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What’s the logic behind ‘So help me God’?

Taking an oath

Why has the tradition in America been for oaths to end with “So help me God”?

  • The military’s oath of enlistment ended with “So help me God”
  • The commissioned officers’ oath ended with “So help me God”
  • President’s oath of office ended with “So help me God”
  • Congressmen and Senators’ oath ended with “So help me God”
  • Witnesses in Court swore to tell the truth, “So help me God”
  • Even an oath proposed by Lincoln for individuals wanting to be U.S. citizens ended with “So help me God”

Lincoln announced his plan, Dec. 8, 1863, to let back into the Union those who had been in the Confederacy, proposing: “Whereas it is now desired by some persons heretofore engaged in said rebellion to resume their allegiance to the United States. … Therefore, I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, do proclaim, declare, and make known to all persons who have, directly or by implication, participated in the existing rebellion … that a full pardon is hereby granted to them … with restoration of all rights of property … upon the condition that every such person shall take and subscribe an oath … to wit: ‘I, ______, do solemnly swear, in the presence of Almighty God, that I will henceforth faithfully support, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Union of the States thereunder, and that I will in like manner abide by and faithfully support all acts of Congress passed during the existing rebellion with reference to slaves … and that I will in like manner abide by and faithfully support all proclamations of the President made during the existing rebellion having reference to slaves. … So help me God.’”

A similar situation was faced by Justice Samuel Chase, who was the chief justice of Maryland’s Supreme Court in 1791, and then appointed by George Washington as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, 1796-1811. In 1799, a dispute arose over whether an Irish immigrant named Thomas M’Creery had in fact become a naturalized U.S. citizen and thereby able to leave an estate to a relative in Ireland.

The court decided in M’Creery’s favor based on a certificate executed before Justice Samuel Chase, which stated: “I, Samuel Chase, Chief Judge of the State of Maryland, do hereby certify all whom it may concern, that … personally appeared before me Thomas M’Creery, and did repeat and subscribe a declaration of his belief in the Christian Religion, and take the oath required by the Act of Assembly of this State, entitled, An Act for Naturalization.”

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An oath was meant to call a Higher Power to hold one accountable to perform what they promised.

Webster’s 1812 Dictionary defined “oath”: “A solemn affirmation or declaration, made with an appeal to God for the truth of what is affirmed. The appeal to God in an oath implies that the person imprecates his vengeance and renounces his favor if the declaration is false, or if the declaration is a promise, the person invokes the vengeance of God if he should fail to fulfill it.”

Another perspective on taking an oath was mentioned by Bill Clinton at the national prayer breakfast, Feb. 4, 1993: “Just two weeks and a day ago, I took the oath of office as president. You know the last four words, for those who choose to say it in this way, are ‘So help me God.’ … Deep down inside I wanted to say it the way I was thinking it, which was, ‘So, help me, God.’”

Courts of Justice thought oaths would lose their effectiveness if the public at large lost their fear of the God of the Bible who gave the commandment “Thou shalt not bear false witness.”

New York Supreme Court Chief Justice Chancellor Kent noted in People v. Ruggles, 1811, that irreverence weakened the effectiveness of oaths: “Christianity was parcel of the law, and to cast contumelious (insulting) reproaches upon it, tended to weaken the foundation of moral obligation, and the efficacy (effectiveness) of oaths.”

George Washington warned of this in his farewell address, 1796: “Let it simply be asked where is the security for prosperity, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in the Courts of Justice?”

In August of 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville observed a court case: “While I was in America, a witness, who happened to be called at the assizes of the county of Chester (state of New York), declared that he did not believe in the existence of God or in the immortality of the soul. The judge refused to admit his evidence, on the ground that the witness had destroyed beforehand all confidence of the court in what he was about to say. The newspapers related the fact without any further comment. … The New York Spectator of August 23d, 1831, relates the fact in the following terms: ‘The court of common pleas of Chester county (New York), a few days since rejected a witness who declared his disbelief in the existence of God. The presiding judge remarked, that he had not before been aware that there was a man living who did not believe in the existence of God; that this belief constituted the sanction (validity) of all testimony in a court of justice: and that he knew of no case in a Christian country, where a witness had been permitted to testify without such belief.’”

President Dwight Eisenhower addressed the American Legion Back-to-God Program, Feb. 20, 1955: “Recognition of the Supreme Being is the first – the most basic – expression of Americanism.”

Oaths to hold office had similar acknowledgments:

  • The Constitution of Mississippi, 1817, stated: “No person who denies the being of God or a future state of rewards and punishments shall hold any office in the civil department of the state.”
  • The Constitution of Tennessee, 1870, article IX, Section 2, stated: “No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state.”
  • The Constitution of Maryland, 1851, required office holders make: “A declaration of belief in the Christian religion; and if the party shall profess to be a Jew the declaration shall be of his belief in a future state of rewards and punishments.”
  • In 1864, the Constitution of Maryland, required office holders to make: “A declaration of belief in the Christian religion, or of the existence of God, and in a future state of rewards and punishments.”
  • The Constitution of Pennsylvania, 1776, chapter 2, section 10, stated: “Each member, before he takes his seat, shall make and subscribe the following declaration, viz: ‘I do believe in one God, the Creator and Governor of the Universe, the Rewarder of the good and Punisher of the wicked, and I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine Inspiration.’”
  • The Constitution of South Carolina, 1778, article 12, stated: “Every … person, who acknowledges the being of a God, and believes in the future state of rewards and punishments … (is eligible to vote).”
  • The Constitution of South Carolina, 1790, article 38, stated: “That all persons and religious societies, who acknowledge that there is one God, and a future state of rewards and punishments, and that God is publicly to be worshiped, shall be freely tolerated.”
  • Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court stated in Commonwealth v. Wolf (3 Serg. & R. 48, 50, 1817: “Laws cannot be administered in any civilized government unless the people are taught to revere the sanctity of an oath, and look to a future state of rewards and punishments for the deeds of this life.”

It was understood that persons in positions of power would have opportunities to do corrupt backroom deals for their own benefit. But if that person believed that:

  • God was watching,
  • that He wanted them to be honest, and
  • that He would hold them accountable in the future

– then that person would hesitate, thinking “even if I get away with this my whole life, I will still be accountable to God in the next.” This is what is called “a conscience.”

But if that person did not believe in God and in a future state of rewards and punishments, when presented with the same temptation – with no ultimate accountability – they would yield to it. In fact, if there is no God and this life is all there is, a person would be a fool not to.

William Linn, unanimously elected the first U.S. House chaplain, stated May 1, 1789: “Let my neighbor once persuade himself that there is no God, and he will soon pick my pocket, and break not only my leg but my neck. If there be no God, there is no law, no future account; government then is the ordinance of man only, and we cannot be subject for conscience sake.”

President Reagan stated in 1984: “Without God there is no virtue because there is no prompting of the conscience.”

Sir William Blackstone, one of the most quoted authors by America’s founders, wrote in “Commentaries on the Laws of England, 1765-1770”: “The belief of a future state of rewards and punishments, the entertaining just ideas of the main attributes of the Supreme Being, and a firm persuasion that He superintends and will finally compensate every action in human life (all which are revealed in the doctrines of our Savior, Christ), these are the grand foundations of all judicial oaths, which call God to witness the truth of those facts which perhaps may be only known to Him and the party attesting.”

When Secretary of State Daniel Webster was asked what the greatest thought was that ever passed through his mind, he replied “My accountability to God.”

Benjamin Franklin wrote to Yale President Ezra Stiles, March 9, 1790: “The soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its conduct in this.”

Benjamin Franklin also wrote: “That there is one God, Father of the Universe. … That He loves such of His creatures as love and do good to others: and will reward them either in this world or hereafter, That men’s minds do not die with their bodies, but are made more happy or miserable after this life according to their actions.”

John Adams wrote to Judge F.A. Van der Kemp, Jan. 13, 1815: “My religion is founded on the love of God and my neighbor; in the hope of pardon for my offenses; upon contrition. … In the duty of doing no wrong, but all the good I can, to the creation, of which I am but an infinitesimal part. I believe, too, in a future state of rewards and punishments.”

John Adams wrote again to Judge F.A. Van de Kemp, Dec. 27, 1816: “Let it once be revealed or demonstrated that there is no future state, and my advice to every man, woman, and child, would be, as our existence would be in our own power, to take opium. For, I am certain there is nothing in this world worth living for but hope, and every hope will fail us, if the last hope, that of a future state, is extinguished.”

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), remembered by his line “God is dead,” exposed the hypocrisy of atheists claiming to be moral (“Twilight of the Idols,” The Portable Nietzsche, ed., trans. Walter Kaufman, NY: Penguin Books, 1976, p. 515-6): “When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident: this point has to be exhibited again and again, despite the English flatheads. Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands. Christianity presupposes that man does not know, cannot know, what is good for him, what evil: he believes in God, who alone knows it. Christian morality is a command; its origin is transcendent; it is beyond all criticism, all right to criticism; it has truth only if God has truth – it stands or falls with faith in God. …”

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Nietzsche criticized English atheist Mary Ann Evans, who used the pen name “George Elliot”: “G. Elliot: They are rid of the Christian God and now believe all the more firmly that they must cling to Christian morality. This is an English inconsistency: we do not wish to hold it against little moralistic females à la Eliot. In England one must rehabilitate oneself after ever little emancipation from theology by showing in a veritably awe-inspiring manner what a moral fanatic one is. That is the penance they pay there. … When the English actually believe that they know ‘intuitively’ what is good and evil, when they therefore suppose that they no longer require Christianity as the guarantee of morality, we merely witness the effects of the dominion of the Christian value judgment and an expression of the strength and depth of this dominion: such that the origin of English morality has been forgotten, such that the very conditional character of its right to existence is no longer felt. For the English, morality is not yet a problem.”

John Adams warned Oct. 11, 1798, in his address to the 1st Brigade, 3rd Division of Massachusetts’ Militia: “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. … Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Noah Webster wrote in “A Collection of Papers on Political, Literary and Moral Subjects” (New York, 1843): “The virtue which is necessary to … render a government stable, is Christian virtue, which consists in the uniform practice of moral and religious duties, in conformity with the laws of both of God and man.”

John Adams wrote in a proclamation of humiliation, fasting, and prayer, March 6, 1799: “No truth is more clearly taught in the Volume of Inspiration … than … acknowledgment of … a Supreme Being and of the accountableness of men to Him as the searcher of hearts and righteous distributor of rewards and punishments.”

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