OATH. Oaths have been in use in 311 countries of which we have any exact information, and it is probable that there is no nation which has any clear notion of a Supreme Being, or of superior beings, that does not make use of oaths on certain solemn occasions. An oath may be described generally as an appeal or address to a superior being, by which the person making it engages to declare the truth on the occasion on which he takes the oath, or by which he promises to do something hereafter. The person who imposes or receives the oath, imposes or receives it on the supposition that the person making it apprehends some evil consequences to himself from the superior Being, if he should violate the oath. The person taking the oath may or may not fear such consequences, but the value of the oath in the eyes of him who re ceives or imposes it consists in the opinion which he has of its influence over the person who takes it. An oath may be taken voluntarily, or it may be imposed on a person under certain circumstances by a political superior ; or it may be the only condition on which the assertion or de claration of a person shall be admitted as evidence of any fact.
The form of taking the oath has varied greatly in different countries. Among I the Greeks, a person sometimes iilaced his hand on the altar of the deity by Whom he swore , but the forms of oaths were almost as various as the occasions. Oaths were often used in judicial pro ceedings among the Greeks. The Di caste, who were judges and jurymen, gave their verdict upon oath. The Heliastic oath is stated at length in the speech of Demosthenes against Timo crates (c. 36). It does not appear that the oath was always imposed on wit nesses in judicial proceedings ; and yet it appears that sometimes witnesses gave their evidence on oath : perhaps the oath on the part of witnesses was generally voluntary. (Demosth., npbs 'Asbol3or c. 16; Kara Konevos, c. 10; and Meier and Schiimann, Att. Process., p. 675.) In the Roman jurisprudence, an oath was required in some cases from the plaintiff, or the defendant, or both. Thus the oath of calumny was required from the plaintiff, which was a solemn declaration that he did not prosecute his suit for any fraudulent or malicious purpose. The offence of false-swearing was perjurium, perjury; but it was considered a less offence a party to a suit when the oath was imposed by a jades than when it was voluntary. It does not appear that in civil proceedings witnesses were ne cessarily examined on oath; but wit nesses appear to have been examined on oath in the judicia publics, which were criminal proceedings. The title in the
Digest, 'De Testibus' (22, tit. 5), makes no mention of the oath, though it speaks of punishment being inflicted on wit nesses who bore false testimony.
The law of England, as a general rule, requires all evidence or testimony for judicial purposes to be given on oath, and all persons may be sworn as wit nesses who, being questioned on the occasion of taking the oath, will declare their belief in the existence of God, in a future state of rewards and punish ments, and who will further declare their belief that perjury will be punished by the Deity. This rule permits all persons, of all religious persuasions. who profess to have the necessary belief, to be sworn as witnesses; and it excludes all other persons from being witnesses. A Jew, a Mohammedan, and a Hindu may be sworn as witnesses, but they must se verally take the oath in that form which is sanctioned by the usage of their country or nation, and which they se verally consider to be binding. It follows that a person who professes atheism, or who does not profess such belief as is stated above, cannot be sworn, and con sequently cannot be admitted to give testimony for judicial purposes. Children also who are too young to understand the nature of an oath, and adults who are too ignorant or too weak in intellect to understand what is meant by an oath, cannot be sworn as witnesses. The of fence of declaring what is false, when a witness is examined upon oath, consti tutes Perjury. [Law, Catattriet, p. 25.] Declarations made by a person under the apprehension of immediate death are generally admitted as evidence in judi cial proceedings, when properly verified; for it is considered that the circumstances in which the person is placed at the time of making the declaration, furnish as strong motives for veracity as the obli gation of an oath. Quakers also, in all civil cases, were allowed by the statute 7 & 8 Wm. III. c 34, to give their evidence on affirmation ; and now the affirmation of Quakers and Moravians is admissible in all judicial proceedings, both civil and criminal. When a de fendant in chancery is entitled to privi lege of peerage, or as a lord of parliament, he is required to give his answer to a bill upon honour only ; and in the case of a corporation, the corporate body defend ants put in their answer under their com mon seal. Other defendants are required to put in their answer upon oath. For other matters connected with judicial evidence see EVIDENCE.