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Tithing and Taxation

(The following was taken from an e-mail written by John R. Mayer.)

As far as I know, the words tithe and tithing are still quite actively used, even in American English.  My father was an Elder in the Presbyterian church, where tithing commonly signifies the 10 percent of one’s income a Presbyterian is supposed to contribute to the church.

 Here are definitions from The Alphabetary:

 tithe : tythe : [Sx] a tenth part; the tenth part of one’s income, dedicated to the maintenance of a church or ministry.  Cf. tax.

tithing : tything : a small administrative division that survived in some localities of England until the reorganization of 1974.  The unit was purportedly based upon a count of ten householders, and perhaps once denoted a tenth of a hundred.

tithingman : the chief of a tithing.

I am fairly confidant that colonials would have had an expression such as “Nothing is certain except death, and taxes, … and tithes.”

Prior to Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty (1785), the Church of Virginia was the STATE religion, so no one ever spoke simply of “taxation.”  The customary expression was always “tithing and taxation,” because church donations were obligatory, not a matter of choice.

If memory serves me correctly, the only extant records from the Southside of Virginia (south of River James) happen to be the Tithing Records.  The earliest settlers there were given tax waivers as an incentive for settlement, so there were virtually no Tax Lists in the earliest days of Lunenburg County.

The Church of Virginia gave no blanket waivers to the settlers, but it nonetheless recognized its duty to provide relief for the poor, which had been Church of England’s legal obligation since the time of Elizabeth I (the Poor Laws, 1602).

If a Lunenburg settler was clearly too poor to pay any tithe to the church, his name was still listed in the Tithing Record, but annotated “no tithe,” so he was made exempt from tithing.  In the earliest days, this notation was made for almost everyone, especially in regions where there was no chapel or church.  After several years of development, most householders were assigned “1 tithe,” but wealthy households with several adult freemen, were assessed “2 tithes” or “3 tithes” et cetera, for each free male.

When the state religion was dissolved, responsibility for the poor and paupers (i.e., having no hearth whatsoever, versus having a hearth) shifted to the state and federal governments in America.

Today, the U.S. federal government seemingly wants to abrogate even its responsibility for the poor, so this 400-year-old Protestant tradition established by Elizabeth I appears to be coming to an end, unless we start counting our prisons as poor houses.  (The U.S. now imprisons more people per capita than any other government in the world, even more per capita than the former Soviet Union used to imprison, and even more per capita than Nazi Germany ever imprisoned.)

The Bible strictly prohibited prison terms longer than 7 years (the Sabbatical Year – the same limit applied to indentured servants), so Elizabethans never knew any institutions like the prisons we have today.  Conversely, modern Americans think prisons must be a fact of life, and are generally ignorant of alternative concepts of punishment, such as poor houses, debtor’s prisons, stocks, pillories, banishment, exile, indentured servitude, flogging, drawing and quartering, et cetera.

My father still uses the term tithing today, even though younger people always wonder what he is saying.  Americans tend to think that welfare, AFDC, food stamps, and the like, are brand new concepts, invented only recently by Franklin Roosevelt.  Actually, these are modern, bureaucratic, and federalized variations of Protestant tithing.

Religious institutions such as the Hospitalers always supported the poor, and Elizabeth I made this duty a legal and governmental obligation with her Poor Laws.  Exemption from tithing and taxation, as well as the church’s provision of alms and shelter, were permanently financed by tithing.

Jefferson and the Founding Fathers effectively shifted this duty from the Church of Virginia to the state and federal governments, and therefore “tithing” merged together with taxation.  Thus, the original, Elizabethan  tithing practices were entirely consistent with, and conceptually identical to, our present systems of income taxation and state welfare for the poor.

Popular modern concepts, such as the “flat tax” and “excise taxation,” are obviously detrimental to the poor, but beneficial to the wealthy, and are therefore antithetical to Protestant tithing.

The 10-percent tithing, once exclusively administered by the state church (Poor Laws, 1602), was expressly intended for the perpetual support of clerics, sextons, poor people, paupers, orphans, widows, the disabled, and the like.

Alexander Strange in New Kent County, VA, was a vestryman, so he actively participated in making decisions for the public welfare.  The Vestry of Saint Peter’s paid Henry Strange in hundreds of pounds of tobacco for the fosterment of an orphan girl, and this arrangement too was part of the tithing system.

Tithing was clearly graduated according to income, so as to benefit the poor at the expense of the wealthy.  The intents and purposes of tithing were identical to the equalizing force of such Old Testament religious rules as the Sabbatical Year of the Bible.

These biblical rules were sacred and inviolable in the minds of rabbis, Saint Mark, and all of the Elizabethans.  Every seventh year, both Rabbinical and Christian law required that all creditors forgive all debts, and that all captors release all captives.  This custom of periodic egalitarianism was even codified in the Apostle’s Creed (“… and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors …”).  This kind of equalization of wealth was once considered a fundamental principle of American democracy.

Freedom of religion required Americans to divest its churches of state power, and therefore religious tithing per se disappeared from state government, but the basic, religious custom and principle never did.  What the colonials knew as tithing is today known as Income Tax (Amendment XVI, 1913) and Welfare.  Social Security accomplishes the same goal as tithing, but it happens to be based instead upon the newer concepts of mutual insurance, rather than the redistribution of wealth.

We currently spend something like $22,000 per annum per capita to keep able-bodied people in prison, for as many as 20 years, or even life.  Therefore, our prisons have become the modern equivalent of Stuart Poor Houses and Transportation (first to America, and later to Australia).  Americans also spend more than $1 million per person to execute criminals, even though the English suspended the death penalty about 1834, and most countries of the world consider it barbaric and uncivilized, as Cicero did.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.  We still pay tithes, and we still benefit from tithes.

Our nomenclatures may have totally changed (IRS, AFDC, Food Stamps, et cetera), and our fiduciary practices may have totally changed (HMOs, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid), but the fundamental idea of tithing is still with us.  The modern tithe is a tax or insurance premium, and when we receive some portion of tithing, we now call it a benefit or entitlement.

Politicians make lots of hay nowadays by repeatedly telling us that our state and federal governments are hopelessly inefficient and inept (even though they themselves make the laws).  Politicians also concoct all kinds of schemes, with all kinds of names, to try and convince us to regress into plutocracy or theocracy.  Fortunately, our Constitution seems to protect us from permanent reversion and ruin.

The bottom line is simply this:  our present, democratic systems of tithing are divorced from state religion, just as Socrates and Jefferson said they should be.

We may hate all the corruption and abuse, we may think all the systems are wasteful and unfair, and we may even condemn our spendthrift governments for favoritism and malfeasance.  Nevertheless, at the end of the day, when we as individuals need assistance, or medical help, or long-term care, our tithing systems will usually provide for us.

One does not need to be a historian to know that we probably have the best system for social welfare the world has ever seen.  One does not need to be an economist to know that a government check in the mail is far better than 100 pounds of tobacco from the Vestry.

To secure a public office or obtain public welfare in Saint Peter’s Parish (New Kent County, VA), one had to jump through a number of hoops.  One had to (1) repudiate the doctrine transubstantiation, (2) demonstrate conformity to the Church of England, (3) pledge allegiance to the Protestant Succession, et cetera, et cetera.  This is why the U.S. Constitution expressly forbade religious testing, and this is why the Pledge of Allegiance is actually unconstitutional (even though the House of Representatives has recited it daily as a constitutionally exempt “accepted practice” since 1988).

In the day of Alexander Strange, the Vestry did not give any tobacco to Roman Catholics.  In fact, simply being Roman Catholic meant either the death penalty, or banishment to Maryland or Florida.

Considering such adversities, the separation of church and state, and the subsequent elimination of Anglican tithing, was, as Martha Stewart might say, “a good thing.”

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