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The lawfulness and obligation of oaths.
Preached at the assizes held at Kingston upon Thames,
July 21. 1681.
The EP ISILE DEDICATOR Y. To the Rt Worshipful, and my honoured friend, JOSEPH
REEVE, Esq; High Sheriff of the county of Surrey. - SIR, W H en I had performed the service which you were
y pleased to call me to in the preaching of this fermon, I had no thoughts of making it more publick; and yet in this also I was the more easily induced to comply with your desire, because of the suitableness of the argument to the age in which we live; wherein, as men have run into the wildest extremities in other things, so particularly in the matter of oaths ; some making conscience of taking any oaths at all, and too many none at all of breaking them.
To convince the great mistake of the one extreme, and to check the growing evil and mischief of the other, is the chief design of this discourse. To which I shall be very glad if, by God's blesing, it may prove any ways serviceable. I am,
SIR, Your very faithful and humble servant, .
HE B. vi. 16.
THE necessity of religion to the support of hu
man society, in nothing appears more evidently than in this, that the obligation of an
oath, which is so necessary for the maintenance of peace and justice among men, depends wholly upon the sense and belief of a Deity : for no reason can • Vol. II.
be imagined why any man that doth not believe a God, should make the least conscience of an oath; which is nothing else, but a solemn appeal to God as a witness of the truth of what we fay. So that whoever promotes Atheism and infidelity, doth the most destructive thing imaginable to human society; because he takes away the reverence and obligation of oaths; and whenever that is generally cast off, human society inust disband, and all things run into disorder. The just sense whereof made David cry out to God with so much earnestness, as if the world had been cracking, and the frame of it ready to break in pieces, Psal. xii. 1. Help, Lord, for the righteous man ceaseth, and the faithful fail from among the children of men; intimating, that when faith fails from ac mong men, nothing but a particular and immediate interposition of the divine providence can preserve the world from falling into confusion. And our blessed Saviour gives this as a sign of the end of the world, and the approaching diffolution of all things, when faith and truth shall hardly be found among men: Luke xviii. 8. When the Son of man comes, shall be find faith on the earth? This state of things doth loudly call for his coming to destroy the world, which is even ready to dissolve and fall in picces of itself, when these bands and pillars of human society do break and fail. And surely never in any age was this sign of the coming of the Son of man more glaring and terrible, than in this degenerate age wherein we live, when almost all sorts of men seem to have broke loose from all obligations to faith and truth.
And therefore I do not know any argument more proper and useful to be treated of upon this occasion, than of the nature and obligation of an oath; which is the utmost security that one man can give to another of the truth of what he says; the strongest tie of fidelity; the surest ground of judicial proceedings; and the most firm and sacred bond that can be laid upon all that are concerned in the administration of publick justice, upon judge, and jury, and witnesses.
And for this reason I have pitched upon these words; in which the Apostle declares to us the great use and necessity of oaths among men: An oath for confirmation is to them ui end of all ftrife. He had said before, that, for
our greater assurance and comfort, God hath confirmed his promises to us by an oath; condescending herein to deal with us after the manner of men, who, when they would give credit to a doubtful matter, confirm what they say by an oath. And generally, when any doubt or controversy ariseth between parties concerning a matter of fact, one side affirming, and the other denying, an end is put to this contest by an oath ; an oath for confirmation being to them an end of all strife : An oath for confirmation, eis 6liwow," for the greater assurance and establishment “ of a thing.” Not that an oath is always a certain and infallible decision of things according to truth and right, but that this is the utmost credit that we can give to any thing, and the last resort of truth and confidence among men. After this we can go rio farther; for if the religion of an oath will not oblige men to speak truth, nothing will. This is the utinolt security that men can give, and must therefore be the final decision of all contests : An oath for confirmation is to them an end of all ftrife.
Now, from this assertion of the Apostle concerning the great use and end of oaths among men, I shall take occalion,
1. To consider the nature of an oath, and the kinds of it.
2. To shew the great use, and even necellity of oaths, in many cafes.
3. To vindicate the lawfulness of them where they are necessary.
4. To fhew the facred obligation of an oath. .
I shall be as brief in these as the just handling of them will bear.
1. For the nature of an oath, and the kinds of it. An oath is an invocation of God, or an appeal to him as a witness of the truth of what we say. So that an oath is a sacred thing, as being an act of religion, and an invocation of the name of God; and this whether the name of God be expressly mentioned in it or not. If a man only say, I swear, or, I take my oath, that a thing is, or is not so or so, or that I will, or will not do such a thing; or if a man answer upon his oath, being adjured and required fo to do; or if a man swear by heaven, or
by earth, or by any other thing that hath relation to God: in all these cases a man doth virtually call God to witness; and in so doing, he doth by consequence invoke him as a judge, and an avenger, in case what he swears be not true : and if this be expressed, the oath is a formal imprecation; but whether it be or not, a curse upon ourselves is always implied in case of perjury.
There are two sorts of oaths ; affertory, and promisfory. An assertory oath is when a man affirms ar denies upon oath a matter of fact, past, or present; when he swears that a thing was, or is so, or not fo. A promiflory oath is a promise confirmed by an oath, which always respects something that is future: and if the promise be made directly and immediately to God, then it is called a vow; if to men, an oath. I proceed to the
II. Second thing; which is, to shew the great use, and even necessity of oaths, in many cases : which is so great, that human society can very hardly, if at all, sublift long without them. Government would many times be very insecure; and for the faithful discharge of offices of great trust, in which the welfare of the publick is nearly concerned, it is not possible to find any security equal to that of an oath ; because the obligation of that reacheth to the most secret and hidden practices of men, and takes hold of them in many cases where the penalty of no human law can bave any awe or force upon them. And especially it is (as the Civil law expresseth it) maximum expediendarum litium remedium ; " the best means of ending “ controversies.” And where mens estates or lives are concerned, no evidence but what is assured by an oath, will be thought sufficient to decide the matter, so as to give full and general satisfaction to mankind : for in matters of so great concernment, when men have all the assurance that can be had, and not till then, they are contented to sit down, and rest satisfied with it. And a. mong all nations an oath hath always been thought the only peremptory and satisfactory way of deciding such controversies.
III. The third thing I proposed was, to vindicate the lawfulness of oaths where they are necessary. And it is a very strong inducement to believe the lawfulness of them, that the unavoidable condition of hunian affairs
hath made them so necessary. The Apostle takes it for
But because there is a sect sprung up in our memory, which hath called in question the lawfulness of all oaths, to the great mischief and disturbance of human society, I shall endeavour to search this matter to the bottom, and to manifest how unreasonable and groundless this opinion is. And, to this end, I shall,
1. Prove the lawfulness of oaths from the authority of this text, and from the reasons plainly contained or strongly implied in it.
2. I shall fhew the weakness and insufficiency of the grounds of the contrary opinion, whether from reason, or from scripture ; which last they principally rely upon; and if it could be made out from thence, would determine the case.
1. I shall prove the lawfulness of oaths from the authority of this text, and the reasons plainly contained or strongly implied in it: because the Apostle doth not only speak of the use of oaths among men, without any manner of cenfure and reproof, but as a commendable custom and practice, and in many cases necessary for the confirmation of doubtful matters, and in order to the final decision of controversies and differences among men. For, · ist, He speaks of it as the general practice of mankind, to confirm things by an oath, in order to the ending of differences. And indeed there is nothing that hath more universally obtained in all ages and nations of the world ; than which there is not a more certain indication that a thing is agreeable to the law of nature, and the best reason of mankind. And that this was no degenerate practice of mankind, like that of idolatry, is from hence evident; that when God separated a people to himself, it was practised among them, by the holy paA 3