As I have a tendency to do, I have been reading law today. In particular, I came across a case dealing with the old rule against party testimony. Originally at common law, a party to a lawsuit could not testify in the suit. There were two justifications for the rule. The first was that the parties to a suit had an incentive to lie in their own interested and therefore their testimony was unreliable. The second justification was that testimony was given under oath, which gave it grave theological significance. Perjury was more than a crime. By virtue of the oath it was a grave sin for which one could be damned. The sin was not lyng per se, but rather oath breaking. The judges reasoned that the law should not present parties to litigation with such a grave temptation. Much better to do without party testimony and not risk people damning themselves.
The concern with oaths was serious stuff. For example, in the earliest common law — as well as in other legal systems such as shar’ia — many law suits were settled by oaths. A party would make an accusation. The defendant then had a choice. He could allege additional facts, put on evidence that the plaintiffs allegations were false, or he could simply swear an oath. If he swore that the accusations were false, that was the end of the lawsuit. (At one point in English history “oath helpers” were necessary. In other words, you had to get a certain number of friends who were also willing to swear an oath that you were not liable.) What is remarkable is that the existing court records indicate that most defendants chose not to swear the oath. Too risky.
The concern with oaths even made it into the constitution. Several sects, most notably the Quakers, took Jesus’s admonition not to swear literally. They would not swear in court, for example. The constitution accomodated the belief by allowing the President and other federal officials to take office after “oath or affirmation.” The idea was that the affirmation simply implicated the commandment not to lie, but was not an actual oath.
In Mormonism we also make oaths, most notably in the temple. Those oaths are to be taken very seriously, a point graphiclly driven home in the earlier versions of the endowment. I am curious as to how we conceptualize these oaths. I take it that believing Mormons would regard the violation of temple oaths as a very great sin. Does the sin come because the underlying action is inherently wicked or does it come as a result of the oath itself? What about other oaths? Should I understand an oath in a courtroom — “I solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God” — as having theological significance?
It seems to me that a serious theology of oaths would be a pretty socially useful thing to have. Provided that people believed that they could damn themselves, oaths provide a way of credibly signalling to others that you are telling the truth, or will actually carry out some future act. To a certain extent, we still believe oaths have some special significance, but I doubt that most Mormons believe that oath breaking has the same sort of eternal consequences that say a medieval Catholic would have ascribed to it. Why is this?