No Swearing for 250 Years

For over 350 years, members of the Religious Society of Friends have maintained that it is wrong to swear an oath to tell the truth in a secular court. Actually, this view did not start during the Reformation but was shared by believers who lived so early that they—or Christians a little earlier—knew the writers of the New Testament personally and could ask them for clarifications or explanations of their teachings. Thus, they were better positioned to know the content and nuances of the original Christian message than the government-aligned reformers of the 16th and 17th centuries, who had no qualms about swearing in courts. The following discussion will include post-biblical authors before 250 C.E. and show that the first heirs of the Gospel embraced the same ideas on oath-taking as do Quakers, as well as indicate how Friends can live this precept in the United States today.

Summarizing Christian teaching just before the middle of the third century C.E., an anonymous writer, who compiled a compendium of Christian teaching, assembled the relevant passages of Scripture.

In Ecclesiastes: "A man that sweareth much shall be filled with iniquity, and the plague shall not depart from his house; and if he swear vainly, he shall not be justified, and if he swear with no purpose, he shall be punished doubly." Of this same matter, according to Matthew: "Again, ye have heard that it was said to them of old, Thou shalt not swear falsely, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths. I say unto you, Swear not at all: neither by heaven, because it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, because it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, because 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 discourse be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatever is fuller than these is of evil." Of this same thing in Exodus: "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain."

The above reference is found in Matthew 5:33-37, in the Sermon on the Mount, and indicates the reason for the prohibition: believers are to tell the truth on all occasions and not reserve their integrity in speech for special situations or circumstances.

The popular morality of Christ’s day held that there was an obligation to tell the truth only under particular kinds of oaths but not under other kinds. In Matthew 23:16-22, Jesus detailed and criticized some of the evasions and technical reservations the Pharisees employed to get around their oaths. Given the technicalities and hypocrisy that surrounded oath-taking in his time, it is no wonder Jesus abolished swearing altogether in favor of speaking the truth on all occasions.

Later in the Bible, James 5:12 tells us not to swear by God, or use any other form of oath, but to tell the truth at all times, whether under oath or not. James’ prohibition on oaths stands in isolation, not indicating why swearing is forbidden.

Justin, who was put to death for his faith around 165 C.E. at government hands, wrote books describing Christian beliefs and practices for a pagan readership. These books mentioned refraining from oaths as a characteristic of Christians already well-known to pagans, as was their principle of always telling the truth.

Irenaeus was a church father in France. During his youth, he had been trained by Christians who associated with the Apostles. In summarizing the Sermon on the Mount, sometime between 182 and 188 C.E., Irenaeus explained that the Savior had not overturned the Law of Moses by prohibiting oaths—he had extended it. Irenaeus said that Moses forbade lying under oath—perjury. For Christians to be more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus prohibited all swearing in order to avoid the possibility of falling into perjury. Irenaeus undoubtedly understood Matthew 5:33-37 literally and called on other believers to do the same. Irenaeus elsewhere indicated that, in his era, speaking the truth on all occasions was as much a part of the Christian lifestyle as were making peace and refraining from evil designs against one’s brother.

From 190 to 202 C.E., Clement of Alexandria was the head of Christianity’s most outstanding institute of learning. He taught that the whole personal ity of Christians is always directed to speaking and behaving in a manner that inspires public confidence in their honesty, so that nobody would even think of requiring an oath from them. The Christians, wrote Clement, never swear, but confirm their statements by making affirmation in straight "yes" or "no" form. For the benefit of onlookers who do not know these Christians personally, nor immediately perceive the trustworthiness of their statements, it suffices for them to add the expression "I say truly" to their assertions or denials. According to Clement, Christians should lead lives calculated to inspire confidence in those around them, so that an oath will not even be asked of them. In Clement’s own words, "Where, then, is the necessity for an oath to him who lives in accordance with the extreme of truth? He, then, that does not even swear will be far from perjuring himself."

Origen, Clement’s successor as head of the academy, was the most prominent Bible scholar, teacher, and preacher of his time (the first half of the third century) and for centuries afterwards. Although well known for interpreting the Bible symbolically with the plain words of a passage almost always standing for a deeper or allegorical meaning, Origen considered Matthew 5:34 among "those admirable principles which He [Christ] lays down respecting oaths," and even he took this passage in its full literal sense. Four times throughout his writings, Origen mentioned that oath-taking was contrary to the Christian identity.

One of Origen’s students, who was later a prominent churchman in his own right, wrote that "it is on every account right . . . by all manner of means to avoid an oath, especially one taken in the name of God." Thus we have an unbroken line through three generations against oath-taking, with Justin and Irenaeus linking the age of Clement with the Apostles and Jesus himself.

Around this time in Egypt, a student of Origen was martyred for refusing to take an oath, paying with his life for what later became a Friends principle.

The church father, Tertullian, was a lawyer before his conversion. As such, he was very familiar with oaths in courts, and he may have encountered instances of people who refused to swear on grounds of conscience. In the early 200s, he left no doubt that Jesus’ prohibition was taken literally by believers in his day. Like Christ, Tertullian also condemned the use of technicalities, omissions, and evasions by falsely appearing to take an oath in order to escape lawful contracts.

Towards the middle of the second century C.E., just before Justin’s time, Hermas, a married brother of the Bishop of Rome, expressed great experiential remorse over having violated his Christian identity not only by having lied but also by having sworn falsely in support of his untrue statements. A messenger of God reminded him that believers are to love truth and should let nothing but truth come out of their mouths. Liars, he added, deny God and rob God because they fail to return the deposit of truth God gave them. Just as God is always truthful, so should be God’s disciples. Sympathizing with the repentant author, the messenger urged him to "depart from that great wickedness, falsehood" and thenceforward speak nothing but the truth. The author wrote down these and other teachings on Christian ethics in a book that became so influential and popular that it was included in some early editions of the New Testament, thus extending the influence of the early Christian tradition on telling the truth at all times for centuries.

Thus, for at least the first 250 years of the Common Era, Christian authors clearly and repeatedly regarded oathtaking as contrary to Christian precepts.

The common theme or unifying thread running through these ancient Christian teachings is the glory due to God as expressed in the commandment, "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain." Clearest in this regard is Origen’s student, but other Christians warned against entering into circumstances in which people might give false testimony, knowingly or unknowingly, and thus bring their character as servants and representatives of Christ into disrepute. A witness dishonors God by placing minor temporal concerns, such as winning a lawsuit, above the thoroughgoing and wholehearted respect for God that Christian commitment entails. Perjury—Irenaeus’ bugbear—is the most direct violation of the commandment and undermines the fear and respect necessary whenever using God’s name.

This does not end the matter. As Martin Luther said centuries later, we are to be "little Christs" to other people. The Lord Jesus is dishonored if we escape our legitimate commitments by evasions and technicalities such as described in Matthew 23 and by Tertullian. The Scriptures enjoin us to tell the truth on all occasions and also to perform our duty as God’s representatives such that we be known in the general community as doing so. Moreover, a court conviction for perjury brings the whole of Christendom into disrepute. To avoid dishonoring God, Christians must always be outwardly honest with those around them as well as inwardly, and humbly refrain from invoking God as witness to our statements, as if our position as God’s representatives were not enough.

The first 250 years after the Reformation saw the persecution of Friends, who refused to swear on grounds of conscience. Secular courts demanded that all witnesses take a formal oath, using the words "God" and "swear," and insisted on a semi-religious ceremony and on the use of the Bible. No exceptions were allowed, and any witness who refused to swear would not be allowed to testify and might be jailed for contempt of court. Prior to the middle of the 18th century, both governments and their judiciary believed that they had a right and a duty to enforce the state form of Christianity, and to insist that people conform to it, even by such severe methods as inflicting legal disadvantages and penalties on witnesses and other citizens.

However, with the expansion of religious freedom in the last 250 years, secular courts and legislatures in the United States and British Commonwealth have withdrawn from enforcing state-ordered religious conformity and abolished the stricter rules on testimony in courts. The words "swear" and "oath" no longer need to be used; the presence of a Bible and raising a hand are optional for witnesses whose consciences do not allow them. The only requirement now is that it must be impressed on the minds of witnesses that they are under a serious duty to tell the truth and may be punished for perjury if they do not. Quakers can make "solemn affirmations" instead of oaths, which is what Clement of Alexandria recommended. Most, if not all, U.S. state legislatures try to accommodate persons who refuse to take an oath on grounds of conscience and who prefer to "affirm." For example, the state of Kansas guarantees this in an ordinary statute, while Indiana embeds it in both its Civil Code and its Bill of Rights, part of the State Constitution. The Pennsylvania Code best expresses the modern rule and practice: "Before testifying, every witness shall be required to declare that the witness will testify truthfully, by oath or affirmation administered in a form calculated to awaken the witness’ conscience and impress the witness’ mind with the duty to do so."

However, witnesses must state their religious objections to the judge before testifying so that the judge can find a form of declaration that will bind their consciences to tell the truth. Neither divine nor secular law allows witnesses to lie under oath on the pretext that because swearing is against their religion, they were not bound when they used the word "swear." Tertullian condemned tricks of this sort nearly 18 centuries ago, and a secular judge can find such individuals guilty of perjury.
A related article, "Affirming for 250 Years," appeared in the May 2010 issue of Sword and Trumpet, a Mennonite publication.


David W. T. Brattston, a Lutheran, is a retired lawyer and judge on minor tribunals, who lives in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. In both capacities he administered and deposed many oaths and solemn affirmations.