An oath (from Saxon eoth) is either a promise or a statement of fact calling upon something or someone that the oath maker considers sacred, usually a god, as a witness to the binding nature of the promise or the truth of the statement of fact. To swear is to take an oath.
A person taking an oath indicates this in a number of ways. The most usual is the explicit "I swear," but any statement or promise that includes "with N as my witness" or "so help me N," with N being something or someone the oath-taker holds sacred, is an oath. Many people take an oath by holding in their hand or placing over their head a book of scripture or a sacred object, thus indicating the sacred witness through their action: such an oath is called corporal. However, the chief purpose of such an act is for ceremony or solemnity, and the act does not of itself make an oath.
The above words may perhaps have originated in the very ancient manner of trial by battle, when the appellee, laying his right hand on the book, takes the appellant by the right hand with his left, and maketh oath as follows:—"Hear this, thou who callest thyself John by the name of baptism, whom I hold by thy hand, that falsely upon me thou hast lied; and for this thou liest, that I who call myself Thomas by the name of baptism, did not feloniously murder thy father, W. by name, so help me God." (Here he kisses the book, and concludes,)—"And this I will defend against thee by my body, as this court shall award." And the appellant is thus sworn also.
Here, it may be observed also, the true foundation of the word lie, being esteemed still so great an affront above all others, as whenever it is pronounced to cause "an immediate affray and bloodshed."
There is confusion between oaths and other statements or promises. The current Olympic Oath, for instance, is really a pledge and not properly an oath since there is only a "promise" and no appeal to a sacred witness. Oaths are also confused with vows, but really a vow is a special kind of oath.
In law, oaths are made by a witness to a court of law before giving testimony and usually by a newly appointed government officer to the people of a state before taking office. In both of those cases, though, an affirmation can be usually substituted. A written statement, if the author swears the statement is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, is called an affidavit. The oath given to support an affidavit is frequently administered by a notary public who will memorialize the giving of the oath by affixing her seal to the document. Breaking an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth is perjury.
Other famous oaths include:
Various religious groups have objected to the taking of oaths, most notably the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and the Mennonites. This is principally based on the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: "I say to you: 'Swear not at all'" (Matthew 5:34). Jesus says that we should hold ourselves to a high standard of truthfulness at all times: "yes" should mean "yes", "no" should mean "no", and there is no need for elaborate formal promises. Not all Christians follow this reading, because there are other Biblical statements which mention oaths without condemning them.
Opposition to oath-taking caused many problems for these groups throughout their history. Quakers were frequently imprisoned because of their refusal to swear loyalty oaths. Testifying in court was also difficult. George Fox famously challenged a judge who had asked him to swear, saying that he would do so once the judge could point to any Bible passage where Jesus or his apostles took oaths. (The judge could not, but this did not allow Fox to escape punishment.) Legal reforms from the eighteenth century onwards mean that everyone in the United Kingdom now has the right to make an affirmation instead of an oath. The United States has permitted affirmations since it was founded; they are even mentioned in the Constitution.
Because of this new legal situation, a few Quakers now believe that there is no real difference between an oath and an affirmation, other than the word used. Consequently, they refuse even to affirm using a set phrase.
Last updated: 06-02-2005 13:29:16
Last updated: 09-12-2005 02:39:13