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A 19th Century Presbyterian on Taxation as Theft

In this 1803 selection, American Presbyterian Covenanter Rev. Samuel B. Wylie, A.M. calls taxation theft because a government without divine authority that he does not consent to its taking money from him by force. (Covenanters believed that nations must covenant with God to defend the true religion. Since the United States advocated religious pluralism, they had no divine authority at all – at least in Wylie’s view).


Obj. 6. “The saints addressed them for justice, Acts 25:10,12, and 26:32, where the apostle appeals unto Caesar.”

To this I answer. An appeal to their tribunals, no more involves in it an homologation of their lawful dominion, than an appeal from a murderer to a thief, who would be disposed to save one’s life, would be an homologation of his living habitually in the breach of the eighth commandment. Suppose, for example, that Allegheny mountains were infested with a banditti of robbers, whose captain retained still so much humanity as to establish a law, that no poor man should be robbed of more than ten dollars—you happen to be crossing the mountain—five of the gang approach you, and rob you of one hundred, which is nearly your all—you meet with the master of the fraternity—you know the law—and believe that he still has as much humanity remaining as will induce him to execute it. Will you appeal to him to cause your ninety dollars to be refunded, which are due to you by his own law? If you do, will this implicate you in the immorality of the banditti, or be saying Amen to their unlawful practice? Certainly not. If this hold in the greater, it will surely hold in the less. If an appeal may be made to the captain of a band of robbers, without implication in his criminality, much more to these institutions which, though wrong in some fundamentals, are yet aiming at the good of civil society.

Obj. 7. “Christ himself both paid tribute and commanded his disciples to pay it, and that even to Caesar. Matt. 17:27, and 22:21. Was not this an acknowledgment of his authority?”

Ans. Simple payment of tribute never was considered as any homologation of the authority imposing it. It may be given to the worse of tyrants, if not demanded as a tessera of loyalty.

We might ask here, do the people of the United States homologate the authority of the Dey of Algiers, or, for conscience’ sake, recognize him as their legitimate ruler, when they pay their annual tribute to the haughty Musselman? Do they think that the dey has any moral right to demand such a thing? Do they not rather go upon the principle that it is better to give a part to save the remainder, than, by withholding, lose all? Such a course of conduct may be prudent and innocent with any band of robbers…

The other allegation brought from Matt. 22:21, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” &c., is equally unfounded.

It is abundantly evident, from the passage, that the question was intended to ensnare the Lord Jesus Christ, answer as he would. It was proposed by the Herodians and Pharisees; those, votaries for Roman domination, and these, the sticklers for Jewish immunities.

Had he said, “Give it to Caesar,” the Pharisees, ever ready to accuse him, would have represented him to the people as an enemy to their ancient privileges. Had he said, “Do not give it,” the Herodians would have represented him to Herod as an enemy to the government of Caesar. In the fifteenth verse, we are expressly told, they came to him with a view to “entangle him in his talk.” But he, “knowing their craftiness,” split their dilemma, and left their question undecided. He, on several other occasions, thus baffled his adversaries; as in John 8:4,12, in the case of the “woman taken in adultery,” and in Luke 12:14, when application was made to him concerning the settlement of the earthly inheritance. It is objected here, by some, “that this explanation of our Saviour’s answer represents the Lord Christ as shunning to declare the whole counsel of GOD—giving no answer in a case respecting sin and duty.” The inference is false. They were not without information on this very subject. They had the law and the prophets. The Lord Jesus Christ had given specific directions concerning the character of lawful rulers, Deut. 17:15, to whom it was lawful to pay tribute, for conscience’ sake. But it was not information they wanted, but to ensnare him, let him answer as he would, as has already been shown. If silence or refusing to answer in every case, even in matters respecting sin and duty, let the design of the querist be what it will be accounted criminal, in what point of light will the objector view the Lord Jesus Christ, when he finds him actually refusing to answer a question respecting sin and duty, in the case of his own authority? Mark 11:27,33: “Neither do I tell you (says he) by what authority I do these things.” It would be well, if men would consider the awful consequences of some of their objections, before they make them.

But, supposing that CHRIST, in both the instances alluded to, had commanded tribute to be paid to Caesar, what does it prove? Unless he commanded it to be paid as a tessera of loyalty, it proves no more the morality of Caesar’s right, than a minister of the gospel’s advising one of his hearers to give the robber part of his property, to secure the remainder, would, that the minister considered the robber morally entitled to it.

Obj. 8. “But you make use of the money which receives its currency from their sanction; and you support them by paying tribute, &c. Why not swear allegiance, hold offices?” &c.

Ans. We make use of the money, to be sure, but when we give an equivalent for it, by industry or otherwise, it is our own property; and another man’s stamping his name upon our coats is no reason why we should throw them away.

It must be granted, also, that we do support them, by paying tribute, &c. So do we the robber, unto whom we give a part to save the remainder. But will it therefore follow, that I may legally swear allegiance to him, or become one of his officers, in the business of robbery and plunder?…

Should a robber meet me on the highway, and upon finding that I had no money, put his bayonet to my breast; and should it appear evidently, that he intended to kill me, unless I would solemnly engage to take, or send him, a certain sum of money, in a given time, say fifty dollars, ought I not to comply? If I do, the oath is the result of mutual stipulation, which existing circumstances render eligible. It seems to me immaterial, whether the overture originates with him or with me. In either case, I consider it lawful to give fifty dollars to save my life.

TWO SONS OF OIL; Or THE FAITHFUL WITNESS For MAGISTRACY AND MINISTRY Upon A SCRIPTURAL BASIS.


Another American Presbyterian named William Findley, who served as part of Pennsylvania’s Constitutional Committee and served in the U.S. Congress for many years after that, responded to Wylie thus:

Another wonderful illustration, by which the American governments are designated robbers. Did ever the American government rob any man? No. The very insinuation of this is a seditious slander. The author knew that the sedition law was repealed before he wrote his book, but the same authority can renew it again. Robbers, if ever they are so generous as not to take all, give no equivalent for what they take. For what small tribute the author pays in this st ate, which goes wholly to making roads and bridges, or for court houses, courts, &c. the protection and accommodation of which the author and all aliens enjoy, as fully and freely as citizens do, is a full and ample equivalent, which they accept of, and enjoy. They pay no direct tax for the expense of the civil government of the state—this is paid out of another fund, which arose from the state doing more than her share during the distressing period of the war with Britain; of this, the hard earnings of the citizens, in other times, the author, &c. enjoy their proportion, without any equivalent, and they pay none to support the federal government. In England, from which we have copied much of our jurisprudence, allegiance is divided into two kinds, namely, the natural allegiance of natives, which they consider as perpetual, and the local and temporary allegiance, which is incidental to aliens. We have required hitherto only this last, for we have as yet made no law against expatriation, either of native or alien, but freely protect aliens without their giving allegiance. I have already shewn that all approved commentators on the Bible, or on civil and common law, and all moral and political writers, consider it a first principle or established moral maxim, that protection necessarily draws allegiance—that they are morally connected together—that they cannot be separated. This being the case, I recommend to the author to examine the questions over again, on more correct moral principles. In so doing, he will fi nd he has been mistaken; that the state has not robbed them; that it has received nothing but for an ample equivalent; that it did not seize their persons to bring them within their power, nor put them in fear, nor take from them, in this situation, money or goods. This is the legal technical definition of robbery. He will find also, from his own statement, that those whose cause he advocates, intruded themselves within our territory, enjoyed protection to their persons and property, and to their industry in acquiring property—And by his advice refuse allegiance, the only moral return for those very valuable benefits; but instead thereof spurn at the hand that received them when they were strangers, and fed and protected them without receiving the equivalent, which the law of nature, and nature’s God requires. If he does this impartially, he will certainly be convinced that he has cast the charge of robbery on the wrong side—that by the decision of the moral law, himself, and those whom he advocates, are the robbers, in receiving protection without an equivalent, and not the government, from whom they have experienced protection and forbearance, but no violence. (143-144)

For more on Findley see An American Presbyterian Argument Against Covenanters

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