Christian Witnessing

by Chris Beneke

How Christian was the early national U.S.? Providing a credible answer to that question is not as easy as some politicians and journalists would have us believe.

Short of blurting responses that accord with our ideological prejudices, we can cite the founders(the most popular approach), use church membership data, or skimpier but perhaps more revealing church adherence data, consult state and federal constitutional language, examine early national publications, diaries, letters, etc. Unfortunately, there was no Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life on Religion & Public Life in 1790. So to determine who went to church and what believers believed we must rely on often un-reliable observers and scattered records.

Ronald P. Formisano and Stephen Pickering introduce another form of evidence in the summer issue of The Journal of the Early Republic. Their focus is the early national debate over witness competency (i.e. the religious tests that were imposed on potential witnesses in the early republic).

Formisano and Pickering are not the first to look at such laws. But they appear to be doing it more systematically than anyone before them. The authors’ key finding “is that religious tests for ‘witness competency’ remained on state statute books and in judges’ decisions a much longer time” than scholars have generally thought. Formisano and Pickering point out that “[m]any state courts retained religious tests for most of the nineteenth century” (it’s not clear that anyone knows how many and for how long. It appears that a conservative estimate would be: 1) a dozen or more states, and 2) into the early twentieth century). A witness’s success in passing such tests usually hinged on whether she or he believed in “a future state of rewards and punishments.”

Formisano and Pickering identify two primary judicial approaches to witness competency in religious matters. The first emphasized that "a future state" entailed belief in an afterlife of rewards for some and punishments for others, which excluded Universalists who professed that every soul would eventually be saved. A second, more common approach accommodated Universalists by allowing that a belief in rewards and punishments in this life could also be a sufficient qualification. On the whole, the trend was away from strict religious requirements for witness competency and toward their abolition. Nonetheless, these laws changed much more slowly than those that had maintained tax support for Protestant churches. Their persistence gestures towards a fairly robust Christian sensibility in the understanding of early national law and culture. In the end, however, Formisano and Pickering are careful to observe that “[n]either a narrow interpretation of the First Amendment nor … the ‘nonpreferentialist’ advocacy of federal aid to religion follows from the recognition of Christianity being ‘interwoven’ in the common law and influencing other areas of governance and ritual within the states.”


David Sehat said…
Chris, So I'm wondering how you make this long-standing practice of witness competency, which after all would have had a serious debilitating effect on the agnostic or nonbeliever when appearing in court, square with your claim about a discourse of religious pluralism in the colonial period.
Chris Beneke said…
Hi David,

My short answer is that there was a substantive and unprecedented degree of social and legal recognition for *religious* differences in the early national U.S. As I've emphasized before--and as many have emphasized before me--most postrevolutionary commentators found nonbelief deeply troubling. Formisano and Pickering's point about Universalists is noteworthy in part because they were religious believers. Still, at the risk of sounding cavalier, I would say that it was a heck of a lot easier to be a Universalist in 1800 than it was in 1750, and easier to be one in 1850 than in 1800. The same could be said of other religious minorities.

Randall said…
Thanks for posting this, Chris.

I read the article with interest. Has made me rethink some things about religious establishment.
Chris Beneke said…
And I think that's one of the virtues of David's work too. It expands our conception of what a religious establishment is.