Early Americans took oaths quite seriously. Then, as today, individuals who falsely testified under oath at trial were subject to perjury charges. Oaths had a special place because they had a religious connection. It was widely believed that individuals who believed in God and in rewards and punishments in the afterlife were unlikely to risk future divine punishments by violating an oath. This led such prominent political theorists as England’s John Locke to reject the testimony of atheists as being unreliable.
The case of Atwood v. Welton, 7 Conn. 66 (1828), raised a related issue in a ruling issued by Judge David Daggett of the Connecticut Supreme Court. This issue was whether courts could accept the testimony of universalists who believed that individuals would reap the consequences of their actions in this life but not in the life to come, in which universalists believed that all would be saved.
The issue arose in a controversy involving whether Hezekiah Scott, who had borrowed money at what he claimed to have been usurious rates (so high as to be illegal), could testify as to whether he had threatened revenge against his creditor, as other witnesses affirmed. After a lower court judge had ruled that Scott, a universalist, could testify because he believed in God’s punishment prior to death, an appeal was made.
Court rejects testimony because of man’s religious beliefs
Rejecting the argument that the trial judge should have instructed the jury that because of his beliefs, Scott may not have felt the same compunctions against perjury, Daggett instead decided that Scott’s testimony should have been excluded altogether because he did not believe in future rewards and punishments.
Acknowledging that the Connecticut Constitution had forbidden religious oaths as a condition for holding public offices, Daggett distinguished such prohibitions from oaths in court. He also accepted the legislative determination that Quakers, who objected to swearing, should be allowed the alternative to affirm their testimony, as “a legislative enactment in alteration of the common law.”
Evoking the language of George Washington’s Farewell Address on the importance of religious beliefs for the security of oaths, Daggett cited numerous precedents from both English and colonial judicial decisions embraced by the common law. He believed that they both established that “if a person believes in a God, the avenger of falsehood, and in a future state of rewards and punishments, he may be a witness and not otherwise.” Although Daggett apparently had reservations about whether Scott could be questioned in court about his own religious beliefs, he thought it was appropriate to elicit such testimony from other witnesses as to Scott’s religious beliefs.
Judge reasons if you don’t believe in future rewards, you don’t have incentive to be truthful
Citing Justice Joseph Story’s decision in the Rhode Island case of Wakefield v. Ross, 5 Mason 16; Fed. Case 17,050 (1827) and the decision by a Connecticut court in Curtiss v. Strong, 4 Day 51 (1809) rejecting the testimony of individuals who did not believe in future rewards and punishments, Daggett argued that both precedents remained in effect. Refusing to rule as to whether his decision would apply to Antinomians, who believed that the Gospel exempted Christians from following laws, or to those who believed with absolute assurance that their salvation was secured regardless of their earthly actions, he did hazard the opinion that “if it should be proved respecting any person offered as a witness, that he believed his own happiness secure at death, regardless of his conduct in this life, he ought not to be sworn.”
As to suggestions that courts had no right to interfere with religious opinions, Daggett pointed out that the state laws allowed for prosecutions of blasphemy, profane swearing and violations of the Sabbath although these have been ruled in modern times to be in violation of the First and 14th Amendments. Acknowledging provisions in the state declaration of rights (similar to those in the First Amendment) for “the exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship” and for the prohibition against any “preference . . . to any Christian sect or mode of worship,” Daggett did not think these provisions addressed the credibility of courtroom testimony. Acknowledging that Connecticut law permitted the toleration of religious beliefs, he did not think that made the testimony of all men equal. He concluded “that as an oath is an indispensable means of ascertaining truth in a court of justice, so the oath necessarily implies the existence of a God, and a belief in a future state, and a punishment, of some duration, in that future state; and that a witness who has no belief in these truths, is not a competent witness.” He accordingly ordered a new trial.
Dissenting justice thought you could rely on a man’s general character for truthfulness
Although Daggett’s opinion reflected that of a majority of the court, Justice John Thompson Peters dissented. His review of both English and colonial precedents convinced him that a belief in rewards or punishments in this life or in the next should be sufficient to allow a witness to testify under oath. He cited an English case in which a Chinese immigrant was permitted to testify after being willing to hold a saucer in his hand and drop it after his testimony to attest to his belief that he would similarly be broken if he testified untruthfully. Concluding that “The moral character of a witness is the only safe criterion,” Justice Peters cited a previous chief justice to say that, given the difficulty of ascertaining religious beliefs, “it will commonly be safer to rely on the general character for truth, which a man has acquired, by his own conduct in society, than on his mere opinions.”
The Connecticut legislature subsequently adopted a law in 1830 permitting universalists, but not atheists, to testify (Schlesinger 1971, 355). The latter prohibition would almost certainly be regarded today as a violation of the First and 14th Amendments.
This article was published July 5, 2023. John Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University.