On the History of the Word “Voluntaryism”

by Carl Watner



[This article first appeared in Whole No. 130 of THE VOLUNTARYIST. It appears here in a slightly altered version.]

There is no way to know what voluntaryism might accomplish today or tomorrow, but on moral, historical, and even practical grounds, we have every reason to think that our experiences would parallel that of Beecher’s which are mentioned in the final paragraph of this article. Voluntaryism has a rich past and hopefully an even brighter future.

Voluntaryism has a long historical tradition in the English-speaking world. Our first cite of modern usage is from WIKIPEDIA, THE FREE ENCYCLOPEDIA, found on the worldwide web:
voluntaryism – “in politics and economics … the idea that human relations should be based on voluntary cooperation …, to the exclusion of political compulsion….. A journal is published based on this idea: The Voluntaryist … (http//:www.voluntaryist.com)”.”
The NEW SHORTER OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY offers the following definitions, citing usage that dates back to the 1830s:
voluntar[y]ism – “The principle that the Church or schools should be independent of the State and supported by voluntary contributions.”
voluntar[y]ist – “An advocate or adherent of voluntarism or voluntaryism.”

However, voluntaryism has roots deeper than the early 19th Century. The purpose of this article is to show the connections between 21st Century voluntaryism and its intellectual heritage, which can be traced at least as far back as the Leveller movement of mid-17th Century England. The Levellers can be best identified by their spokesmen John Lilburne (?1614-1657) and Richard Overton (?1600-?1660s) who “clashed with the Presbyterian puritans, who wanted to preserve a state-church with coercive powers and to deny liberty of worship to the puritan sects.” All the Leveller thinkers were nonconformist religious types who agitated for the separation of church and state.

During the late 16th and 17th Centuries, the church covenant was a common means of organizing the radical religious sects. This was sometimes an explicit congregational agreement by which those enrolling in a particular church pledged themselves to the faith. The church to their way of thinking was a voluntary association of equals. To both the Levellers and later thinkers this furnished a powerful theoretical and practical model for the civil state. If it was proper for their church congregations to be based on consent, then it was proper to apply the same principle of consent to its secular counterpart. For example, the Leveller ‘large’ Petition of 1647 contained a proposal “that tythes and all other inforced maintenances, may be for ever abolished, and nothing in place thereof imposed, but that all Ministers may be payd only by those who voluntarily choose them, and contract with them for their labours.” One only need substitute “taxes” for “tythes” and “government officials” for “Ministers” to see how close the Levellers were to the idea of a voluntary state. The Levellers also held tenaciously to the idea of self-proprietorship. As Richard Overton wrote: “No man hath power over my rights and liberties, and I over no mans [sic].” They realized that it was impossible to assert one’s private right of judgment in religious matters (what we would call today, liberty of conscience) without upholding the same right for everyone else, even the unregenerate.

These ideas were embraced in Scotland by John Glas, a Dundee minister who challenged the establishment church of the Covenanters. Glas taught that there was no Scriptural warrant for a state church, that the civil magistrate should have no authority in religious matters, and that the imposition of a creed against unbelievers was not a Christian thing. What appropriately became known as the Secession Church began when Glas and three other ministers left the Scottish state church, and formed the first Associate Presbytery in 1733, near Kinross. As W. B. Selbie wrote, “It [the Secession Church] was a Voluntary Church dependent on the free will offerings of the people, and independent of any State control.”

In an extensive discussion of “Voluntaryism” published in Chambers’s ENCYCLOPAEDIA reference is made to the “Voluntary Controversy which sprung up in the second decade of th[e 19th] Century between churchmen and dissenters in Scotland.” There the voluntaryists held “that all true worship … must be the free expression of individual minds. … [T]herefore, religion ought to be left by civil society to mould itself spontaneously according to its own” spiritual nature and institutions. This should be done “without violence to individual freedom from any interposition of secular authority or compulsory influence.” These religious voluntaryists held that the “only weapons of the Church are moral and spiritual. The weapon of the State is force.” They believed that the “Church was never so vital, so convincing, so fruitful as in the first three centuries before her alliance with the State.”

Back in England, from about the mid-1840s to the mid-1860s, voluntaryism became a force to be reckoned with in another sphere. In 1843, Parliament considered legislation which would require part-time compulsory attendance at school of those children working in factories. The effective control over these schools was to be placed in the hands of the Anglican church, the established Church of England, and the schools were to be supported largely from funds raised out of local taxation. Nonconformists, mostly Baptists and Congregationalists, were alarmed by the Factories Education Bill of 1843. They had been under the ban of the law for more than a century. At one time or another they could not be married in their own churches, were compelled to pay church rates against their will, and had to teach their children underground for fear of arrest. They became known as voluntaryists because they consistently rejected all state aid and interference in education, just as they rejected the state in the religious sphere of their lives. Three of the most notable voluntaryists included the young Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), who was to publish his first series of articles “The Proper Sphere of Government,” beginning in 1842; Edward Baines, Jr., (1800-1890) editor and proprietor of the LEEDS MERCURY; and Edward Miall (1809-1881), Congregationalist minister, and founder-editor of THE NONCONFORMIST (1841), who wrote VIEWS OF THE VOLUNTARY PRINCIPLE in 1845.

The educational voluntaryists wanted free trade in education, just as they supported free trade in corn or cotton. Their concern “for liberty can scarcely be exaggerated.” They believed that “government would employ education for its own ends,” (teaching habits of obedience and indoctrination) and that government-controlled schools would ultimately teach children to rely on the state for all things. Baines, for example, noted that “[w]e cannot violate the principles of liberty in regard to education without furnishing at once a precedent and inducement to violate them in regard to other matters.” Baines conceded that the then current system of education (both private and charitable) had deficiencies, but he argued that freedom should not be abridged on that account. Should freedom of the press be compromised because we have bad newspapers? “I maintain that Liberty is the chief cause of excellence; but it would cease to be Liberty if you proscribed everything inferior.” Baines embraced what he called the Voluntary system which included

all that is not Government or compulsory, – all that men do for themselves, their neighbours, or their posterity, of their own free will. It comprehends the efforts of parents, on behalf of the education of their children, – of the private schoolmaster and tutor, for their individual interest, – of religious bodies, benevolent societies, wealthy benefactors, and cooperative associations, in the support of schools, – and of those numerous auxiliaries to education, the authors and editors of educational works, lecturers, artists, and whoever devotes his talents in any way to promote the instruction of the young, without the compulsion of law or the support of the public purse. …

[I]ts very essence is liberty. It offends no man’s conscience, exacts from no man’s purse, favors no sect or party, neither enforces nor forbids religion in the schools, is open to all improvement, denies to no person the right of teaching, and gives to none the slightest ground for complaint. It is as just and impartial as it is free. In all these important respects it differs from systems which require the support of law and taxation.

Although educational voluntaryism failed to stop the movement for compulsory schools in England, voluntaryism as a political creed was revived during the 1880s by another Englishman, Auberon Herbert (1838-1906). Herbert served a two year term in the House of Commons, but after meeting Herbert Spencer in 1874, decided not to run for re-election. He wrote “State Education: A Help or Hindrance?” in 1880, and began publishing his journal, THE FREE LIFE (Organ of Voluntary Taxation and the Voluntary State) in 1890. Herbert advocated a single monopolistic state for every given geographic territory, but held that it was possible for state revenues to be generated by offering competitive services on the free market. Some of his essays are titled “The Principles of Voluntaryism and Free Life” (1897), and “A Plea for Voluntaryism,” (posthumously, 1908).

Although the label “voluntaryist” practically died out after the death of Auberon Herbert, its use was renewed in late 1982, when George Smith, Wendy McElroy, and Carl Watner began editing THE VOLUNTARYIST. George Smith, after publishing his article “Nineteenth-Century Opponents of State Education,” suggested use of the term to identify those libertarians who believed that political action and political parties were antithetical to their ideas. In NEITHER BULLETS NOR BALLOTS: Essays on Voluntaryism, Watner, Smith, and McElroy explained that voluntaryists were advocates of non-political strategies to achieve a free society. They rejected electoral politics “in theory and practice as incompatible with libertarian goals,” and explained that political methods invariably strengthen the legitimacy of coercive governments. In concluding their “Statement of Purpose” they wrote: “Voluntaryists seek instead to delegitimize the State through education, and we advocate the withdrawal of the cooperation and tacit consent on which state power ultimately depends.”

Although there was never a “voluntaryist” movement in America till the late 20th Century, earlier Americans did agitate for the disestablishment of government-supported churches in several of the original thirteen States. Such people believed that the individual was no longer automatically to become a member of the church simply by reason of being born in a given state. Their objection to taxation in support of the church was two-fold: taxation not only gave the state some right of control over the church; it also represented a way of coercing the non-member or the unbeliever into supporting the church financially. In New England, where both Massachusetts and Connecticut started out with state churches, many people believed that they needed to pay a tax for the general support of religion – for the same reasons they paid taxes to maintain the roads or the courts. It was simply inconceivable to many of them that society could long exist without state support of religion. Practically no one comprehended the idea that although governmentally-supplied goods and services might be essential to human welfare, it was not necessary that they be provided by the government.

In Connecticut, the well-known Congregational minister, Lyman Beecher, opposed disestablishment of the State church, which was finally brought about in 1818. In his autobiography, Beecher admits that this was a time of great depression and suffering for him. Beecher expected the worst from disestablishment: the floodgates of anarchy would be loosened in Connecticut. “The injury done to the cause of Christ, as we then supposed, was irreparable.” This supposition was soon challenged by a new revolutionary idea, that true religion might stand on its own without support from the state. “Our people thought that they should be destroyed” if the law no longer supported the churches. “But the effect, when it did come, was just the reverse of the expectation. We were thrown on God and ourselves,” and this made the church stronger. “Before we had been standing on what our Fathers had done, but now we were obliged to develop all our energy.” Beecher also noted with elation the new alignment of religious forces which was the result of disestablishment. By repealing the law that compelled everyone to pay for the support of some church, “the occasion of animosity between us and the minor sects was removed, and the infidels could no more make capital with them against us.” On the contrary, “they began themselves to feel the dangers from infidelity, and to react against it, and this laid the basis of co-operation and union of spirit.” Beecher’s final conclusion was “that the tax law had for more than twenty years really worked to weaken us” and strengthen our opponents.

Scroll to Top