Religious Tests for Officeholding

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In the aftermath of England's Glorious Revolution of 1688, Parliament imposed on members of colonial assemblies and councils the obligation to take an oath renouncing allegiance to all foreign powers, political and spiritual. This oath effectively barred Roman Catholics from holding political office in all the colonies, except Rhode Island and Connecticut, which were essentially self-governing. However, Rhode Island passed a law in 1719 against Roman Catholic officeholders and, it is safe to say, Connecticut elected no Catholics to office. Jews also did not serve in colonial legislatures. At least in theory, foreign-born Catholics could not become naturalized British citizens, vote, or hold property. The exclusion of Roman Catholics from political power occasioned no debate, and the French and Indian War against Catholic France and the Quebec Act of 1774 led to increased anti-Catholic sentiments. It is a safe conclusion that on the eve of the American Revolution, most colonists saw America as a Protestant country.

A second form of religious test came in requirements to swear an oath of office ("so help me God"). Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania allowed an affirmation (omitting the name of God), but other states followed the British practice of allowing an affirmation for legal matters while deeming it insufficient for holding high office. Maryland and the Carolinas allowed an affirmation for officeholders in the seventeenth century, but subsequently repealed that provision as a way of reducing Quaker influence.

during the revolution

After independence was proclaimed, all the states except Connecticut and Rhode Island wrote new constitutions. Virginia was unique in having no religious test and no naming of God in oaths of office. Yet it kept its established church. Georgia had no religious test, but did invoke "so help me God" in the oath of office from 1777 until a new constitution in 1789 dropped this requirement.

Six states' constitutions—North and South Carolina, New Hampshire, Delaware, New Jersey, and Georgia—restricted officeholding to Protestants. New York effectively barred foreign-born Catholics from becoming naturalized state citizens by a law requiring an oath renouncing allegiance to a foreign political and spiritual power, that is, the papacy. Even though Massachusetts's constitution of 1780 restricted officeholding to Christians, its legislature and New York's effectively banned Catholics. Against Benjamin Franklin's opposition, the ministers in Pennsylvania persuaded its convention in 1776 to allow only Christians to hold office. Maryland passed the same restriction that year and did not revise its constitution to allow Jews to serve until 1851 and even then insisted that all officeholders believe in a future state of rewards and punishment.

The states feared religious strife and sought to protect their citizens by forbidding practicing ministers from serving in the legislatures. Six states banned ministers exercising their pastoral vocation from serving in the legislature (South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Maryland, Delaware, and New York). New York wished to be delivered from "bigotry and ambition of weak and wicked priests," but South Carolina noted that "a profession dedicated to the service of God and the cure of souls, ought not to be diverted from the great duties of their function" (Thorpe, Federal and State Constitutions, vol. 5, p. 2636; vol. 6, p. 3253).

All of the state constitutions included a loyalty oath or affirmation. Six states required the naming of God in their oaths, while only two did not mention the deity in the prescribed form; the others did not stipulate the form of the oath. In theory, the "so help me God" formulation was not meant to enlist the aid of God in telling the truth but to acknowledge that God would deal with the person in this or the next life in a manner congruent with whether he or she told the truth. Several state constitutions made this explicit by requiring officeholders to acknowledge a future realm of rewards and punishment (heaven and hell).

easing requirements

The most secular constitution of 1777 was the Articles of Confederation, which did not mention God nor require an oath of loyalty. The Federal Constitution made no mention of God either in the preamble or the oath of office, created no religious test, and allowed an affirmation.

The individual states also eased their requirements before and after 1787, showing widespread but by no means universal opposition to some religious tests, particularly those against Catholics and Jews. The Pennsylvania constitution of 1790 ended the restriction upon Jews, but still required a belief in God and in a realm of rewards and punishments after death. This provision would remain in the state's constitutions until the twentieth century. The South Carolina constitution of 1790 dropped the name of God and the religious test for electors and officeholders. The Delaware constitution of 1792 also dropped religious tests. Georgia's 1789 document continued the state's policy of no religious test. Kentucky in 1792 banned ministers from officeholding but required the naming of God in its oath; the state dropped the latter requirement in 1799. In 1777 and 1786, Vermont restricted officeholding to Protestants who believed in heaven and hell. After becoming a state in 1791, however, it required only belief in God and in heaven and hell. Many of the religious tests endured long into the nineteenth century. Massachusetts ended them in 1833, North Carolina in 1835, and New Jersey in 1844. Invoking the name of God in oaths of office remained common even when states allowed an affirmation.

What should one conclude about the significance of religious tests? At the time of the Revolution, eleven states and Vermont proclaimed their devotion to religious liberty even while maintaining a religious test for office. The citizens wanted to guarantee that honest, God-fearing men held office, but feared the influence of church organization on politics. Ironically, the 1776 constitution of Virginia, the most secular state document, did not bar ministers from serving, while South Carolina's constitution of 1778, filled with religious sentiments, did. At first, only Georgia accepted the Virginia pattern, but it became increasingly influential even before the Constitution of 1787. The impact of the federal Constitution and the First Amendment was felt because while many Americans had already concluded that religious tests were unnecessary or an infringement on religious liberty, no one had argued that they were illegal.

See alsoConstitutionalism; Religion: The Founders and Religion; Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom .


Curry, Thomas J. The First Freedoms: Church and State in America to the Passage of the First Amendment. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Thorpe, Francis Newton. The Federal and State Constitutions, Colonial Charters, and Other Organic Laws of the States, Territories, and Colonies Now or Heretofore Forming the United States of America. 7 vols. Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office, 1909.

J. William Frost

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Religious Tests for Officeholding

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