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Charles Buck Theological Dictionary


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A solemn affirmation, wherein we appeal to God as a witness of the truth of what we say, and with an imprecation of his vengeance, or a renunciation of his favour, if what we affirm be false, or what we promise be not performed. "The forms of oaths, " says Dr. Paley, "like other religious ceremonies, have in all ages been various; consisting, however, for the most part, of some bodily action, and of a prescribed form of words. Amongst the Jews, the juror held up his right hand towards heaven, Psa_144:8. Rev_10:5. (The same form is retained in Scotland still.) Amongst the Jews, also, an oath of fidelity was taken by the servant's putting his hand under the thigh of his lord, Gen_24:2. Amongst the Greeks and Romans, the form varied with the subject and occasion of the oath: in private contracts, the parties took hold of each other's hand, whilst they swore to the performance; or they touched the altar of the god by whose divinity they swore. Upon more solemn occasions it was the custom to slay a victim, and the beast being struck down, with certain ceremonies and invocations, gave birth to the expressions, ferire pactum; and to our English phrase translated from these, of 'striking a bargain.' The forms of oaths in Christian countries are also very different; but in no country in the world worse contrived, either to convey the meaning, or impress the obligation of an oath or impress the obligation of an oath than in our own. The juror with us after repeating the promise or affirmation which the oath is intended to confirm, adds, 'So help me God;' or more frequently the substance of the oath is repeated to the juror by the magistrate, who adds in the conclusion, 'So help you God.'

The energy of the sentence resides in the particle so; so, that is, hac lege, upon condition of my speaking the truth, or performing this promise, and not otherwise, may God help me. The juror, whilst he hears or repeats the words of the oath, holds his right hand upon the Bible, or other book containing the four Gospels, and at the conclusion kisses the book. This obscure and eliptical form, together with the levity and frequency with which it is administered, has brought about a general inadvertency to the obligation of oaths, which both in a religious and political view is much to be lamented: and it merits public consideration, " continues, Mr. Paley, "whether the requiring of oaths on so many frivolous occasions, especially in the customs, and in the qualification for petty offices, has any other effect than to make them cheap in the minds of the people. A pound of tea cannot travel regularly from the ship to the consumer without costing half a dozen oaths at least; and the same security for the due discharge of their office, namely, that of an oath is required from a churchwarden and an archbishop, from a petty constable, and the chief justice of England. Oaths, however, are lawful; and, whatever be the form, the signification, is the same." It is evident that so far as atheism prevails, oaths can be of no use. "

Remove God once out of heaven, and there will never be any gods upon earth. If man's nature had not something of subjection in it to a Supreme Being, and inherent principles, obliging him how to behave himself toward God and toward the rest of the world, government could never have been introduced, nor thought of. Nor can there be the least mutual security between governors and governed, where no God is admitted. For it is acknowledging of God in his supreme judgment over the world, that is the ground of an oath, and upon which the validity of all human engagements depend." Historians have justly remarked, that when the reverence for an oath began to be diminished among the Romans, and the loose Epicurian system, which discarded the belief of Providence, was introduced, the Roman honour and prosperity from that period began to decline. "The Quakers refuse to swear upon any occasion, founding their scruples concerning the lawfulness of oaths, upon our Saviour's prohibition, 'Swear not at all.' Matthew 5:34 . But it seems our Lord there referred to the vicious, wanton, and unauthorized swearing in common discourse, and not to judicial oaths; for he himself answered when interrogated upon oath, Matthew 26:63-64 . Mark 14:61 . The apostle Paul also makes use of expressions which contain the nature of oaths, Romans 1:9 . 1 Corinthians 15:31 . 2 Corinthians 1:18 . Galatians 1:20 . Hebrews 6:13; Hebrews 6:17 . Oaths are nugatory, that is, carry with them no proper force or obligation, unless we believe that God will punish false swearing with more severity than a simple lie or breach of promise; for which belief there are the following reasons:

1. Perjury is a sin of greater deliberation.

2. It violates a superior confidence.

3. God directed the Israelites to swear by his name, Deuteronomy 6:13; Deuteronomy 10:20 . and was pleased to confirm his covenant with that people by an oath; neither of which it is probable he would have done, had he not intended to represent oaths as having some meaning and effect beyond the obligation of a bare promise. "Promissory oaths are not binding where the promise itself would not be so.

See PROMISES. As oaths are designed for the security of the imposer, it is manifest that they must be interpreted and performed in the sense in which the imposer intends them." Oaths, also, must never be taken but in matters of importance, nor irreverently, and without godly fear. Paley's Mor. Phil. ch. 16. vol. 1: Grot. de Jure, 50: 11. 100: 13.& 21; Barrow's Works, vol. 1: ser. 15; Burnet's Exposition of the 39th Article of the Church of England; Herport's Essay on truths of importance, and Doctrine of Oaths; Doddridge's Lectures, lect. 189; Tillotson's 22d Sermon; Wolsely's Unreasonableness of Atheism, p. 152. Oath of allegiance is as follows; "I, A. B. do sincerely promise and swear, that I will be faithful, and bear true allegiance to his Majesty, King George. So help me God." This is taken by Protestant dissenting ministers, when licensed by the civil magistrate; as is also the following: Oath of supremacy; "I, A. B. do swear, that I do from my heart abhor, detest, and abjure, as impious and heretical, that damnable doctrine and position, that princes excommunicated or deprived by the Pope, or any authority of the see of Rome, may be deposed or murdered by their subjects, or any other whatsoever. And I do declare, that no foreign prince, person, prelate, state, or potentate, hath, or ought to have, any jurisdiction, power, pre-eminence, or authority, ecclesiastical or spiritual, within this realm. So help me God."

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Bibliography Information
Buck, Charles. Entry for 'Oath'. Charles Buck Theological Dictionary. 1802.

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