The Ten Commandments
A book by Joseph Lewis
The Third Commandment

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The Clergy and the Third Commandment

One of the most amazing things I have discovered in analyzing the Decalogue is the ignorance of the clergy concerning the origin and meaning of the Commandments. For more than a thousand years, billions and billions of dollars have been spent building institutions for the specific purpose of inculcating the doctrines of the Bible, on the assumption that these Commandments were a special revelation from God; and millions and millions of men and women have Page 225 devoted their energies to this useless task. The salvation of the soul was dependent not only on the strict observance of these so-called Commandments of God, but also on the acceptance of everything else in the Bible as "inspired knowledge" -- indisputable facts and incontestable truths of life to the contrary notwithstanding. Anyone who dared to question these dogmatic edicts of the Bible was summarily suppressed. That a civilized world should engage itself in not only a useless and fruitless endeavor, but one that has the most demoralizing and stultifying results, is hardly believable.

The labors of men and women in writing and printing endless volumes of "explanation" of Biblical doctrines furnish only one example of wasted energy. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the books of the clergy offering their explanations of this particular Commandment, and the code of conduct to be followed in its observance.

Dean Farrar gives this inspired opinion:

"The ordinary notion of this Third Commandment is that it forbids profanity and perjury; and therefore those who are guilty of neither think that it little concerns them. But 'the word of God is living and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword; and pierceth even to the dividing of the soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and is quick to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart.' ... And before I have ended, even the most self-satisfied of us may well tremble lest we too should stand within the judgment of this Third Commandment, for its violation is practical Atheism. Thou takest His name in vain when thou triest to forget or to ignore Him; to live without Him; and, yet more defiant than the very devils, to believe, yet not to tremble." [*124]

This explanation is an example of the religious fanaticism that dominated the mentality of the clergy during the early part of this century. An already overstimulated imagination reached the breaking point in appraising the Bible Deity, and any act that could be construed as not conforming with the most slavish devotion to this Page 226 tyrant of the sky was considered a breach for which the culprit was to receive punishment that might well make him "tremble."

The Rev. J. C. Masse widens the field of acts which violate this Commandment, saying: "...Every man or woman who violates in thought, desire or deed the marriage vow or the marriage relation has blasphemed the Holy Name"; equally culpable are "church members who have changed residence without changing church membership." [*125]

In studying religion, and particularly its exposition by its leaders, one wonders how people not unintelligent in other fields can be so mentally unbalanced in explaining religious conduct. If the Rev. J. C. Masse says that "every man or woman who violates in thought, desire or deed the marriage vow or the marriage relation" violates this Commandment, then let me ask him what acts violate the Seventh Commandment. I have read many explanations of what constitutes a violation of this Commandment, but "church members who have changed residence without changing church membership" is a new one. Beware, you roving church members who fail to let your local preacher expound his doctrine of hell-fire, or take the consequences of violating this Commandment!

The Rev. G. Campbell Morgan says that "a man takes the name of God in vain when he does not use it in the way God intended it should be used, when he himself is not true to the revelation of God that the name makes." [*126] One of the purposes of this study of the Decalogue is to understand the Commandments so as to be able to determine what their meaning is and what must be done to observe them. This "explanation" only adds confusion to confusion. How does anybody know how God "intended" us to use his name? It is difficult enough to understand the meaning of the written words that God is supposed to have said without attempting to presume what he also intended. What is the revelation of God that the name makes? How can anyone be true to such a thing when he hasn't the slightest conception of its meaning? The Rev. G. Campbell Page 227 Morgan's explanation that every man is a law unto himself in this matter may account for the vast number of religiously insane who have attempted to observe this Commandment as "God intended it should be used." What religious hallucinations have not resulted from the attempt to be "true to the revelation of God that the name makes"!

As further evidence of the qualification of the Rev. G. Campbell Morgan to speak with authority on this subject, the following public statement is pertinent:

"'You must not believe these lying spirits,' was the answer today at the twenty-first annual general Bible conference of the Stony Brook Assembly of the Rev. Dr. G. Campbell Morgan of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to reports that Dr. Morgan had given up his belief in the second coming of Christ, thereby surrendering his views as a premillennialist.

"'I understand that someone on the campus has questioned my belief in the second coming of the Lord,' said Dr. Morgan, 'and my premillennial views as to his return. You must not believe these lying spirits. If I did not believe in the second coming of our Lord and his glorious return as the only hope for the world, I would quit preaching.'" [*127]

In reaffirming his faith in the second coming of Christ, does the Rev. G. Campbell Morgan mean to imply that some of his brother clergymen violated this Commandment by their false accusation as to his changing his beliefs on this matter? Or are they observing it according to his own explanation by claiming that their expression was the way God "intended" them to speak?

This gem of wisdom comes from the brain of the Rev. John Anderson Powell, Jr., Ph.D.: "Hypocrisy and profanity, perjury and irreverence, these are the sins against which the Third Commandment is directed." [*128] He also states, in his discussion of this Commandment, that "we have come to a pretty poor pass when profanity on the stage is thought to be funny," and gives as an illustration, Page 228 "when some woman came out to sing a song in which she used God's name coupled with the proverbial 'damn.'" [*129]

For the edification of the Rev. Mr. Powell, I wish to state emphatically that this Commandment has absolutely nothing whatever to do with profanity, perjury or irreverence. "Profanity" is merely a vulgarization of speech; "irreverence" has to be defined, as it differs according to time, place and thing. The Roman Catholics condemn those who do not accept their religious tenets as being irreverent, and I am irreverent for not accepting yours.

The Rev. Henry Sloane Coffin tells us that "this Commandment was primarily a safeguard for the sanctity of oaths...," and that "it requires no small effort to fulfill our Lord's Commandment to make our yea exactly yea, and our nay precisely nay." [*130] If "this Commandment was primarily a safeguard for the sanctity of oaths," what was the Ninth Commandment intended for?

Rabbi Isaac Warsaw says that this Commandment "is intended to be a lesson in reverence." [*131] Reverence for what? For so-called "holy things" -- and what are they? Did Mark Twain violate this Commandment in his book, Innocents Abroad, when he poked fun at the ugly and repulsive statues of the saints in the Vatican, and the ridiculous adoration of them by their slavish devotees? Who is to say what are the holy things to be reverenced, and who is to determine the standard of reverent conduct?

The Rev. John Alexander Hayes implies that to protect God's name against misuse, it should have been registered in the United States Patent Office like any other trade-mark! [*132] That is indeed a splendid idea. The licensee should pay well for the privilege of its use, and infringers should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. In this way, too, all criticism of the Bible would be prohibited as in violation of patent rights. He also states that "this Commandment is violated ... by calling into question the truth of scriptural Page 229 statements ... jesting at holy things, such as the Holy Scriptures and the Church of God ... it forbids making a mockery of sin." [*133]

Rabbi Nathan Krass, formerly of Temple Emanu-El, New York City, says: "When a man pretends he is a saint and is living in a state of sinless perfection, using the Church of God to place himself on a pedestal above his fellows, he violates the Third Commandment by taking the name of God in vain, merely through his hypocrisy." [*134] If every person who places himself on a pedestal above his fellowmen violates this Commandment, then the majority of the religionists are the greatest offenders. They consider themselves as having supreme religious authority on the assumption of being vicars of God on earth. Do not ministers of religion pretend that their prayers obtain better results than those of parishioners?

The similarity of the quotations by these clergymen leads one to the conclusion that they all must have got their ideas from the same source. Each seems to have repeated the mistaken notion of the other, and all combined show their complete ignorance of what this Commandment is supposed to mean. They use such expressions as profanity, reverence, perjury, without the slightest understanding of what these words mean in relation to this Commandment.

The Third Commandment and Oaths

Does this Commandment really deal with the question of invoking the name of God to prevent the crime we call perjury, or with the sanctity of an oath "to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth"? If it were intended to prevent perjury, why was it not more explicit? If it were intended to prevent lying, either in a court of law or anywhere else, it was a simple thing to state this plainly. If this Commandment said, "Thou shalt not lie," and warned that "I the Lord thy God will not hold him guiltless who disobeys this Commandment," then there would be no question as to its meaning. Page 230 But no such interpretation was intended by the one who wrote this Commandment. When it was promulgated, modern jurisprudence was not in existence.

As we have previously noted, this Commandment was written for one specific purpose, and this has not changed in the slightest degree. For the clergy to interpret it in any other way than as a primitive taboo associated with mentioning the name of one's god is indisputable evidence of their utter lack of understanding of its real meaning. In fact, to invoke the name of God in taking an oath is in itself a violation of this Commandment and not an act in observance of it. [**135]

If society depended only upon invoking the name of the Bible Deity when taking an oath, to secure the truth in legal matters, I fear that our entire system of jurisprudence would crumble into dust. Taking an oath, with the hand upon the Bible, and invoking the name of God, has about as much effect as any other ridiculous and meaningless gesture. [**136]

If this practice caused people to tell the truth, we should have no need for prosecuting attorneys. Instead, the moment a witness is sworn in and gives his testimony, he is immediately subjected to a searching and relentless cross-examination by the opposing attorney to prove that the testimony which he swore was the truth, was a premeditated lie! Significant is a statement of the Hon. Joseph N. Ulman, Associate Judge of the Supreme Court of Baltimore, Maryland, in an article entitled "Perjury in the Courts." He wrote that some of the most shameless lying he ever listened to was done by rival Page 231 groups of religious trustees in a contest over the control of some church property. [*137]

The use of an object, sacred or otherwise, or invoking a curse, as a pledge to tell the truth, is a custom that belongs to the primitive past, and its prevalence among the Biblical Hebrews attests to its primitive origin. For such a system to be practiced in our courts of law is to place us on the same footing as ignorant tribal groups. Oath-taking is a form of sympathetic magic and is a survival of the belief in animism. The fear of magic power accounts for oaths being associated with the curse of retribution. Attesting by the name of a deity prevails in many primitive societies, as it is believed that treaties and business transactions are not binding otherwise.

The Negroes of Loango believe that Zambi, their supreme being, who punishes fraud and perjury, uses his name in giving testimony. The god Leza of the Awemba, who rewards the good and punishes thieves, murderers and adulterers, is invoked both in blessings and curses; the injured man prays that Leza will send a lion to devour the evildoer. In the Ewe-speaking Ho tribe on the Slave Coast, the great god Maws, who is said to inflict punishment on the wicked, is frequently appealed to in law cases by the judge as well as by the plaintiff and the accused. The Mpongwe, we are told, always invoke Mwetyi, their supreme being, as a witness when a covenant is about to be formed among the different tribes. He is commissioned with the duty of visiting vengeance on the party who violates the contract. Without this, their national treaties would have little or no force. And when a law is passed which the people wish to be especially binding, they invoke the vengeance of Mwetyi upon the transgressor; this, as a general thing, is ample guarantee for its observance. [*138]

In Egypt especially, it was the belief that there were certain gods who were the guardians of the truth. Truth, "the judge in heaven," was invoked when the person's words were intended to convey the Page 232 truth. [*139] There is a survival of this superstition even today. It is not uncommon to hear a person who wants to impress you with the truth of his words say, "God is my witness." Among certain tribes, witnesses, before giving testimony, used to swear to its truth by placing their hands upon their genitals, [*140] the inference being that if they spoke falsely they would lose the use of their vital organs. [*141] This form of swearing was eventually abandoned because it was discovered that the genital organs of those who were false to their oath were not affected. In Tibetan law courts the great oath is taken by placing a holy scripture on the head, [*142] sitting on the reeking hide of an ox, and eating part of the ox's head. Hindus sometimes swear by holding some water of the Ganges River in their hands, sometimes by touching the leg of a Brahman. The Kandhs frequently take an oath on the skin of a tiger, "from which animal destruction to the perjured is invoked." [*143] The Angami Nagas, when they swear to keep the peace or perform any promise, place the barrel of a gun or a spear between their teeth, signifying that if they do not live up to their agreement, they are prepared to fall by either of the two weapons. The Chuvashes put a piece of bread and a little salt in the mouth and swear, "May I be in want of these, if I say not true," or "if I do not keep my word."

The Ioaw (Indians) have a mysterious stone wrapped in seven skins on which they make men swear to speak the truth. The people of Kesam, in the highlands of Palemnang, swear on an old sacred knife; the Bataks of the South Toba on their village idols; the Ostyaks on the nose of a bear, which is regarded by them as an animal endowed with supernatural power. Among the Tunguses, a criminal may be compelled to climb one of the sacred mountains, repeating as he mounts, "May I die if I am guilty," or "May I lose my children Page 233 and my cattle." [*144] There is a survival of this superstition even today, not only among orthodox Hebrews, but among nearly all religiously inclined people. Very often we hear a person who wishes to emphasize the truth of what he is saying, state that he hopes never to see his wife and children if he is not telling the truth. We know today that there is absolutely no connection whatsoever between his telling the truth and the security of his family. It is still common to hear expressions like "I would not believe that person if he swore on a stack of Bibles."

Arabs swore by dipping their hands in the blood of a camel. The Latins swore by Jupiter Lapis, holding the sacred stone in the hand. In Samoa the accused lays his hand on the sacred stone of the village, and says "I lay hand on stone. If I stole the thing, may I speedily die." Among the Tunguses, the swearer drinks the blood of a dog, the throat of which has been cut and the flesh cut up. The swearer says, "I speak the truth, and that is as true as I drink this blood. If I lie, let me perish, burn or be dried up like this dog." [*145]

Innumerable examples could be quoted to show the prevalence of this custom among primitive tribes. Despite the fact that we now look upon this method of attesting as having no value or effect, it nevertheless persists with superstitious stubbornness. Although an insult to modern intelligence, our own government papers invariably state, after the proper signatures are affixed, that they were "done in the year of our Lord," etc.

How much longer will civilized people continue to follow customs that place them in the same category and on the same level as primitive and savage tribes? Fortunately there is an ever-increasing number of intelligent people who refuse to take oaths, and who merely affirm to tell the truth. If the penalties of perjury are not a sufficient Page 234 deterrent to prevent false testimony, invoking the myth of God will not accomplish it. Quakers do not swear, and I will match their degree of veracity with that of those who insist on making God a witness to their testimony. Fetishes of all kinds have been used by different peoples of nearly all lands for the purpose of extracting the truth; yet, despite the methods used and threats of punishment, the widespread prevalence of perjury attests to the inadequacy of the oath.

The Rev. Frederick David Niedermeyer says that this Commandment is not only a call for reverence, but "all false swearing, such as perjury, is forbidden because it is in effect making God a witness to a lie ... and the severity of the penalty reveals how vital it is for man to fear God." [*146] If this Commandment was intended to prevent perjury, and if God is a witness to the oath when his name is invoked, then it reveals his impotence when he fails to punish the utterer of the lie! If a witness to a lie remains silent and fails to reveal the truth, he is just as guilty as the liar himself. An accessory to a crime is as guilty as the perpetrator. If this Commandment was a warning of "the severity of the penalty" to be inflicted for committing perjury, and if, when it was being disobeyed, the person suddenly became tongue-tied, then indeed it would have some value and "reveal how vital it is for man to fear God," by experiencing "the severity of the punishment." But nothing like that happens. This Commandment is valueless as a deterrent in preventing perjury. If this were not true, how could we account for the widespread prevalence of perjury in our courts of law by the very ones who profess this Commandment to be a prohibition against it?

Men and women have been put to death on perjured testimony for crimes they did not commit and to which others have later confessed, yet the author of this Commandment was as silent as the Sphinx during the commission of these irreparable mistakes. Hundreds of thousands of innocent men and women have been deprived of their property and have suffered the loss of their liberty as the Page 235 direct result of perjured testimony by persons who invoked the name of God in taking the oath upon which their testimony was given.

If this Commandment means what the ministers of religion say it does, why does not God show his disapproval of false testimony, especially when the innocent are made to suffer and the guilty not only remain undetected, but enjoy the fruits of the labor of others? How can ministers of religion account for such a state of affairs? Unless the innocent are repaid for their suffering and recompensed for the loss they have sustained, of what benefit is God's not holding "guiltless" the one responsible for the crime? Punishing the guilty is not protecting the innocent. A wrong once committed can never be undone.

If ever a situation demanded the exercise of omnipotent power, it is when the defenseless weak are robbed by the unscrupulously strong.

If the Bible Deity could smite Ussah for touching the Ark, and kill more than fifty thousand people for merely looking at the Ark, then surely he could prevent false testimony by the wicked against the good. [*147] If the Bible God is a witness to an irreparable crime which he possesses the power to prevent, and yet remains silent, then the blood of murder stains his hand.

The essence of a truly moral philosophy is to live so that no act requires forgiveness; then there is no need for expiation to make amends.

Robert G. Ingersoll said that an oath

"furnishes a falsehood with a letter of credit. It supplies the wolf with sheep's clothing and covers the hands of Jacob with hair. It blows out the light, and in the darkness Leah is taken for Rachel. It puts upon each witness a kind of theological gown. This gown hides the moral rags of the depraved wretch as well as the virtues of the honest man. The oath is a mask that falsehood puts on, and for a moment is mistaken for the truth. It gives to dishonesty the advantages of solemnity. The tendency of the oath is to put all testimony on an equality. The scoundrel is delighted with the Page 236 opportunity of going through a ceremony that gives the ring of true coin to base metal. To him the oath is a shield. He is in partnership, for a moment, with God, and people who have no confidence in the witness credit the firm." [*148]

We know that to invoke the name of God to prevent perjury is an act in vain. It has proved barren of results. You will not be rewarded if you do invoke his name, and you will not be punished if you don't. The person who testifies falsely soon discovers that no secret vengeance is wreaked upon him; as a result, taking an oath by invoking the name of God has lost its effect, its value and its significance. Shakespeare expressed this when he said:

"'Tis not the many oaths that make the truth,
But the plain simple vow that is vowed true."

How well do Ingersoll's words apply here: "The alchemist did not succeed in finding any stone the touch of which transmuted baser things into gold; and priests have not invented yet an oath with power to force from falsehood's desperate lips the pearl of truth." [*149]

Henry Thomas Buckle, in his great book, History of Civilization in England, after stressing the prevalence of perjury due directly to the manner by which the oath was invoked, quotes Archbishop Whately, who declared that "if oaths were abolished, leaving the penalties for false witness ... unaltered, I am convinced that, on the whole, testimony would be more trustworthy than it is." [*150]

Truthfulness is not achieved merely by taking an oath. It is part of the intellectual development of the individual, and to achieve it requires the same careful education as to learn any phase of behavior. To be able to tell the truth is a sign of moral development. The higher the social order, the more scrupulous the ethical conduct, the more readily is the truth told. The ignorant, uncivilized man has no regard for truth or honesty for its own sake. Page 237

Taking God's Name in Vain

One of the most heart-rending sights ever witnessed was that of a mother in fervent prayer to save her dying child. Her prayer went unanswered; her child died; her appeal to God was in vain.

A girl who loved not wisely but too well found herself abandoned by the boy she had trusted. She appealed to God to save her from what she felt was inevitable disgrace. Never did a human being plead more strongly for divine assistance in her hour of trial, but the only answer was the "echo of her wailing cry." She took the name of God in vain, for she found solace not in prayer but in a poison potion.

When crops fail and famine stalks the land, in vain do the starving people appeal to Heaven for a morsel of food to stay the agonizing torture of death by starvation.

The maimed and the crippled, the heavily burdened, the despondent and the depressed have all taken the name of God in vain when they appealed for assistance to help them meet the emergencies of life.

What is more pitiful than the drowning man as he sinks below the water, his prayer to God for help in vain?

The whole human race has taken the name of God in vain for centuries. When man has appealed to Heaven to help solve the problems of the race that have caused so much misery, suffering and injustice, it has been in vain. If God would answer but one prayer and stop human beings from murdering one another, we might forgive him his callous attitude toward our other requests.

Three little innocent, playful children wandered aimlessly into a vacant house. Unconscious of the time and busily amused, they were unaware that night had fallen. It grew darker and darker. The smallest child became frightened and began to cry. The oldest groped her way from room to room in search of light. She came upon some matches. The anguished sobbing of the other children filled the empty and abandoned house with terrifying sounds. Frightened almost beyond the endurance of her childish mind, the oldest girl, in her Page 238 eagerness to lead the others out of the darkened house, stumbled and fell. The lighted match ignited her dress and in a few moments she was aflame. She screamed for help. Her cries, mingled with those of the other children, reverberated with such hideous noise that the already terror-struck children became paralyzed with fear. Within a short time the house was on fire and the flames swept the building. In the meantime the frantic parents were looking feverishly for the children, uttering prayers to God for their safety. The whole neighborhood was aroused. Alarms were sounded. They finally came upon the burning building. The children had been taught that in an hour of trial they should pray to God for help and their prayers would be answered. There they found the charred bodies of the three children. One was lying flat upon the floor, the other two were found in a kneeling position, indicating that the little ones, in a last desperate moment, fell upon their knees and prayed to God to save them from so horrible a death. These children took the name of God in vain! [**151]

Do you want me to tell you why appeals in the name of God are uttered in vain? Do you want me to tell you why prayers are not answered? I will tell you. There is no such thing as a God who answers the prayers of man. The sooner we come to that realization, the sooner the human race becomes cognizant of this fact, the sooner will man set about to accomplish for himself all that he has appealed to God for in vain. "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain...." Thou canst not take the name of God in any other way.

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