The Debate Over Religious Tests

Article VI of the Constitution stipulated that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” This provision was out of step with a majority of states, nine of which had a religious test for officeholders in their constitutions. The prohibition of religious oaths in the Constitution caused some controversy during the ratification debates. Some Americans viewed such oaths as a potent check on public corruption: one’s misdeeds could be hidden from the public, but not from God. Others objected to the lack of religious tests out of simple prejudice. David Caldwell warned that the lack of a religious test was an invitation to “Jews and Heathens,” whose immigration to the United States was opposed by “all those who have any religion.” William Lancaster more moderately suggested that, if most states had religious tests, the U.S. Constitution should as well.

When Charles Pinckney proposed the ban on religious tests in the Constitutional Convention the only objection came from Roger Sherman, who thought it unnecessary because “the prevailing liberality” in regards to religion was “sufficient security ag[ain]st such tests.” Supporters of religious tests raised the issue in some state conventions, but few did so in print.

James Madison, among others, defended the ban on religious tests, arguing that the oath to support the Constitution required in Article VI served essentially the same function as a religious test—presumably the oath was being taken before God. Francis Cummins agreed that any oath implied some sort of religious test and, in a speech before the South Carolina ratifying Convention, suggested an amendment to Article VI so that it would read “no other religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust.” Cummins’ amendment became one of South Carolina’s recommendatory amendments but was never acted on by congress. Other supporters of the Article VI ban argued that religious tests only disqualified the conscientious; unscrupulous characters would not hesitate to take any oath necessary to secure power. North Carolina Governor Samuel Johnston readily acknowledged that the lack of a religious test might someday lead to a non-Christian becoming president or holding high office, but this would be the choice of the people themselves and should be respected.

The Constitution was ratified with the Article VI ban on religious tests intact, but the issue was never completely resolved. The first law passed by the United States Congress, “An act to regulate the time and manner of administering certain oaths,” prescribed the words of the oath to be taken under Article VI of the Constitution. This oath, like the presidential oath in Article II, contained no mention of God. However, the oath prescribed for federal judges in the Judiciary Act of 1789 concluded with the words, “So help me God.” This phrase remains part of the judicial oath and eventually made its way into the presidential oath of office, though the words are not part of the presidential oath in Article II of the Constitution. Whether such language constitutes a religious test is still uncertain.

Opposed to Religious Tests

In Support of Religious Tests

The Landholder/Williams Debate

“Landholder,” most likely Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut, wrote some of the most widely circulated essays on the Constitution during the ratification debate. In “A Landholder” VII he defended the Constitution’s ban on religious tests for federal officeholding as a sure way to prevent religious persecution. During the Connecticut ratifying Convention, William Williams, a Connecticut merchant and signer of the Declaration of Independence, lamented the lack of an acknowledgment of God in the Constitution. He also accused those who supported the Article VI prohibition of religious tests of engaging in a straw man fallacy by supposing that any American religious test would be sectarian and would be as abusive as English religious tests. A debate ensued in which “Landholder” and “Elihu” attacked Williams for his apparent support for religious tests and for supposing that God would “be pleased with such low familiarity or vulgar flattery” as to be invoked in the Constitution. The Constitution should be judged on its merits, not on the piety or impiety of the men who wrote it. Williams objected that he did not support any sectarian religious tests, but only wanted some sort of acknowledgment of God within the Constitution. He also refused to answer any more attacks against him unless they were signed using the authors’ real names. This debate is notable in that it was a disagreement between Federalists. Ellsworth and Williams both voted to ratify the Constitution.