Freethought Archives > G.W. Foote > Flowers of Freethought Vol. II (1894)


Whoever has seen a Hebrew money-lender in a County Court take up a copy of the Old Testament, present the greasy cover to his greasy lips, and, like honest Moses in the School for Scandal, "take his oath on that," must have had a lively impression as to the value of swearing as a religious ceremony. And this impression must have been heightened when he has seen an ingenuous Christian, on the other side of the suit, present a copy of the New Testament to his pious lips, and quietly swear to the very opposite of all that the God-fearing Jew had solemnly declared to be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. One's appreciation of the oath is still further increased by watching the various litigants and witnesses as they caress the sacred volume: Here a gentleman wears an expression of countenance which seems to imply "I guess they'll get a good deal of truth out of me"; and there anothers face seems to promise as great a regard for truth as is consistent with his understanding with the solicitor who subpoenaed him as an independent witness in the interest of justice and a sound client. Hard swearing is the order of the day. So conflicting is the evidence on simple matters of fact that it is perfectly obvious that the very atmosphere is charged with duplicity. The thing is taken as a matter of course. Judges are used to it, and act accordingly, deciding in most cases by a keen observation of the witnesses and an extensive knowlege of the seamy side of nature. But sometimes the very judges are nonplussed, so brazen are the faces of the gentlemen who "have kissed the book" Very often, no doubt, their honors feel inclined to say, like the American judge in directing his jury, "Well, gentlemen, if you believe what these witnesses swear, you will give a verdict for the plaintiff; and if you believe what the other witnesses swear, you will give a verdict for the defendant; but if, like me, you don't believe what either side swears, I'm hanged if I know what you will do."

The fact is, the oath is absolutely useless if its object is to prevent false witness. Should there be any likelihood of a persecution for perjury, a two-faced Testament-kisser will be on his guard, and be very careful to tell only such lies as cannot be clearly proved against him. He dreads the prospect of daily exercise on the treadmill, he loathes the idea of picking oakum, and his gorge rises at the thought of brown bread and skilly. But so long as that danger is avoided, there are hosts of witnesses, most of them very good Christians, who have been suckled on the Gospel in Sunday Schools, and fed afterwards on the strong meat of the Word in churches and chapels, who will swear fast and loose after calling God to witness to their veracity. They ask the Almighty to deal with them according as they tell the truth, yet for all that they proceed to tell the most unblushing lies. What is the reason of this strange inconsistency? Simply this. Hell is a long way off, and many things may happen before the Day of Judgment. Besides, God is merciful; he is always ready to forgive sins; a man has only to repent in time, that is a few minutes before death, and all his sins will be washed out in the cleansing blood of Christ. Notwithstanding all his lies in earthly courts, the repentant sinner will not lose his right of walking about for ever and ever in the court of heaven, although some poor devil whose liberty or property he swore away may be frizzling for ever and ever in hell.

We are strongly of opinion that if the oath were abolished altogether there would be fewer falsehoods told in our public courts. No doubt the law of perjury has some effect, but it is less than is generally imagined, partly because the law is difficult to apply, and partly because there is a wide disinclination to apply it, owing to a sort of freemasonry in false witness, which is apt to be regarded as an essential part of the game of litigation. Here and there, too, there may be a person of sincere piety, who fears to tell a lie in what he considers the direct presence of God. But for the most part the fear of punishment, in this world or in the next, will not make men veracious. The fact is proved by universal experience; nay, there are judges, as well as philosophers, who openly declare that the oath has a direct tendency to create perjury. Anyone, with a true sense of morality will understand the reason of this. Fear is not a moral motive; and when the threatened punishment is very remote or very uncertain, it has next to no deterrent effect. Cupidity is matched against fear, and the odds of the game being in its favor, it wins. But if a moral motive is appealed to, the case is different. Many a man will tell a lie in the witness-box who would scruple to do so "on his honor"; many a man will lie before God who would scruple to deceive a friend. Let a man feel that he is trusted, let his self-respect be appealed to, and he is more likely to be veracious than he would be if he were threatened with imprisonment in this life and hell-fire in the next.

Why Christians should cling to this relic of barbarity it is difficult to conceive. Their Savior plainly commanded them to "Swear not at all," and the early Church obeyed this injunction until it rose to power under Constantine. It is also a striking fact that the apostle Peter, when he disobeyed his Master, and took an oath, used it to confirm a palpable lie. When the damsel charged him in court with having been a follower of Jesus, he "Denied it with an oath." "You were one of them," said the damsel. "I wasn't," said Peter. "You were with him," she rejoined. Whereupon Peter exclaimed "S'w'elp me God, I never knew him." Surely if self-interest made Peter commit flat perjury in the bodily presence of his Savior, it is idle to assert that the oath in any way promotes veracity.

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