On Swearing Oaths

We moderns are quite ready and willing to swear oaths, either on entering service in the military or government, or in the court of Law. We swear to uphold the laws of the nation, or protect the common good, or tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Quakers refused to swear oaths. It was something of a hallmark of a Friend, this refusal to put one hand on the Bible, raise the other, and make an oath of loyalty or truthfulness.

I was interested many years ago, in my early teens, I believe, by a story I read of a Quaker woman who was called into court, and astounded the judge by refusing to swear on the Bible. I have no idea now who the author was, or the theme of the story itself, but the narrator’s mother was the woman on the stand, and it was probably my first encounter with Quaker ways, beyond the incidentals of New England living, where there were still active Quaker meetings. I loved the idea of being so outspoken for one’s beliefs, of standing up for the Truth in such a way that one is offended at being asked to make an oath.

For the Quakers follow the Epistle of St. James, Chapter 5, verse 12: “Above all, my brothers, do not swear by heaven or by the earth or use any oaths at all. If thee means ‘yes’ thee must say ‘yes;’ if thee means ‘no,’ say ‘no.’ Otherwise thee makes thyself liable to judgment.” In other words, be honest in all thy words and deeds, and the oath will be unnecessary. One cannot hide behind the oath and colour the intent of one’s words! And why should Christians fear the hand of the law, and assure the court that we mean what we say, and we say what we mean? Be Plain in speech, not just in the formal sense, but in thy meaning itself! Speak clearly and without pretension or vanity, and in the Spirit of Truth.

I am uncomfortable with taking an oath of loyalty, as if I might be tempted to back out if the going got tough. “I will” should be enough, and it unnecessary to say “I vow.” I have taken such oaths, when it was made a contigency of continuing my vocation, but now I think not. If I stand in the presence of God, would I not be terrified to do other than speak truthfully of my intent? But God save me from temptation! for this is not to be said in vanity, but in Truth.