HL Deb 20 June 1833 vol 18 cc1015-8

The Duke of Richmond moved the second reading of the Quakers' and Moravians' Affirmation Bill.

Lord Wynford

had some objection to Quakers sitting on Juries, though none to their holding offices, because they had scruples of conscience about inflicting punishment. He wished, also, that the sects who were sought to be relieved by this Bill, should also be called upon when they wished to take the benefit of it, to prove that they belong to the sect whose outward appearance they adopted.

The Bishop of London

did not mean to make any observations upon the Bill then before their Lordships; but he wished to offer a few observations on the subject of oaths in general, as they were administered in this country. It was a matter of very great importance, both in a religious and moral point of view, and he was extremely sorry that the attention of the Legislature had not been more directly called to it. A Bill had been brought in about two years ago by the Lord President of the Council, which, in some degree, lessened the evil to which he was adverting. He thanked the noble Lord for that measure, because any measure which tended to diminish the number of oaths to be taken by individuals or public officers was a public benefit. He could assure their Lordships that there was a strong feeling on this subject amongst the religious part of the community in this country. He did not think, that he was going too far when he said, that there was no country in the world in which this most solemn and sacred obligation was administered with less gravity, with less impressiveness, with less decorousness of manner, than it was in this country. The effect of the system had been well and truly described by Dr. Paley, who observed that "the obscure and elliptical form, together with the levity and frequency with which oaths are administered, have brought about a general inadvertency to the obligation of oaths, which, both in a religious and political view, is much to be lamented, and it merits public consideration whether the requiring of oaths on so many frivolous occasions, especially in the Customs, and in the qualification for petty offices, has any other effect than to make them cheap in the minds of the people. A pound of tea cannot travel regularly from the ship to the consumer, without costing half a dozen oaths at least, and the same security for the due discharge of their office, namely, that of an oath—is required from a churchwarden and an Archbishop, from a Petty Constable and the Chief Justice of England." Dr. Paley contended, that "they ought to abstain from calling into requisition the sacred sanction of an oath, except on the most important occasions." There were two species of oaths; and he did not think that the difference between them was sufficiently attended to—assertory oaths and promissory oaths. Assertory oaths were necessary for the discovery and punishment of offences: whilst promissory oaths were not only not necessary, but were, in truth, productive of the worst effects. To this subject, Dr. Paley had called the attention of the public more than forty years ago. The Bill brought in by the noble Marquess, to whom he had before alluded had done away with the necessity for taking 10,000 oaths in a year, but still much of the evil remained. The municipal oaths ought to be revised; nine-tenths of them might, he was of opinion, be done away with, and a simple declaration introduced in their place. This very serious question had been pressed on the attention of the British people long before the time of Dr. Paley. It had been forcibly taken up by one of the most virtuous, learned, and eloquent men that ever adorned the Protestant Church—he alluded to Bishop Jeremy Taylor. It was a subject well worthy of grave consideration, and in the next Session of Parliament, if his life were so long spared, he would call the attention of the House to it, unless it were taken up by some noble Lord more competent than he was to undertake the task. The consideration of this subject ought, in his opinion, to be intrusted to a Select Committee, or to a Royal Commission. He would also refer to another class of oaths, which appeared to him to be liable to great objection—he meant the oaths taken in universities and schools. He felt, that to administer an oath to a young man, not of full age, except in cases where truth was judicially sought, was very objectionable. Certainly, promissory oaths should not be exacted from them. He now publicly expressed a hope that, as this subject had been taken up in one of the universities, it would as soon as possible be entertained by the Legislature, who ought to inquire how far it was consistent with sound religion and right principles to enforce on young men, not of age, an obligation for the observance of duties, the performance of which might be exacted by easier means.

The Lord Chancellor

only spoke the sense of those persons who had turned their attention to this subject, when he expressed his opinion, that a thorough revision of the present system ought to take place. Far from thinking that the question should be intrusted to other hands, he felt that it could not be taken up by any individual more capable of doing justice to it than the right reverend Prelate himself. There was another description of oaths which, in his opinion, ought to be discouraged: he meant voluntary oaths or affidavits. A penalty should be inflicted for administering such oaths, or a penalty should be levied on the individual taking them, if it appeared that he had been guilty of false swearing. As the law at present stood, it did not meet those cases.

The Bishop of London

said, that he had not mentioned the class of oaths—voluntary affidavits—noticed by the noble and learned Lord, because he had, on a former occasion, called the attention of their Lordships at some length to that branch of the subject.

Lord Bexley

expressed himself in favour of a diminution of the number of oaths which individuals were now, under a variety of circumstances, compelled to take.

The Duke of Richmond

, in order to show that the persons intended to be relieved by this Bill, would not scruple to do their duty as was stated by the noble and learned Lord, would beg leave to remind their Lordships, that a Quaker was on a Jury last January at the Old Bailey, and did not hesitate to find a man guilty of felony.

Lord Suffield

said, the noble and learned Lord (Lord Wynford) seemed to think, that from some religious scruple a large body of men would violate their affirmations. Now, he thought, that the parties alluded to were as incapable of violating their affirmations as any noble Lord was incapable of violating his oath.

Lord Wynford

denied, that he had made any such assertion. He was unwilling to place the Quakers in the situation in which that Bill would place them.

Bill read a second time.