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Reformed Presbyterians and the Oath of Allegiance.


Reformed Presbyterians and the Oath of Allegiance.

James Dodson



What is the right interpretation of the Oath of Allegiance—does it or does it not involve an engagement to maintain the Royal Supremacy?

In the words of Sir W. Blackstone, “Allegiance is the tie or ligamen which binds the subject to the King, in return for that protection which the King affords the subject.” Other oaths which were required in former times were devised for special and explanatory purposes; the Oath of Allegiance has ever been the principal tie or obligation by which subjects are held bound to maintain the dignity and prerogatives of the British Crown. As Sir M. Hale observes, this oath has ever been short and plain, “and yet is comprehensive of the whole duty from the subject to his Sovereign.” The oath itself, brief as it is, determines, beyond, the possibility of cavil or evasion, the nature and extent of the obligation it imposes. It is “true allegiance,” according to law. Whatever, then, is the place, or power, or prerogative assigned to the Sovereign by law, the person who swears the Oath of Allegiance, solemnly pledges himself to maintain the Sovereign therein. The Sovereign is nothing but what the law makes him: he can do nothing but what the law empowers him to do. Hence, at his coronation, he is most solemnly pledged to govern “according to law.” But how could he govern according to law, or maintain any dignity or prerogative which the law may assign to him, if the people who have made these laws do not acknowledge and maintain him in the execution thereof—if, in the words of the Oath, they do not be “faithful and bear true allegiance” to him according to law? The Oath of Allegiance is the distinct and solemn recognition, on the part of individual subjects, of the Sovereign in whatever position of dignity or supremacy the law has placed him, together with a solemn engagement before God and the Empire to maintain him in the exercise of that Supremacy. If this be not the meaning of the Oath it means nothing. In that case, simple and well-defined as it is, it must be taken nevertheless to consist of indeterminate and cabalistic phrases which may be interpreted as meaning anything or nothing according to the interest or the whim of the moment.

In confirmation of this common-sense view of the meaning of the Oath, and in order to show that this rendering is in harmony with “the fundamental principles embodied in the Revolution Settlement of 1688,” I will quote the words of a distinguished Advocate, the late J. S. More, Esq., Professor of Conveyancing in the University of Edinburgh. He says—

 “The Oath of Allegiance, as modified at the Revolution of 1688, to its present form, was undoubtedly intended to bind every person who swore it, to recognise and submit to the Constitution as then settled. The Allegiance to the King, to which the Oath course it also applies to him as the head of the Constitution. Of course it also applies to him personally, as being placed at the head of the Constitution; but I apprehend its chief meaning, and that which was in the view of its framers, is to recognise him as the head of the Constitution, and so to include the whole Constitution by this reference to its head. It is scarcely possible, as has sometimes been contended, that the framers of our Revolution Settlement could have had in view merely the person of the Sovereign, considered as an individual, because they had just superseded one family, who hereditary claims to the throne could admit of no doubt, and they had established the principle that it belonged to the people, through the medium of Parliament, to decide who should be the Sovereign, or head of the Constitution. And, therefore, I have no doubt that though the Oath necessarily included the individual in whom the succession to the Crown vests under the Act of Settlement, it regards him chiefly as the head of the Constitution, and so includes an assent to the principles of the Constitution.”

In order to complete my argument, it only remains for me to show, what indeed no one will dispute, that “the Royal Supremacy in ecclesiastical matters” is a prominent part of the British Constitution, and a prerogative of the Crown, which every Member of Parliament swears to maintain. By an Act of Henry VIII. and Elizabeth, it is enacted that “The King, His Heirs and Successors, shall be taken, accepted, and reputed the only Supreme Head in earth of the Church of England, and shall have annexed to the imperial Crown of this realm, as well the title and style thereof, as all jurisdictions, authorities, and commodities, to the said dignity of supreme head of the Church appertaining.” This law is still an acknowledged and prominent part of the Constitution of the British Empire. Nay, more, Blackstone, in his Commentaries of the Laws of England, informs us that this Supremacy has been long acknowledged as an “inherent prerogative of the Crown.” That the British Parliament still recognises and maintains this Supremacy in all its dignity and force is patent to all. That the Oath of Allegiance, the only Oath that is now administered to Members of Parliament, is understood by constitutional authorities, to bind the swearer to uphold all the dignities and prerogatives of the Crown, is equally manifest. Lord Macaulay, in his History, describes this Oath as a “safeguard of the Crown,” of which the ecclesiastical supremacy has been recently proclaimed to be one of the brightest jewels. I should like to know how anyone could swear it “in truth, in judgment, and in righteousness,” without thereby acknowledging the “Royal Supremacy in ecclesiastical matters,” and engaging to maintain it.

The Act by which the present Oath of Allegiance received the sanction of Parliament was prepared as a Government measure, and passed in the year 1866. At the second reading the Attorney-General, Sir R. Palmer, thus expounded the intention of its framers, and therefore the exact meaning and obligation of the Oath (I quote from Hansard’s Parliamentary debates):—“I say that the Oath, as we now propose to frame it, is intended to embrace two things—namely, the great principle of personal loyalty to the Sovereign, and that of loyalty to the Monarchy as established by the fundamental laws of the Constitution. We have agreed as to that.” One of the fundamental laws of the Constitution to which the swearer of the Oath pledges his loyalty is the Supreme Headship of the Sovereign in all causes, ecclesiastical as well as civil. Mr. Disraeli, as leader of the Opposition, proposed the addition to the Oath of a clause asserting her Majesty’s exclusive Supremacy in all Courts of the Realm. The language of the Attorney-General, in reply, determines the point we are now discussing, as exclusively as if he had been delivering a premeditated judgment thereupon—“They actually limit the jurisdiction of her Majesty to the Courts, as though her Majesty’s Supremacy only extended to the judicial power of the Crown. Is there any principle of constitutional law which so limits the Royal Supremacy?” Then, after reading the Statute of Elizabeth, determining the Queen’s Supremacy in all causes ecclesiastical, he proceeds—“If you insert anything in the Oath about one branch of her Majesty’s Supremacy, you should refer to the other branches of it in terms of the Statute-Book; but by omitting to say anything concerning it, we leave it in FULL FORCE as it stands in the Statute-Book, and it is binding on all men. If it be desired to undermine her Majesty’s general Supremacy, then nothing can be better for the purpose than the proposition of the right hon. gentleman.” In the course of the same debate Mr. Whiteside said—“I beg permission to remind the Attorney-General that Lord Hale says that the Oath of Supremacy is but an expansion of the Oath of Allegiance, and the Chatham said on one occasion that Parliament had no more right to interfere with the principle of the Supremacy of the Crown than it had to set aside the Bill of Rights or Magna Charta.” I have but one other quotation to make. But it is so authoritative and conclusive, and meets the demands of the case so perfectly, that it must at once and forever settle the question in the estimation of all candid and competent judges. In the very Act of Parliament itself, which contains the Oath, and by which it has received the force of law, there is a section prepared for the express purpose of showing that the Oath of Allegiance not only does not, in any way, weaken or repudiate the Queen’s Supremacy in ecclesiastical matters, but that it should, and must be, understood as virtually embracing and comprehending all the Statutes of the Empire enforcing this supremacy; and this is the identical interpretation which we have uniformly put on the Oath of Allegiance. In Section 6 of the “Act to amend the Law relating to Parliamentary Oaths, “a number of Acts relating to previous Oaths are declared to be repealed; but only on the following condition—“Provided, always, that the Repeal of these Acts, or any of them, or any Parts thereof, shall not be construed to weaken, or in any Manner to affect any Laws or Statutes now in force for preserving and upholding the Supremacy of our Lady the Queen, her Heirs and Successors, in all Matters Civil Ecclesiastical within this Realm and other her Majesty’s Dominions.”

This is the reason why Covenanters refuse to swear the Oath of Allegiance, or even to vote for Members of Parliament who are required to do so. We have sworn allegiance to “another King, one JESUS,” in all spiritual and ecclesiastical matters, and we have no intention of dividing that allegiance with an earthly king, or of acknowledging any Headship in the Church but His. The natural duties which we owe to the Sovereign and to the Empire, as subjects, we cheerfully render; the religious duties of fealty, and service due to Christ, we are not less anxious to perform—remembering the authoritative deliverance of the Great Master, when men tried to “entangle Him in His talk,” that they might be able to bring a charge of rebellion against Him—“Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” More than two hundred years ago we raised aloft the Banner of Blue, with its golden inscription, “FOR CHRIST, HIS CROWN, AND HIS COVENANT,” and bore it fearlessly, in the face of persecution, on the mountains and in the glens of Scotland and of Ulster. Historians now acknowledge that to that Banner is mainly due that great glorious Revolution of 1688. After such a conquest as this, by the grace of God, that Banner shall never be furled or lowered in our hands till it shall have led the way to a still greater and more glorious Revolution, in which this kingdom, and all the “kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ; and He shall reign forever and ever.”