Witness Competency and Christian America

If you have not been able to tell from this blog, I have been doing a lot of reading lately in the debates over whether or not America was founded as a Christian nation. Today I read a very interesting article in the recent volume of the Journal of the Early Republic by veteran political historian Ronald B. Formisano and one of his students, Stephen Pickering. The title of the article is “The Christian Nation Debate and Witness Competency.”

Formisano and Pickering argue that early national state courts would not let people testify who could not swear to a belief in God, the belief in a “future state” of rewards and punishment, or a belief that God would punish those who lied on the stand. This meant that Atheists, Universalists and other non-Christians could not testify in court.

But what is fascinating is that these laws of “witness competency,” despite protests from defenders of religious freedom, were still on the books and were still being enforced in most states as late as the first few decades of the twentieth-century.

The authors conclude that the persistence of these witness competency laws show how Christianity was “embedded in the common law and the in courts across the country throughout the antebellum period and beyond.”

It seems that the debate over “Christian America” is a bit more complicated than many of us tend to think it is.

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