Why do we require Blood Oaths and Sacred Vows? Why isn’t a person’s word their bond? Why bring the body and holy into the covenant of our truth telling with others?

Why do we place more value in vows sworn on Bibles and other imbued relics than simply assuming one will tell the truth by default?

Is there an added potency to a claim when it is sworn “on my dead mother’s grave?” What is the purpose of secret handshakes, candlelight ceremonies and swearing in those who seek public service? Is our punishment more severe when blood oaths and sacred vows are broken?


  1. Hi David,
    I remember having to swear on the Bible when I was six that I was not lying and it remains burned in my memory as “my first real lie.”
    My sister and I were fighting over a bride doll my sister had she wouldn’t let me play with. To get her back, I locked myself in the bathroom and wrote her name with my big red pencil in capital letters on the floor next to the bathtub and circled it.
    By doing so, I incurred the wrath of my mother, who had impressed upon us many times we WERE NOT TO WRITE ANYTHING on the walls or the floor.
    When called in for the Inquisition, I denied everything and of course, my sister said she didn’t do it. Later that day my favorite aunt, Aunt Pauline– Aunt Paulie– was at the house and my mother accused one of us of lying in front of her.
    My Aunt Paulie was not religious, but she suggested that my sister and I be made to swear on the Bible that we did not do it.
    We swore, and I lied under oath, and I will never forgive my Aunt Paulie for that betrayal. I felt as though she had condemned me straight to Hell.

  2. Donna!
    What a great story! I agree making children swear on Bibles is silly since few children that age are able to truly discern the legal or moral differences between truth telling and lies.
    How many vows and oaths have you taken across your life?
    Did you have to swear an oath when you entered the Navy?

  3. Hi David,
    While I didn’t understand the moral implications at age six, because I was raised in a very strict and religious household, it frightened me to “lie to God,” and I remember thinking the consequences were Hell.
    Once I was witness to a horrible traffic accident and had to be sworn-in in court. When I was a forensic accountant, I frequently had to give depositions and be sworn-in.
    Yes, I had to take an oath when I accepted my commission to “defend the Consititution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

  4. David,
    Here is the complete military oath:
    “I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter.”
    One used to have to tag “so help me God,” onto the end, but now that is optional.

  5. Donna —
    So you felt it was better, at age six, to lie on your oath than face the truth? That’s quite a stunner for one raised in a religious household! 😀
    I’ve always wondered if the old ploy of crossing your fingers to break the truth worked while oath-taking.

  6. That’s some oath, Donna! I wonder why it is necessary, though. If someone has to take an oath like that it doesn’t seem to me their heart is in the job because that oath is an unspoken, but vital, part of the job. If you take the job, then you’ve taken the oath.
    What would’ve happened if you refused to take the oath?

  7. Hi David,
    I suppose my quest for revenge at age was stronger than my moral guilt. 😀
    Regarding refusing the military oath, I would expect I would not have received my commission had I not taken the oath.

  8. Donna —
    I think you’re right about your moral corruption! 😉
    Fascinating that refusing the oath means the loss of the job. Is that oath legally binding? Do you sign the oath as well or only verbally acquiesce to it?

  9. Hi David,
    I don’t remember if I actually signed the oath, per se. There was a swearing in ceremony on the day I accepted my commission, attended by the CO of the Reserve Center, a friend of mine who was a captain, and other officers.
    I remember I had to raise my hand and repeat the oath after the CO, who administered the oath. I also remember accepting my commission by signing an important looking document which I believe was also signed by witnesses, but I’m sure about the details.
    Once you accept your commission, your duty begins and you are subject to the UCMJ– the Uniform Code of Military Justice. This is a detailed set of military laws, the violation of which can result in punishment ranging from docking of pay to court martial to jail time.
    For example, if you refused to follow your orders to active duty, e.g., you didn’t show up when the boat left, you would be procecuted under the UCMJ.
    Here is a link on a more formal swearing in ceremony attended by President Bush.

  10. It still fascinates me, Donna, that oaths are required to get people to correctly honor their jobs, tasks or parameters of behavior!
    I’ve taken oaths in court as a witness and as a Boy Scout and, I guess during my marriage ceremony. Such reverence was expected during the Boy Scout ceremony — as if taking an oath somehow makes you a better person or in some ways protects others from the bad intentions of the non-oath takers.

  11. Hi David,
    Oaths are a fascinating subject. The military oath has quite a history. Here is another link that discusses its history.
    It is interesting to note that the article discusses that the founding fathers did not want an oath that swore allegience to any individual. Obviously, they didn’t want anything that smacked of tyranny. So, they instead offered an oath that swore allegience to uphold the Constitution.

  12. That’s an excellent article, Donna! What a history!
    It interesting how oaths seem to be a way to hold person’s moral rigor. Does an oath create morality or only force it to the surface in a public ceremony?
    It’s funny that the founding fathers didn’t wan oaths to an individual but we now, abstractly, pledge allegiance to a flag.

  13. Hi David,
    I don’t think oaths create morality, but rather a moral obligation. It would appear that is their intent, based on the historical facts stated in the article cited.
    Pledging an oath to the Constitution is all-encompassing. From the article cited,
    “The oath requires officers to support and defend the Constitution–not the president, not the country, not the flag, and not a particular military service. Yet, at the same time, the Constitution symbolizes the president, the country, the flag, the military, and much more.”
    The author goes on to point out that the chain of command leads directly to the President, Commander-In-Chief. He also points out how this can pose dilemmas due to the inefficient system of checks and balances in our government. They are representative of democracy, but not efficient from a military standpoint.
    Compare with Russian military oaths that require an unequivocal obedience, as he points out in the article. Supporting and defending the Constitution, by contrast to the Russian oath, is purposefully vague.

  14. Donna —
    Why must one ask for a moral obligation in an oath? Isn’t one promised by the person — any person — by default?
    I have a problem with pledging oaths to symbols and abstract ideas.
    What is the value of being vague over complete specificity?

  15. Hi David,
    Here’s the Indiana Oath of Attorneys:

    Rule 22. Oath of Attorneys
    Upon being admitted to practice law in the state of Indiana, each applicant shall take and subscribe to the following oath or affirmation:
    “I do solemnly swear or affirm that: I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Indiana; I will maintain the respect due to courts of justice and judicial officers; I will not counsel or maintain any action, proceeding, or defense which shall appear to me to be unjust, but this obligation shall not prevent me from defending a person charged with crime in any case; I will employ for the purpose of maintaining the causes confided to me, such means only as are consistent with truth, and never seek to mislead the court or jury by any artifice or false statement of fact or law; I will maintain the confidence and preserve inviolate the secrets of my client at every peril to myself; I will abstain from offensive personality and advance no fact prejudicial to the honor or reputation of a party or witness, unless required by the justice of the cause with which I am charged; I will not encourage either the commencement or the continuance of any action or proceeding from any motive of passion or interest; I will never reject, from any consideration personal to myself, the cause of the defenseless, the oppressed or those who cannot afford adequate legal assistance; so help me God.”

    For some people — just a small percentage — the oath to “abstain from offensive personality” doesn’t always stick. 😉

  16. Chris!
    Why do you think a culture demands oaths and vows?
    What is the human meaning of making attorneys take that oath?
    Oaths seem to be a way to demand obedience and dedication, but aren’t those precious things best volunteered and implemented rather than sworn to?

  17. Hi David,
    I think the goal of oath-taking is to ensure that everyone taking the oath is working from the same frame of reference.
    When people come to court, they are always under an obligation to tell the truth, even if they haven’t been sworn officially. When I first started collecting debts, someone asked me if he had to tell me the truth since we were talking in the hallway informally. I advised that I wouldn’t know if he was telling me the truth or not, but if he said he wasn’t working and the skip tracers find a job, I would be less inclined to want to deal with him informally in the future.
    The oath taking puts people on notice that certain forms of conduct are required and that they could face consequences for failure to abide by those standards.
    BTW, I have another Four Corners in the review queue. I think you’ll find it interesting.

  18. Chris!
    I think oaths are about staying in power and punishing those who don’t toe the line. I’ve always felt oaths and vows are more for the enforcer than the enforcee. 😀
    When you were chatting with the guy in the hallway did you whip out your Bible or your law degree to have the guy swear he wasn’t working? 😉
    Love the new article, Chris! Delightful! We’ll run it on Tuesday, thanks!

  19. Hi David,
    I didn’t swear him in, but I said that we’d probably double check everything that he told us.
    If someone tells me one thing, and I find out another, I’m more inclined to just ask the court to grant an appropriate statutory remedy — such as a garnishment to collect an unpaid judgment.

  20. Hi David,
    “Why do we place more value in vows sworn on Bibles and other imbued relics than simply assuming one will tell the truth by default”? –
    -I think it provides a religious assurance that people won’t lie/break the oath taken in the name of God.
    The situation is same in India; I think we replicated the procedure.
    It is interesting to note the recent controversy…
    I remember my friends used to swear in the name of God to prove truthfulness/faithfulness – only to cheapen the denigrating the effct.

  21. I’m glad you’re back with us, Donna! Nature is always watching you!
    Don’t defer so much to a single article! There must be other minds out there deserving your attention and analysis! 😀

  22. Chris!
    Yes, that’s my point! Oath or no oath — the guy was shady and your gut told you everything you needed to know to take appropriate measures for punishment.
    Oaths, by their nature, require an ethereal outside entity for true enforcement (that is mainly imagined) and while perjury is a serious crime it is rarely prosecuted fairly across the board.

  23. Great links, Katha, thanks!
    The God oaths are particularly troublesome because when they are broken the retribution isn’t forthcoming fast enough to deter future sinners.

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