Noah Porter (1781-1866) graduated from Yale in 1803. He was pastor of the Congregational Church in his native town, Farmington, CT (1803-1866). The following sermon was preached by Porter in 1813 on perjury.
DELIVERED IN FARMINGTON,
BY NOAH PORTER, A.M.
PASTOR OF THE FIRST CHURCH OF CHRIST IN FARMINGTON.
EXODUS XX. 7.
Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless, that taketh his name in vain.
Innumerable are the ways in which sinful men take the name of the Lord their God in vain; but in no way can they do this more heinously, than by committing the sin of perjury, or swearing by that name falsely.
Assembled, as we are at this time, to perform an important duty, under the obligation of the oath; and liable to be called, on other occasions, to act under this obligation; it is important that we consider its nature, and the guilt and danger of violating it:—the more especially important, because its influence is moral, and depends on its being understood and felt.
Introductory to what will be suggested concerning the sin of perjury, a few observations will be made concerning the oath; particularly concerning the necessity, the lawfulness, and the import of the oath.
In civil society the oath is necessary. The necessity of it results from the selfishness and deceitfulness of man. Mutual dependence is indispensable. Reputation, property, and life itself, must often be suspended on the veracity of a witness in court. The peace, security, and liberties of a nation, necessarily depend much on the fidelity of men in public office; and, in a free government, on the purity of elections. Obliged thus to commit our dearest earthly interests into the hands of men, and conscious that men are selfish and depraved, we reasonably demand of them every security which the nature of the case allows. Hence we require the most sacred bond that can be laid on a dependent and accountable being, an appeal to the Omniscient and Ever-living GOD, by solemn oath. Such being the necessity of the oath, it has been common to all ages and nations.
The use of the oath in such cases is lawful. Under the ancient dispensation, it would seem that God not only permitted, but required, his people, on important and needful occasions, to adopt it. “Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God,” was his direction by Moses, “and shalt serve him, and shalt swear by his name.” Swearing by the name of Jehovah appears to have been an instituted mode of worshipping him; one of the methods in which his people were to acknowledge him as their God, in distinction from the gods of the heathen.
Nothing appears as a reason why the oath should not be thus regarded still. Not only is the ancient use of it not prohibited in the New Testament, but it is directly warranted there. Our Great Example, when adjured by the living God to declare whether he were the Christ or not, answered the high-priest, without making any objection to the oath. The Apostle Paul, on several important occasions, “called God to witness,” and “for a record on his soul,” to confirm his declarations. And the writer to the Hebrews speaks of the custom of swearing, not only with no mark of disapprobation, but with mention of God himself as condescending to confirm the truth of his promise in the same manner. “For men,” he says, “verily swear by the greater, and an oath for confirmation is to them an end of all strife. Wherein God, willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath.”
As to the prohibition of our Saviour, “Swear not at all,” which has occasioned the scruples of some religious sects about the lawfulness of the oath, it is evident from the whole tenor of his discourse, and especially from the words which both introduce and follow the prohibition, that it was designed, not to abrogate the law of Moses, which, to say the least, permitted the use of the civil oath, but to remove the corrupt glosses on that law, which were introduced by the Jewish teachers, and were sanctioned by their traditions: in other words, that it has no respect to the civil oath, but only to profane swearing in ordinary conversation. No other instance throughout the discourse is ever adduced, in which it is pretended that the Divine teacher discountenances any thing required or permitted in the law of Moses. His direction on this subject, as on others, he contrasts not with that law, but with what had been “said by them of old time”; and our whole duty, in this particular, he sums up in the words “Let your communication, your ordinary conversation, by yea, yea; nay, nay;—a simple affirmation or denial, or at most, a repetition of the one or the other.
The oath has commonly been accompanied with some significant bodily action, expressive of its solemnity. The most ancient, and among the Jews at least, the prevalent custom seems to have been the same as we have adopted—lifting up the right hand towards heaven. Thus Abraham said to the king of Sodom, “I have lifted up mine hand unto the Lord, the Most High God, the possessor of heaven and earth.” Thus also David speaks of those, “whose mouth spake falsely” and “whose right hand was a right hand of falsehood.” And in the New Testament, the angel whom John saw in vision, “lifted up his hand, to heaven, and swear by him that liveth forever and ever that the time should not be yet.”
But whatever custom in this respect be adopted, the import of the oath is always the same; and that import, well deserves the consideration of all who thus take the name of the Lord their God, lest they take it in vain. As a moralist observes, “it is invoking Him as a witness of what we say, and it is imprecating his vengeance on ourselves, or which is the same thing, it is renouncing his aid if we are not true in what we affirm, and sincere in what we engage.” This is the meaning of the concluding sentence in our common form, “So help me God.” So, that is, on condition of my speaking the truth or performing what I engage, and not otherwise, may God help me.”
It might be supposed that no rational creature could be found so hardened in impiety, so lost to all sense of obligation and of fear, as deliberately to renounce help from that Almighty Being in whose hand his breath is, by swearing falsely; but in this enormous guilt, our country in common with every other country where God is known, is deeply involved. Perjury, is not an uncommon crime; but, in some forms, is so common, that it excites little public sensibility. In our courts of justice, indeed, while we cannot but see that even here the oath is very commonly treated with but a small measure of the reverence it demands, we are yet glad to acknowledge, that if a man be known to have willfully testified a falsehood in evidence, his crime is regarded with general abhorrence. This, however, we must ascribe in great measure to the penalties ordained in such cases by the laws, and to the conviction which every reflecting person must feel of his own exposure, were the crime to meet with public toleration. For if we view the same crime in forms, where self-interest is less directly concerned, and where punishment from men is not to be expected, we find it frequent beyond calculation, and notorious without disgrace.
What little credit is due to custom-house oaths, and how slightly a isolation of them is generally regarded, is proverbial. That multitudes habitually defraud the public of a part or the whole of the revenue required of them by the laws, and of the penalties which become due in certain cases by transgression, and then cover that fraud with perjury, is not to be questioned. Especially when a law, whether from real or merely pretended injustice or inexpedience, is unpopular, it soon becomes, a matter of system and dark intrigue with many to evade it; and if needful in order to the success of the evasion, to cover it with perjury. All this is done by multitudes with as little apparent compunction, as though no sin were committed;—as though rebellion against the delegated authority of God were nothing; systematized deceit in such a cause, hallowed; and false-swearing an unmeaning sound.
Nor is this the full extent of the crime. Oaths of office are multiplied;—and when we look at the manner in which they are generally regarded, we fear that the violation of them, is even more common than any other form of perjury. Clear it is that when a person swears that he will perform certain specified duties, which, at the time of the oath, he does not fully intend to perform in the manner required, or which afterwards he voluntarily neglects, he is false to his oath.—And when we consider the terms of the oath taken by the freemen of the State, and then look at the spirit and the conduct of partisans in it, or the apparent inconsideration of multitudes in the use of their elective franchise, how can the most enlarged charity repress the apprehension, that many, both when they swear by the name of the Ever-living GOD, and when they enter on the transactions to which their oath has respect, are, in the sight of Him who looketh on the heart, guilty of this shocking crime. Or, if we look at our laws for the preservation of good morals, and at the oaths taken by the various informing and executive officers in the State, and then see how openly, constantly, and fearlessly many of those laws are violated; how can we avoid the most painful reflection, that not a small number in the community, who are honoured with its confidence, as guardians of its vital interests, do themselves lie before God, under the guilt of habitual perjury. To say that those laws are obsolete; that it would not be prudent or salutary to execute them, or that, in this day of declension, the juror must not be understood according to the letter of the oath, will satisfy no enlightened conscience. Will it be seriously maintained, that we have no laws prohibiting gross Sabbath-breaking, profaneness, drunkenness, gaming, lewdness, with other breaches of the essential principles of morality? Or that it has ever been found, by experiment, imprudent or hurtful for the constituted guardians of the public peace, according to their oaths, to subject offenders to the penalties ordained? Or, that their oaths are to be interpreted according to their secret reservations, or discretionary views?—Nothing can be more manifest, than that oaths are binding according to the terms of them—and that the freeman, or he officer who voluntarily neglects the duties, which he is sworn to perform, violates his oath, no less than the witness, who willfully misstates or withholds facts which he is sworn truly and fully to declare. The perjury, in the former case, is not usually capable of being as certainly proved, is not as dishonourable among men; and does not aim so direct a blow at the foundations of individual security, as in the latter: but it is as really perjury; it strikes at the essential interests of society; and it is commonly more deliberately committed, is longer persisted in, and is more habitually contracted, in this, than any other manner.
But in whatever manner perjury be committed, it is one of the most aggravated crimes that can be named. Lying and profane swearing are justly considered, as expressions of a heart nearly assimilated to the prince of darkness. But perjury, excepting only some cases of official perjury, involves both these; nay, without an exception, it violates a greater confidence than a simple lie, and is more deliberately committed than common profaneness. It generally involves the guilt of calling on the High and Holy One to witness a falsehood—of making his glorious and fearful name a sanctuary for crimes—of tempting Him to attest and to countenance deceit by withholding that vengeance which the perjurer imprecates; and always proceeds, either from an atheistical disbelief, or an impious contempt of the divine majesty, holiness, justice and truth. It is an affront, which, were it offered only to a pure created mind, could not fail to awaken extreme abhorrence. When offered to the Eternal Uncreated Mind, before whom the seraphim bow with the most profound reverence and awe, it must excite the severest indignation. In terrible instances has he already shown that he will be sanctified of them that come before him, and in the sight of all the people will be glorified; and in the day of future recompence he will assert his Majesty and glory, and will fully clear himself from the stain which would otherwise appear to rest on his character and administration, as an abettor of deceit, by executing on the impenitent perjurer, the vengeance he had imprecated.
Again; perjury tends, more directly than almost any thing else to dissolve the bonds of civil society. The oath is a principal pledge of that confidence which is indispensable to moral union. Remove this, or which is the same thing, make it nugatory, as every person who openly violates it, does, so far as his influence goes, and you have nothing left for the security of any interest below the sun. That such is the destructive tendency of perjury in legal adjudications is generally felt and acknowledged. Every one, sensible that his property, character, liberty and life may be at issue on trial, and be suspended on testimony, feels that perjury, in this form, strikes directly at the security of every thing dear on earth. And if the liberty, order, security, and general prosperity, of every people under a free government, depend on the purity of elections, and on the fidelity of men in public trust, it is not less manifest that official perjury strikes at the welfare of the State. How pure, how peaceful, how happy, I had almost said how heavenly would be society, protected by the wise and salutary laws under which we live were they properly executed!…and executed they would be, were the oaths of office by which they are guarded, sacredly fulfilled. It is justly remarked by a writer on this subject, that, “if our country is corrupted and destroyed, to the neglect of official duties must the guilt be charged.” If in official duties, we include those which are incumbent on us as freemen, we trace the evil to its real source. And these duties cannot be neglected, without incurring the guilt of perjury. Whether therefore, we consider the nature of perjury as it respects God, or as it respects society, it is one of the most heinous sins that can possibly be committed, and cannot fail to expose the author of it, to an aggravated punishment at the hand of the righteous Judge of all.
The occasion, I am sensible, requires me to be brief; but I shall presume on your patience while I subjoin a few reflections:
First. Profane swearing and cursing, besides the contempt they cast on God, are mischievous to society. They make that a common and insignificant thing, which God has ordained, and the public good requires, should be held sacred. They remove the fear of an oath, and thus strike at the last resort of human confidence. The man who makes Jehovah’s name a common expletive, and is every day invoking the wrath of heaven on himself and his neighbours, will make little, of profaning that name and exposing himself to that wrath, by perjury—will be likely to treat the civil oath as a mere ceremony, without meaning or obligation.—He is too unbelieving and too hardened to be powerfully influenced by that bond; and he removes himself and all over whom his example has influence, every day, farther and farther from a sensibility to its obligation. In vain then, does he pretend that he injures no man’s person, property or character. He removes from his own mind, and the minds of others, that fear of an oath which is often the only security to every temporal interest.
Secondly. We infer from our subject that gross impieties and immoralities, are proper subjects of legislative prohibition. If profane swearing, Sabbath-breaking, and intemperance, with other breaches of the first principles of religion and morality, tend to extinguish the fear of God in the heart, and blunt the moral sense; if in this way they dissolve the bonds of social union in general, and, “the adamantine chain of civil liberty,” the fear of an oath, in particular, it is most obviously the province and the duty of the civil state, for its own preservation, to watch them with a vigilant eye, and suppress them with a strong hand. In this, every real friend of his country, not to say every faithful servant of God, will lend a cheerful concurrence.
Thirdly. No atheist, deist, or universalist, who denies a future punishment should be permitted to take the oath. For, what avails the oath of such a man? He denies what is most essential to its efficacy. The oath is designed as a restraint on the selfish propensities of men….a barrier against the violence of human corruption….a security for the faithful conduct of those, in the inflexibility of whose integrity of heart, amidst strong temptations we cannot place implicit confidence. It has this efficacy chiefly by appealing in the most solemn manner to their dread of forfeiting the favour and incurring the wrath of Almighty God. But those who renounce the doctrine of future punishment, in proportion to their sincerity, are strangers to this dread. The oath in their lips, is therefore nugatory. They can regard it only as an insignificant ceremony, or a superstitious device. They have emancipated themselves from this bond of civil society, by denying the punitive justice of God. It should therefore, never be laid upon them. And if, as the practice of all nations in all ages suggests, it is indispensable in places of high public trust, they ought not to be elected to those places. It is manifestly unsafe to admit them to places, where it would be unsafe to admit men without the oath, for the oath in their lips is nugatory. They ought, therefore, to be excluded, on the same principle as minors and persons destitute of estate, are excluded; that is, on the principle that, as a general thing it is unsafe for the community to admit them. Nor does this principle infringe any right in its application to them, more than to others. Let them think for themselves; let them enjoy the protection of the laws, except when they forfeit that protection by disturbing the peace of society; but, let them neither be admitted to the oath, which if sincere, they cannot conscientiously take, nor expect the favor of public confidence to which they have no claim.
Fourthly. Those persons should not be re-elected to office, who have given satisfactory evidence that they have voluntarily and habitually neglected the official duties which they were sworn to perform. If a perjured witness ought not gain to be admitted to give his testimony in court, why should the public officer, who lives in the manifest and habitual violation of his oath, be again entrusted with the public confidence; at least, till he gives satisfactory proof of repentance? Beside the plain inconsistency of this, does it not tend to multiply instances of perjury? Does it not give a public sanction to the crime? Does not a community as such, by these means become chargeable with the high offence? Can a community in any other way provoke God more fearfully, or break down the laws, and encourage licentiousness more effectually?
Here it may not be impertinent to notice the common sentiment, that no conscientious man can take the oaths required of our informing officers…that a faithful discharge of the duties imposed on them by the laws, is impracticable….that in attempting to do it, they would be overwhelmed with a tide of popular resentment.
It cannot indeed be too much lamented, that good men, lovers of good government, have been so generally unwilling to appear in open support of its constituted guardians. Too many of them are lukewarm and timid, while the supporters of vice are zealous and daring. But we as a people reduced to such a state of moral degradation, that a man, clothed with the authority of office, when he appears in the performance of a bounden duty, in obedience to his solemn oath, and to execute laws which long and uniform experience has proved to be essential to social happiness, would be overwhelmed with a tide of popular resentment? Are we, my brethren and friends, for ourselves, willing to bear such an imputation? Are not the majority of the people in this, and almost every other town in the State, desirous of seeing every vice that is forbidden by the laws suppressed, and prepared to thank and revere the officer who faithfully engages in so self-denying a duty? Do not transgressors themselves, in many instances, after perhaps a momentary impulse of resentment, venerate him in their hearts? If at any time a cry is raised against him, is it not commonly begun and supported exclusively by a few noisy opposers whose esteem it would be no honour to possess? And have not informing and executive officers been themselves too generally the cause of the evil of which they complain? Have they not been too unmindful of the dignity of office, when properly supported, and of the timidity of vice, when boldly and prudently assailed? Have they not, without real necessity, shrunk from the high ground they might maintain in the authority of the laws, and in the conscience of every sober citizen? If there be doubts on the subject, how easy is it for you, brethren and friends, at once to remove them! How easy as it respects this town, to make it as necessary to public confidence and esteem, that your officers be faithful to their oaths, as any have ever conceived it to be necessary to these, that they be compliant and neglectful! Whatever may have been the scruples of some conscientious persons on this subject, allow me to hope that the time is not far distant, when they will be done away; that the friends of religion and good order, in our favoured section of the country, are awaking to a sense of the destructive tendency of our growing licentiousness, and are beginning to use the influence they possess, to remove the evils which they have long been fruitlessly lamenting.
We are now assembled for he discharge of a most important duty, and at a most interesting period. We no longer meet under the smiles of national peace, but amidst the calamities and dangers of war; of a war, which, viewed as under the superintending Providence of God, must be considered as a visitation for our crimes; a visitation, as righteous as it is tremendous; and which, at the same time, by reason of our hardness of heart, is an occasion of multiplying our crimes beyond measure. The God we worship has the destinies of this, and every other nation in his hand, and though, “to him belongeth mercy,” yet manifestly he is not an indifferent spectator of our sins; but, “has come out of his place to punish us for our iniquity.” Surely, then, if we claim a place among his worshippers and servants, it behoves us, like Phinehas, each in his proper station, to exert our influence to remove the causes of his displeasure, and turn away the fierceness of his anger. The influence we possess as freemen, is great. Under Him from whom all power is originally derived, we in connection with our fellow free-men, are the fountain of authority and power in the State. On the manner in which we use this influence our own dearest earthly interests, and those of our children, depend. It may be so used as to afford a confident hope of our transmitting to posterity, the fairest inheritance on which the sun has ever shone; or, it may be perverted to our speedy and irretrievable ruin. Let our minds be deeply impressed with a sense of the sacred obligation, under which we act in every view, and especially, in regard to the oath of God. Let us bear it in mind, not only at this time, but, whenever we give in our vote, touching any matter in which the welfare of the State is concerned;….in the appointment of executive, as well as legislative rulers;….and of those who are to act in subordinate, as well as the higher stations.—Let us remember that the man who gives in his suffrage, with a view to excite a smile in the assembly, when it shall be declared, as we have sometimes been shocked to perceive, or from any selfish or party view, contrary to his sober judgment of the best interests of the State, as we have reason to fear is more common, purchases that poor gratification at the hazard of losing the favour, and incurring the vengeance of Almighty God. Let it not be overlooked that the terms of the oath like the law of the most Holy God, respect our secret judgment and motives, as well as our visible actions; nor be forgotten that He to whom we have lifted our hands, is a witness of our hearts, and “will bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good or evil.” In expectation of that all-decisive trial, “let us think on our ways:” and if by inconsideration or of deliberate purpose, any of us have sworn falsely by the Lord, or in other methods, have taken his name in vain, let us make haste to clear ourselves of the guilt, by penitential and believing application to the blood of atonement, and to prove the sincerity of our application by renouncing the wages of iniquity, and walking before God in holiness and obedience all the days of our lives. “God is not mocked.” That solemn invocation, “So help me God,” is not an insignificant word. However heedlessly it may be uttered or assented to, it will be found to have entered into the ear of the Lord of Hosts, and to be frought with an important meaning. If we renounce his favour and do not repent, it will be to us as we shall have said. Unless the sin be washed away in the Redeemer’s blood, through faith in his name, it will seal to all eternity, our miserable doom. “For the Lord our God will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.”