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iniquity have but the same chance to result from their testimony. This appeal, thus backed by a pledge of infinite value to the appellant, is what we call an assertory oath; because the witness thereby asserts, that some particular fact was, or was not done, or, at least, that he does not with certainty know, whether it was, or not.
Men of this world, whose character it is to look no higher than to laws and magistrates of their own making, and to witnesses as slightly principled as themselves, may make a jest of religion; but we see it as a point evidently demonstrable, that, without it, there can be, in effect, neither law nor justice among men. Whatever they say against religion, is said against the laws of society, if they mean any thing else by law than a mystery of iniquity, contrived for the deception, and executed to the oppression, of all but the initiated.
But taking it for granted, that I have given a just and right notion of an oath, and its use, let us now see what is the duty of him who swears. The text says, ' he must not swear falsly.'
In the first place, then, that he may swear with the most scrupulous regard to truth; and, in order to keep this scrupulosity always awake, he ought never to swear but when compelled to it by necessity; that is, when truth and justice must be stifled, the property or life of his neighbour lost, and the legal authority resisted, in case he should refuse. The strict observation of this rule will greatly help to preserve the delicacy of his conscience in the few appeals he finds it necessary to make to Almighty God; for the old saying, that ‘familiarity breeds contempt,' is not more true of lower things, than it is even of oaths; although God is invoked, and the soul staked, whenever we swear.
In the next place, as often as he is obliged to swear, he must awfully consider, what his religion tells him, that God is at his right hand,' nay, 'that God is about him, and within him,' wheresoever he goes, or whatsoever he does ; that God, who knows all things, knows the fact he is going to swear to, and how far he may, if he pleases, be a competent witness in that fact; and, lastly, that, in swearing, he must appeal not only to an infinitely wise, but also to an infinitely just and powerful Being, who will hold him to a severe account for what he says, and execute eternal vengeance on him, in case it is not strictly true.
These things feelingly laid to heart, he is then carefully to weigh the degree of knowledge he really hath, in the fact he is about to swear to; and, having nicely distinguished it from all higher or lower degrees, he must endeavour, in his deposition, as nicely and precisely to express his knowledge, fully declaring the whole truth, and scrupulously taking care to declare nothing but the truth; for if he swears to that, as certainly knowing it, which he only believes, or as matter of belief, which he certainly knows, as his thoughts and words do not go together, and as God is. watchful to note the difference, the deponent stands no less guilty of perjury than he could have been, had he on oath affirmed that which he should have denied, or denied that which he should have affirmed.
Again, The swearer is to take care, that there be no darkness nor ambiguity, no shuffling nor equivocation, in his expressions; and if his words, in any thing, have imperfectly set forth his meaning, he must go over it again and again in other words, till he is sure they who hear him cannot possibly mistake it. His conscience ought severely to examine and cross-examine all he says; for the all-knowing Witness, with whom alone his conscience is concerned in this matter, cannot be deceived. Whatsoever sense, therefore, he either designedly or carelessly gives the hearers occasion to take him in, in that very sense will God understand him; and, if it is not strictly true, will convict him of, and punish him for, perjury. Neither the laws of religion, nor of language, will allow him to have two meanings, one for God, and the other for men, to what he says. In such appeals as we always make when we swear, our consciences ought ever to exact, what we know God certainly will, a close conformity between our thoughts and words. Francis the First, king of France, was brought prisoner to the emperor Charles the Fifth, at Madrid in Spain. The emperor, after detaining him for some time, gave him leave to return into France, on his oath to render himself again at Madrid by a certain day, if, before that day, certain other articles of agreement should not be duly performed by him. The king never performed those articles, nor returned into Spain; but, to salve his conscience, and keep his oath, he built a place in France which he called Madrid; and there, with great formality, he rendered himself at the time appointed. This place stands to this day a monument of his perjury; and of another crime, if possible, greater than his perjury; for it perpetuates the memory of an attempt to impose on the all-knowing and awful God. Great as the crime of a flat and simple perjury is, it seems to be outdone by an equivocal oath, which supposes, either that God may be deceived by a double meaning, one declared, and the other concealed and reserved; or that, like a party to the perfidy, he may be prevailed with to connive at it.
Such is the nature of an assertory oath, and of our duty when we take it. There is another kind of oaths, called promissory, which are divided again into two sorts; the one made to men, wherein God is only a witness; the other made to God, wherein he is not only a witness, but a party. The last are called vows.
First, As to our duty in regard to promissory oaths made to men, we are, as in the former case, awfully to consider the wisdom, justice, and power, of him, whom we call on to attest our promise; and likewise to take care, that our expressions plainly and simply set forth our intentions. Here the instance, just now brought from the culpable conduct of the French king, comes up exactly to the present case, and shews us, by what he did not do, what we in the like case ought to do.
But, besides these rules, there are others, relating to the oaths I am now speaking of, which have no place in such as are only assertory. In the first place, when we promise any thing on oath to men, we are duly to consider whether we can perform it, or not; for, if we are not fully convinced we can, our oath is strongly tinctured with perjury from the beginning. Now there is one thing that may, and another that ought to prevent our performance. As to that which may prevent our intention, it is too various to be perfectly set forth in any discourse. The loss of our liberty, of our substance, of our senses, of our health, and of our lives; contrary winds at sea, wars, revolutions, and a thousand other accidents, may, according to the nature of the case, hinder the performance of our oaths. We are, therefore, when conditions are not necessarily implied, always to express them in some form like this: 'So or so I will act, if God permit, or if I shall have it in my power.' But, having thus provided the proper conditions, and reservations, if we afterward change our intentions, and do not perform what we promised, on a pretence that it is not in our power, though it really is ; or on a surmise that the party, to whom we gave the promise, hath not acted up to his engagements, though he really hath, we are as guilty of wilful perjury as he who flatly violates an unconditional oath.
That which ought to prevent the performance of a promissory oath, is, the unlawfulness of its matter. We are not at liberty simply to promise what the laws of God, or those of men which are conformable to his, have prohibited; much less may we add oaths to such promises ; and if at any time we have been so rash as to do this, we must repent of it as a great and heinous sin. Now it is impossible both rightly to repent of the promise, and to do the thing promised. Here the law, which is good, must take place of our promise, which is evil; and therefore what we engaged to do, must by no means be done. Considered as Christians, all our thoughts, words, and actions, are already ruled by our baptismal covenant, which we ratified with a vow. Now the priority of a lawful vow, like that of all other lawful obligations, renders all posterior engagements of a contrary nature absolutely null and void to all intents and purposes. Yet, though the culpable obligation is void, it is not enough for us to say, we find the matter of our promissory oath unlawful, and therefore we will not keep it. No; we must consider, that we have sinned very grievously in making it; inasmuch as we called on God to be the guardian of an oath which he could not but detest, both in itself, and in the swearer. We were not content with a single breach of our vow and covenant with him, but we impudently and presumptuously desired him to be a witness of our crime. This sin, therefore, demands not only amendment, but our deepest sighs, and saltest tears.
Lastly, Having satisficd our consciences, that what we are going to promise on oath is both practicable and lawful, we must see, that our intentions to perform it be sincere and firm; for, if God sees they are not, he sees us perjured, his holy name profaned, and that which we engaged for, no better secured than if he had never been made the witness and guardian of it. You may easily judge whether infinite Majesty can look on such a prevarication without the the most deep and settled resentment.
These considerations ought keenly to be laid to heart by all who enter into contracts of any sort through the solemnity of an oath; but more especially by such as have entered, or going to enter, into a married state. Can they expect God should bless them with love, peace, and fidelity, if they do not pay a just regard to that oath wherewith they are, in so sacred a manner, bound to the mutual exchange of those necessary virtues ? No; if they neglect them, and the oath which enforces them on their consciences, they have nothing to expect, but a traitor and a tormentor, instead of an husband or a wife; and an hell, instead of a comfortable habitation, and a well ordered family.
They likewise, who are sworn into public employments of any kind, ought well to consider, both the great importance of the places they fill, and the dreadful strictness of the oaths they take, If they use no conscience in this, as the world knows they seldom shew any, do they think that 'God, whose kingdom ruleth over all,' will not call them into judgment for prostituting his glorious name to all the interested, mercenary, the iniquitous, the oppressive views, they had in suing for their posts? Do they, vainly elated with their present lucrative or honarary stations, imagine he will not scourge them as impudent intruders on his own majesty, and execrable traitors to men? Will the God of justice wink at public perjury, and public robbery? No, no, the atheist, low in his principles, though high in his station, may laugh at his oath, may remember it only to insult it with a violation of all its parts ; may, for a time, employ the power he is trusted with, to purposes the very reverse of those he swore to promote; but he will find on that day, when it will be impossible to be an atheist, that there is One higher than the highest, who regardeth, to whom vengeance belongeth, and who will fully repay.'
As to our duty, when we promise any thing to God, which is what is understood by a vow, all those precautions