Historians have examined closely the Founders’ intentions regarding the First Amendment’s religious establishment clause as well as the influence of Protestant Christianity in the public life of the early republic. The new national government, and particularly several states, often breached Jefferson’s “wall of separation” between church and state. While these complex and important subjects, hardly confined to academic circles, will continue to spur research and controversy, this article addresses one feature of the prominence of Christianity in civic life. In courtrooms across the country, well into the nineteenth century, judges allowed witnesses to be questioned regarding their religious beliefs, with some requiring belief in the “future state” doctrine of divine rewards and punishments before permitting them to testify. Some courts accepted witnesses who believed in divine punishment in this life, or in non-eternal retribution in the hereafter. This common law tradition affected primarily Universalists, various kinds of nonbelievers, and of course atheists. While the common law adapted to rapid change in the economic and technological realm, common law religious tests for witness competency proved remarkably durable.


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pp. 219-248
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