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What is a "Test Oath?"

When someone is inaugurated to public office, he or she takes the "oath of office." This website argues that no one should be permitted to hold public office who does not take a Christian "test oath." In the meantime, this website argues that Christians should voluntarily take a Christian "test oath" when required to take an oath of office.

There are two definitions of "test oath" to be found in American legal history. The subject can be confusing because some court cases have used both definitions indiscriminately.

Today, any oath which has an explicit reference to one's religious beliefs is often called a "test oath" (although origininally such an oath was simply an oath).

A Short History of Test Oaths

In the Middle Ages, kings, princes, and feudal lords demanded oaths of loyalty from their vassals. Not just to the prince, but to his religion as well. After the Reformation, if a prince became a Lutheran, everyone in his realm became a Lutheran. By law. Anyone accepting a political office or public trust took an oath of loyalty to the prince and to the Catholic (or Lutheran, or whatever) faith.

In America, many of the colonies limited political offices to members of the Church of England, or other denominations. After the Revolution against Britain, very few people wanted their tax dollars to pay the salaries of the clergy for the Church of England (no surprise). But which denomination would be supported by taxes and oaths? The colonists decided to eliminate taxes and oaths which favored any particular denomination. Before the Constitution was written, every state had eliminated the requirement that public office holders be members of a particular denomination. The Revolution (not the First Amendment) effectively marked the end of test oaths and "established churches."

But every state still required that politicians believe in God. Atheists could not take an oath of any kind. An oath was a declaration of belief in God. That's what an oath is: The oath taker declares that he believes in God and that he is fully aware that God will judge him if what he says is false or if what he promises is not fulfilled.

At the time the Constitution was ratified, these two points were universally understood:

Both before and after the Constitution was ratified, the states required candidates to be Biblically qualified to take the oath of office. They were not required to affirm their membership in a particular denomination, but they were required to swear that they were Christians. If you were not a Christian, you could not hold office.

As an example, see the Delaware Constitution, Art. 22 (adopted Sept. 20, 1776):

Every person who shall be chosen a member of either house,
or appointed to any office or place of trust . . .
shall . . . make and subscribe the following declaration, 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 scripture
of the Old and New Testaments to be
given by divine inspiration."[2]

All states required Christian belief before the American Revolution. There was no other "religious test."

The U.S. Constitution banned "religious tests." Article VI, para. 3 reads:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.

At this point in time, the requirement of "an oath" was a requirement of an act of religious worship, a solemn declaration made in the presence of God. (The option to "affirm" rather than "swear" was included for the benefit of Quakers, who would not take an oath, but did believe in God.) The debates in the state ratifying conventions indicate that many Ratifiers understood the paragraph to be speaking of what might be called a "denominational" test. That is, no one would be required to be a member of a particular church/denomination. They assumed office-holders would be Christian. After drafting the Constitution, the Signers returned to their home states and drafted state constitutions which limited public office to Christians. In their minds, the Constitution did not change anything, but merely protected what already existed.

Some scholars have argued that this provision applies only to Federal Offices, but not for state offices. In other words, the states would still be free to limit state offices to Episcopalians, if they so chose. But the states had already ended this practice anyway. They didn't want the federal government to give privileges to who-knows-what denomination over the others.

On the other hand, the debates indicate some were concerned that an atheist could become President. In reply, men like Theophilus Parsons of Newburyport, MA, said Americans would never vote for an atheist, but an oath would be of no use, because an atheist would simply lie (swear falsely that he was a Christian). (When God commanded oaths, did He forget that some people might take an oath falsely?) U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, whose Commentaries on the Constitution were recognized as the most authoritative statement of the meaning of the Constitution, declared that as a result of this Article, "the Calvinist . . . and the Infidel may sit down at the common table of the national councils without any inquisition into their faith or mode of worship."[3] If this is true, Article VI of the Constitution is a disaster. It is completely unBiblical.

Test Oaths Today

By both definitions, "test oaths" are dead today. Not only are denominational test oaths dead, but every form of oath (as a calling upon God to judge truth) is dead. Justice Story and other constitutional authorities have given secularists ammunition with which to attack the Christian roots of our legal system. The mythological doctrine of "separation of church and state" (read: "separation of Christianity and government") took generations to construct. It is not found in the text of the Constitution. Because of this doctrine, secularists today argue that any religious content at all in an oath is "unconstitutional." Secularists call the requirement that political office holders believe in God a "test oath." But it was not until 1961 that the U.S. Supreme Court declared the requirement to believe in God "unconstitutional.[4] It was the necessary preparation for the decisions a few months later to ban prayer and Bible-reading from the states' schools.

"So Help Us, God!"

Although the Constitution does not require it, virtually every President since Washington has added the words "so help me, God" to his oath of office, indicating that they did not believe Article VI required completely secular oaths. But a strange thing has happened. A very strange thing. Although secularists were able to get "test oaths" declared unconstitutional (1961), many legislatures and courts still require use of the phrase "so help me, God" in all oaths. Atheists have gone to court on several occasions seeking to have this phrase eliminated entirely.

They were logical to do so; the doctrine of the "separation of church and state" as articulated by the Supreme Court demands secular oaths. But courts were reluctant to face the adverse publicity such a decision would have. What they did was declare that the phrase "so help me, God" does not refer to God! One court said it has "no theological meaning." Without directly ruling on the issue, the U.S. Supreme Court has called the phrase "ceremonial deism." Back in the days of "test oaths," that same Court denounced "deism" as a form of "infidelity," or unbelief. Many, many Christians have thus taken an oath which the U.S. Supreme Court has defined as an acknowledgment that the oath-taker is an unbeliever. Christians must take steps to release themselves from these secular oaths and take a Christian "test oath." To do so would be to repudiate the entire edifice of secular church-state theory the courts have built over the years.

Today, George Washington's prophecy is coming true. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, the oath is a mere formality. It "simply" requires the candidate to take a secular "oath" (or affirmation) that he will "support the constitution" and perform his job "to the best of my ability." As a result, most people who have sworn to "support the constitution" have never even read the document. Life and property are now threatened by the government, whose officers no longer have Godly reputations.

We need to restore the "test oath." Not a loyalty to any political party, or any ecclesiastical denomination, but allegiance to God.


Webster's 1828 edition of the American Dictionary of the English Language defines "oath" as follows:

A solemn affirmation or declaration, made with an appeal to God for the truth of what is affirmed. The appeal to God in an oath, implies that the person imprecates His vengeance and renounces His favor if the declaration is false, or if the declaration is a promise, the person invokes the vengeance of God if he should fail to fulfill it. A false oath is called perjury.

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1. Cole v. Richardson, 405 U.S. 676, 685, 92 S.Ct. 1332, 1337; 31 L.Ed.2d 593 (1972).  [Return to Text]

2. Del. Code Ann. 117 (Michie, 1975). See also T. Skillman, The Constitutions of All the States According to the Latest Amendments, 181 (1817).  [Back to text]

3. Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States (Boston: Hilliard, Gray & Co., 1833) vol. III, p. 383, 400, cited in Barton, Original Intent, p. 34.  [Back to text]

4. In the case of Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488, 81 S.Ct. 1680 (1961).

The decision was based on the myth of "separation of church and state," ("free exercise" grounds) not Article VI. Some states continued requiring belief in God from all public office holders for more than a decade after the Supreme Court ruled such requirements "unconstitutional."   [Back to text]

Did God make a mistake by requiring oaths? After all, some people might just lie.

Mr. PARSONS, (of Newburyport.) It has been objected that the Constitution provides no religious test by oath, and we may have in power unprincipled men, atheists and pagans. No man can wish more ardently than I do that all our public offices may be filled by men who fear God and hate wickedness; but it must remain with the electors to give the government this security. An oath will not do it. Will an unprincipled man be entangled by an oath? Will an atheist or a pagan dread the vengeance of the Christian's God, a being, in his opinion, the creature of fancy and credulity? It is a solecism in expression. No man is so illiberal as to wish the confining places of honor or profit to any one sect of Christians; but what security is it to government, that every public officer shall swear that he is a Christian?
Jonathan Elliot, ed., Debates on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution as recommended by the General Convention at Philadelphia in 1787; Vol. 2, Debates in the Convention of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, of the Adoption of the Federal Constitution: In Convention, Boston, Wednesday, January 23, 1788, p.90.

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