The Nation’s first Chief Executive took his oath of office on April 30th, 1789 in New York City on the balcony of the Senate Chamber at Federal Hall on Wall Street. George Washington had been unanimously elected President by the first electoral college and John Adams was elected Vice President. Robert Livingston, Chancellor of New York, administered the first oath of office. At the end of the oath, George Washington closed his eyes, bent over the Bible and kissed it, then uttered the words that are now part of every Presidential oath – “So Help Me God.” Livingston then shouted, “It is done! Long live George Washington, the first President of the United States.”
The Traditional Legal oath taking place in America has followed the same general format for four centuries:
- Raising the hand—the right hand
- Saying “So help me God”
- Placing a hand on the Bible
- Kissing the Bible after the oath
Many aspects of this American oath have their origins in the Bible. For example, in Genesis 26:3, God tells Isaac: “I will establish the Oath which I swore to your father Abraham.” God used an oath. Concerning an oath, God declared: “I also raised My Hand in an oath…” – Ezekiel 20:15 NKJV. The Scripture further tells us that “The LORD has sworn by His Right Hand” – Isaiah 62:8. And when God’s people were instructed about how to take an oath they were told: “You shall swear by His Name” – Deuteronomy 10:20, which is what we do today when we use the phrase “So help me God.”
Five locations in the U.S. Constitution address oaths to be taken by public officials; and the Founding Fathers and those who framed the Constitiution, unanimously affirmed that the taking of any oath by any public official was always an inherently religious activity:
“An oath—the strongest of Religious ties.”
– James Madison, Signer of the Constitution
“In our laws…by the oath which they prescribe, we appeal to the supreme Being so to deal with us hereafter as we observe the obligation of our oaths. The pagan world were and are without the mighty influence of this principle which is proclaimed in the Christian system.”
– Rufus King, Signer of the Constitution
There were some in America (especially Quakers) who, on the basis of Matthew 5:33-37, “swear not at all”, objected to taking oaths. Most people today understand the passages in Matthew are not forbidding the taking of an official legal oath, but only oaths made in common speech (“let your Yes be yes and your No be no.”) It had become a social trend in Jesus’ day for people to assume that the bigger the oath they swore, the more likely they were telling the truth. This is the reason Jesus references not to be swearing by heaven, earth, God’s footstool, or by Jerusalem. Such oath-taking suggests that the person’s word cannot be trusted.
Jesus reduced it to simply keeping one’s word, always telling the truth under any circumstance. Period. (See also Matthew 12:36).
In a legal setting, however, an oath not only reminded individuals that they would answer directly to God but also provided a legal course of action if perjury was committed; that is, if someone did lie under oath, they were subject to specific criminal laws.
George Washington, in his famous Farewell Address at the end of his presidency pointedly warned Americans to never let the oath-taking process become secular:
“Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths…”
– George Washington
Oath-taking is one more example of how Religious Consciousness has been sown into the fabric of our nation.
An Action To Take:
Ask someone to explain why they think it is important to say the words, “So help me God,” when giving a formal oath. Also, ask the person to explain what Jesus meant in regard to “swearing by heaven, etc.”
Rick Hennessey and Dale Ebel