Oaths: Religion in Our Legal System

The founders placed great importance on the use of oaths. They were an organic part of our legal system, and are still a part of it today – though they no longer hold the same significance to us as they did to our founders. You see, to our founders, and oath was an act of religion: a solemn vow between an individual and his or her Creator. Today, people swear oaths without any thought of what they are doing, but to our founders, if a person did not believe in God, they were not allowed to swear an oath. And without being allowed to swear an oath, a person couldn’t hold many political offices, nor could they testify in court. When we consider the implications of these facts, they constitute more evidence that religion was accepted as an inherent part of the governing system our founders built. This is also another reason why they saw no need to make references to it in their documents: they saw the connection between religion and government as self-evident. To have to spell it out would have been – for them – as senseless as telling us that water is wet.

Supreme Court Justice, James Iredell, observed:

“According to the modern definition [1788] of an oath, it is considered a “solemn appeal to the Supreme Being for truth of what is said by a person who believes in the existence of a Supreme Being and in a future state of rewards and punishments according to that form which would bind his conscience most…”

[NOTE: this is actually another direct reference to religion that can be found in the Constitution. It is found in Article II, Section 1, Clause 8: the oath of office for the President.]

“An oath is an appeal to God, the Searcher of hearts, for the truth of what we say and always expresses or supposes an imprecation of His judgment upon us if we prevaricate. An oath, therefore, implies a belief in God and His Providence and indeed is an act of worship. … Persons entering on public offices are also often obliged to make oath that they will faithfully execute their trust. … In vows, there is no party but God and the person himself who makes the vow.”

–John Witherspoon, Signer of the Declaration of Independence

Several early State Constitutions prohibited anyone who refused to swear their belief in a Creator from holding office or testifying in court. This belief was consistently asserted and upheld by the courts well into the life of this nation:

Chancellor James Kent, a founding father of American Jurisprudence, in the case, People v. Ruggles (1811) noted the following:

“Christianity was parcel of the law and to cast contumelious [insulting] reproaches upon it tends to weaken…the efficacy [effectiveness] of oaths.”

In Commonwealth v. Wolf (1817), the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania explained the following:

“laws cannot be administered in any civilized government unless the people are taught to revere the sanctity of an oath… It is of the utmost moment, therefore, that they should be reminded of their religious duties,”

And an early House Judiciary Committee declared:

“Laws will not have permanence or power without the sanction of religious sentiment – without a firm belief that there is a Power above us that will reward our virtues and punish our vices”

In other words, a House Judiciary Committee found that, without religion, the law is useless for administering justice. It becomes little more than a club for tyrants.

In an argument before the Supreme Court, Daniel Webster, the Great Defender of the Constitution, said:

“[O]ur system of oaths in all our courts, by which we hold liberty and property and all our rights, are founded on or rest on Christianity and a religious belief.”

“We all know that the doctrine of the…law is that there must be in every person who enters court as a witness, be he Christian or Hindoo, there must be a firm conviction on his mind that falsehood or perjury will be punished either in this world or the next or he cannot be admitted as a witness. If he has not this belief, he is disfranchised [not admitted].”

Joseph Story, Supreme Court justice and author of “Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, a legal book that is still cited as an authority on the Constitution today, observed that:

“infidels [Atheists} and pagans were banished from the halls of justice as unworthy of credit.”

As with every post in this series, I could post more evidence from the historical record; and as with every post in this series, it will only convince the person who honestly seeks the truth. Those who have a closed mind or an agenda other than the truth will not admit to the truth no matter how much evidence is presented to them. Perhaps it would be best to address those closed minded individuals by offering the words of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, William Rehnquist as he addressed which side of this argument over the secular nature of our founding is correct:

“History must judge whether it was the Father of his Country in 1789, or a majority of the Court today, which has strayed from the meaning of the [First Amendment]”

Or, put another way, who knows what you think better: you, or a majority of people who will vote on what you thought in a couple hundred years? If the answer is not obvious to you,…

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