The Elements of Moral Science (1835, 1856 ed.)

Francis Wayland


Of Oaths

I. The theory of oaths.

It is frequently of the highest importance to society, that the facts relating to a particular transaction should be distinctly and accurately ascertained. Unless this could be done, neither the innocent could be protected, nor the guilty punished; that is, justice could not be administered, and society could not exist.

To almost every fact, or to the circumstances which determine it to be fact, there must, from the laws of cause and effect. and from the social nature of man, be many witnesses. The fact can, therefore, be generally known, if the witnesses can be induced to testify, and to testify the truth.

To place men under such circumstances, that, upon the ordinary principles of the human mind, they shall be most likely to testify truly, is the design of administering an oath.

In taking an oath, besides incurring the ordinary civil penalties incident to perjury, he who swears, calls upon God to witness the truth of his assertions; and, also, either expressly or by implication, invokes upon himself the judgments of God, if he speak falsely. The ordinary form of swearing in this country, and in Great Britain, is to close the promise of veracity with the words, “So help me God;” that is, may God only help me so as I tell the truth. Inasmuch as, without the help of God, we must be miserable for time and for eternity; to relinquish his help, if we violate the truth, is, on this condition, to imprecate upon ourselves the absence of the favor of God, and, of course, all possible misery for ever.

The theory of oaths, then, I suppose to be as follows:

1. Men naturally speak the truth, when there is no counteracting motive to prevent it; and, unless some such motive be supposed to supervene, they expect the truth to be spoken.

2. When, however, by speaking falsely, some immediate advantage can be gained, or some immediate evil avoided, they will frequently speak falsely.

3. But, when a greater good can be gained, or a greater evil avoided, by speaking the truth, than could possibly be either gained or avoided by speaking falsely, they will, on the ordinary principles of the human mind, speak the truth. To place them under such circumstances, is the design of an oath.

4. Now, as the favor of God is the source of every blessing which man can possibly enjoy, and as his displeasure must involve misery utterly beyond the grasp of our limited conceptions, if we can place men under such circumstances that, by speaking falsely, they relinquish all claim to the one, and incur all that is awful in the other, we manifestly place a stronger motive before them for speaking the truth, than can possibly be conceived for speaking falsehood. Hence, it is supposed, on the ordinary principles of the human mind, that men, under such circumstances, will speak the truth.

Such I suppose to be the theory of oaths. There can be no doubt that, if men acted upon this conviction, the truth would be, by means of oaths, universally elicited.

But, inasmuch as men may be required to testify, whose practical conviction of these great moral truths is at best but weak, and who are liable to be more strongly influenced by immediate than by ulterior motives, human punishments have always been affixed to the crime of perjury. These, of course, vary in different ages, and in different periods of society. The most equitable provision seems to be that of the Jewish law, by which the perjurer was made to suffer precisely the same injury which he had designed to inflict upon the innocent party. The Mosaic enactment seems intended to have been, in regard to this crime, unusually rigorous. The judges are specially commanded not to spare, but to exact an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. It certainly deserves serious consideration, whether modern legislators might not derive important instruction from this feature of Jewish jurisprudence.

II. The lawfulness of oaths. On this subject, a diversity of opinion has been entertained. It has been urged, by those who deny the lawfulness of oaths, 1. That oaths are frequently forbidden in the New Testament; and that we are commanded to use yes for our affirmative, and no for our negative; for the reason that, “whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil, or of the evil one.”

2. That no man has a right to peril his eternal salvation, upon a condition which, from intellectual or moral imbecility, he would be so liable to violate.

3. That no one has a right to oblige another to place himself under such conditions.

4. That the frequent use of oaths tends, by abating our reverence for the Deity, to lessen the practical feeling of the obligation to veracity.

5. That no reason can be assigned, why this crime should be treated so differently from every other. Other crimes, so far as man is concerned, are left to human punishments; and there can be no reason why this crime should involve the additional punishment intended by the imprecation of the loss of the soul.

6. It is said that those sects who never take an oath, are as fully believed, upon their simple affirmation, as any others; nay, that false witness among them is more rare than among other men taken at random. This is, I believe, acknowledged to be the fact.

Those who defend the lawfulness of oaths urge, on the contrary, 1. That those passages in the New Testament which have been referred to, forbid, not judicial oaths, but merely profanity.

2. That our Savior responded, when examined upon oath. This, however, is denied, by the other party, to be a fair interpretation.

3. That the Apostles, on several occasions, call God to witness, when they are attesting to particular acts. The instances adduced are such phrases as these: “”God is my witness;” “Behold, before God I lie not.” The example in this case is considered sufficient to assure us of the lawfulness of this sort of appeal.

4. That the importance of truth to the purposes of justice, warrants us in taking other measures for the prevention of perjury than are taken for the prevention of other crimes, and specially, as this is a crime to the commission of which there may always exist peculiarly strong temptations.

These are, I believe, the principal considerations which have been urged on both sides of the question. It seems to me to need a more thorough discussion than can be allowed to it in this place. One thing, however, seems evident, that the multiplication of oaths, demanded by the present practice of most Christian nations, is not only very wicked, but that its direct tendency is to diminish our reverence for the Deity; and thus, in the end, to lead to the very evil which it is intended to prevent.

III. Interpretation of oaths.

As oaths are imposed for the safety of the party administering them, they are to be interpreted as he understands them. The person under oath has no right to make any mental reservation, but to declare the truth, precisely in the manner that the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, is expected of him. On no other principle would we ever know what to believe or to expect from a witness. If, for the sake of personal friendship, or personal advantage, or from fear of personal inconvenience, or from the excitement of party partiality, he shrink from declaring the whole truth, he is as truly guilty of perjury as though he swore falsely for money.

IV. Different kinds of oaths.

Oaths respect either the past or the future, that is, are either assertory or promissory.

1. The oath respecting the past, is definite. A transaction either took place, or it did not take place, and we either have or have not some knowledge respecting it. It is, therefore, in our power either to tell what we know, or to tell what, and in how much, we do not know. This is the proper occasion for an oath.

2. The oath respecting the future is of necessity indefinite, as when we promise upon oath to discharge, to the best of our ability, a particular office. Thus, the parties may have very different views of whet is meant, by discharging an office according to the best of our ability; or this obligation may conflict with others, such as domestic or personal obligations; and the incumbent may not know, even with the best intentions, which obligation ought to take the precedence, that is, what is the best of his ability. Such being the case, who, that is aware of the frailty of human nature, will dare to peril his eternal salvation upon the performance, to the best of his ability, of any official duty? And, if these allowances be understood by both parties, how are they to be limited; and, if they be not limited, what is the value of an oath? Such being the case, it is, at best, doubtful, whether promissory oaths of office ought ever to be required. Much less ought they to be required, as is frequently the case, in the most petty details of official life. They must be a snare to the conscience of a thoughtful man; and must tend to obliterate moral distinctions from the mind of him who is, as is too frequently the case, unfortunately thoughtless. Why should one man, who is called upon to discharge the duties of a constable, or of an overseer of common schools, or even of a counselor or a judge, be placed under the pains and perils of perjury, or under peril of his eternal salvation, any more than his neighbor, who discharges the duty of a merchant, of an instructor of youth, a physician, or a clergyman? It seems to me that no man can take such an oath of office, upon reflection, without such mental reservation as must immediately convince him that the requirement is nugatory; and, if so that it must be injurious.