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1. Men have always attributed a powerful, and, as it were, a sacramental influence to words. The omens of heathens, and the prophetic character which they often traced in the imposition of names, flowed from this notion. And thus a curse was supposed to carry with it its own completion, even without any reference to a providential execution of it by God.
2. They considered that the party called in to witness the oath became at once personally interested in the maintenance of it, and that God would thus avenge its violation with the same feeling which the party would feel who imposed it. Even now, when a common person is subpenaed to give evidence in a trial, he immeand diately identifies himself with the cause which he supports, enters fully as deeply as the principals into its failure or success.
3. They felt, and felt truly, that deceit is an insult to the person in whose presence it is practised, and the more so in proportion as the person is acquainted with the truth; and a falsehood therefore, in the presence of God, was supposed to draw down his peculiar and immediate vengeance.
4. And they rested the practice of purgation, even in its worst abuses, upon the original truth, of the peril which ensues on the unworthy reception of the communion. Thus the consecration of the elements was considered at one time a sufficient proof of a priest's innocence: then the reception of them with impunity was held a valid purgation. Then when relics became common, they were constantly appealed to, as possessing similar power of detecting and punishing perjury. And lastly, the exorcism and benediction of the priest were supposed to convey the same power to wine, water, or even a morsel of bread, as in the case of the ordeal.
Upon these principles the system of imprecatory oaths was introduced to a most frightful extent. The Church at first strongly remonstrated against them, but at length acquiesced, though partially, and still with endeavors to obviate the mischief. The blind power of the imprecation was considered so resistless and inevitable, that any object named in the oath was rendered obnoxious to the curse. It was delivered up as a pledge, or hostage. "You swear," says Chrysostom, "without a thought, by the name of God; yet you would not dare to utter an oath by the head of your child." Instead of naming objects as things regarded with a reverential feeling, and therefore proving by their presence in the thought, that the mind itself was affected with a solemn, serious, truth-speaking spirit, men named them as so many pledges on which the curse from Heaven was to fall if the promise were broken. The whole process of this transaction is highly interesting; but to illustrate it step by step would lead us far beyond our present purpose. Du Cange, Spelman, and Hoffman have collected large materials for such a work; the Anglo-Saxon laws also throw much light on the question, and the homilies of Chrysostom and early chronicles should also be
It is, however, not the historical facts with which we are at present chiefly concerned, but the end to which they may be traced. This end was the re-establishment of the heathen imprecatory oath in all its evils. And there can be little hesitation in asserting, that imprecatory oaths, under whatever shape, is a positive sin, both in the party who takes, and still more in the party who imposes them.
In this point we most cordially agree with Mr. Tyler. Puffendorf, indeed, and Paley, and heathen moralists in general, recognize them by their very definitions; but on ethical questions of the higher order Paley is very poor authority. Heathens were placed in an entirely different position from that of Christians, and if an oath with them was to bind at all, it could bind by imprecation alone. Puffendorf is, indeed, a great name; but he speaks hesitatingly, and rather treats of oaths as they are, than as they should be constituted.
If the imprecation be supposed to draw down the curse, as by a sort of physical irrespective law, it cannot be other than a sin to hazard the dearest interests of any one on that which must at best be exposed to chance, the strict maintenance of a promise. It is not for man to attach even to crime punishment beyond the range of his own power of infliction. No merciful spirit would permit a sinful man to tempt God's chastisement, or would place him in a position where, if he fell, it must be into utter ruin. And if the notion of imprecation is so modified as to leave no other check in the oath but the sense of God's presence, and the consciousness of his general anger and punishment upon falsehood, all this is maintained sufficiently by the ordinary form of swearing without any imprecation whatever.
Under any view of an imprecation, it is a most serious evil. It appeals to a wrong motive; it treats man as insensible to all but the lowest principles, at the very time when, by the very necessity of imposing the oath, he is supposed to be placed in a position where confidence is reposed in him. It exhibits a spirit suspicious, vindictive, and superstitious on the part of the imposer; rash and profane on the part of the swearer; and it is wholly alien to the pure, forgiving, humble, awful piety of a Christian. If there is any thing in the form of our present oath at all approaching to it, (we think there is not,) it ought to be removed. Some progress has already been made by an improved tone of Christianity in cutting off many gross and frightful abuses of the application of the principle of fear to extort truth. Torture was the worst instance; but the oaths which have been at times administered under circumstances studiously arranged to produce, not solemnity of feeling, but terror and alarm, all fall under the same censure. The effect, while it continues, is confined to the feelings, vanishes by repetition, and consists of external impressions. It acts upon wrong feelings also, and departs as soon as the mind is allowed to return to its natural state. None but the bad are fit subjects for it, and the bad will soon escape from its influence.
The first principle, then, in the theory of oaths is, that all imprecation must be removed. The second is, that in any circumstances in which a promise can be rightly executed and rightly given, if the promise is to take a solemn and stringent form, it must be made a religious promise, that is, an oath.
Much, indeed, of all this reasoning, and especially of what has been urged with respect to the elevating influence of a promise rightly exacted, will sound like mere theory to those who take what is called a practical view of things-that is, who estimate human nature at its very lowest price-deal with it as incapable of any better sentiment, and would reduce all thought and all laws to the most degraded level of the world, instead of raising above it some
high standard and rule, which may succeed in drawing up to itself all the minds capable of such attraction, even if it fail to act upon the worst. But it may be remembered that reason, and law, and society, and religion-that man in his best of forms, and nature, and God, all govern and make us good by theories: that is, by views of perfection and principles of conduct beyond our common practice, and nobler than ignoble men can understand or follow. We may as well wish the heavens to be withdrawn, and the earth to be left bare to itself, with no enlightening atmosphere and no invigorating sun, as demand that high theories of duty and of truth be cast out of sight as impracticable, and men be abandoned to their own instinct, stripped of their power of vision, and of penetrating into a region above them.
And when, bit by bit, as the practice of the day proposes, these theories have been cut off and cast aside, we shall then find, to our grievous cost, how many secret influences for good have been destroyed with them-influences which rarely forced themselves upon our consciousness, but still molded and inspired our minds in the same quiet, silent process by which all God's works are completed, by which the tree springs forth from the seed, and the man grows up from the infant, nurtured, not with the gross elements of matter, but with something impalpable to sense, which nature herself has hidden in them.
From this digression, however, let us return to several corollaries which may be drawn respecting the circumstances under which an oath may be or may not be enforced. It is a subject of too much magnitude and delicacy to be spoken on broadly and sweepingly without much care, and it is therefore better to state the most important principles as questions than as demonstrated truths.
I. Is there any justification for voluntary oaths? Mr. Tyler speaks strongly against them, and all reason seems to sanction their recent abolition by the legislature. Under this head, indeed, are not to be included all the strong expressions of a Christian solemnly appealing to God in his sincerity and innocence, such as occur frequently in the Scriptures and in the history of the primitive church; but such as are gratuitously and formally proffered for the purpose of either confirming the belief of others, or of strengthening our own resolution against temptation. Of the former head, Mr. Tyler mentions, as a fact, on the authority of a police magistrate, that persons in the metropolis often used to come together in crowds to swear to the loss of pawnbrokers' duplicates. The latter kind are vows. For instance, it is not uncommon for ignorant men to bind themselves by an oath against drunkenness, or any other particular vice. The former class are objectionable for a reason which will occur hereafter; they are taken from a sense of interest, and therefore with a strong temptation to falsehood. In the latter case, the oaths are adopted as an additional bulwark to the weakness of our own resolutions, and they are becoming common. To attain this object, the oath must assume a very solemn and binding character. It is otherwise useless, and worse than useless; for its failure leaves us in a much worse condition, morally speaking, than we were in before. And this point may deserve to be enlarged on, because the observations will apply generally to the evil effects of multiplying oaths, and resting on them the chief stress of moral obligation. The whole
course, indeed, of our moral improvement is a series of efforts carried on partly by internal struggles against present temptation, and partly by the aid of outward impulses and obligations; and it is not possible that these efforts should not be interrupted by constant failures. Sometimes our own principles are too weak to support us; sometimes the external aids fail us, such as the sanctity of the place, the presence of others, the probability of punishment, or the absence of immediate temptation. But there is a wide difference between the failure of the internal principle, which must happen constantly in all men, however anxiously struggling to do right, and a failure in the external circumstance on which we rested our hope of perseverance. When men walk without a staff they may indeed fall from weakness or from accident, but every fall will rouse them to more independent exertion of their personal strength; but when we lean wholly on a foreign support, and this gives way, we are left without the habit of exertion, and therefore without hope.
It is thus that the practice of strengthening our moral resolution by solemn vows is so dangerous. Instead of exciting us to constant watchfulness, and preserving the mind in that state of humble, diligent, self-distrusting energy which is the only real security for the virtuous principle, they throw it upon the support of an outward impression, which is to overpower our internal tendencies mechanically and irresistibly. They rest it upon a staff which must break, because no outward impression is able, or is intended by nature, to supply the place of the true moral power within. Every one in his own experience may find abundant instances of the deceitfulness of all such props to virtue, and observe how often he has said to himself, "If I were in such a position, surrounded by such and such objects, or laid under such and such obligations, I should abstain from wrong;" and how often, when these very obligations have been laid upon him, he has been wholly unconscious of their influence !
Not only this, but their failure inflicts a blow upon the conscience dangerous in proportion to the solemnity of the supposed obligation and to our misplaced confidence in them. A man endeavors to bind himself to the discharge of a duty by thinking on the real external relations which are intended to secure his virtue, that is, on his relations as a Christian. And though he may fail afterward, there has been an exercise of the virtuous principle which may ripen into a habit; there is something to encourage future attempts; the attention is directed to the right point; some success is sure to attend the effort; and thoughts and feelings, however faint and vague, have been once brought before the mind, ready to return again with greater distinctness and power. And what is most of all, we are taught by the failure where the defect lies, and by the previous effort where we are to look to supply it. Every fault following upon such a struggle proves the weakness of our own heart, and every such struggle to think upon our position as Christians brings more clearly before us the promise which has been given of assistThere is, indeed, a wound to the conscience by every failure of a good resolution. But if the resolution has been supported on the right ground, it will carry with it hopes, and promises, and comforts to remedy the evil.
But when, on the contrary, a man has attempted to prop and
bolster up his virtue by any false aids whatever, there will be, in proportion to the awfulness of the seeming obligation, a deeper sense of guilt and greater despair when it fails-a sense of guilt without a promise of forgiveness, and a despair without a hope of obtaining any stronger assistance. The wound in such cases is irreparable, and the danger great of falling into recklessness.
II. May not all assertory oaths, with the exception, perhaps, of certain extreme cases, be also abolished? This head does not include oaths taken by witnesses in courts of law, for these may perhaps be considered as promissory, and as applying to the future. The only object of an assertory oath is to strengthen the belief of the party who imposes or accepts it. Now it is evident that when any temptation exists to deceive, and when the notion of imprecation is removed, the assertion of the interested party, though given with the greatest solemnity, is the very last and lowest evidence of his truth. So long as any trace of the fact can be found either in the character of the individual, or in the consistency of his story, in witnesses, in effects, so long we are logically bound to test his statement by these. It is only in the entire absence of all external or collateral proof that he can be admitted to witness himself. Now if on a review of all circumstances suspicion still exists, it will exist after the oath is taken. We may, indeed, in some degree, excuse our Anglo-Saxon ancestors for recurring to purgation as a test of innocence, because at that time their state was not sufficiently developed to undertake the charge of preventing, detecting, and punishing crime. Each man was placed under the superintendence of his neighbor, and therefore it was as necessary for him to live free from suspicion as from punishment. And this was the origin of the very remarkable system of purgation by oath, compurgation, and the ordeal. But with us the case is different. "We have no right," says Chrysostom repeatedly, "to distrust, and none to compel another man to remove our distrust by a process which is irreverent to God and a temptation to himself." Assertory oaths are, indeed, the principal object of the remonstrances and prohibitions of the early church. In one case, indeed, under the Levitical law, God seems to have indulged the natural distrustfulness of men. And in the case of jealousy he promised to interpose with a miracle, not so much to clear the accused wife as to enable the husband to receive her again with that confidence which is essential to affection. But this was peculiarly a case in which all other evidence would proba bly be beyond the reach of man, and satisfaction was most necessary both to the accuser and the accused. It affords no precedent whatever for assertory oaths under present circumstances. We throw out, however, such a suggestion with great diffidence, as one requiring considerable thought. One observation may be added, that, as a test of opinions, an oath is peculiarly objectionable, because it must be stated in very comprehensive words, and therefore must open great latitude to equivocation. An act is infinitely better. And there are very few cases in which a test of opinions is required, where some far better evidence may not be found than the compulsory declaration of the party himself.
III. An oath should not be imposed where no such obligation is necessary, especially not on good men, nor on persons officially supposed to be placed beyond the temptation to do wrong. It is a