Religion and the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution: A Short Series: Part 2

pa-consRead the Part 1 here.

The Pennsylvania Constitution Convention of 1776 met from July 15, 1776 to September 28, 1776. Benjamin Franklin was chosen as President of the convention on the second day (July 16, 1776).

Members of the convention were required to take an “oath or affirmation” as a qualification for participating.  This was the same profession of faith required of those sitting in the Pennsylvania Provincial Conference in Philadelphia, the conference serving as the revolutionary government of Pennsylvania.

The oath/affirmation read:

I do declare, that I do not hold myself bound to bear allegiance to George the third, king of Great Britain, & c. and that I will steadily and firmly, at all times, promote the most effectual means, according to the best of my skill and knowledge, to oppose the tyrannical proceedings of the king and parliament of Great Britain, against the American Colonies; and to establish and support a government in this province, on the authority of the people only & c.  That I will oppose any measure that shall or may, in the least, interfere with or obstruct the religious principles or practices of any of the good people of this province, as heretofore enjoyed.

Also, Resolved, That no person elected to serve as a member of convention, shall take his seat or give his vote, until he shall have made and subscribed the following declaration.

I do profess faith in God, the father, and in Jesus Christ, his eternal son, the true God, and in the Holy Spirit, one God blessed for evermore; and do acknowledge the holy scriptures of the old and new testament, to be given by divine inspiration.

In order to participate in the writing of the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 one had to  uphold a belief in the Trinity and the divine inspiration of the Bible.  70 members of the convention took this oath/made this affirmation, including Ben Franklin.

As I wrote in the first post in this series, the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 set up the most democratic government in America.  Yet participation in the construction of this constitution was limited to Christians.


2 thoughts on “Religion and the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution: A Short Series: Part 2

  1. John: Don’t steal my thunder!!! 🙂 There are more posts to come. Some of the things you mentioned in your comment I noted in the earlier two posts. Again, more to come in this series.


  2. Professor Fea – excellent post on PA’s first, and rather radical, 1776 state constitution.
    To your readers I recommend highly the chapter on PA by John K. Alexander in The
    Bill of Rights and the States: The Colonial and revolutionary Origins of American Liberties,
    edited by Patrick T. Conley and John P. Kaminski

    Here are a few things I would add:

    1) “Pennsylvania extended the vote to free adult males who had paid any public tax,
    who acknowledged the existence of God, and who had resided in the state for a year.”

    2) “While several other states set higher property requirements for holding office than for voting,
    Pennsylvania did not.”

    3) The Pennsylvania “constitution [i.e., its Declaration of Rights] also produced significant
    innovations that eventually became part of the federal Bill of Rights.”

    First state to guarantee rights of assembly and petition; first constitutional guarantee that
    “the people have a right to freedom of speech, and of writing, and publishing their sentiments,”
    and “the printing presses shall be free to every person who undertakes to examine the proceedings
    of the legislature, or any part of government.”

    4) “No religious test was attached to the right to vote,” although as you noted, “the oath to serve in
    The Assembly required a belief in God and that the Old and New Testaments derived from divine
    Inspiration.” Even William Penn stated that he would only welcome “theists” to his “holy experiment.”
    While seemingly restrictive by later standards, this “provision insured that Catholics
    could serve in any capacity,” which was quite inclusive given the prevailing Protestant dominance.
    In fact, of the colonies that would later become the original thirteen states of the USA,
    “Pennsylvania was the only English colony where Catholics worshipped in public throughout the
    colonial era. Catholics built six churches between 1732 and 1763.”

    “In 1783, a group of Philadelphia Jews formally complained that the oath” excluded them. But in
    1790, that inequity was eliminated “when the right to hold public office was extended to those
    Who believed in God and a ‘future state of rewards and punishments’.”

    5) More onerous, but understandable in the historical context of a war for independence, was the
    1776 constitution’s “test oaths in support of the constitution and the Revolution, oaths that many
    (e.g., Quakers) could not in good conscience take.” These test acts/oaths “were not fully rescinded
    until 1786,” but they provided one reason why the Revolution led to the end of Quaker dominance
    of Pennsylvania’s governance.


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