That said, I’ve never much had the urge to make oaths. I have, on occasion, said an intention-empty (and regrettable) “I swear to God.”
The only situation in which I can imagine even undertaking an oath of any kind would be if I were asked to put my hand on the Bible and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God in court as they do in TV court dramas. Which got me wondering, does that really happen anymore and how—this country having been established by some pretty legalistic Bible devotees—did it ever get started in the first place?
So, I did some research and discovered the following:
The phrase about telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing has been standard trial language in
Britain since the Middle Ages, and the Puritans
brought it with them to the New World. In his 1787
essay “On Test Laws, Oaths of Allegiance and Abjuration, and Partial Exclusions
from Office,” Noah Webster both referenced the phrase and, if I get his meaning
at all (which I may not: I struggle, in this passage, with the legal or moral
or philosophical ramifications of the word new),
more or less dismissed its demands: “An oath creates no new obligation. A
witness, who swears to tell the whole truth, is under no new obligation to tell
the whole truth. An oath reminds him of his duty; he swears to do as he ought
to do; that is, he adds an express promise to an implied one. A moral obligation
is not capable of addition or diminution.”
Nevertheless, both the language and the practice of swearing on the Bible made it into John Bouvier’s Law Dictionary, the first wholly American, as distinguished from British, dictionary of legal terms and practices, published in 1839. Bouvier defined an oath as “A declaration made according to law, before a competent tribunal or officer, to tell the truth; or it is the act of one who, when lawfully required to tell the truth, takes God to witness that what he says is true. It is a religious act by which the party invokes God not only to witness the truth and sincerity of his promise...”
Bouvier went on to say “It is proper to distinguish two things in oaths; 1. The invocation by which the God of truth, who knows all things, is taken to witness. 2. The imprecation by which he is asked as a just and all-powerful being, to punish perjury. 3. The commencement of an oath is made by the party taking hold of the book, after being required by the officer to do so, and ends generally with the words, ‘so help you God,’ and kissing the book, when the form used is that of swearing on the Evangelists.”
There were, according to Bouvier, various other forms that such an oath might take that I found enlightening—both about the habits of our early country and about oath-taking in general. He details two variations—“the witness or party promising holding up his right hand while the officer repeats to him, ‘You do swear by Almighty God, the searcher of hearts, that,’ &c., ‘And this as you shall answer to God at the great day’” and what’s referred to as an affirmation, when “the officer repeats, ‘You do solemnly, sincerely, and truly declare and affirm, that,’ &c.”
(I would like to get in the habit of using &c instead of etc., by the way. Looks so oldfashiondy-nice.)
Bouvier was also careful to stipulate that “The oath, however, may be varied in any other form, in order to conform to the religious opinions of the person who takes it.”
Though the habit of putting one’s hand on a Bible to swear an oath has survived into modern times, Quakers have been objecting to since the country’s early days—citing, according to an excellent Slate article I read, not Jesus in his mountainside sermon but his brother James’s more emphatic encapsulation of it: “Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ Otherwise you will be condemned” (James 5:12)—and it’s now possible, as Bouvier suggests it may in theory always have been, for you to use a different book or, I’m guessing, none at all.
That’s what I guess I’d do, upon all this consideration, if I had to testify in court and were asked to put my hand on the Bible or say "so help me God."
“No thanks,” I’d say. “I don’t swear oaths on God or books. But yeah, I’ll tell the truth, to the best of my memory. That'll have to be enough.”