The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State
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Article VI, Section III

The No Religious Test Ban Clause (Separation clause)
Part II

The historical record: The Constitutional Convention

Researched and edited by Jim Allison


OCTOBER 9, 1780

I am fully of your opinion respecting religious tests; but, though the people of Massachusetts have not in their new constitution kept quite clear of them, yet, if we consider what that people were one hundred years ago, we must allow they have gone great lengths in liberality of sentiment on religious subjects; and we may hope for greater degrees of perfection, when their constitution, some years hence, shall be revised. If Christian preachers had continued to teach as Christ and his Apostles did, without salaries, and as the Quakers now do, I imagine tests would never have existed; for I think they were invented, not so much to secure religion itself, as the emoluments of it. When a religion is good, I conceive that it will support itself; and, when it cannot support itself, and God does not take care to support it, so that its professors are obliged to call for the help of the civil power, it is a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one. . . .

Source of Information:

Excerpt of letter written by Benjamin Franklin to Dr. Richard Price, October 9, 1780. Works of Benjamin Franklin (Sparks ed.), VIII 505-506, in Bigelow ed, VII, 139, 140. Church and State in the United States, Volume I , Anson Phelps Stokes, D.D., LL.D., Harper & Brothers (1950) pp 298.


John Adams. Writing in 1786, just before the federal Constitution was written, he took it as given that political constitutions were wholly secular enterprises free of godly involvement or inspiration. "The United States of America," he wrote, marks "the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature." The architects of American governments never "had interviews with the gods or were in any degree under the inspiration of Heaven." Government, Adams insisted, is "contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses." Adams's view of constitution making is also caught up in the secular ideals of the Age of Reason. "Neither the people nor their conventions, committees, or subcommittees," he wrote, "considered legislation in any other light than as ordinary arts and sciences, only more important... . The people were universally too enlightened to be imposed on by artifice. . . . [G]overnments thus founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretense of miracle or mystery, and which are destined to spread over the northern part of that whole quarter of the globe, are a great point gained in favour of the rights of mankind."

Source of Information:

The Godless Constitution, The Case Against Religious Correctness. By Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore. W. W. Norton & Company New York/London.(1996) pp


Not that there weren't voices in the states opposing religious tests. The Catholic John Carroll of Maryland noted acerbically in 1787 that even as many state constitutions had been drafted in 1776 reserving public office to Protestants, "the American army swarmed with Roman Catholic soldiers." People of all faiths fought in the Revolution, he noted, assuming that they would not be "shackled by religious tests" and would be "entitled to a participation in the common blessings which crowned their efforts" once they returned to their states. Jews in Pennsylvania petitioned the state government in 1783 and 1787 to remove the requirement that officeholders be Protestants and believers in the New Testament, since it "deprives the Jews of the most eminent right of freemen." In Gorham, Massachusetts (now Maine), the inhabitants instructed their delegates to the Massachusetts constitutional convention of 1779 "that no restriction be required of any officer or ruler but merit, viz. a sufficient knowledge and understanding in matters relative to the office, and fidelity and firmness in the cause of liberty. " The Gorham delegates were unsuccessful in Boston.

The two exceptions among the state constitutions were those of Virginia and New York. In the former, (with Madison's help) Jefferson's "Statute for Religious Freedom," passed in 1786, specified that no religious test could be applied to the holding of public office. Even more interesting was New York's constitution, which in 1777 self-consciously repudiated tests that sought to maintain "any particular denomination of Christians." The absence ofreligious tests would, the New York constitution claimed, "guard against that spiritual oppression and intolerance wherewith the bigotry and ambition of weak and wicked priests and princes have scourged mankind."

Source of Information:

The Godless Constitution, The Case Against Religious Correctness. By Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore. W. W. Norton & Company New York/London.(1996) pp 30-31


MONDAY AUGUST 20 1787, IN CONVENTION (Philadelphia)

Mr. PINKNEY submitted to the house, in order to be referred to the committee of detail, the following propositions----

. . . No religious test or qualification shall ever be annexed to any oath of office under the authority of the U.S. These propositions were referred to the Committee of detain without debate or consideration of them, by the House.

Source of Information:

Bicentennial Edition, Notes of the Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, Reported by James Madison, With an introduction by Adrienne Koch. W. W. Morton & Company New York * London, Reissued as a Norton paperback 1987, original introduction copyright 1966, Ohio University Press, pp 486.


TUESDAY AUGUST 30TH, 1787 IN CONVENTION (Philadelphia)

Mr. PINKNEY moved to add to the act:-"but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the authority of the U. States."

Mr. Sherman thought it unnecessary, the prevailing liberality being sufficient security against such tests.

Mr. GOV. MORRIS and Gen. PINCKNEY approved the motion. The motion was agreed to nem: con: then the whole article; N.C. only no-& Maryland divided.

Source of Information:

Bicentennial Edition, Notes of the Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, Reported by James Madison, With an introduction by Adrienne Koch. W. W. Morton & Company New York * London, Reissued as a Norton paperback 1987, original introduction copyright 1966, Ohio University Press, pp 561.


Between SEPTEMBER AND DECEMBER, 1787

William Van Murray, Esq., applauded the absence of religious tests. in a 1787 essay in the American Museum. America, he wrote, "will be the great philosophical theater of the world," since its Constitution recognizes that "Christians are not the only people there." religious tests. are "A VIOLATION of THE LAW OF NATURE." Governments are created, he held, according to the "laws of nature. These are unacquainted with the distinctions of religious opinion; and of the terms Christian, Mohamentan, Jew or Gentile."

Source of Information:

The Godless Constitution, The Case Against Religious Correctness. By Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore. W. W. Norton & Company New York/London.(1996) pp 40-41


OCTOBER, 1787

An anonymous writer in the Virginia Independent Chronicle cautioned in October 1787 about "the pernicious effects" of the Constitution's general disregard of religion," its "cold indifference towards religion."

Thomas Wilson, also of Virginia, insisted that the "Constitution is de[i]stical in principle, and in all probability the composers had no thought of God in all their consultations."

Source of Information:

The Godless Constitution, The Case Against Religious Correctness. By Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore. W. W. Norton & Company New York/London.(1996) pp 33-34


OCTOBER 7, 1787

. . . We hear nothing decisive as yet concerning the general reception given to the Act of the Convention. The Advocates for it come forward more promptly than the Adversaries. The Sea Coast seems every where fond of it. The party in Boston which was thought most likely to make opposition, are warm in espousing it. It is said that Mr. S. Adams objects to one point only, viz. the prohibition of a Religious test. Mr. Bowdoin's objections are said to be agst. the great number of members composing the Legislature, and the intricate election of the President. You will no doubt have heard of the fermentation in the Assembly of Penna... .

Source of Information:

Letter from James Madison to Edmund Randolph, New York, October 7, 1787 (excerpt) The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, Vol. XIII, Commentaries on the Constitution, Public and private (Vol. I, February 21, 1787 to November 7, 1787.) Edited by John P. Kaminski & Gaspare J. Saladino, Madison, State Historical Society of Wisconsin 1981, pp 346)


OCTOBER 21, 1787

No religious test is ever to be required of any officer or servant of the United States. The people may employ any wise and good citizen in the execution of the various duties of the government. In Italy, Spain and Portugal, no protestant can hold a public trust. In England every presbyterian , and other person not of their established church is incapable of holding: an office. No such impious deprivation of the rights of men can take place under the new federal constitution. The convention has the honor of proposing the first public act, by which any nation has ever divested itself of a power, every exercise of which is a trespass on the Majesty of Heaven.

No qualification in monied or landed property is required by the proposed plan; nor does it admit any preference from the preposterous distinctions of birth and rank. The office of the President, a Senator, and a Representative, and every other place of power or profit, are therefore open to the whole body of the people. Any wise, informed and upright man. be his property what it may, can exercise the trusts and powers of the state, provided he passes the moral, religious, and political virtues which are necessary to secure confidence of his fellow citizens.

Source of Information:

Essay (excerpt) by A. An American Citizen IV (Tench Coxe) written at the request of James Wilson, Benjamin Rush and others, on the Federal Government, Philadelphia,. Was first Published on or before October 21, 1787 The essay was originally part of of a four page broadside anthology by Hall and Sellers of the Pennsylvania Gazette. On October 24 "An American Citizen " was printed in the Pennsylvania Gazette and the Philadelphia Independent Gazette. By December 10, 1787 it had been published in nine other newspapers in Mass., Conn., N.Y., N.J., Pa., Maryland, Va., S. C. The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, Vol. XIII, Commentaries on the Constitution, Public and private (Vol. I, February 21, 1787 to November 7, 1787.) Edited by John P. Kaminski & Gaspare J. Saladino, Madison, State Historical Society of Wisconsin 1981, pp 432.


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OCTOBER 28, 1787

Is not a religious test as far as it is necessary, or would operate, involved in the oath itself? If the person swearing believes in the supreme Being who is invoked, and in the Penal consequences of offending him, either in this or a future world or both, he will be under the same restraint from perjury as if he had previously subscribed a test requiring this belief. If the person in question be an unbeliever in these points and would notwithstanding take the oath, a previous test could have no effect. He would subscribe it as he would lake the oath, without any principle that could be affected by either.

Source of Information:

Letter written by James Madison to Edmund Randolph October 25, 1787, (excerpt) The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, Vol. XIII, Commentaries on the Constitution, Public and private (Vol. I, February 21, 1787 to November 7, 1787.) Edited by John P. Kaminski & Gaspare J. Saladino, Madison, State Historical Society of Wisconsin 1981, pp 504


NOVEMBER 1787

The prohibition of religious tests was seen by many opponents as the operative sign of the Constitution's more basic flaw--its general godless quality, its seeming indifference to religion.

Disputants around America complained, as the writer "Philadelphiensis" did in November 1787, of the framers' "silence" and indifference about religion."

Source of Information:

The Godless Constitution, The Case Against Religious Correctness. By Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore. W. W. Norton & Company New York/London.(1996) pp 33


NOVEMBER 30, 1787

The Convention has been met some days here. The majority, and that a large one, are for the proposed Constitution, but a troublesome minority will lengthen out their deliberations or rather retard the adoption of it. The time being short that was allotted before the meeting of the Convention for the choice of its members, the back counties were under the necessity of returning their Assembly members who were then at this place; and these are the persons who were most active for the continuation of the test law, the emission of paper money and the cancelling the Bank [of North America] charter, etc., etc. of the same complexion. However it is far from being considered as an unfortunate circumstance, as it will disseminate much light among the people on this important subject. I have the pleasure to enclose Mr. [James] Wilson's first speech, and will forward the debates complete as soon as the Convention is broke up and they are printed. The enclosed part, I must observe, is however, very inaccurate, and not only parts are omitted and the leading points often lost for want of seizing the exact expression, but some parts are absolutely misstated.

Source of Information:

letter from Samuel Vaughan, Jr. to James Bowdoin, Philadelphia, 30 November (excerpt). The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, Vol. II Ratification of the Constitution by the States, Pennsylvania, Edited by Merrill Jensen, Madison State Historical Society of Wis, 1976, pp 262-263.


Continue to Part III: The Pennsylvania State Ratifying Convention