What Is an Oath?
Wikipedia says that an oath is “either a statement of fact or a promise calling upon something or someone that the oath maker considers sacred, usually God, as a witness to the binding nature of the promise or the truth of the statement of fact.”
From the beginning of the earth, oaths were the most sacred way a person could affirm the truth of his word. Oaths were common in the Mosaic law (found in the Old Testament), which showed an outward commitment or determination by people who valued their religion. Moses told the tribes of Israel: “If a man vow a vow unto the Lord, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth” (Numbers 30:1).
However, oaths were often used falsely in order to get gain or power. And sometimes people swore by things over which they had no control, such as heaven or earth.
During His ministry, Jesus did away with oaths sworn to anything else but deity when he taught that people ought to be honest and trustworthy without swearing an oath:
- Ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths:
- But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne:
- Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool . . .
- But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay; for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil. (Matthew 5:33–35, 37)
In the Book of Mormon, oaths were common among the Nephites. One of the first examples is when Nephi swears an oath with Zoram when Nephi was trying to persuade him to leave Jerusalem and come with Lehi’s family. Zoram also swears an oath to Nephi, as Nephi describes:
- And I spake unto him, even with an oath, that he need not fear. . . .
- Yea, and he also made an oath unto us that he would tarry with us from that time forth. (1 Nephi 4:33, 35)
When the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ ministered among the Nephites, He commanded them, in words and intent similar to those found in Matthew 5, not to swear oaths except to God any longer.
- And again it is written, thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths;
- But verily, verily, I say unto you, swear not at all; neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne;
- Nor by the earth, for it is his footstool. . . .
- But let your communication be Yea, yea; Nay, nay; for whatsoever cometh of more than these is evil. (3 Nephi 12:33–35, 27)
Not only did the Nephites swear by the heavens and by the throne of God, they also swore oaths of vengeance against the Lamanites. Some of the more corrupt oaths sworn were secret oaths and “combinations of Gadianton,” whose source were the devil.
Superficial use of oaths seems to be what Jesus wanted His followers to eliminate. That is easy to understand when considering that the term "I swear" has developed a casual meaning in modern-day conversations. For example, “I swear to God” connotes, “I mean it” or “I’m telling you the truth.” Other similar phrases commonly used are “I swear on my grandmother’s grave,” “I swear on everything holy,” and “I swear to you!” Frequent superficial use of the term “I swear” makes it meaningless.
Do Latter-day Saints Make Oaths?
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (inadvertently called the Mormon Church) make covenants with God. One of the most important covenants in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is called the “oath and covenant of the priesthood,” because the priesthood is received with an oath and a covenant. It is a covenant between God and those who receive the Melchizedek Priesthood. “All those who receive the priesthood, receive this oath and covenant of my Father, which he cannot break, neither can it be moved” (Doctrine and Covenants 84:40).
In the oath and covenant of the priesthood, God promises that the person ordained will be a priest forever and will have eternal life. (See Doctrine and Covenants 76:54–60.) He also promises that those who are faithful in their oaths will be “sanctified by the Spirit” (Doctrine and Covenants 84:33). The priesthood holder promises to magnify his calling and fulfill all the responsibilities associated with the ordination.
Rising to the possibilities of the oath and covenant brings the greatest of all the gifts of God: eternal life. That is a purpose of the Melchizedek Priesthood. . . . “I testify that God the Father lives. You have made covenants with Him. He offers you an oath, a promise of eternal life, which He cannot break.
God always blesses us when we keep our commitments to Him.
A warning is also associated with this oath and covenant: The Lord said that anyone who breaks it will not have forgiveness in mortal or eternal life. (See Doctrine and Covenants 84:41.)
Oath swearing has occurred throughout the history of the earth. Sometimes the oaths were expressions of deep commitment to God and to keeping one’s word. Other times oaths were used to manipulate or to cover secret actions. Oaths are intended to represent a faithful covenant, promise, or commitment to God—and blessings from Him—which members of the Church of Jesus Christ take seriously.