Nine out of thirteen states had some sort of religious test requirement for officeholders in their constitutions. At the time, many believed religious oaths were supposed to guarantee honorable public service for fear of incurring the wrath of God. Public officials who violated their oaths might escape punishment here on earth but could not avoid punishment in the hereafter.
In Article VI among provisions that addressed matters of oaths and allegiance, there was a clause that stipulated that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public trust under the United States.” For many Americans it was difficult to imagine how, under the proposed Constitution, leaders could be virtuous without such an oath. These selections from state constitutions during the Revolutionary Period illustrate the historical background that influenced much of the debate during ratification over the Constitution’s prohibition of a religious test for officeholding.
Every person who shall be chosen a member of either house, or appointed to any office or place of trust, before taking his seat, or entering upon the execution of his office, shall take the following oath, or affirmation, if conscientiously scrupulous of taking an oath, to wit: “I, do profess faith in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ His only Son, and in the Holy Ghost, one God, blessed for evermore; and I do acknowledge the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by divine inspiration.”
That no other test or qualification ought to be required, on admission to any office of trust or profit, than such oath of support and fidelity to this State, and such oath of office, as shall be directed by this Convention or the Legislature of this State, and a declaration of a belief in the Christian religion.
New Jersey, 1776
No Protestant inhabitant of this Colony shall be denied the enjoyment of any civil right, merely on account of his religious principles; but that all persons, professing a belief in the faith of any Protestant sect. who shall demean themselves peaceably under the government, as hereby established, shall be capable of being elected into any office of profit or trust, or being a member of either branch of the Legislature. . . .
I do believe in one God, the creator and governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and the punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine inspiration.
North Carolina, 1776
That no person, who shall deny the being of God or the truth of the Protestant religion, or the divine authority either of the Old or New Testaments, or who shall hold religious principles incompatible with the freedom and safety of the State, shall be capable of holding any office or place of trust or profit in the civil department within this State.
The representatives shall be . . . of the Protestent religion. . . .
And each member, before he takes his seat, shall make and subscribe the following declaration, ” I ____ do believe in one God, the Creator and Governor of the Diverse, the rewarder of the good and punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the scriptures of the old and new testament to be given by divine inspiration, and own and profess the protestant religion.”
Any person chosen governor, lieutenant-governor, councillor, senator, or representative, and accepting the trust, shall, before he proceed to execute the duties of his place or office, make and subscribe the following declaration: “I . . . do declare that I believe the Christian religion, and have a firm persuasion of its truth; and that I am seized and possessed, in my own right, of the property required by the constitution, as one qualification for the office or place to which I am elected.”
New Hampshire, 1784
Every member of the house of representatives shall be of the Protestant religion. . . . That no person shall be capable of being elected a senator who is not of the Protestant religion. . . . The President shall be chosen annually; and no person shall be eligible to this office, unless at the time of his election, he . . . shall be of the protestant religion.