Thurston v. Whitney (Mass. 1848): Swearing Oaths in Court

Holding: A witness must believe in a God in order to be sworn in court. A court may hear testimony about a witness’ belief or disbelief to determine whether the witness may be sworn. Whether a witness believes or disbelieves in a future state of rewards and punishments goes only to his credibility as a witness, not to his ability to testify.

Procedural posture: Plaintiff objected to the competency of a witness in a case before a Massachusetts court of common pleas, and the Court overruled the objection. The jury found for defendants, and plaintiff appealed. Islamic law is not directly relevant, except that the court notes that a “mahometan” belief suffices for swearing an oath.

Judgment: Reversed and objection sustained in an opinion authored by Justice Wilde.

Facts: The plaintiff objected to the competency of a witness on the grounds that the witness did not believe in God. The plaintiff offered testimony from other witnesses to prove this assertion. The lower court declined to hear the testimony and overruled the objection. On appeal, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts noted that the general rule of evidence does not allow a witness to disqualify himself by declarations not made under oath. However, there is an exception for cases such as this one to prove the witness’ belief or disbelief in God, as only those who believe in God may testify in court. Article 2 of the Massachusetts Constitution—which protects citizens from being “hurt, molested, or restrained, in [their] person, liberty, or estate, for worshipping God in the manner and season most agreeable to the dictates of [their] own conscience”—does not apply to atheists, and even if it did, rejecting a witness for being an atheist would not violate the statute. Therefore, the Court concluded, the plaintiff should have been allowed to introduce testimony showing that the witness did not believe in God and therefore could not be sworn.

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