ESR Professor of Peace and Justice Studies Lonnie Valentine was awarded the Elton Trueblood Chair of Christian Thought earlier this year to study Quakers and war tax resistance. Below, he shares a reflection on John Woolman's involvement in this effort:
Romans 13: 1-7 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God's servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath, but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.
This text seems so straightforward: whatever the governing authorities command is to be obeyed just because “those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” Most specifically, the text clearly says that one is to pay taxes to those authorities. As we might expect, careful exegesis raises questions about how to understand Paul’s command to the fledgling congregation in Rome. In addition, the clear evidence that Paul was martyred under the emperor Nero ought make us wonder how his death at the hands of the authorities relates to this text. I set aside such exegesis and such wonderings for now in order to lift up how John Woolman and his friend John Churchman dealt with this text as they were led to resist the payment of taxes used for war.
In his Journal, Chapter V (Moulton edition), Woolman talks at length about his struggle with the question of paying taxes to the authorities when such taxes will be used in large part for war. He describes the steps he took when it became clear to him that he along with others were rightly led to not only petition the governing authorities for relief from paying such taxes, but also to refuse payment when relief was denied. How did they get to that position? How did they work with this text from Romans?
At the beginning of this chapter, Woolman lifts up John Huss who was burned at the stake by the governing authorities who acted with a Church Council in condemning him to death. Woolman quotes Huss as saying to his governing authorities: “This I most humbly require and desire you all, even for his sake who is the God of us all, that I be not compelled to the thing which my conscience doth repugn or strive against...I refuse nothing, most noble Emperor, whatsoever the Council shall decree or determine upon me, this only one thing I except, that I do not offend God and my conscience” (76). That is, though Huss would usually obey both Church and government, he felt he must obey God first when the commands of the authorities and what his conscience understood to be God's commands were in conflict.
Woolman then relates this to his own struggle with the question of whether or not to pay taxes used mostly for war to his own governing authorities. He notes that the Society of Friends did usually pay the taxes, but that his own conscience did not agree with such payment: “To refuse the active payment of a tax which our Society generally paid was exceeding disagreeable, but to do a thing contrary to my conscience appeared yet more dreadful” (77).
Woolman did not see “conscience” as something that merely reflected his own desires or reasoning or a view he absorbed from his times. In the next compact paragraph we can see his multifaceted approach to conscientious discernment in this way. First, “When this exercise came upon me, I knew of none other 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.” He then seeks out others who might help him discern a way forward: “(U)nder this exercise I went to our Yearly Meeting at Philadelphia.” Next, Woolman reports that the Yearly Meeting responded by appointing one committee to correspond with London Meeting for Sufferings and another to visit the Monthly and Quarterly Meetings to explore this war tax question. Finally, before the committees left the Yearly Meeting sessions they met together “to consider some things in which the cause of Truth was concerned; and these committees meeting together had a weighty conference in the fear of the Lord” (77). Woolman now had seasoned his concern, and after worship with others who were struggling with this same question, a way forward opened.
Woolman then includes in his Journal extensive notes of his friend John Churchman who had been struggling with the same concern and approached the problem in the same way that Woolman had. Churchman writes:
The concern rested on me several days and occasioned me with earnest breathings to seek to the Lord that if the motion was form him, he would be pleased to direct my steps therein so that I might be preserved form giving just cause of offense to any, for it appeared to be a difficult time, may even of our Society expressing a willingness that a sum should be given to show our loyalty to the king (78).
Woolman notes that Churchman was then led to go to the legislature as it was considering the matter of whether or not to impose a tax used primarily for war as the King had asked them to do. It is in Churchman's recollections of what he said that we find he turns the usual reading of the Romans 13 text upside down. Rather than reading the text as granting government “authority” over anything it had the power to claim, Churchman said that the governing authorities were “ordained by God” to act for God “that ordained the power and permitted them to be stationed...as (God's) ministers.” However, when those authorities put in that position of power by God do not act under God's guidance, then God will provide “a spirit of judgment to them who sit in judgment” and God, “withdrawing the arm of power, may permit those evils they feared to come suddenly upon them” (80).
Thus, the inward struggles and discernment process for Woolman and Chruchman and others led them to reinterpret the Romans 13 text that overturned the way it had usually been read in their day, and they overturn the way that text usually is read in our own day.
Woolman then records the statement of twenty Friends, including himself and Churchman, to their governing authorities. In very polite terms this document acknowledges the struggles the legislators face, and these petitioners do not desire to give them “any unnecessary trouble.” They also state to them the hope that “the immediate instruction of Supreme Wisdom may influence” their minds so they can “secure peace and tranquility” for themselves and those they represent. Further, this document offers as way out for both the government and for these Friends. If those on conscientious grounds object to the payment of taxes when much of those taxes will be used for war, then let those who so object pay into a separate fund that will be used to “cultivate our friendship with our Indian neighbors, and to support such of our fellow subjects who are or may be in distress, and to support such other like benevolent purposes” (82).
This document then goes on to say that if some such way forward cannot be found, these Friends conclude that paying taxes to government who “may apply them to purpose inconsistent with the peaceable testimony we profess, and have borne to the world, appears in its consequences to be destructive of our religious liberates.” Therefore, they will refuse to willingly pay those taxes and suffer whatever the government will then do to them (82).
In these few pages of Woolman's Journal he summarizes a process of discernment when it seems that no one else has been troubled by the question. He finds that others have been so troubled, and they join together to address the problem in prayer and corporate discernment. This leads to reinterpretation of how a biblical text has been read, leads to addressing the government for relief from their problem of conscience, leads to a creative solution offered to the government to solve the problem for everyone, and commits them to refuse compliance with government authorities if necessary
What do we do now when issues relating to obedience to those “governing authorities” present difficulties of conscience? How do we support one another in discerning a way forward? How do we communicate with the state? When might we, finally, be called to resist the demands of the state?