Their Moral Character.

From: Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1834).
Author: Jonathan Dymond
Published: Harper & Brothers 1834 Philadelphia



  “An oath is that whereby we call God to witness the truth of what we say, with a curse upon ourselves, either implied or expressed, should it prove false.”1

  A CURSE. Now supposing the Christian Scriptures to contain no information respecting the moral character of oaths, how far is it reasonable, or prudent, or reverent, for a man to stake his salvation upon the truth of what he says? To bring forward so tremendous an event as “everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord,” in attestation of the offence perhaps of a poacher, or of the claim to a field, is surely to make, unwarrantably, light of most awful things. This consideration applies, even if a man is sure that he speaks the truth; but who is, beforehand, sure of this? Oaths in evidence, for example, are taken before the testimony is given. A person swears that he will speak the truth. Who, I ask, is sure that he will do this? Who is sure that the embarrassment of a public examination, that the ensnaring questions of counsel, that the secret influence of inclination or interest, will not occasion him to utter one inaccurate expression? Who, at any rate, is so sure of this that it is rational, or justifiable, specifically to stake his salvation upon his accuracy? Thousands of honest men have been mistaken; their allegations have been sincere, but untrue. And if this should be thought not a legitimate objection, let it be remembered that few men’s minds are so sternly upright that they can answer a variety of questions upon subjects on which their feelings, and wishes, and interest are involved, without some little deduction from the truth, in speaking of matters that are against their cause, or some little over-colouring of facts in their own favour. It is a circumstance of constant occurrence, that even a well-intentioned witness adds to or deducts a little from the truth. Who then, amid such temptation, would make, who ought to make, his hope of heaven dependent on his strict adherence to accurate veracity? And if such considerations indicate the impropriety of swearing upon subjects which affect the lives, and liberties, and property of others, how shall we estimate the impropriety of using these dreadful imprecations to attest the delivery of a summons for a debt of half-a-crown!

  These are moral objections to the use of oaths independently of any reference to the direct moral law. Another objection of the same kind is this: To take an oath is to assume that the Deity will become a party in the case,—that we can call upon Him, when we please, to follow up by the exercise of His almighty power, the contracts (often the very insignificant contracts) which men make with men. Is it not irreverent, and for that reason immoral, to call upon him to exercise this power in reference to subjects which are so insignificant that other men will scarcely listen with patience to their details? The objection goes even further. A robber exacts an oath of the man whom he has plundered, that he will not attempt to pursue or to prosecute him. Pursuit and prosecution are duties; so then the oath assumes that the Deity will punish the swearer in futurity if he fulfils a duty. Confederates in a dangerous and wicked enterprise bind one another to secrecy and to mutual assistance, by oaths,—assuming that God will become a party to their wickedness, and if they do not perpetrate it will punish them for their virtue.

  Upon every subject of questionable rectitude that is sanctioned by habit and the usages of society, a person should place himself in the independent situation of an inquirer. He should not seek for arguments to defend an existing practice, but should simply inquire what our practices ought to be. One of the most powerful causes of the slow amendment of public institutions consists in this circumstance, that most men endeavour rather to justify what exists than to consider whether it ought to exist or not. This cause operates upon the question of oaths. We therefore invite the reader, in considering the citation which follows, to suppose himself to be one of the listeners at the mount,—to know nothing of the customs of the present day, and to have no desire to justify them.

  “Ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shall perform unto the Lord thine oaths. But I say unto you, Swear not at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is his footstool; neither by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be yea yea, nay nay; for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.”2

  If a person should take a New Testament and read these words to ten intelligent Asiatics who had never heard of them before, does any man believe that a single individual of them would think that the words did not prohibit all oaths? I lay stress upon this consideration: if ten unbiased persons would, at the first hearing, say the prohibition was universal, we have no contemptible argument that that is the real meaning of the words. For to whom were the words addressed? Not to schoolmen, of whom it was known that they would make nice distinctions and curious investigations; not to men of learning, who were in the habit of cautiously weighing the import of words,—but to a multitude,—a mixed end unschooled multitude. It was to such persons that the prohibition was addressed; it was to such apprehensions that its form was adapted.

  “It hath been said of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself,” Why refer to what was said of old time? For this reason assuredly; to point out that the present requisitions were different from the former; that what was prohibited now was different from what was prohibited before. And what was prohibited before? Swearing falsely,—swearing and not performing. What then could be prohibited now? Swearing truly,—swearing, even, and performing: that is, swearing at all; for it is manifest that if truth may not be attested by an oath, no oath may be taken. Of old time it was said, “Ye shall not swear by my name falsely.”3 “If a man swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word.”4 There could be no intelligible purpose in contradistinguishing the new precept from these, but to point out a characteristic difference I and there is no intelligible characteristic difference but that which denounces all oaths. Such were the views of the early Christiana. “The old law,” says one of them, “is satisfied with the honest keeping of the oath, but Christ cuts off the opportunity of perjury,”5 In acknowledging that this prefatory reference to the former law is in my view absolutely conclusive of our Christian duty, I would remark, as an extraordinary circumstance, that Dr. Paley, in citing the passage, omits this introduction, and takes no notice of it in his argument.

  “I say unto you, Swear not at all.” The words are absolute and exclusive.

  “Neither by heaven, nor by the earth, nor by Jerusalem, nor by thy own head.” Respecting this enumeration it is said that it prohibits swearing by certain objects, but not by all objects. To which a sufficient answer is found in the parallel passage in James. “Swear not,” he says; “neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath,”6 This mode of prohibition, by which an absolute and universal rule is first proposed and then followed by certain examples of the prohibited things, is elsewhere employed in Scripture. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”7 No man supposes that this after-enumeration was designed to restrict the obligation of the law,—Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Yet it were as reasonable to say that it was lawful to make idols in the form of imaginary monsters because they were not mentioned in the enumeration, as that it is lawful to swear any given kind of oath because it is not mentioned in the enumeration. Upon this part of the prohibition it is curious that two contradictory opinions are advanced by the defenders of oaths. The first class of reasoners say, the prohibition allows us to swear by the Deity, but disallows swearing by inferior things. The second class say, the prohibition allows swearing by inferior things, but disallows swearing by the Deity. Of the first class is Milton. The injunction, he says, “does not prohibit us from swearing by the name of God,—we are only commanded not to swear by heaven, &c.”8 But here again the Scripture itself furnishes a conclusive answer. It asserts that to swear by heaven is to swear by the Deity: “He that shall swear by heaven sweareth by the throne of God, and by Him that sitteth thereon.”9 To prohibit swearing by heaven is therefore to prohibit swearing by God. Among the second class is Dr. Paley. He says, “On account of the relation which these things [the heavens, the earth, &c.] bore to the Supreme Being, to swear by any of them was in effect and substance to swear by Him; for which reason our Saviour says, Swear not at all; that is, neither directly by God nor indirectly by any thing related to him”10 But if we are thus prohibited from swearing by any thing related to Him, how happens it that Paley proceeds to justify judicial oaths? Does not the judicial deponent swear by something related to God? Does he not swear by something much more nearly related than the earth or our own heads? Is not our hope of salvation more nearly related than a member of our bodies? But after he has thus taken pains to show that swearing by the Almighty was especially forbidden, he enforces his general argument by saying that Christ did swear by the Almighty! He says that the high-priest examined our Saviour upon oath, “by the living God;” which oath he took. This is wonderful; and the more wonderful because of these two arguments the one immediately follows the other. It is contended, within half a dozen lines, first that Christ forbade swearing by God, and next that he violated his own command.

  “But let your communication be yea yea, nay nay.” This is remarkable: it is positive superadded to negative commands. We are told not that only what we ought not, but what we ought to do. It has indeed been said the expression “your communication” fixes the meaning to apply to the ordinary intercourse of life. But to this there is a fatal objection: the whole prohibition sets out with a reference, not to conversational language, but to solemn declarations on solemn occasions. Oaths “to the Lord,” are placed at the head of the passage; and it is too manifest to be insisted upon that solemn declarations, and not every-day talk, were the subject of the prohibition.

  “Whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.”—This is indeed most accurately true. Evil is the foundation of oaths: it is because men are bad that it is supposed oaths are needed: take away the wickedness of mankind, and we shall still have occasion for No and Yes, but we shall need nothing more than these. And this consideration furnishes a distinct motive to a good man to decline to swear. To take an oath is tacitly to acknowledge that this “evil” exists in his own mind,—that with him Christianity has not effected its destined objects.

  From this investigation of the passage, it appears manifest that all swearing upon all occasions is prohibited. Yet the ordinary opinion, or rather perhaps the ordinary defence is, that the passage has no reference to judicial oaths.—“We explain our Saviour’s words to relate, not to judicial oaths, hut to the practice of vain, wanton, and unauthorized swearing in common discourse.” To this we have just seen that there is one conclusive answer: our Saviour distinctly and specifically mentions, as the subject of his instructions, solemn oaths. But there is another conclusive answer even upon our opponents’ own showing. They say, first, that Christ described particular forms of oaths which might be employed, and next that his precepts referred to wanton swearing; that is to say, that Christ described what particular forms of wanton swearing he allowed and what he disallowed! You cannot avoid this monstrous conclusion. If Christ spoke only of vain and wanton swearing, and if he described the modes that were lawful, he sanctioned wanton swearing, provided we swear in the prescribed form.

  With such distinctness of evidence as to the universality of the prohibition of oaths by Jesus Christ, it is not in strictness necessary to refer to those passages in the Christian Scriptures which some persons adduce in favour of their employment. If Christ have prohibited them, nothing else can prove them to be right. Our reference to these passages will accordingly be short.

  “I adjure thee by the living God that thou tell us whether thou be the Christ, the Son of God.” To those who allege that Christ, in answering to this “Thou hast said,” took an oath, a sufficient answer has already been intimated. If Christ then took an oath, he swore by the Deity, and this is precisely the very kind of oath which it is acknowledged be himself forbade. But what imaginable reason could there be for examining him upon oath? Who ever heard of calling upon a prisoner to swear that he was guilty? Nothing was wanted but a simple declaration that be was the Son of God. With this view the proceeding was extremely natural. Finding that to the less urgent solicitation he made no reply, the high-priest proceeded to the more urgent. Schleusner expressly remarks upon the passage that the words I adjure, do not here mean “I make to swear, or put upon oath.” but, “I solemnly and in the name of God exhort and enjoin.” This is evidently the natural and the only natural meaning; just as it was the natural meaning when the evil spirit said, “I adjure thee by the living God that thou torment me not.” The evil spirit surely did not administer an oath.

  “God is my witness that without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers.”11 That the Almighty was witness to the subject of his prayers is most true; but to state this truth is not to swear. Neither this language nor that which is indicated below contains the characteristics of an oath, according to the definitions—even of those who urge the expressions. None of them contain, according to Milton’s definition, “a curse upon ourselves;” nor according to Paley’s, an “invocation of God’s vengeance.” Similar language, but in a more emphatic form, is employed in writing to the Corinthian converts. It appears from 2 Cor. ii., that Paul had resolved not again to go to Corinth in heaviness, lest he should make them sorry. And to assure them why he had made this resolution he says, “I call God for a record upon my soul that to spare you I came not as yet unto Corinth.” In order to show this to be an oath, it will be necessary to show that the apostle imprecated the vengeance of God if he did not speak the truth. Who can show this?—The expression appears to me to be only an emphatical mode of saying, God is witness; or, as the expression is sometimes employed in the present day, God knows that such was my endeavour or desire.

  The next and the last argument is of a very exceptionable class: it is founded upon silence. “For men verily swear by the greater, and an oath for confirmation is to them an end of all strife.”12 Respecting this, it is said that it “speaks of the custom of swearing judicially without any mark of censure or disapprobation.” Will it then be contended that whatever an apostle mentions without reprobating he approves? The same apostle speaks just in the same manner of the pagan games; of running a race for prizes, and of “striving for the mastery.” Yet who would admit the argument that because Paul did not then censure tile games, he thought them right? The existing customs both of swearing and of the games are adduced merely by way of illustration of the writer’s subject.

  Respecting the lawfulness of oaths, then, as determined by the Christian Scriptures, how does the balance of evidence stand? On the one side we have plain emphatical prohibitions,—prohibitions of which the distinctness is more fully proved the more they are investigated; on the other we have—counter precepts?—No—It is not even pretended: but we have examples of the use of language of which it is saying much to say that it is doubtful whether they are oaths or not. How then would the man of reason and of philosophy decide?—“Many of the Christian fathers,” says Grotius, “condemned all oaths without exception.”13 Grotius was himself an advocate of oaths. “I say nothing of perjury,” says Tertullian, “since swearing itself is unlawful to Christians.”14 Chrysostom says, “Do not say to me, I swear for a just purpose: it is no longer lawful for thee to swear, either justly or unjustly.”15 “He who,” 1ays Gregory of Nysse, “has precluded murder by taking away anger, and who has driven away the pollution of adultery by subduing desire, has expelled from our life the curse of perjury by forbidding us to swear; for where there is no oath there can be no infringement of it.”16—Such is the conviction which the language of Christ conveyed to the early converts to his pure religion; and such is the conviction which I think it would convey to us, if custom had not familiarized us with the evil, and if we did not read the New Testament rather to find justifications of our practice than to discover the truth and to apply it to our conduct.

1 Milton: Christian Doctrine, p. 579.
2 Matt. v. 33—37.
3 Lev. xix. 12.
4 Numb. xxx. 2.
5 Basil.
6 James v. 12.
7 Exod. xx.3. See also xx.4.
8 Christian Doctrine, p. 582.
9 Matt. xxiii. 22.
10 Moral and Political Philosophy, b. 3, p. 1, c. 16.
11 Rom. i.9. See also 1 Thess. ii.5, and Gal. i.20.
12 Heb. vi. 16.
13 Rights of War and Peace.
14 In Gen. ii. Hom. Xv.
15 De Idol. Cap. 11.
16 In Cant. Hom. 13.

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