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1911 Encyclopedia Britannica
(0. Eng. cidh), a term which may be defined as an asseveration or promise made under non-human penalty or sanction. The word is found throughout the Teutonic languages (Goth. aiths, Mod. Ger. Eid), but without ascertainable etymology. The verb to swear is also Old Teutonic (Goth. svaran, Mod. Ger. schwOren); this word, too, is not clear in original meaning, but is in some way connected with the notion of answering - indeed it still forms part of the word answer, O. Eng. and-swarian; it has been suggested that the swearer answered by word or gesture to a solemn formula or act. Among other terms in this connexion, the Lat. jurare, whence English law has such derivatives as jury, seems grounded on the metaphorical idea of binding (root ju, as in jungo); the similar idea of a bond or restraint may perhaps be traced in Gr. iiptcos. It may be worth notice that Lat. sacramentum (whence Mod. Fr. serment) does not really imply the sacredness of an oath, but had its origin in the money paid into court in a Roman lawsuit, the loser forfeiting his pledge, which went to pay for the public rites (sacra); thence the word passed to signify other solemn pledges, such as military and judicial oaths.
Writers viewing the subject among civilized nations only have sometimes defined the oath as an appeal to a deity. It will be seen, however, by some following examples, that the harm or penalty consequent on perjury may be considered to result directly, without any spirit or deity being mentioned; indeed it is not unlikely that these mere direct curses invoked on:himself by the swearer may be more primitive than the invocation of divinities to punish. Examples of the simplest kind of curseoath may be seen among the Nagas of Assam, where two men will lay hold of a dog or a fowl by head and feet, which is then chopped in two with a single blow of the dao, this being emblematic of the fate expected to befall the perjurer. Or a man will stand within a circle of rope, with the implication that if he breaks his vow he may rot as a rope does, or he will take hold of the barrel of a gun, a spear-head or a tiger's tooth, and solemnly declare, " If I do not faithfully perform this my promise, may I fall by this!" (Butler in Journ. Asiatic Soc. Bengal, 18 75, p. 316). Another stage in the history of oaths is that in which the swearer calls on some fierce beast to punish him if he lies, believing that. it has the intelligence to know what he says and the power to, interfere in his affairs. In Siberia, in lawsuits between Russians and the wild Ostiaks, it is described as customary to bring into court the head of a bear, the Ostiak making the gesture of eating, and calling on the bear to devour him in like manner if he does not tell the truth (G. A. Erman, Travels in Siberia, i. 492, London, 1848). Similar oaths are still sworn on the head or skin of a tiger by the Santals and other indigenous tribes of India. To modern views, a bear or a tiger seems at any rate a more rational being to appeal to than a river or the sun, but in the earlier stage of nature-religion these and other great objects of nature are regarded as animate and personal. The prevalence of river-worship is seen in the extent to which in the old and modern world oaths by rivers are most sacred. In earlier ages men swore inviolably by Styx or Tiber, and to this day an oath on water of the Ganges is to the Hindu the most binding of pledges, for the goddess will take awful vengeance on the children of the perjurer. The Tungus brandishes a knife before the sun, saying, " If I lie may the sun plunge sickness into my entrails like this knife." The natural transition from swearing by these great objects of nature to invoking gods conceived in human form is well shown in the treaty-oath between the Macedonians and the Carthaginians recorded by Polybius (vii. 9); here the sun and moon and earth, the rivers and meadows and waters, are invoked side by side with Zeus and Hera and Apollo, and the gods of the Carthaginians. The heaven-god, able to smite the perjurer with his lightning, was invoked by the Romans, when a hog was slain with the sacred flint representing the thunderbolt, with the invocation to Jove so to smite the Roman people if they broke the oath (Liv. i. 24; Polyb. iii. 25). Another form of this Aryan rite was preserved by the old Slavonic nation of Prussia, where a man would lay his right hand on his own neck and his left on the holy oak, saying, " May Perkun (the thunder-god) destroy me!" The oaths of the lower culture show a remarkable difference from those of later stages. In the apparently primitive forms the curse on the perjurer is to take effect in this world. But as nations became more observant, experience must have shown that bears and tigers were as apt to kill truth-tellers as perjurers, and that even the lightningflash falls without moral discrimination. In the Clouds of Aristophanes, indeed, men have come openly to ridicule such beliefs, the Socrates of the play pointing out that notorious perjurers go unharmed, while Zeus hurls his bolts at his own temple, and the tall oaks, as if an oak-tree could perjure itself. The doctrine of miraculous earthly retribution on the perjurer lasted on in legend, as where Eusebius relates how three villains conspired to bring a false accusation against Narcissus, bishop of Jerusalem, which accusation they confirmed by solemn oath before the church, one wishing that if he swore falsely he might perish by fire, one that he might die of the pestilence, one that he might lose his eyes; a spark no man knew from whence burned to ashes the first perjurer's house and all within, the second was consumed by the plague from head to foot, whereupon the third confessed the crime with tears so copious that he lost his sight (Euseb. Hist. Eccl. vi. 9). As a general rule, however, the supernatural retribution on perjury has been transferred from the present world to the regions beyond the grave, as is evident from any collection of customary oaths. A single instance will show at once the combination of retributions in and after the present life, and the tendency to heap up remote penalties in the vain hope of securing present honesty. The Siamese Buddhist in his oath, not content to call down on himself various kinds of death if he breaks it, desires that he may afterwards be cast into hell to go through innumerable tortures, among them to carry water over the flames in a wicker basket to assuage the thirst of the infernal judge, then that he may migrate into the body of a slave for as many years as there are grains of sand in four seas, and after this that he may be born a beast through five hundred generations and an hermaphrodite five hundred more.
The forms of oath belonging to all nations and ages, various as they are in detail, come under a few general heads. It may be first observed that gestures such as grasping hands, or putting one hand between the hands of another in token of homage, are sometimes treated as of the nature of oaths, but wrongly so, they being rather of the nature of ceremonies of compact. The Hebrew practice of putting the hand under another's thigh is usually reckoned among oath-rites, but it may have been merely a ceremony of covenant (Gen. xxiv. 2, xlvii. 29; see Joseph. Ant. i. 16). Even the covenant among many ancient and modern nations by the parties mixing their blood or drinking one another's is in itself only a solemn rite of union, not an oath proper, unless some such ceremony is introduced as dipping weapons into the blood, as in the form among the ancient Scythians (Herod. iv. 70); this, by bringing in the idea of death befalling the covenant-breaker, converts the proceeding into an oath of the strongest kind. The custom of swearing by weapons, though frequent in the world, is far from consistent in meaning. It may signify, in cases such as those just mentioned, that the swearer if forsworn is to die by such a weapon; or the warrior may appeal to his weapon as a powerful or divine object, as Parthenopaeus swears by his spear that he will level to the ground the walls of Thebes (Aeschyl. Sept. contra Theb. 530; see the custom of the Quadi in Ammian. Marcellin. xvii.); or the weapon may be a divine emblem, as when the Scythians swore by the wind and the sword as denoting life and death (Lucian, Toxaris, 38). Oaths by weapons lasted into the Christian period; for instance, the Lombards swore lesser oaths by consecrated weapons and greater on the Gospels '(see' Du Cange, s.v. " Juramenta super arma "; Grimm, Deutsche Rechtsalterth. p. 896). Stretching forth the hand towards the object or deity sworn by is a natural gesture, well shown in the oath of Agamemnon, who with uplifted hands (Att. X E7pas ava6Xetw) takes Heaven to witness with Sun and Earth and the Erinyes who below the earth wreak vengeance on the perjurer (Homer Il. xix. 254; see also Pindar, Olymp. vii. 120). The gesture of lifting the hand towards heaven was also an Israelite form of oath: Abraham says, " I have lifted up my hand to Jehovah," while Jehovah Himself is represented as so swearing, " For I lift up My hand to heaven, and say, I live for ever " (Gen. xiv. 22; Deut. xxxii. 40; see Dan. xii. 7; Rev. x. 5). This gesture established itself in Christendom, and has continued to modern times. In England, for example, in the parliament at Shrewsbury in 1398, when the Lords took an oath on the cross of Canterbury never to suffer the transactions of that parliament to be changed, the members of the Commons held up their hands to signify their taking upon themselves the same oath (J. E. Tyler, Oaths, p. 99). In France a juror takes oath by raising his hand, saying, "Je jure!" The Scottish judicial oath is taken by the witness holding up his right hand uncovered, and repeating after the usher, " I swear by Almighty God, and as I shall answer to God at the great day of judgment, that I will," &c.
In the ancient world sacrifice often formed part of the ceremony of the oath; typical examples may be found in the Homeric poems, as in Agamemnon's oath already mentioned, or the compact between the Greeks and Trojans (Il. iii. 276), where wine is poured out in libation, with prayer to Zeus and the immortal gods that the perjurer's brains shall, like the wine, be poured on the ground; the rite thus passes into a symbolic curse-oath of the ordinary barbaric type. Connected with such sacrificial oaths is the practice of laying the hand on the victim or the altar, or touching the image of the god. A classic instance is in a comedy of Plautus (Rudens, V. 2, 45), where Gripus says, " Tange aram hanc Veneris," and Labrax answers " Tango " (Greek instance, Thucyd. v. 47; see Justin xxiv. 2). Thus Livy (xxi. 1) introduces the phrase " touching the sacred objects " (tactis sacris) into the picturesque story of Hannibal's oath. Details of the old Scandinavian oath have been preserved in Iceland in the Landnamabok (Islendinga Sogur, Copenhagen, 1843); a bracelet (baugr) of two rings or more was to be kept on the altar in every head court, which the godi or priest should wear at all lawthings held by him, and should redden in the blood of the bullock sacrificed, the witness pronouncing the remarkable formula: " Name I to witness that I take oath by the ring, law-oath, so help me Frey, and Niord, and almighty Thor " (hialpi mer sva Freyr, ok Niordr, ok hinn almattki Ass), &c. This was doubtless the great oath on the holy ring or bracelet which the Danes swore to King Alfred to quit his kingdom (" on tham halgan beage," Anglo-Sax. Chron.; " in eorum armilla sacra," Ethelwerd, Chron. iv.). An oath, though not necessarily expressed in words, is usually so. In the Homeric instances the prayer which constitutes the oath has a somewhat conventional form, and in the classical ages we find well-marked formulas. These are often references to deities, as " by Zeus! " " I call Zeus to witness" (vat µa Ala: Zevs); " by the immortal gods ! " " I call to witness the ashes of my ancestors " (per deos immortales; testor majorum cineres). Sometimes a curse is invoked on himself by the swearer, that he may perish if he fail to keep his oath, as " the gods destroy me," " let me perish if," &c. (dii me perdant; dispeream si). An important class of Roman oaths invokes the deity to favour or preserve the swearer in so far as he shall fulfil his promise - ` ` as the gods may preserve me," " as I wish the gods to be propitious to me " (me ita di servent; ita deos mihi velim propitios). The best Roman collection is to be found in the old work of Brissonius, De Formulis et Solemnibus Populi Romani Verbis (Paris, 1583). Biblical examples of these classes of oaths are " as the Lord liveth " (1 Sam. xiv. 39, and elsewhere), " so do God to me, and more also " (2 Sam. iii. 35, and elsewhere).
The history of oaths in the early Christian ages opens a controversy which can hardly be said even yet to have closed. Under Christ's injunction, " Swear not at all " (Matt. v. 34; also James v. 12), many Christians seem at first to have shrunk from taking oaths, and, though after a time the usual customs of judicial and even colloquial oaths came to prevail among them, the writings of the Fathers show efforts to resist the practice. Chrysostom perhaps goes furthest in inveighing against this " snare of Satan ": " Do as you choose; I lay it down as a law that there be no swearing at all. If any bid you swear, tell him, Christ has spoken, and I do not swear " (Homil. ix. in Act. Apostol.; see a collection of patristic passages in Sixt. Senens. Bibliothec. Sanct. vi. adnot. 26). The line mostly taken by influential teachers, however, was that swearing should indeed be avoided as much as possible from its leading to perjury, but that the passages forbidding it only applied to superfluous or trifling oaths, or those sworn by created objects, such as heaven or earth or one's own head. On the other hand, they argued that judicial and other serious swearing could not have been forbidden, seeing that Paul in his epistles repeatedly introduces oaths (2 Cor. i. 23; Phil. i. 8; Gal. i. 20). Thus Athanasius writes: " I stretch out my hand, and as I have learned of the apostle, I call God to witness on my soul " (Apol. ad Imp. Const.; see Augustine, De Mend. 28; Epist. cl. iii. 9; cl. iv. 250; Enarr. in Psalm. lxxxviii. (4); Serm. 307, 319). This argument is the more forcible from Paul's expressions being actually oaths in accepted forms, and it has also been fairly adduced that Christ, by answering to the adjuration of the high priest, took the judicial oath in solemn form (Matt. xxvi. 63). The passages here referred to will give an idea of the theological grounds on which in more modern times Anabaptists, Mennonites and Quakers have refused to take even judicial oaths, while, on the other hand, the laws of Christendom from early ages have been only directed against such swearing as was considered profane or otherwise improper, and against perjury. Thus from the 3rd or 4th century we find oaths taking much the same place in Christian as in non-Christian society. In the 4th century the Christian military oath by God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the majesty of the emperor is recorded by Vegetius (Rei Milit. Inst. ii. 5). Constantine's laws required every witness in a cause to take oath; this is confirmed in Justinian's code, which even in some cases requires also the parties and advocates to be sworn (Cod. Theod. xi. 39; Justin. Cod. iv. 20, 59). Bishops and clergy were called upon to take oath in ordination, monastic vows, and other ecclesiastical matters (see details in Bingham, Antiq. of Chr. Church, xvi. 7). By the middle ages oaths had increased and multiplied in Christendom far beyond the practice of any other age or religion. The Reformation made no change in principle, as is seen, for instance, in Art. xxxix. of the church of England: " As we confess that vain and rash swearing is forbidden Christian men by our Lord Jesus Christ, and James His apostle, so we judge, that Christian Religion doth not prohibit, but that a man may swear when the Magistrate requireth, in a cause of faith and charity, so it be done according to the Prophet's teaching, in justice, judgement and truth." The history of swearing in early Christendom would lead us to expect that the forms used would be adopted with more or less modification from Hebrew or Roman sources, as indeed proves to be the case. The oath introduced in the body of one of Constantine's laws---" As the Most High Divinity may ever be propitious to me " (Ita mihi summa Divinitas semper propitia sit) - follows an old Roman form. The Roman oath by the genius of the emperor being objected to by Christians as recognizing a demon, they swore by his safety (Tertull. Apol. 32). The gesture of holding up the hand in swearing has been already spoken of. The Christian oath on a copy of the Gospels seems derived from the late Jewish oath taken holding in the hand the scroll of the law (or the phylacteries), a ceremony itself possibly adapted from Roman custom (see treatise " Shebuoth " in Gemara). Among the various mentions of the oath on the Gospels in early Christian writers is that characteristic passage of Chrysostom in a sermon to the people of Antioch: " But do thou, if nothing else, at least reverence the very book thou holdest forth to be sworn by, open the Gospel thou takest in thy hands to administer the oath, and, hearing what Christ therein saith of oaths, tremble and desist " (Serm. ad pop. Antioch. Homil. xv.). The usual mode was to lay the hand on the Gospel, as is often stated in the records, and was kept up to a modern date in the oath in the university of Oxford, " tactis sacrosanctis Evangeliis "; the practice of kissing the book, which became so well established in England, appears in the middle ages (J. E. Tyler, Oaths, pp. 119, 151). The book was often laid on the altar, or (after the manner of ancient Rome) the swearer laid his hand on the altar itself, or looked towards it; above all, it became customary to touch relics of saints on the altar, a ceremony of which the typical instance is seen in the representation of Harold's oath in the Bayeux tapestry. Other objects, as the cross, the bishop's crosier, &c., were sworn by (see Du Cange, s.v. " Jurare "). An oath ratified by contact or inspection of a sacred object was called a " corporal " or bodily oath, as distinguished from a merely spoken or written oath; this is well seen in an old English coronation oath, " so helpe me God, and these holy euangelists by me bodily touched vppon this hooly awter." The English word signifying the " sacred object " on which oath is taken is halidome (A.S. hdligdom; Ger. Heiligthum); the halidome on which oaths are now sworn in England is a copy of the New Testament. Jews are sworn on the Old Testament; the sacred books of other religions are used in like manner, a Mohammedan swearing on the Koran, a Hindu on the Vedas.
Among the oath-formulas used in Christendom, that taken by provincial governors under Justinian is typical of one class: " I swear by God Almighty, and His only begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost, and the Most Holy Glorious Mother of God and ever Virgin Mary, and by the Four Gospels which I hold in my hand, and by the Holy Archangels Michael and Gabriel," &c. The famous oath of the kings Louis and Charles at Strassburg in 842 (A.D.) runs: " By God's love and the Christian people and our common salvation, as God shall give me knowledge and power," &c. Earlier than this, as in the oath of fealty in the capitularies of Charlemagne in 802, is found the familiar form " Sic me adjuvet Deus," closely corresponding to above-mentioned formulas of pre-Christian Rome. This became widely spread in Europe, appearing in Old French " Si m'ait Dex," German " So mir Gott helfe," English " So help me God." A remarkable point in its history is its occurrence in the " So help me Frey," &c., of the old Scandinavian ring-oath already described. Among the curiosities of the subject are quaint oaths of kings and other great personages: William Rufus swore " by that and that " (per hoc et per hoc), William the Conqueror " by the splendour of God," Richard I. " by God's legs," John " by God's teeth "; other phrases are given in Du Cange (l.c.), as " per omnes gentes," " per coronam," " par la sainte figure de Dieu," " par la mort Dieu," &c.
Profane swearing, the trifling or colloquial use of sacred oaths, is not without historical interest, formulas used being apt to keep up traces of old manners and extinct religions. Thus the early Christians were reproved for continuing to say " mehercle! " some of them not knowing that they were swearing by Hercules (Tertull. De idol. 20). Oaths by deities of pre-Christian Europe lasted into the modern world, as when a few generations ago Swedish peasants might be heard to swear, " Odin take me if it is not true ! " (Hylten-Cavallius, Warend och Wirdarne, i. 228). The thunder-god holds his place still in vulgar German exclamations, such as "Donner ! " (Grimm. Deutsche Mythologie, pp. so, r66). The affected revival of classical deities in Italy in the middle ages still lingers in such forms as " per Bacco! " " cospetto di Bacco !" (by Bacchus ! face of Bacchus !). In France the concluding oath of the last paragraph dwindled into " mordieu 1" or " morbleu ! " much as in England the old oaths by God's body and wounds became converted into " oddsbodikins ! " and " zounds ! " (E. B. T.) Law. - Politicians and moralists have placed much reliance on oaths as a practical security. It has been held, as Lycurgus the orator said to the Athenians, that " an oath is the bond that keeps the state together " (Lycurg. Leocr. 80; see Montesquieu, Spirit of Laws). Thus modern law-books quote from the leading case of Omichund v. Barker: " No country can subsist a twelvemonth where an oath is thought not binding; for the want of it must necessarily dissolve society." On the other hand, wherever the belief in supernatural interference becomes weakened, and oaths are taken with solemn form but secret contempt or open ridicule, they become a serious moral scandal, as had already begun to happen in classical times. The yet more disastrous effect of the practice of swearing is the public inference that, if a man has to swear in order to be believed, he need not speak the truth when not under oath. The early Christian fathers were alive to this depreciation of ordinary truthfulness by the practice of swearing, and opposed, though unavailingly, the system of oaths which more and more pervaded public business. How in the course of the middle ages oaths were multiplied is best seen by examining a collection of formulas such as the Book of Oaths (London, 5649), which range from the coronation oath to the oaths sworn by such as valuers of cloths and the city scavengers.' Oaths of allegiance and other official oaths are still taken throughout Europe, but experience shows that in times of revolution they are violated with little scruple, and in the case of the United Kingdom it is doubtful whether they have any more practical value than, if so much as, simple declarations. The question of legal oaths is more difficult. On the one hand, it is admitted that they do induce witnesses, especially the ignorant and superstitious, to give evidence more truthfully than they would do on even solemn declaration. On the other hand, all who practise in courts of justice declare that a large proportion of the evidence given under oath is knowingly false, and that such perjury is perceptibly detrimental to public morals.
The oaths now administered among civilized nations are chiefly intended for maintaining governments and securing the performance of public business. In England the coronation oath is to be administered by one of the archbishops or bishops in the presence of all the people, who, on their parts, reciprocally take the oath of allegiance to the crown. The archbishop or bishop shall say: " Will you solemnly promise and swear to govern the people of this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the dominions thereto belonging according to the statutes in parliament agreed on, and the respective laws and customs of the same ? " The king shall say: " I solemnly promise so to do." Archbishop or bishop: " Will you to the utmost of your power cause law and justice, in mercy, to be executed in all your judgements ? " King: " I will." Archbishop or bishop: " Will you, to the utmost of your power, maintain the laws of God, the true profession of the Gospel, and the Protestant reformed religion established by law? And will you maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England and the doctrine, worship, discipline and government thereof, as by law established in England. And will you preserve unto the bishops and clergy of England, and to the churches therein all such rights and privileges as by law do or shall appertain to them, or any of them ?," King: " All this I promise to do." I As to reform of the excessive multiplication - of oaths, - see' Paley, Moral Philosophy, bk. iii. pt. i. ch. 16; and J. E. Tyler, Oaths. After this the king, laying his hand upon the holy Gospels, shall say: " The things which I have here before promised I will perform and keep; so help me God," and then shall kiss the book. The chief officers of state take an " official " oath well and truly to serve his majesty. Special oaths are taken by privy councillors, archbishops and bishops, peers, baronets and knights, recruits and others. The old oath of allegiance, as administered (says Blackstone) upwards of 600 years, contained a promise " to be true and faithful to the king and his heirs, and truth and faith to bear of life and limb and terrene honour, and not to know or hear of any ill or damage intended him without defending him therefrom " (Blackstone, Commentaries, book i. chap. x.). In the reign of William III. it was replaced by a shorter form; and it now runs: " I. .. do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to His Majesty.. ., his heirs and successors, according to law." Statutes of Charles II. and George I. enacted that no member should vote or sit in either house of parliament without having taken the several oaths of allegiance, supremacy and abjuration. The oath of supremacy in the reign of William III. was: " I A B doe swear that I doe from my heart abhorr detest and abjure as impious and hereticall this 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 doe declare that no forreigne prince person prelate state or potentate hath or ought to have any jurisdiction power superiority preeminence or authoritie ecclesiasticall or spirituall within this realme. Soe," &c. The oath of abjuration introduced in the time of William III. recognizes the king's rights, engages the juror to support him, and disclose all traitorous conspiracies against him, promises to maintain the Hanoverian Protestant succession, and expressly renounces any claim of the descendants of the late Pretender. This oath was not only taken by persons in office, but might be tendered by two justices to any person suspected of disaffection. In modern times a single parliamentary oath was substituted for the three, and this was altered to enable Roman Catholics to take it, and Jews were enabled to sit in parliament by being allowed to omit the words " on the true faith of a Christian." In its present form the parliamentary oath consists of an oath of allegiance and a promise to maintain the succession to the crown as limited and settled in the reign of William III.
The " judicial " oath taken by judges of the court of appeal or of the High Court of Justice, and by justices of the peace, is " to do right to all manner of people after the laws and usages of this realm, without fear or favour, affection or ill-will." Jurors are sworn, whence indeed their name (juratores); in felonies the oath administered is: " You shall well and truly try and true deliverance make between our sovereign lord the king and the prisoner at the bar whom you shall have in charge, and a true verdict give according to the evidence." In misdemeanours the form is: " Well and truly try the issue joined between our sovereign lord the king and the defendant. and a true verdict," &c. The oath of the jurors in the Scottish criminal courts is: " You [the jury collectively] swear in the name of Almighty God and as you shall answer to God at the great day of judgment that you will truth say and no truth conceal in so far as you are to pass upon this assize." The oldest trace of this form of oath in Scotland is in Reg. maj. i. cap. 55, copied from Glanvill, which points to an origin in the Norman inquest or " recognition." In the ancient custom of compurgation, once prevalent in Europe, the accused's oath was supported by the oaths of a number of helpers or compurgators who swore to their belief in its validity.
Witnesses in English law courts must give their evidence under the sanction of an oath, or of what is equivalent to an oath, and the ordinary form of oath adapted to Christians is: " The evidence you shall give. .. shall be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. So help you God." Many alterations of the English law as to oaths have been made in relief of (r) those Christians who object on conscientious grounds to the taking of an oath, and (2) of those persons who refuse to admit the binding force of an oath. Special provision was first made for Quakers, Moravians and Separatists; then followed general enactments relating to civil and criminal proceedings respectively, till finally the law was embodied in the Oaths Act 1888, which enacted that " every person upon objecting to being sworn, and stating, as the ground of such objection, either that he has no religious belief, or that the taking of an oath is contrary to his religious belief, shall be permitted to make his solemn affirmation instead of taking an oath in all places and for all purposes where an oath is or shall be required by law, which affirmation shall be of the same force and effect as if he had taken the oath; and if any person making such affirmation shall wilfully, falsely and corruptly affirm any matter or thing which, if deposed on oath, would have amounted to wilful and corrupt perjury, he shall be liable to prosecution, indictment, sentence and punishment in all respects as if he had committed wilful and corrupt perjury." The form of affirmation prescribed by the Oaths Act was as follows: " I, A. B., do solemnly, sincerely, and truly declare and affirm," &c. Under s. 5 of the same act a person might swear in the Scottish form, with uplifted hand (no book of any kind being used) and if he desired to do so " the oath shall be administered to him in such form and manner without question." With the desire of making universal this method of administering the oath the Oaths Act 1909 was passed. It enacted that any oath might be administered and taken in the following form: " The person taking the oath shall hold the New Testament, or in the case of a Jew, the Old Testament, in his uplifted hand, and shall say or repeat after the officer administering the oath the words ` I swear by Almighty God that. .. ,' followed by the words of the oath prescribed by law." The officer also is directed by the act to administer it in this fashion, unless the person about to take it voluntarily objects or is physically incapable of taking it so. To a person who is neither a Christian nor a Jew the oath may be administered in any way in which it was previously lawful.
The form of affirmation given above is that used for Quakers, Moravians and Separatists in the witness-box: " I, A. B., being one of the people called Quakers (one of the United Brethren called Moravians), do, &c." A Christian swears on the Gospels, holding a copy of the New Testament in his right hand (the hand being uncovered), and his head being also uncovered. A witness may elect to be sworn on any version of the Bible which he considers most binding on him, as a Roman Catholic on the Douai Testament or Bible. A Jew is sworn on the Pentateuch, holding a copy thereof in his right hand, the head being covered. A Mahommedan is sworn upon the Koran. He places his right hand flat upon the book and puts the other hand upon his forehead, bringing his head down to the book and in contact with it. He then looks at the book for some moments. Buddhists are sworn on the Buddhist doctrines, Sikhs upon the Granth, Parsecs upon the Zend Avesta, Hindus upon the Vedas, or by touching the Brahmin's foot, and, according to caste custom, Indian witnesses sometimes insist upon the oath being administered by a Brahmin; but in India witnesses now generally affirm. Kaffir witnesses swear by their own chief, and a Kaffir chief by the king of England. When a Chinese witness is to be sworn, a saucer is handed to him, which he takes in his hand and kneeling down breaks into fragments. The colonial legislatures generally make provision for receiving unsworn evidence of barbarous and uncivilized people who have no religious belief. The great number of oaths formerly required was much reduced by the Promissory Oaths Act 1868, which prescribed the forms of oath of allegiance, the official oath and the judicial oath. The right to affirm in lieu of taking the parliamentary oath in the case of atheists was first raised in the case of Charles Bradlaugh.
Profane swearing and cursing is punishable by the Profane Oaths Act 1745, any labourer, sailor or soldier being liable to forfeit is., every other person under the degree of a gentleman 2s., and every gentleman or person of superior rank 5s., to the poor of the parish.
The administering or taking of unlawful oaths is criminal in English and Scots law. Statutes relating to the offence were passed in 1797, 1799, 1810 and 1812, and it is evident from the preamble of the latter act (Unlawful Oaths Act 1812) that they were aimed at those societies in the United Kingdom at the time of the French Revolution which required or permitted their members to take an unlawful oath. Supplementary statutes were passed in 1817 and 1837. Children of tender years, who, in the opinion of the court, have not sufficient intelligence to understand the nature of an oath, may give evidence without being sworn.
In the United States an oath is required in practically every case in which it is required in the United Kingdom, and with the same latitude as to affirmation. The formula or details may vary in different states of the Union. The same may be said generally of every civilized country, with the reservation that an affirmation is not so usually accepted as in English-speaking countries. In Germany an oath is compulsory on a witness in criminal cases, except in the case of certain sects, whose tenets forbid the taking of an oath.
Coke's Institutes; Book of Oaths (1689); Stephen's Commentaries; Stringer's Oaths and Affirmations; Tyler, Oaths; Origin, Nature, History (1835); Ford, On Oaths.
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Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Oath'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/bri/o/oath.html. 1910.