How Quaker War Tax Resistance Came and Went, Twice


Twice in Quaker history, Friends’ refusal to pay war taxes grew to be the most widespread practical expression of the Quaker peace testimony. Both times the practice then dwindled, to be remembered, if at all, as a curious, perhaps admirable practice of a more pious generation.

In 1984 Kingdon Swayne complained that during a representative meeting in Philadelphia, “those who obey the [tax] law were compared to the Quaker slaveholders of the eighteenth century, and not a dissenting voice was raised.” Swayne was writing at the peak of a frenzy of Quaker war tax resistance that began in the late 1950s and built throughout the Cold War, only to collapse soon after.

His complaint appeared in an issue of Friends Journal devoted to war tax resistance (the second such issue; there would also be a third and fourth). Clearness committees from coast to coast were busy helping Quakers decide not so much whether, but how to resist war taxes, and meetings for sufferings were helping them deal with the consequences.

Friends World Committee for Consultation and London Yearly Meeting (now Britain Yearly Meeting) stopped withholding income taxes from 25 resisting employees. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PhYM) soon after adopted a similar policy.

Some meetings approved minutes instructing all of their members to resist war taxes. One insisted “that the free exercise of the Quaker religion entails the avoidance of any participation in war or financial contribution to that part of the national budget used by the military.”

Today, by contrast, only a few Quakers refuse to pay taxes for war. PhYM still has its policy of refusing to cooperate with Internal Revenue Service attempts to collect from resisting employees, but it no longer has any employees who resist. Who today would complain that compliant Quaker taxpayers are made to feel like pariahs in their meetings?

A few years back, Elizabeth Boardman and some other resisters in Pacific Yearly Meeting decided to try to revitalize Quaker war tax resistance. “We drove all around northern California with our dog-and-pony show,” she says, “saying ‘we’ll come out and talk to your meeting if this issue has been a challenge for you.’ We promoted everything from something very symbolic like paying under protest, to full-fledged refusal. But virtually nobody joined us at all.”

It’s not that the meetings were hostile. On the contrary, most Friends seemed to think war tax resistance was admirable—just not for them personally. “Every meeting that has a resister is proud of it,” Boardman says, “and if the topic comes up, they’ll say ‘oh yes, we have a war tax resister in our meeting!’” But that’s as far as it goes.

They did make some headway. Some meetings created “support funds” to help war tax resisters who have experienced financial hardship, and Pacific Yearly Meeting extended a fund it already had for conscientious objectors so that it would also cover war tax resisters. “But I think I’m the only one who’s applied to the fund so far,” says Boardman, “and I did it mostly so the people who set it up would feel it was useful.”

The experience was discouraging:

I’m very disappointed and I might be too negative. I’d like to think we could have hoped for more. I don’t think Quakers have gotten more conservative generally, but we’ve gotten more comfortable. I just think we’re faded, morally and spiritually. I’m absolutely committed to these people—they’re my people—and I’m not the only one of us who’s saying this: we don’t have the verve, the passion that we admire from the old days.

In the old days—between the middle of the eighteenth century and the end of the nineteenth—there was a similar advance and retreat of war tax resistance. In that case, both the strength of its adoption and the extent to which it eventually vanished from Quaker thought were even more dramatic.

Reviewing this history may help us better understand how Quakers have put the peace testimony into practice. And this may also help us to anticipate whether, how, and in what form this tradition may return again.

The first period of Quaker war tax resistance

Quakers refused to pay for war almost from the beginning. As early as 1659, “books of sufferings” record persecutions of English Quakers for refusing to pay war taxes with names like “trophy money,” the “charge of the trained-bands,” and the “charge of the militia.” Robert Barclay wrote in 1676 that Quakers “have suffered much . . . because we neither could ourselves bear arms, nor send others in our place, nor give our money for the buying of drums, standards, and other military attire.”

But as governments changed how they raised money for war, Quaker discipline failed to keep up. Things like “trophy money” were replaced by less-conspicuous war taxes. For example, in 1695 Parliament authorized a new tax on marriages, births, and burials to raise money “for carrying on the war against France with vigour.” When Elizabeth Redford tried to convince Quakers to refuse to pay this war tax, her meeting charged her with violating Quaker discipline and told her to keep quiet about her peculiar scruples.

It was not until 1755 that Quakers began to reexamine war taxes in earnest. This started the strongest period of war tax resistance in Quaker history.

That year, the Quaker-dominated Pennsylvania Assembly voted to fund a military defense against French allies in the Seven Years’ War. This explicit betrayal of the peace testimony by an assembly that had been paying lip service to it for years was too much for some Quakers. Several, including John Woolman and Anthony Benezet, wrote the colonial assembly to say their consciences would not allow them to pay taxes for military fortifications.

At first, their position was seen as dangerously extreme. The assembly was unmoved. London Yearly Meeting, in order to bring these dissenters back in line, sent emissaries to the colonies to “explain and enforce our known principles and practice respecting the payment of taxes for the support of civil government.” But the radical war tax resistance position, and the sincerity of those who held it, proved influential. The London emissaries returned home with their own views softened, and the radical position began also to take hold in England.

By the time of the American Revolution, a firmer policy of war tax resistance had become a near orthodoxy in many American meetings. In 1776, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting added this line to its discipline: “It is the judgment of this meeting that a tax levied for the purchasing of drums, colors, or for other warlike uses, cannot be paid consistently with our Christian testimony.”

Tax collectors were notorious plunderers. They often seized property worth much more than the amount due, and then sold these items well below their value. Because of this, Quakers often lost much more than the amount they were resisting.

Levied Friends believed this price was worth paying. When Nathaniel Morgan mentioned that his family’s goods had been seized and sold several times for their refusal to pay income tax during wartime, he says he was asked “if we got anything by that, meaning, was anything refunded by the Society of Friends for such suffering.” Says Morgan: “I immediately replied: ‘Yes, peace of mind, which was worth all.’”

Some Quakers stopped selling imported goods when the new U.S. government imposed an import duty to pay war expenses. Some stopped sending letters when Congress added a war tax to the postage rate. In England, John Payne bricked up a third of the windows of his home to avoid a property tax, put his coach up on blocks to avoid a vehicle tax, traveled miles out of his way to avoid toll gates, and gave away his fortune to avoid the estate tax, all so that he would not pay for the war against the United States.

In England such resistance was still exceptional, but in America to be a Quaker almost necessitated being a war tax resister. Quaker sufferings for refusal to cooperate with war requisitions were nearly universal—indeed, if you failed to report any such sufferings, you might be called before your meeting and asked to explain why. Minutes of meetings show Friends meekly standing up to read “acknowledgements” that they had tried to shirk the discipline by, for instance, leaving tax money out in plain sight for the collector to seize, or reimbursing others for buying their seized property back for them at auction. Friends might be “dealt with as disorderly walkers” or disowned by their meetings for such evasions.

This enforced solidarity kept the practice of war tax resistance from slipping, but may also have contributed to its decay. Some Quakers resisted even though their hearts weren’t in it, and they resented the imposition of orthodoxy. One complained privately (after having more than $50 in furniture seized to cover a $15 tax bill):

As a member of civil society, I think it would be right for me to pay the penalty which the law imposes [for refusal to serve in the militia] . . . But estimating very highly the privileges my birth-right of membership in the Society of Friends has given me and yet gives me, I will not pay such fines while the Discipline of the Society requires its members not to do so. Is this the right course? Do we not blame the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church for a similar thing—for placing the obligations of the citizen to a religious society above his obligations to his country?

And there were some other signs of trouble.

Nineteenth century disappearance

In 1761, John Churchman noted that some war tax resisters seemed to be following a trend rather than attending to the Inner Light. He wrote: “Such build on a sandy foundation who refuse paying . . . only because some others scruple paying it, whom they esteem.”

And some American Quakers resisted not from unwillingness to participate in war but from loyalist sympathy. Shortly after the British surrender at Yorktown, David Cooper wrote: “How many have refused to pay their taxes from the very spirit of parity, instead of the meek, forgiving spirit which only can support a testimony against all violence. And now [that] outward prospects are different from what they expected, numbers are wheeling about, whereby this testimony will be much wounded.”

This sort of partisanship also arose during the American Civil War. Quaker sympathies were almost universally with the Union, whose cause became increasingly tied to the abolition of slavery. Quakers felt caught on the horns of a dilemma: “Peace” would mean the secession of the Confederacy and the continuation of slavery; victory for the Union would mean the abolition of slavery and the possibility of a truer peace. Quaker scruples against paying for the war, in the North anyway, became increasingly half-hearted.

As the century ended, Quakers who identified strongly with the peace testimony began to align themselves with an emerging peace movement that was focused on abolishing war by constructing international legal institutions. Quakers had once seen themselves as vanguards who demonstrated how people should live so that the prophecy of swords beaten into plowshares would come to pass. Now they began to see themselves as activists who would help create this peaceable kingdom through political means.

By shifting their attention to long-term plans for a new world order, they stopped attending to the concrete, here-and-now question of how their tax dollars were funding war. By the end of the century, Quaker war tax resistance was nearly extinct.

A period of amnesia

In Philadelphia, over three days in 1901, an “American Friends’ Peace Conference” was held at which speeches were given on antiwar activism, the incompatibility of war and Christianity, international arbitration, and related topics. War tax refusal was mentioned exactly once, by Isaac Sharpless who said:

There are a great many who consider themselves good “peace men” who will go to great lengths to avoid a war. . . 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.

Quakers never formally rejected war tax resistance, but as this quote shows, a strange collective amnesia took hold: war tax resistance went from being expected to being “impossible.”

The reawakening of a testimony

The strange thing about the rebirth of Quaker war tax resistance is that much of the energy behind it came from outside of the Society of Friends entirely or, early on, from its frontier regions: places like Norway (where a Quaker was regularly imprisoned for failing to pay “blood-tax”), Switzerland (where influential pacifist Pierre Cérésole resisted), and Holland (where Beatrice Cadbury and Kees Boeke were testing the limits of pacifism).

In the wake of World War II, a non-sectarian war tax resistance movement called “Peacemakers” began in the United States. Though some were Quakers, most of the leaders were not—at least not at first. Some, like A.J. Muste, Ernest Bromley, and Milton Mayer, became war tax resisters first and Quakers later.

The memory of war tax resistance as a Quaker tradition was so dim that when these resisters first appeared, a 1960 Friends Journal article suggested that war tax resistance might be “emerging as a new testimony” [emphasis mine]. Quakers seem first to have become re-convinced of the congruence of war tax resistance with the peace testimony, and only later did they become re-acquainted with the practice as part of their own history. Once these things combined, the momentum was extraordinary—but only for about 30 years.

A new disappearance

Although there isn’t as much excitement for world federalism these days, many potential war tax resisters have been distracted by their own far-off dream: a “peace tax fund” law that would allow conscientious taxpayers to pay only for non-military parts of the national budget.

Elizabeth Boardman says she’s changed her focus: she now works to get this Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Act passed.

If the peace tax fund existed, probably everybody in the Quaker community would put their money there. After being stick-in-the-muds, everybody would flock to it, because it would be legal and there wouldn’t be much hardship.

There also wouldn’t be much practical effect, truth be told, either on military spending or on peace tax payers’ complicity with it, but Boardman thinks there’s an upside: “It would be a different way of saying to the government that we don’t want to pay for war. Even though they get the money, and they can move the money around any way they want, it’s a different way we can vote for peace.”

What are we to make of these rises and falls? Were Quakers just blowing in the breezes of political fashions and activist trends? Are Friends not people of principle and integrity? Is the peace testimony nothing but a convenient excuse that gets trotted out during unpopular wars and put back on the shelf in between?

It would be more accurate to say that Quakers, like everyone else, are subject to the temptations of self-righteousness, of following the crowd, of most easily discerning principles that require the least of them, and of conveniently discovering that morality and self-interest align. But Quakers also have the benefit of a tradition of humility and simplicity, of cultivated peculiarity, of sacrifice “for conscience sake,” and of penetrating and skeptical investigation of self-interested morality. Some of these tendencies are stronger in different people, in different meetings, and at different times. Principled Quakers have found themselves on opposite sides on the question of whether to pay a particular tax that funds war, as have Quakers of more shallow motivations. At particularly weak times, the question is not even asked.

It is safe to expect that war tax resistance, having come and gone twice, will someday return. But history suggests that it may arise from unexpected corners of the Quaker world, and maybe even from a stranger who comes to your meeting curious but unsure whether their peculiar scruples about war taxes will be welcome.

Modern-day War Tax Resisters

(c) Candice Nyando
(c) Candice Nyando

Kyle and Katy Chandler-Isacksen started the Be the Change Project in 2011; the project teaches free, hands-on classes in sustainable, simple living skills for children and adults. Their fossil-fuel-free workshop and “microfarm” lies in the shadow of the neon glitz of downtown Reno, Nevada, where they also raise two children on a family income of about $7,000 a year.

“It kind of all happened simultaneously,” Katy says. “We were in the process of radically simplifying our lives, and at the same time we started to go more to Quaker meetings to worship. I think it just gave us a name for what we were in the process of doing, and it helped us to know that there was a tradition of it being done.”

War tax resistance is one reason why the family chose their low-income lifestyle. They are exempt from income tax withholding and owe no federal income tax. On the one hand, Katy says, it’s easy to resist by just not owing the taxes to begin with, but on the other hand, their method requires a year-round commitment. “It’s legal for us do it the way we do it, so there’s no pushback from the law. But there’s tremendous pushback from the culture.”

The tradition of war tax resistance in the Society of Friends is part of what made it attractive to the Chandler-Isacksens. “I didn’t go to Friends thinking ‘Oh, great! Here’s where I’m going to get support for this.’ But it makes us appreciate being associated with Friends more, because of that history.”

But in their meeting, as in most others, war tax resistance is mostly a historical memory: “I don’t feel like in our meeting there’s a ‘this is what we do’ sense about it at all. I don’t know anyone else who actually does it at our meeting. And I don’t feel any comradeship around radical simplicity there.” The Quakers she knows, she says, are very generous with their time and money to a variety of social causes, including the Be the Change Project, and may feel more drawn to generosity of that sort than to radical simplicity or war tax resistance.

She says she doesn’t bring up her family’s lifestyle as much anymore when she’s with Quakers:

I used to bring it up more because to me it’s really an essential component of facing what we’re looking at today in terms of the social and climatic crises that we’re facing.

There are definitely people talking about wealth and poverty and the responsibility one has if one has wealth. But I think there are real limitations to that, because it’s not challenging whether wealth is an okay thing to have, and I don’t think that it is. We are at maximum capacity on our planet—in fact, beyond it—and in order to have wealth you have to be consuming and hoarding resources at a level that is harmful to human beings and all of creation, which is a terrible injustice.

My impression with Quakers—I don’t know for sure if this is true—is that they have been largely a white, middle- and upper-class group since their inception, and I feel like that reality has really affected the way they see the world and their role. Even being a war tax resister usually means that you’re above the poverty line: to resist taxes means having the money to not pay. It’s not infused with the vantage point of poverty and oppression, and it is infused with a certain degree of privilege and wealth.

The effects of war and the war machine in terms of racism and economic violence, these things aren’t felt by white, middle-class Americans in general, including Quakers, and so the intensity of the conviction is not as central.

I know those privileges definitely blur my vision, deeply affect my understanding and experience of what is happening in our world, and curb my willingness and courage to put myself and my family on the line for what we believe is needed in this moment of history.

She thinks this may explain why modern Quakers can sometimes seem timid, and why they no longer are known for living lives that challenge the status quo: “My experience with the Quaker meetings is that’s not a central piece of what people are doing,” Katy says. Quakers, she says, seem to have other concerns—and that’s okay.

For me, I think war tax resistance is a potentially powerful act of peace (and environmental, economic, and race) witness and civil disobedience, especially if we all did it together—can you imagine even just 100,000 people refusing to pay war taxes and saying that publicly? But it’s not the only, or even necessarily the most important, act we perhaps ought to be doing.

I think that rather than focusing on what previous Quakers found important (such as war tax resistance), it may be more powerful for Quakers today to come together and decide, in this new moment in history, what actually is calling us forward together in witness and action.

But she allows herself to dream: “If we were a group of people who were actively putting themselves out as war tax resisters and saying this is why and this is how we’re committed to changing the injustices of our day—if we were active and out there about that the way Quakers were before—I think people would flock to us. There are so many young people who are craving that connection of spirituality to life.”

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David M. Gross

David M. Gross is the editor of American Quaker War Tax Resistance. Some of the material in this article is based on a talk on the history of Quaker war tax resistance he delivered at Earlham School of Religion in 2014 for the national conference of the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee.

6 thoughts on “How Quaker War Tax Resistance Came and Went, Twice

  1. While its good to say “We all need to just love each other so we don’t need to fight” is good and all but you are missing the fact that there are terrorists and other countries that want to destroy our ways of life like ISIS and North Korea that clearly hate America. So if we were to stop funding our militaries, how are we supposed to defend ourselves against major threats in the world. It is a genuine question I want answering if someone has a good response I will understand why you would want this.

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