Introduction: the 1723 Loyalty Oaths

The Quakers

One group to receive slightly different treatment to the rest of society in the administration of the oaths were the Quakers. Friends, as they were also known, objected to taking any oaths on the grounds of conscience. This scruple was based on a literal interpretation of the admonition in the Sermon on the Mount to ‘swear not at all’, but rather to, ‘let your communication be, Yea, Yea; Nay, Nay’.93 In 1696 Quakers succeeded in securing the passage of the first of a series of Affirmation Acts allowing them to make a solemn ‘affirmation’ in lieu of an oath in the majority of cases (although not in a court of law). This legislation finally became permanent in 1722, allowing Friends to use the wording ‘I, A.B., do solemnly, sincerely, and truly declare and affirm’ instead of having to ‘solemnly swear’.94 The absence of any specific reference to the Quakers in the 1723 Acts was addressed in the London Gazette for 20-24 August.95 Here, it was noted that ‘some doubt hath arisen’ whether the Quaker affirmation should be accepted in place of the prescribed oaths. The Gazette goes on to outline the successive Acts of parliament allowing Friends to affirm rather than swear so that no Quakers ‘may through Ignorance of the law, be unreasonably oppress’d’. This information was duplicated in Exeter by Andrew Brice on the front page of The Post-master on 30 August.96 This explains the existence among the Devon oath rolls of three rolls wherein the wording of the oaths differs slightly from the main run of documents, with the words ‘do sincerely swear’ replaced with the Quaker formulation.97 It can be assumed that most, if not all, of the 113 individuals named on these rolls were Quakers.

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  1. Matthew 5.33-37. Quaker attitudes to oaths are discussed by Morgan, Lancashire Quakers, 113-170; Mary K. Geiter, ‘Affirmation, Assassination, and Association: the Quakers: parliament and the court in 1696’, Parliamentary History, 16 (1997), 277-88 and in chapter 6 of Simon Dixon, ‘Quaker communities in London, 1667-c. 1714’ (PhD thesis, London, 2005). Laurel Phillipson, The Wisbech Quakers Roll, 1723 (Cambridge, 1998). [back]
  2. William C. Braithwaite, The Second Period of Quakerism (2nd ed., Cambridge, 1961), 202-03. Interestingly enough, opposition to the 1722 Bill was orchestrated in the Lords by none other than the Bishop of Rochester, Francis Atterbury. Atterbury denounced the Quakers as ‘a set of people who were hardly Christians’. [back]
  3. London Gazette, no. 6192. [back]
  4. The Post-master, or the Loyal Mercury, no. 135, (30 Aug. 1723), 1. [back]
  5. DHC, QS17/2/1/5; QS17/1/17/3; QS17/1/17/5. Note that the second two are classified separately to the main run of 1723 oath rolls with the bundle for 1718-1726. However, the dates and locations indicate that they should be classed with the 1723 sequence. [back]