We whose names are hereunto Subscribed Do solemnly and sincerely Declare and Swear, (or affirm,) That the State of Pennsylvania is and of right ought to be a free Sovereign and Independent State – and I do forever renounce all Allegiance, Subjection and Obedience to the King or Crown of Great Britain, and I do further swear (or solemnly, sincerely, and truely declare and affirm) that I never have since the declaration of Independence, directly or Indirectly aided, assisted, abetted or in any wise countenanced the King of Great Britain, his Generals, fleets or armies; or their adherents in their claims upon these United States, and that I have ever since the declaration of the Independence thereof demeaned myself as a faithfull citizen and subject of this or some one of the United States, and that I will at all times maintain and support the freedom, sovereignty and Independence thereof.
A researcher doing their family genealogy, at some point, may happen upon the words written above. Known as the Oath of Allegiance, this particular oath was in force in Pennsylvania between June 13, 1777 and March 13, 1789 and is one of the main primary resources to prove admittance into the Daughters, Sons or Children of the American Revolutions (DAR, SAR and CAR).
That would not be the first oath the early settlers of Berks County would take, though it would be their last. Early German settlers were required to take an Oath upon landing in Philadelphia, swearing allegiance to King George II, and his successors, and the proprietors of Pennsylvania before they could enter the city and begin their new life. Members elected to the Pennsylvania Convention, which would later form the government for the Commonwealth, were required to take an oath, which was very religious and compelled the acknowledgement of the Christian Religion: “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 evermore, and do acknowledge the sacred Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine inspiration” (Wescott, viv).
This oath is definitely not something one would expect their elected representatives to a convention, about to form the government of the Commonwealth, to take. Before assuming their positions, Justices of the Peace, appointed by the Convention, had to take an “oath of renunciation of the authority of George III, and one of allegiance to the State of Pennsylvania” (Wescott, xv).
On September 28, 1776, the Convention adopted a Constitution and immediately put it into practice. “Members of the Assembly before taking their seats were obliged to take an oath or affirmation to support the Constitution, and to act faithfully, and to subscribe a declaration of a belief in one God the Creator and Governor of the Universe, the rewarder of the good and the punisher of the wicked, and that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament were given by divine inspiration” (Wescott, xv). While today we might find this oath objectionable because of the Separation of Church and State written into the U.S. Constitution, members of the 1776 Assembly took offense because it did not require a belief in Jesus Christ and left government positions open to people of non-Christianity based religions and even Deists.
In June of 1777, the Legislature passed a Militia Law that not only enrolled all men fit for military service, but also required an oath of allegiance and a test. Persons were required to take a test to prove their allegiance, by answering a series of questions. The Militia Law, with the Oath requirement, is the first time that the Commonwealth required an oath from someone other than a public official. Because of this act, we have “Book D”, or the ledger that contains the names of men in Berks County, who took the Oath of Allegiance.
The Oath, not only solidified allegiance to Pennsylvania and the United States (as it was later tweaked for members of the Continental Army), but also served as a Rite of Passage making a person (or grown child) a citizen. In 1784, members of the Assembly called into question the need for the Oath of Allegiance and Test Laws. In March, a petition was presented, under the idea that “unanimity and harmony could not exist at a time when one part of the people were deprived of certain benefits which others enjoyed”, and requested that a committee be appointed to revise the law to reflect these new attitudes. (Wescott, xxxii). This petition was almost unanimously defeated and sparked a 3-year debate regarding the rights of Pennsylvania Citizens. A few successful attempts were made at repealing and altering the Test Laws and Oath of Allegiance. In 1788, the Assembly appointed a committee, which reported:
That however proper it may have been during the late war, when, and by the division of a powerful nation it became necessary for individuals to make a solemn declaration of their attachment to one of the other of the contending parties, to your committee it appears that in times of peace and of well established government they are not only useless but highly pernicious, by disqualifying a large body of the people from exercising many necessary offices and throwing the whole burthen thereof on others, and also by alienating the affections of tender through, perhaps, mistaken minds, from a Government which by its invidious distinctions they are led to consider as hostile to their peace and happiness. (Wescott, xli).
In response to the committee’s suggestion, on March 13, 1789 the Assembly repealed all laws requiring any oath or affirmation of allegiance and restored citizenship to persons disenfranchised by former laws. Foreigners were still required to take an oath of allegiance to become a citizen (still enforce today) and their names are registered by the Recorder of Deeds.
Donated in 1910, “A True List of Persons Names which has taken the oath of allegiance & fidelity to the State of Pennsylvania”, is, I believe an invaluable historical resource. Locked in my office, the “Oath” only comes out on special occasions. Inside is a who’s who of Berks County’s finest families. A few were able to sign then names, while Clerks, such as Henry Christ, wrote the rest. On December 8, 1787, the last group of Berks County residents took the oath.
For more information…
Wescott, Thompson. Names of Persons Who Took The Oath of Allegiance to the State of Pennsylvania, Between the Years 1777 and 1789, With A History of the “Test Laws” of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: John Campbell. 1865.
Strassburger, Ralph Beaver. Pennsylvania German Pioneers. A Publication of the Original Lists of Arrivals In the Port of Philadelphia from 1727 to 1808. Edited by William John Hinke. Norristown: Pennsylvania German Society. 1934.
Written by former BHC Archivist, Kim Brown.