Friday, September 23, 2011

Book-oath Shows Up at a Boston Court

An "Insult to Catholics" - Circa 1875

The following piece is taken from an article, The Bible in American History, American Catholic Quarterly Review, Vol. 3 - January 1878 - No.9:

In courts of justice a Protestant Bible is almost always used for putting the oath to witnesses. To make the insult to Catholics the greater a black cross is generally made on one side, and this side tendered to any one known or suspected to be a Catholic. In many States any one can at his option swear with the uplifted hand in the presence of the ever-living God, and this Catholics should generally adopt. Sometimes, however, the bench will be filled by one, as overbearing as ignorant, who will insist on a Catholic's swearing on the parody [i.e. a Protestant Bible society translation] lying
on the desk. Such a case occurred a few years ago, in Boston, where a Catholic witness was committed for contempt of court by a judge who probably was ignorant of the fact that the early New England settlers carefully avoided swearing on the Bible as a superstition and swore "by the great and dreadful name of the ever-living God," kissing and touching no book, not even their prized Geneva Bible.

The Catholic stood exactly on the practice of the early Puritans, and the judge who condemned him committed himself more completely than he did the American citizen whose rights he invaded.


Phil Johnson said...

The power of tradition is awesome, Ray.

Phil Johnson said...

And, in a mixed culture society like the U.S.A., traditions can come into conflict with each other.
That's part of the price we pay for democracy.
I like it.
I agree with the statement Churchill is suppsoed to have said about democracy not being a good form of government; but, that it leaves all other forms in the dust.

Ray Soller said...

In particular, it's worth seeing just how JFK's inauguration was influeced by the power of tradition. There's a good video of the swearing-in ceremony at this Critical Past website, JFK takes the oath of office as 35th President.

Kennedy had chosen to include his grandmother's large-sized Douay Catholic Bible as part of the inaugural ceremony. What you never see is JFK's left hand having been placed on the Bible, which is being held by James R. Browning, clerk of the Supreme Court. Browning is standing in the middle behind both Chief Justice Earl Warren and Kennedy. One has to wonder whether JFK's chronic back problem make it feel painful for him to stretch his left hand across his body to reach the Bible while raising his right hand, or whether he had reservations about placing his hand on a Catholic Bible, or whether he simply forgot.

Whatever the reason, it made no difference, as Paul Boller wote in his book, Presidential Inaugurations, "some people [mostly Protestant ministers] questioned the validity of the oath. But the White House patiently explained that the Constitution didn't prescribe the use of the Bible at the inaugural ceremony and that it was simply a tradition that had begun with George Washington."

Phil Johnson said...

I recall quite clearly the time surrounding the JFK inaugeration. His catholicism was a major issue among the Evangelical crowd. During that time, I attended a Fundamentalist Baptist chruch and am writing from my personal experience. One of the men I worked with was a staunch R.C.. The day JFK won the nomination, he exclaimed, "The Pope's navy is in Boston Harbor." Joking, of course.
And, I recall reports about the Douay Bible being used. So, maybe JFK purposely downplayed his Caltholic beliefs.

He and his brother, Robert, really captured the hearts of a strong majority of Americans. His assassination was the blow that changed America. His assassins are American democracy's worst enemies. And, the dirty dogs got away with it.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Protestantism is encoded in the American DNA. In fact, Thomas Paine [!] writes in "Common Sense":

"The Reformation was preceded by the discovery of America: As if the Almighty graciously meant to open a sanctuary to the persecuted in future years, when home should afford neither friendship nor safety."

Geez, the deist selling Protstantism, because that's what they were buying.

The rapid splintering of Protestantism by sect and dogma necessitated "pluralism," if only for survival. But if there was one thing that united the sects, it was their rejection of the Roman church. It's what makes a Protestant a Protestant.

Therefore, working the Catholics in took a lot of doing, and a damned long time at that.

As for Mormonism, it posed a new threat to the established social order beyond doctrine: The Swedenborgians are pretty out there doctrinally, but were absorbed without too much fuss.

As for Islam, it's quite the newcomer and has the burrs and chafes of Mormonism writ large. All things considered, the assimilation project is going pretty well on both sides.

bpabbott said...

I'm not a fan of the term "Deist" as it has come to imply a distant watch maker who no longer cares for his creations.

Regarding Thomas Paine, I do agree his was a Deist, but not by a modern definition of the term.

I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.
I believe the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consists in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavouring to make our fellow creatures happy.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Very interesting find as usual Ray. His research always well shows how the little guy has gotten his rights of conscience gored.