|But above all things, my brethren, swear not.|
St. James v.12.
Among other precepts of good life (directing the practice of virtue and abstinence from sin) St. James doth insert this about swearing, couched in expression denoting his great earnestness, and apt to excite our special attention. Therein he doth not mean universally to interdict the use of oaths, for that in some cases is not only lawful, but very expedient, yea, needful, and required from us as a duty; but that swearing which our Lord had expressly prohibited to His disciples, and which thence, questionless, the brethren to whom St. James did write did well understand themselves obliged to forbear, having learned so in the first catechisms of Christian institution; that is, needless and heedless swearing in ordinary conversation, a practice then frequent in the world, both among Jews and Gentiles; the which also, to the shame of our age, is now so much in fashion, and with some men in vogue; the invoking God's name, appealing to His testimony, and provoking His judgment upon any slight occasion, in common talk, with vain incogitancy, or profane boldness. From such practice the Holy Apostle exhorteth in terms importing his great concernedness, and implying the matter to be of highest importance; for, [Greek], saith he, |(Before all things), my brethren, do not swear;| as if he did apprehend this sin of all others to be one of the most heinous and pernicious. Could he have said more? would he have said so much, if he had not conceived the matter to be of exceeding weight and consequence? And that it is so, I mean now, by God's help, to show you, by proposing some considerations, whereby the heinous wickedness, together with the monstrous folly, of such rash and vain swearing will appear; the which being laid to heart will, I hope, effectually dissuade and deter from it.
I. Let us consider the nature of an oath, and what we do when we adventure to swear.
It is (as it is phrased in the Decalogue, and elsewhere in Holy Scripture) an assuming the name of God, and applying it to our purpose; to countenance and confirm what we say.
It is an invocation of God as a most faithful Witness, concerning the truth of our words, or the sincerity of our meaning.
It is an appeal to God as a most upright Judge whether we do prevaricate in asserting what we do not believe true, or in promising what we are not firmly resolved to perform.
It is a formal engagement of God to be the Avenger of our trespassing in violation of truth or faith.
It is a binding our souls with a most strict and solemn obligation, to answer before God, and to undergo the issue of His judgment about what we affirm or undertake.
Such an oath is represented to us in Holy Scripture.
Whence we may collect, that swearing doth require great modesty and composedness of spirit, very serious consideration and solicitous care, that we be not rude and saucy with God, in taking up His name, and prostituting it to vile or mean uses; that we do not abuse or debase His authority, by citing it to aver falsehoods or impertinences; that we do not slight His venerable justice, by rashly provoking it against us; that we do not precipitately throw our souls into most dangerous snares and intricacies.
For let us reflect and consider: What a presumption is it without due regard and reverence to lay hold on God's name; with unhallowed breath to vent and toss that great and glorious, that most holy, that reverend, that fearful and terrible name of the Lord our God, the great Creator, the mighty Sovereign, the dreadful Judge of all the world; that name which all heaven with profoundest submission doth adore, which the angelical powers, the brightest and purest Seraphim, without hiding their faces, and reverential horror, cannot utter or hear; the very thought whereof should strike awe through our hearts, the mention whereof would make any sober man to tremble? [Greek], |For how,| saith St. Chrysostom, |is it not absurd that a servant should not dare to call his master by name, or bluntly and ordinarily to mention him, yet that we slightly and contemptuously should in our mouth toss about the Lord of angels?
|How is it not absurd, if we have a garment better than the rest, that we forbear to use it continually, but in the most slight and common way do wear the name of God?|
How grievous indecency is it, at every turn to summon our Maker, and call down Almighty God from heaven, to attend our leisure, to vouch our idle prattle, to second our giddy passions, to concern His truth, His justice, His power in our trivial affairs!
What a wildness is it, to dally with that judgment upon which the eternal doom of all creatures dependeth, at which the pillars of heaven are astonished, which hurled down legions of angels from the top of heaven and happiness into the bottomless dungeon: the which, as grievous sinners, of all things we have most reason to dread; and about which no sober man can otherwise think than did that great king, the holy psalmist, who said, |My flesh trembleth for Thee, and I am afraid of Thy judgments!|
How prodigious a madness is it, without any constraint or needful cause, to incur so horrible a danger, to rush upon a curse; to defy that vengeance, the least touch of breath whereof can dash us to nothing, or thrust us down into extreme and endless woe?
Who can express the wretchedness of that folly, which so entangleth us with inextricable knots, and enchaineth our souls so rashly with desperate obligations?
Wherefore he that would but a little mind what he doeth when he dareth to swear, what it is to meddle with the adorable name, the venerable testimony, the formidable judgment, the terrible vengeance of the Divine Majesty, into what a case he putteth himself, how extreme hazard he runneth thereby, would assuredly have little heart to swear, without greatest reason, and most urgent need; hardly without trembling would he undertake the most necessary and solemn oath; much cause would he see [Greek], to adore, to fear an oath: which to do, the divine preacher maketh the character of a good man. |As,| saith he, |is the good, so is the sinner; and he that sweareth, as he that feareth an oath.|
In fine, even a heathen philosopher, considering the nature of an oath, did conclude the unlawfulness thereof in such cases. For, |seeing,| saith he, |an oath doth call God for witness, and proposeth Him for umpire and voucher of the things it saith; therefore to induce God so upon occasion of human affairs, or, which is all one, upon small and slight accounts, doth imply contempt of Him: wherefore we ought wholly to shun swearing, except upon occasions of highest necessity.|
II. We may consider that swearing, agreeably to its nature, or natural aptitude and tendency, is represented in Holy Scripture as a special part of religious worship, or devotion towards God; in the due performance whereof we do avow Him for the true God and Governor of the world; we piously do acknowledge His principal attributes and special prerogatives; His omnipresence and omniscience, extending itself to our most inward thoughts, our secretest purposes, our closest retirements; His watchful providence over all our actions, affairs, and concerns; His faithful goodness, in favouring truth and protecting right; His exact justice, in patronising sincerity, and chastising perfidiousness; His being Supreme Lord over all persons, and Judge paramount in all causes; His readiness in our need, upon our humble imploration and reference, to undertake the arbitration of matters controverted, and the care of administering justice, for the maintenance of truth and right, of loyalty and fidelity, of order and peace among men. Swearing does also intimate a pious truth and confidence in God, as Aristotle observeth.
Such things a serious oath doth imply, to such purposes swearing naturally serveth; and therefore to signify or effectuate them, Divine institution hath devoted it.
God in goodness to such ends hath pleased to lend us His great name; allowing us to cite Him for a witness, to have recourse to His bar, to engage His justice and power, whenever the case deserveth and requireth it, or when we cannot by other means well assure the sincerity of our meaning, or secure the constancy of our resolutions.
Yea, in such exigencies He doth exact this practice from us, as an instance of our religious confidence in Him, and as a service conducible to His glory. For it is a precept in His law, of moral nature, and eternal obligation, |Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God; Him shalt thou serve, and to Him shalt thou cleave, and shalt swear by His name.| It is the character of a religious man to swear with due reverence and upright conscience. For, |The king,| saith the psalmist, |shall rejoice in God; every one that sweareth by Him shall glory: but the mouth of them that speak lies shall be stopped.| It is a distinctive mark of God's people, according to that of the prophet Jeremy, |And it shall come to pass, if they will diligently learn the ways of my people, to swear by my name . . . then shall they be built in the midst of my people.| It is predicted concerning the evangelical times, |Unto Me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear:| and, |That he who blesseth himself in the earth, shall bless himself by the God of Truth; and he that sweareth in the earth, shall swear by the God of Truth.|
As therefore all other acts of devotion, wherein immediate application is made to the Divine Majesty, should never be performed without most hearty intention, most serious consideration, most lowly reverence; so neither should this grand one, wherein God is so nearly touched, and His chief attributes so much concerned: the which indeed doth involve both prayer and praise, doth require the most devotional acts of faith and fear.
We therefore should so perform it as not to incur that reproof: |This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.|
When we seem most formally to avow God, to confess His omniscience, to confide in His justice, we should not really disregard Him, and in effect signify that we do not think He doth know what we say, or what we do.
If we do presume to offer this service, we should do it in the manner appointed by himself, according to the conditions prescribed in the prophet, |Thou shalt swear, the Lord liveth, in truth, in judgment, and in righteousness:| in truth, taking heed that our meaning be conformable to the sense of our words, and our words to the verity of things; in judgment, having with careful deliberation examined and weighed that which we assert or promise; in righteousness, being satisfied in conscience that we do not therein infringe any rule of piety toward God, of equity toward men, or sobriety and discretion in regard to ourselves.
The cause of our swearing must be needful, or very expedient; the design of it must be honest and useful to considerable purposes (tending to God's honour, our neighbour's benefit, our own welfare); the matter of it should be not only just and lawful, but worthy and weighty; the manner ought to be grave and solemn, our mind being framed to earnest attention, and endued with pious affections suitable to the occasion.
Otherwise, if we do venture to swear, without due advice and care, without much respect and awe, upon any slight or vain (not to say bad or unlawful) occasion, we then desecrate swearing, and are guilty of profaning a most sacred ordinance: the doing so doth imply base hypocrisy, or lewd mockery, or abominable wantonness and folly; in bodily invading and vainly trifling with the most august duties of religion. Such swearing therefore is very dishonourable and injurious to God, very prejudicial to religion, very repugnant to piety.
III. We may consider that the swearing prohibited is very noxious to human society.
The great prop of society (which upholdeth the safety, peace, and welfare thereof, in observing laws, dispensing justice, discharging trusts, keeping contracts, and holding good correspondence mutually) is conscience, or a sense of duty toward God, obliging to perform that which is right and equal; quickened by hope of rewards and fear of punishments from Him: secluding which principle, no worldly confederation is strong enough to hold men fast, or can further dispose many to do right, or observe faith, or hold peace, than appetite or interest, or humour (things very slippery and uncertain) do sway them.
That men should live honestly, quietly, and comfortably together, it is needful that they should live under a sense of God's will, and in awe of the divine power, hoping to please God, and fearing to offend Him, by their behaviour respectively.
That justice should be administered between men, it is necessary that testimonies of fact be alleged; and that witnesses should apprehend themselves greatly obliged to discover the truth, according to their conscience, in dark and doubtful cases.
That men should uprightly discharge offices serviceable to public good, it doth behove that they be firmly engaged to perform the trusts reposed in them.
That in affairs of very considerable importance men should deal with one another with satisfaction of mind, and mutual confidence, they must receive competent assurances concerning the integrity, fidelity, and constancy each of other.
That the safety of governors may be preserved, and the obedience due to them maintained secure from attempts to which they are liable (by the treachery, levity, perverseness, timorousness, ambition, all such lusts and ill humours of men), it is expedient that men should be tied with the strictest bands of allegiance.
That controversies emergent about the interests of men should be determined, and an end put to strife by peremptory and satisfactory means, is plainly necessary for common quiet.
Wherefore for the public interest and benefit of human society it is requisite that the highest obligations possible should be laid upon the consciences of men.
And such are those of oaths, engaging them to fidelity and constancy in all such cases, out of regard to Almighty God, as the infallible patron of truth and right, the unavoidable chastiser of perfidiousness and improbity.
To such purposes, therefore, oaths have ever been applied, as the most effectual instruments of working them; not only among the followers of true and perfect religion, but even among all those who had any glimmering notions concerning a Divine Power and Providence; who have deemed an oath the fastest tie of conscience, and held the violation of it for the most detestable impiety and iniquity. So that what Cicero saith of the Romans, that |their ancestors had no band to constrain faith more strait than an oath,| is true of all other nations, common reason not being able to devise any engagement more obliging than it is; it being in the nature of things [Greek], and [Greek], the utmost assurance, the last resort of human faith, the surest pledge that any man can yield of his trustiness. Hence ever in transactions of highest moment this hath been used to bind the faith of men.
Hereby nations have been wont to ratify leagues of peace and amity between each other (which therefore the Greeks call [Greek]).
Hereby princes have obliged their subjects to loyalty: and it hath ever been the strongest argument to press that duty, which the Preacher useth, |I counsel thee to keep the king's commandment, and that in regard of the oath of God.|
Hereby generals have engaged their soldiers to stick close to them in bearing hardships and encountering dangers.
Hereby the nuptial league hath been confirmed; the solemnisation whereof in temples before God is in effect a most sacred oath.
Hereon the decision of the greatest causes concerning the lives, estates, and reputations of men have depended; so that, as the Apostle saith, |an oath for confirmation is to them an end of all strife.|
Indeed, such hath the need hereof been ever apprehended, that we may observe, in cases of great importance, no other obligation hath been admitted for sufficient to bind the fidelity and constancy of the most credible persons; so that even the best men hardly could trust the best men without it. For instance,
When Abimelech would assure to himself the friendship of Abraham, although he knew him to be a very pious and righteous person, whose word might be as well taken as any man's, yet, for entire satisfaction, he thus spake to him: |God is with thee in all that thou doest: Now therefore swear unto me here by God, that thou wilt not deal falsely with me.|
Abraham, though he did much confide in the honesty of his servant Eliezer, having entrusted him with all his estate, yet in the affair concerning the marriage of his son he could not but thus oblige him: |Put,| saith he, |I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh, and I will make thee swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of the earth, that thou wilt not take a wife unto my son of the daughters of the Canaanites.|
Laban had good experience of Jacob's fidelity; yet that would not satisfy, but, |The Lord,| said he, |watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another. If thou shalt afflict my daughters, or if thou shalt take other wives beside my daughters, no man is with us; see, God is witness between thee and me. The God of Abraham, and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge betwixt us.|
So did Jacob make Joseph swear that he would bury him in Canaan: and Joseph caused the children of Israel to swear that they would translate his bones. So did Jonathan cause his beloved friend David to swear that he would show kindness to him and to his house for ever. The prudence of which course the event showeth, the total excision of Jonathan's family being thereby prevented; for |the king,| 'tis said, |spared Mephibosheth the son of Jonathan, because of the Lord's oath that was between them.|
These instances declare that there is no security which men can yield comparable to that of an oath; the obligation whereof no man wilfully can infringe without renouncing the fear of God and any pretence to His favour.
Wherefore human society will be extremely wronged and damnified by the dissolving or slackening these most sacred bands of conscience; and consequently by their common and careless use, which soon will breed a contempt of them, and render them insignificant, either to bind the swearers, or to ground a trust on their oaths.
As by the rare and reverent use of oaths their dignity is upheld and their obligation kept fast, so by the frequent and negligent application of them, by the prostituting them to every mean and toyish purpose, their respect will be quite lost, their strength will be loosed, they will prove unserviceable to public use.
If oaths generally become cheap and vile, what will that of allegiance signify? If men are wont to play with swearing anywhere, can we expect they should be serious and strict therein at the bar or in the church. Will they regard God's testimony, or dread His judgment, in one place, or at one time, when everywhere upon any, upon no occasion they dare to confront and contemn them? Who then will be the more trusted for swearing? What satisfaction will any man have from it? The rifeness of this practice, as it is the sign, so it will be the cause of a general diffidence among man.
Incredible therefore is the mischief which this vain practice will bring in to the public; depriving princes of their best security, exposing the estates of private men to uncertainty, shaking all the confidence men can have in the faith of one another.
For which detriments accruing from this abuse to the public every vain swearer is responsible; and he would do well to consider that he will never be able to make reparation for them. And the public is much concerned that this enormity be retrenched.
IV. Let us consider, that rash and vain swearing is very apt often to bring the practiser of it into that most horrible sin of perjury. For |false swearing,| as the Hebrew wise man saith, |naturally springeth out of much swearing:| and, |he,| saith St. Chrysostom, |that sweareth continually, both willingly and unwillingly, both ignorantly and knowingly, both in earnest and in sport, being often transported by anger and many other things, will frequently forswear. It is confessed and manifest, that it is necessary for him that sweareth much to be perjurious.| [Greek], |For,| saith he again, |it is impossible, it is impossible for a mouth addicted to swearing not frequently to forswear.| He that sweareth at random, as blind passion moveth, or wanton fancy prompteth, or the temper suggesteth, often will hit upon asserting that which is false, or promising that which is impossible: that want of conscience and of consideration which do suffer him to violate God's law in swearing will betray him to the venting of lies, which backed with oaths become perjuries. If sometime what he sweareth doth happen to be true and performable, it doth not free him of guilt; it being his fortune, rather than his care or conscience, which keepeth him from perjury.
V. Such swearing commonly will induce a man to bind himself by oath to unlawful practices; and consequently will entangle him in a woeful necessity either of breaking his oath, or of doing worse, and committing wickedness: so that |swearing,| as St. Chrysostom saith, |hath this misery attending it, that, both trangressed and observed, it plagueth those who are guilty of it.|
Of this perplexity the Holy Scripture affordeth two notable instances: the one of Saul, forced to break his rash oaths; the other of Herod, being engaged thereby to commit a most horrid murder.
Had Saul observed his oaths, what injury had he done, what mischief had he produced, in slaughtering his most worthy and most innocent son, the prop and glory of his family, the bulwark of his country, and the grand instrument of salvation to it; in forcing the people to violate their cross oath, and for prevention of one, causing many perjuries? He was therefore fain to desist, and lie under the guilt of breaking his oaths.
And for Herod, the excellent father thus presseth the consideration of his case: |Take,| saith he, |I beseech you, the chopped off head of St. John, and his warm blood yet trickling down; each of you bear it home with you, and conceive that before your eyes you hear it uttering speech, and saying, Embrace the murderer of me, an oath. That which reproof did not, this an oath did do; that which the tyrant's wrath could not, this the necessity of keeping an oath did effect. For when the tyrant was reprehended publicly in the audience of all men, he bravely did bear the rebuke; but when he had cast himself into the necessity of oaths, then did he cut off that blessed head.|
VI. Likewise the use of rash swearing will often engage a man in undertakings very inconvenient and detrimental to himself. A man is bound to perform his vows to the Lord, whatever they be, whatever damage or trouble thence may accrue to him, if they be not unlawful. It is the law, that which is gone out of thy lips, thou shalt keep and perform. It is the property of a good man, that he sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth not. Wherefore 'tis the part of a sober man to be well advised what he doth swear or vow religiously, that he do not put himself into the inextricable strait of committing great sin, or undergoing great inconvenience; that he do not rush into that snare of which the wise man speaketh, |It is a snare to a man to devour that which is holy (or, to swallow a sacred obligation), and after vows to make inquiry,| seeking how he may disengage himself the doing which is a folly offensive to God, as the Preacher telleth us. |When,| saith he, |thou vowest a vow unto God, defer not to pay it; for He hath no pleasure in fools: pay that which thou hast vowed.| God will not admit our folly in vowing as a plea for non-performance; He will exact it from us both as a due debt, and as a proper punishment of our impious folly.
For instance, into what loss and mischief, what sorrow, what regret and repentance, did the unadvised vow of Jephthah throw him; the performance whereof, as St. Chrysostom remarketh, God did permit, and order to be commemorated with solemn lamentation, that all posterity might be admonished thereby, and deterred from such precipitant swearing.
VII. Let us consider that swearing is a sin of all others peculiarly clamorous, and provocative of Divine judgment. God is hardly so much concerned, or in a manner constrained, to punish any other sin as this. He is bound in honour and interest to vindicate His name from the abuse, His authority from the contempt, His holy ordinance from the profanation, which it doth infer. He is concerned to take care that His providence be not questioned, that the dread of His majesty be not voided, that all religion be not overthrown by the outrageous commission thereof with impunity.
It immediately toucheth His name, it expressly calleth upon Him to mind it, to judge it, to show himself in avenging it. He may seem deaf, or unconcerned, if, being so called and provoked, He doth not declare Himself.
There is understood to be a kind of formal compact between Him and mankind, obliging Him to interpose, to take the matter into His cognisance, being specially addressed to Him.
The bold swearer doth importune Him to hear, doth rouse Him to mark, doth brave Him to judge and punish his wickedness.
Hence no wonder that |the flying roll,| a quick and inevitable curse, doth surprise the swearer, and cut him off, as it is in the prophet. No wonder that so many remarkable instances do occur in history of signal vengeance inflicted on persons notably guilty of this crime. No wonder that a common practice thereof doth fetch down public judgments; and that, as the prophets of old did proclaim, |because of swearing the land mourneth.|
VIII. Further (passing over the special laws against it, the mischievous consequences of it, the sore punishments appointed to it), we may consider, that to common sense vain swearing is a very unreasonable and ill-favoured practice, greatly misbecoming any sober, worthy, or honest person; but especially most absurd and incongruous to a Christian.
For in ordinary conversation what needful or reasonable occasion can intervene of violating this command? If there come under discourse a matter of reason, which is evidently true and certain, then what need can there be of an oath to affirm it, it sufficing to expose it to light, or to propose the evidences for it? If an obscure or doubtful point come to be debated, it will not bear an oath; it will be a strange madness to dare, a great folly to hope the persuading it thereby. What were more ridiculous than to swear the truth of a demonstrable theorem? What more vain than so to assert a disputable problem: oaths (like wagers) are in such cases no arguments, except silliness in the users of them.
If a matter of history be started, then if a man be taken for honest, his word will pass for attestation without further assurance; but if his veracity or probity be doubted, his oath will not be relied on, especially when he doth obtrude it. For it was no less truly than acutely said by the old poet, [Greek], |The man doth not get credit from an oath, but an oath from the man.| And a greater author, |An oath,| saith St. Chrysostom, |doth not make a man credible; but the testimony of his life, and the exactness of his conversation, and a good repute. Many often have burst with swearing, and persuaded no man; others only nodding have deserved more belief than those who swore so mightily.| Wherefore oaths, as they are frivolous coming from a person of little worth or conscience, so they are superfluous in the mouth of an honest and worthy person; yea, as they do not increase the credit of the former, so they may impair that of the latter.
|A good man,| as Socrates did say, |should apparently so demean himself, that his word may be deemed more credible than an oath;| the constant tenour of his practice vouching for it, and giving it such weight, that no asseveration can further corroborate it.
He should [Greek], |swear by his good deeds,| and exhibit [Greek], |a life deserving belief,| as Clemens Alex. saith: so that no man should desire more from him than his bare assertion; but willingly should yield him the privilege which the Athenians granted to Xenocrates, that he should testify without swearing.
He should be like the Essenes, of whom Josephus saith, that everything spoken by them was more valid than an oath; whence they declined swearing.
He should so much confide in his own veracity and fidelity, and so much stand upon them, that he should not deign to offer any pledge for them, implying them to want confirmation.
|He should,| as St. Jerome saith, |so love truth, that he should suppose himself to have sworn whatsoever he hath said;| and therefore should not be apt to heap another oath on his words.
Upon such accounts common reason directed even pagan wise men wholly to interdict swearing in ordinary conversation, or about petty matters, as an irrational and immoral practice, unworthy of sober and discreet persons. |Forbear swearing about any matter,| said Plato, cited by Clem. Alex. |Avoid swearing, if you can, wholly,| said Epictetus. |For money swear by no god, though you swear truly,| said Socrates. And divers the like precepts occur in other heathens; the mention whereof may well serve to strike shame into many loose and vain people bearing the name of Christians.
Indeed, for a true and real Christian, this practice doth especially in a far higher degree misbecome him, upon considerations peculiar to his high calling and holy profession.
Plutarch telleth us that among the Romans the flamen of Jupiter was not permitted to swear, of which law among other reasons he assigned this: |Because it is not handsome that he to whom divine and greatest things are entrusted should be distrusted about small matters.| The which reason may well be applied to excuse every Christian from it, who is a priest to the most High God, and hath the most celestial and important matters concredited to him; in comparison to which all other matters are very mean and inconsiderable. The dignity of his rank should render his word verbum honoris, passable without any further engagement. He hath opinions of things, he hath undertaken practices inconsistent with swearing. For he that firmly doth believe that God is ever present with him, and auditor and witness of all his discourse; he that is persuaded that a severe judgment shall pass on him, wherein he must give an account for every idle word which slippeth from him, and wherein, among other offenders, assuredly liars will be condemned to the burning lake; he that in a great Sacrament (once most solemnly taken, and frequently renewed) hath engaged and sworn, together with all other divine commandments, to observe those which most expressly do charge him to be exactly just, faithful, and veracious in all his words and deeds; who therefore should be ready to say with David, |I have sworn, and am steadfastly purposed to keep thy righteous judgments,| to him every word hath the force of an oath; every lie, every breach of promise, every violation of faith doth involve perjury: for him to swear is false heraldry, an impertinent accumulation of one oath upon another; he of all men should disdain to allow that his words are not perfectly credible, that his promise is not secure, without being assured by an oath.
IX. Indeed, the practice of swearing greatly disparageth him that useth it, and derogateth from his credit upon divers accounts.
It signifieth (if it signifieth anything) that he doth not confide in his own reputation, and judgeth his own bare word not to deserve credit: for why, if he taketh his word to be good, doth he back it with asseverations? why, if he deemeth his own honesty to bear proof, doth he cite Heaven to warrant it?
|It is,| saith St. Basil, |a very foul and silly thing for a man to accuse himself as unworthy of belief, and to proffer an oath for security.|
By so doing a man doth authorise others to distrust him; for it can be no wrong to distrust him who doth not pretend to be a credible person, or that his saying alone may safely be taken: who, by suspecting that others are not satisfied with his simple assertion, implieth a reason known to himself for it.
It rendereth whatever he saith to be in reason suspicious, as discovering him void of conscience and discretion; for he that flatly against the rules of duty and reason will swear vainly, what can engage him to speak truly? He that is so loose in so clear and so considerable a point of obedience to God, how can he be supposed staunch in regard to any other? |It being,| as Aristotle hath it, |the part of the same men to do ill things, and not to regard forswearing.| It will at least constrain any man to suspect all his discourse of vanity and unadvisedness, seeing he plainly hath no care to bridle his tongue from so gross an offence.
It is strange, therefore, that any man of honour or honesty should not scorn, by such a practice, to shake his own credit, or to detract from the validity of his word; which should stand firm on itself, and not want any attestation to support it. It is a privilege of honourable persons that they are excused from swearing, and that their verbum honoris passeth in lieu of an oath: is it not then strange, that when others dispense with them, they should not dispense with themselves, but voluntarily degrade themselves, and with sin forfeit so noble a privilege?
X. To excuse these faults, the swearer will be forced to confess that his oaths are no more than waste and insignificant words, deprecating being taken for serious, or to be understood that he meaneth anything by them, but only that he useth them as expletive phrases, [Greek], to plump his speech, and fill up sentences. But such pleas do no more than suggest other faults of swearing, and good arguments against it; its impertinence, its abuse of speech, its disgracing the practiser of it in point of judgment and capacity. For so it is, oaths as they commonly pass are mere excrescences of speech, which do nothing but encumber and deform it; they so embellish discourse, as a wen or a scab do beautify a face, as a patch or a spot do adorn a garment.
To what purpose, I pray, is God's name hooked and haled into our idle talk? why should we so often mention Him, when we do not mean anything about Him? would it not, into every sentence to foist a dog or a horse, to intrude Turkish, or any barbarous gibberish, be altogether as proper and pertinent?
What do these superfluities signify, but that the venter of them doth little skill the use of speech, or the rule of conversation, but meaneth to sputter and prate anything without judgment or wit; that his invention is very barren, his fancy beggarly, craving the aid of any stuff to relieve it? One would think a man of sense should grudge to lend his ear, or incline his attention to such motley ragged discourse; that without nauseating he scarce should endure to observe men lavishing time, and squandering their breath so frivolously. 'Tis an affront to good company to pester it with such talk.
XI. But further, upon higher accounts this is a very uncivil and unmannerly practice.
Some vain persons take it for a genteel and graceful thing; a special accomplishment, a mark of fine breeding, a point of high gallantry; for who, forsooth, is the brave spark, the complete gentleman, the man of conversation and address, but he that hath the skill and confidence (O heavens! how mean a skill! how mad a confidence!) to lard every sentence with an oath or a curse, making bold at every turn to salute his Maker, or to summon Him in attestation of his tattle; not to say calling and challenging the Almighty to damn and destroy him? Such a conceit, I say, too many have of swearing, because a custom thereof, together with divers other fond and base qualities, hath prevailed among some people, bearing the name and garb of gentlemen.
But in truth, there is no practice more crossing the genuine nature of genteelness, or misbecoming persons well born and well bred; who should excel the rude vulgar in goodness, in courtesy, in nobleness of heart, in unwillingness to offend, and readiness to oblige those with whom they converse, in steady composedness of mind and manners, in disdaining to say or do any unworthy, any unhandsome things.
For this practice is not only a gross rudeness toward the main body of men, who justly reverence the name of God, and detest such an abuse thereof; not only further an insolent defiance of the common profession, the religion, the law of our country, which disalloweth and condemneth it, but it is very odious and offensive to any particular society or company, at least, wherein there is any sober person, any who retaineth a sense of goodness, or is anywise concerned for God's honour: for to any such person no language can be more disgustful; nothing can more grate his ears, or fret his heart, than to hear the sovereign object of his love and esteem so mocked and slighted; to see the law of his Prince so disloyally infringed, so contemptuously trampled on; to find his best Friend and Benefactor so outrageously abused. To give him the lie were a compliment, to spit in his face were an obligation, in comparison to this usage.
Wherefore 'tis a wonder that any person of rank, any that hath in him a spark of ingenuity, or doth at all pretend to good manners, should find in his heart or deign to comply with so scurvy a fashion: a fashion much more befitting the scum of the people than the flower of the gentry; yea, rather much below any man endued with a scrap of reason or a grain of goodness. Would we bethink ourselves, modest, sober, and pertinent discourse would appear far more generous and masculine than such mad hectoring the Almighty, such boisterous insulting over the received laws and general notions of mankind, such ruffianly swaggering against sobriety and goodness. If gentlemen would regard the virtues of their ancestors, the founders of their quality -- that gallant courage and solid wisdom, that noble courtesy, which advanced their families and severed them from the vulgar -- this degenerate wantonness and forbidness of language would return to the dunghill, or rather, which God grant, be quite banished from the world, the vulgar following their example.
XII. Further, the words of our Lord, when He forbade this practice, do suggest another consideration against it, deducible from the causes and sources of it; from whence it cometh, that men are so inclined or addicted thereto. |Let,| saith He, |your communication be Yea, yea, Nay, nay; for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.| The roots of it, He assureth us, are evil, and therefore the fruit cannot be good: it is no grape which groweth from thorns, or fig from thistles. Consult experience, and observe whence it doth proceed.
Sometimes it ariseth from exorbitant heats of spirit, or transports of unbridled passion. When a man is keenly peevish, or fiercely angry, or eagerly contentious, then he blustereth, and dischargeth his choler in most tragical strains; then he would fright the objects of his displeasure by the most violent expressions thereof. This is sometime alleged in excuse of rash swearing: I was provoked, the swearer will say, I was in passion; but it is strange that a bad cause should justify a bad effect, that one crime should warrant another, that what would spoil a good action should excuse a bad one.
Sometimes it proceedeth from arrogant conceit, and a tyrannical humour; when a man fondly admireth his own opinion, and affecting to impose it on others, is thence moved to thwack it on with lusty asseverations.
Sometimes it issueth from wantonness and levity of mind, disposing a man to sport with anything, how serious, how grave, how sacred and venerable soever.
Sometimes its rise is from stupid inadvertency, or heady precipitancy; when the man doth not heed what he saith, or consider the nature and consequence of his words, but snatcheth any expression which cometh next, or which his roving fancy doth offer, for want of that caution of the psalmist, |I said, I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue; I will keep my mouth with a bridle, while the wicked is before me.|
Sometimes (alas! how often in this miserable age!) it doth spring from profane boldness; when men design to put affronts on religion, and to display their scorn and spite against conscience, affecting the reputation of stout blades, of gallant hectors, of resolute giants, who dare do anything, who are not afraid to defy Heaven, and brave God Almighty Himself.
Sometimes it is derived from apish imitation, or a humour to comply with a fashion current among vain and dissolute persons.
It always doth come from a great defect in conscience, of reverence to God, of love to goodness, of discretion and sober regard to the welfare of a man's soul.
From such evidently vicious and unworthy sources it proceedeth, and therefore must needs be very culpable. No good, no wise man can like actions drawn from such principles. Further --
XIII. This offence may be particularly aggravated by considering that it hath no strong temptation alluring to it, that it yieldeth no sensible advantage, that it most easily may be avoided or corrected.
|Every sin,| saith St. Chrysostom, |hath not the same punishment; but those things which may easily be reformed do bring on us greater punishment:| and what can be more easy than to reform this fault? |Tell me,| saith he, |what difficulty, what sweat, what art, what hazard, what more doth it require beside a little care| to abstain wholly from it? It is but willing, or resolving on it, and it is instantly done; for there is not any natural inclination disposing to it, any strong appetite to detain us under its power.
It gratifieth no sense, it yieldeth no profit, it procureth no honour; for the sound of it is not very melodious, and no man surely did ever get an estate by it, or was preferred to dignity for it. It rather to any good ear maketh a horrid and jarring noise; it rather with the best part of the world produceth displeasure, damage, and disgrace. What therefore, beside monstrous vanity and unaccountable perverseness, should hold men so devoted thereto?
Surely of all dealers in sin the swearer is palpably the silliest, and maketh the worst bargains for himself, for he sinneth gratis, and, like those in the prophet, |selleth his soul for nothing.| An epicure hath some reason to allege, an extortioner is a man of wisdom, and acteth prudently in comparison to him; for they enjoy some pleasure, or acquire some gain here, in lieu of their salvation hereafter, but this fondling offendeth Heaven, and abandoneth happiness, he knoweth not why or for what. He hath not so much as the common plea of human infirmity to excuse him; he can hardly say that he was tempted thereto by any bait.
A fantastic humour possesseth him of spurning at piety and soberness; he inconsiderately followeth a herd of wild fops, he affecteth to play the ape. What more than this can he say for himself?
XIV. Finally, let us consider that as we ourselves, with all our members and powers, were chiefly designed and framed to glorify our Maker, the which to do is indeed the greatest perfection and noblest privilege of our nature, so our tongue and speaking faculty were given to us to declare our admiration and reverence of Him, to exhibit our due love and gratitude toward Him, to profess our trust and confidence in Him, to celebrate His praises, to avow His benefits, to address our supplications to Him, to maintain all kinds of devotional intercourse with Him, to propagate our knowledge, fear, love, and obedience to Him, in all such ways to promote His honour and service. This is the most proper, worthy, and due use of our tongue, for which it was created, to which it is dedicated, from whence it becometh, as it is so often styled, our glory, and the best member that we have; that whereby we excel all creatures here below, and whereby we are no less discriminated from them, than by our reason; that whereby we consort with the blessed angels above in the distinct utterance of praise and communication of glory to our Creator. Wherefore, applying this to any impious discourse with which to profane God's blessed name, with this to violate His holy commands, with this to unhallow His sacred ordinance, with this to offer dishonour and indignity to Him, is a most unnatural abuse, a horrid ingratitude toward Him.
It is that indeed whereby we render this noble organ incapable of any good use. For how, as the excellent father doth often urge, can we pray to God for mercies, or praise God for His benefits, or heartily confess our sins, or cheerfully partake of the holy mysteries, with a mouth defiled by impious oaths, with a heart guilty of so heinous disobedience.
Likewise, whereas a secondary very worthy use of our speech is to promote the good of our neighbour, and especially to edify him in piety, according to that wholesome precept of the Apostle, |Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may administer grace unto the hearers.| The practice of swearing is an abuse very contrary to that good purpose, serving to corrupt our neighbour, and to instil into him a contempt of religion; or however grievously to scandalise him.
XV. I shall add but two words more. One is, that we would seriously consider that our Blessed Saviour, who loved us so dearly, who did and suffered so much for us, who redeemed us by His blood, who said unto us, |If ye love Me, keep My commandments,| He thus positively hath enjoined, |But I say unto you, Swear not at all;| and how then can we find in our heart directly to thwart His word.
The other is, that we would lay to heart the reason whereby St. James doth enforce the point, and the sting in the close of our text, wherewith I conclude: |But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath; but let your yea be yea, and your nay nay, lest ye fall into condemnation,| or, |lest ye fall under damnation.| From the which infinite mischief, and from all sin that may cause it, God in mercy deliver us through our Blessed Redeemer Jesus, to whom for ever be all glory and praise.