Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A Remonstrance Against the Book-Oath

The Dutch Reformed Church operated as the established church of New Amsterdam from 1628 until the English conquest in 1664. A short period of instability followed, but in 1674 King James II appointed Sir Edmund Andros as New York's third royal governor. Governor Andros, upon his arrival, formally imposed the English form of colonial government, declared the Church of England to be the established church, and prescribed English as the official language. From that time on, New Amsterdam became known as New York City. In addition, Governor Andros extended his authority over parts of New Jersey, and most of New England. One of his more objectionable reforms was called the book-oath, namely swearing an oath with the right hand on the King James Bible (first published four centuries ago in 1611) and kissing it when having completed the oath.

Now, even with the rigorous enforcement of the book-oath during the ongoing period of English rule and its apparent incorporation by New York State Chancellor Robert R. Livingston during George Washington's inaugural ceremony on April 30, 1789, the administration of the book-oath did not gain favor among the New York based Dutch Reformed Church. What follows is some selected segments from Part III of a three-part article, Dissertations On the Nature, Obligation, and Form of a Civil Oath, that were published in The Magazine of the Reformed Dutch church, Volume 1 No.10, March 1827, Pages 376 - 383, by William Craig Brownlee (1784 - 1860). In 1826 Brownlee was installed as a minister at the Collegiate Reformed Dutch Church in New York City. He served on a rotating basis among several Dutch Reformed Churches in Manhattan until 1860.

Do you profess to make an appeal to God by the action of touching and kissing the book? I profess that I cannot discover, in the book oath, any thing like an appeal to God! Yes! honoured magistrates and fellow citizens! I have searched, but I cannot find any thing even approaching to an appeal to God in this oath. There is no appeal to God in the act of touching the book. There can be no ground to suppose that the act of kissing the boards of the book is any appeal to God. . . . Yes! honoured magistrates, and fellow citizens, I deny it before you all — I deny that there is even an approximation to an appeal to God in the book oath in common use.

Hence, then, this form of swearing is a swearing by the Bible, and the contents of the Bible; or assuredly it is no oath at all. Let the advocates of the book oath take their choice in this dilemma. It is either no oath at all, or it is an oath made by the Bible! In other words, it is either no oath at all, or it is an oath made not by God, but by a creature — being something which he has made. And to swear by a creature — be it the Bible, or contents of the Bible — is rebellion against the precept which enjoins us "to swear only by God."— It is swearing by a creature, and so is condemned by our Saviour — "Swear not, by any means, neither by Heaven nor by the earth, or by any similar oath." It is swearing by a creature, or giving homage to a creature; it is false worship. It is deliberate idolatry!

It cannot surely be objected to us, on behalf of the book oath, that there is any compulsion to use it by any existing law of our happy republic; or, that if we should refuse to kiss the book, we might impede the course of justice.

This objection can have no force in our happy land, and under the protection of our glorious [1787 federal] constitution and laws. Under the bigotry of English laws, wielded by a tyranny over the minds of the English and Irish, this objection might be of great force; for cruel is the exaction by the English government, of the ceremony of kissing the book. And they fine, and imprison, and confiscate the goods of the conscientious Christian who refuses it. But our enlightened legislators have left us free to use our sweet liberty, and to swear by God, and with the raised-up hand, if we choose. [It was the 1821 Revised New York State Constitution, Article VI, Section 1 that proscribed any possibility of imposing a religious test oath for "Members of the legislature and all officers, executive and judicial."]

. . .

And if nothing else will move you. I carry my appeal to your hearts as republicans and the sons of republicans! Of the reformed nations — none but England and Ireland—(But Ireland is not her own mistress — I ought, in justice, to except Ireland.) None but England, and English laws; and you — you republicans! support this idolatrous ceremony in an oath.— Why is it — I call on you as republicans and sons of those noble republicans who hurled from them the bondage of England, and reformed carefully her different abuses — why, ah! why is it that you have retained this English fragment of idolatry? Why is it that you copy England so slavishly, as to retain this English abuse of an oath?

Epilogue: On September 14, 1901, soon after the death of President William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as President of the United States by Federal Judge John R. Hazel, U.S. District Judge for the Western District of New York. The ceremony took place in a private home located in Buffalo, New York. It is commonly known that a Bible was not used during the ceremony. In contrast, what is hardly known is that TR was a member of the Dutch Reformed Church and he apparently followed its principles when he simply raised his right hand toward heaven and repeated the presidential oath of office exactly as prescribed by the U. S. Constitution.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Very sharp, Ray. WD.

Ray Soller said...

Tom, what's really sharp is that the New York State 1821 Revised Constition did come around to recognize the concerns of those who held "conscientious scruples."

Article VI, Section 1 reads:
Section 1. [Official oath.]—Members of the legislature and all officers, executive and judicial, except such inferior officers as may by law be exempted, shall, before they enter on the duties of their respective offices, take and subscribe the following oath or affirmation:

I do solemnly swear (or affirm, as the case may be) that I will support the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution of the state of New York; and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of ____________ according to the best of my ability.

And no other oath, declaration, or test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust. [end of section]

Note: There's no mention of a bible and no specific reference concerning God. Furthermore, unlike the federal constitution, the same single oath applies to all branches of the state government.