- understand the significance of Article VI, Section 3 of the Constitution
- compare and contrast the statements about religion in the Georgia Constitution of 1777 with those in the federal Constitution
- analyze the concept of a “religious test” for public office and apply that concept to contemporary society
- appreciate the ironic humor of John Witherspoon
- Handout A—John Witherspoon (1723–1794)
- Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions
- Handout C—In His Own Words: John Witherspoon on the Clergy in Politics
- Handout D—Discussion Questions
Additional Teacher Resource
- Answer Key
- Review answers to homework questions.
- Conduct a whole-class discussion to answer the Critical Thinking Questions.
- Ask a student to summarize the historical significance of John Witherspoon.
John Witherspoon was a minister, college president, member of the Continental Congresses, and signer of the Declaration of Independence. His ideas about religion, education, and free enterprise had a significant impact on his contemporaries.
John Witherspoon, a Scottish immigrant to America, was a minister, member of the Continental Congresses, and signer of the Declaration of Independence. He made his most important contribution to the causes of American independence and liberty, however, in his role as an educator. Witherspoon was president of the College of New Jersey (later, Princeton University) for twenty-six years, between 1768 and 1794.His ideas about religion, education, and free enterprise had a significant impact on his contemporaries. Witherspoon himself taught one president (James Madison) and one vice president (Aaron Burr). He also instructed nine cabinet officers, twenty-one senators, thirty-nine congressmen, three justices of the Supreme Court, and twelve state governors. Five of the fifty-five members of the Constitutional Convention were his former students.
Witherspoon’s impact on the ministry of the Presbyterian Church was also significant. Of the one hundred seventy-seven ministers in America in 1777, fifty-two of them had been Witherspoon’s students. As a clergyman active in public affairs, Witherspoon resented the clause in Georgia’s new constitution of 1777 that expressly forbade clergymen of any denomination from sitting in the legislature. He wrote a letter protesting this exclusion, but the clause was not removed until 1798, four years after Witherspoon’s death.
Ask the students to answer these questions:
- What is a “religious test” for office?
A “religious test” for office means that a person must belong to a certain religious domination or adhere to certain religious beliefs in order to serve in elected office. This was a practice in England and in some of the American colonies.
- Why does the Constitution prohibit such a test?
Because of the multiplicity of religious sects in America, the Founders determined that the official establishment of a particular religion at the federal level was both impractical and unjust.
Students could answer the following questions in a class discussion or for homework:
- Was the Georgia prohibition on ministers in public office a type of religious test?
- Should members of the clergy (e.g., rabbis, ministers, priests, imams) be elected to public office? Why or why not?
Students could compare and contrast the constitutional freedom of religion in the United States today with the role of religion in these societies:
- seventeenth-century Massachusetts
- eighteenth-century Virginia
- contemporary Iran or Saudi Arabia
- Afghanistan under the Taliban