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Idaho Test Oath

Digital Memories

Idaho politics during the territorial period were as convoluted and Byzantine as any before or since. Political and regional factionalism pitted the Democrats and the Mormons against the newly emerging Republicans and the Northern secessionists. When the Mormon and Democrat contingent lost control of the territory in 1882, ambitious Republicans sought to disenfranchise a quarter of the state’s voters by passing an anti-Mormon test oath in 1884. Elected county officials were required to swear that they were neither polygamists nor believers nor members of any organization encouraging such practices. The intent was to completely disenfranchise members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and break their political power in southern Idaho.

The Idaho Test Oath
The Idaho Test Oath

When the Church rescinded its support for polygamy in preparation for Utah’s admission as a state, a suit contesting the Idaho test oath was filed. Richard Z. Johnson, Yale Law graduate, Democrat, Attorney General of the territory, and soon a regent of the University of Idaho, claimed the legislation curtailed religious freedom by outlawing a belief. His speech opposing the oath before the Supreme Court of Idaho Territory in February 1888 was printed as a 45 page pamplet by the Deseret News of Salt Lake City. Johnson’s review of cases and opinions and his rhetorical arguments for the principle all failed. The case ultimately was appealed to the United States Supreme Court where it was upheld even while the newly minted state constitution for Idaho imposed a similar anti-Mormon clause. Although the 1893 state legislature removed the restrictions against Mormon voters, the constitutional provision was not removed until 1982.

Written in October 1996 for the library’s Digital Memories website.

Acquisition of this item was made possible with funds provided by the Library Associates, the “friends” of the University of Idaho Library.

Cover: Johnson, Richard Z. Idaho Test Oath. Salt Lake City: Deseret News Company, 1888. Special Collections and Archives, University of Idaho Library.

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