the seed of war swells and sprouts and grows and becomes strong, till much fruit are ripened. Thus comes the harvest spoken of by the prophet, which “is a Heap, in the Day of Grief and of desperate Sorrow.” Oh! that we who declare against wars and acknowledge our trust to be in God only, may walk in the light and therein examine our foundation and motives in holding great estates. May we look upon our treasures, and the furniture of our houses, and the garments in which we array ourselves, and try whether the seeds of war have any nourishment in these our possessions, or not. Holding treasures in the self-pleasing spirit is a strong plant, the fruit whereof ripens fast. A day of outward distress is coming, and divine love calls to prepare for it. Hearken then, O ye children who have known the light, and come forth! Leave every thing which our Lord Jesus Christ does not own. Think not his pattern too plain or too coarse for you. Think not a small portion in this life too little, but let us live in His spirit and walk as he walked, and he will preserve us in the greatest troubles.