Historically, oaths have been seen as essential for ensuring the loyalty and fidelity of citizens and elected officials. They were also viewed as critically important for the effective functioning of judicial systems.
In the West, oaths historically invoke God as the witness of the oath taker’s veracity; written oaths often end with the phrase “so help me God.”
The state obviously has an interest both in the loyalty of its citizens and elected officials and in having a reliable judicial system.
In his famous Farewell Address, President George Washington wrote:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indisputable supports…. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice?
Given the importance and solemnity of oaths in our society, the government faces a problem if some of its citizens refuse to take oaths for religious reasons: Should it grant exceptions for the sake of religious freedom?
The question has come up multiple times throughout American history.
Religious Objections to Oath Taking
Members of the Society of Friends, better known as Quakers, have objected to the swearing of oaths as early as the 1650s. They take literally biblical passages such as Matthew 5:33–5:37, where Jesus says:
Swear not at all…. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.
In England, Quakers were routinely jailed for failing to swear oaths in courts or, after the Revolution of 1688, to take oaths promising loyalty to the new regime.
In the 1690s, Parliament agreed to let Quakers offer an “affirmation” rather than an oath in some cases, but they still faced numerous disabilities. For instance, they were not permitted to be witnesses in criminal cases or to hold civic offices because of their unwillingness to take oaths.
In addition to Quakers, many Moravians, Mennonites, and Brethren in Christ have religious objections to taking oaths.
Colonial Accommodations to Oath Taking
The accommodations for Quakers and other groups who refused to take oaths varied widely in early America. As one might expect, Pennsylvania, which was founded by the Quaker William Penn, routinely permitted citizens to affirm rather than swear.
Other colonies, including Massachusetts, Maryland, and Virginia, banned Quakers altogether and certainly did not tolerate their refusal to take oaths. However, due to Parliament’s 1689 Act of Toleration, colonies were forced to tolerate Quakers and even to accommodate their convictions.
By 1710, all of the American colonies allowed Quakers to reside within their borders, and many had begun to permit them to use affirmations instead of oaths. New York permitted Quakers to testify by affirmation in civil cases in 1691, and other colonies adopted similar or broader accommodations, including Maryland (1702); New Jersey (1722); and even Massachusetts (1743).
By the Founding era, all states permitted Quakers and other religious minorities to affirm rather than swear. It is important to note that the Act of Toleration, which initially had forced American colonies to tolerate Quakers, was no longer binding on the new American states. Moreover, Quakers were a minority in every state and had little political power anywhere in America after the mid-18th century.
A Religious Accommodation in the U.S. Constitution
The most famous oath accommodations from this era are found in the United States Constitution. Articles I, II, and VI permit individuals either to swear or to affirm. The best-known of these provisions is Article II, Section 1, which reads:
Before he [the President] enter on the execution of his office, he shall take the following oath or affirmation: ‘I do solemnly swear, (or affirm,) that I will faithfully execute….’
Of course, one does not need to be religious to take advantage of these provisions, but in the context in which they were written, there is little doubt that these accommodations were intended for Quakers and others who had religious objections to taking oaths.
There is no reason to believe that exempting Quakers and others from oath requirements has had a detrimental effect on the judicial system at either the state or national level. Nor is there evidence that these citizens have been less loyal to America than other groups.
It is also worth noting that in the 18th century, many Quakers became very successful merchants, in part because they were known to be particularly trustworthy in spite of their unwillingness to take oaths.
This is the fourth installment in a series by Mark Hall on religious freedom. Check out the other installments below.