Wiebe on Oaths in a Religious and Legal Context

Virgil Wiebe (University of St. Thomas School of Law) has posted Oath Martyrs. The abstract follows. – ARH

Taking oaths, or refusing to take them, or being prevented from taking them, or breaking them, have been critical matters, even life and death matters, for centuries. Why do lawyers and others in official proceedings swear oaths? What do oaths mean? Why are there provisions for affirmations rather than swearing? How can long forgotten stories of oath martyrs inform law students and lawyers today?

Part I of this article presents a short slide backwards into the long history of oaths, with emphasis placed on the role of religious belief in oaths. Infidels, the infamous, the indiscreet, the insane, interested parties: all were barred at various points from testifying under oath. As I teach and practice in Minnesota, some extra attention is paid to the evolution of oaths in Minnesota, placed in larger Anglo-American legal context.

Part II steps back to Tudor England to consider the stories of Thomas More (who, while in power, had no scruples about putting down religious dissenters), Thomas Cranmer (who, with a somewhat reluctant zeal, persecuted both Catholic and radical reformer for failure to swear oaths of loyalty), and the Anabaptist refugees from Flanders (persecuted not only for their refusal to take oaths, but also for being presumed to beviolent revolutionaries).

Part III concludes with some reflections not only on oaths, promises, and truth, but on the other lessons as well that we can take from these lives: speaking truth to ourselves; speaking truth to one another as professional colleagues; and speaking truth to power.

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