Oaths in early New England

oaths of allegianceI was recently asked the difference between the Freeman’s Oath, the Oath of Allegiance, and the Oath of Fidelity in Massachusetts Bay Colony. The history of oaths in the American Colonies actually requires the researcher to go back to the early 1600s under King James I (1603–1625). After all, those who were living in the colonies during the seventeenth century were all British subjects.

Plymouth

Upon their arrival in Plymouth Colony, William Brewster and the additional chief men, as they were called, agreed to take the Oath of Supremacy, acknowledging the King of England as the supreme ruler and head of the Church of England and denying power to the Pope. In the early 1620s, the Oath of Allegiance and Fidelity was actually a single oath given in Plymouth, which was not actually a New England colony as it lacked a charter and its government functions were actually those of a corporation.  The Oath of Allegiance and Fidelity required that the individual taking it not enter into any action or say anything that could lend itself to the overthrow or the destruction of the “Colonie, or Corporation of this towne Plimouth in New England.” Interestingly enough, it never mentioned the King of England.

By 1636, every freeman (any established member of the colony who was not under legal restraint) was required to take the Oath of a Freeman, swearing allegiance to the sovereign lord “King Charles, his heires & successors” in addition to doing nothing to overthrow the Colony of “New Plymouth.” By 1658 the Oath of a Freeman was revised to omit King Charles and reverted back to the “State and Government of England.”

Massachusetts Bay

Sir Henry Rosewell and his associates were granted a charter 4 March 1628/29. Business was conducted for the Massachusetts Bay Colony in London until 1630, when John Winthrop was chosen as governor.

Massachusetts Bay Colony took a slightly different approach to the Oath of a Freeman, requiring that the aspiring freeman first be a church member, which usually meant membership in one of the recognized churches.  This law was agreed to in 1631 in Salem and then modified slightly in 1632 to prevent civil magistrates from being elders in the church. Additionally, once the Oath of a Freeman was taken this individual was allowed to vote.

The Bay Colony also required, beginning in 1634, that any man age 16 or above who had been or planned to be a resident in the colony for six months, and who was not otherwise “infranchized,” be required to take the Oath of Residents. The man taking this oath swore that he was bound by the laws of the colony.

The earlier Oath of a Freeman was revoked at the general court held at Boston 14 May 1634 and a new oath was written into the record and required of freemen going forward. Those who had taken the earlier oath were no longer bound to it.

The Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society issue of October 1921 has transcribed all of these oaths and describes the history and many of the requirements of the oaths and those who took them.

About Rhonda McClure

Rhonda R. McClure, Genealogist, is a nationally recognized professional genealogist and lecturer specializing in New England and celebrity research as well as computerized genealogy; is compiler of more than 120 celebrity family trees; has been a contributing editor for Heritage Quest Magazine, Biography magazine and was a contributor to The History Channel Magazine and American History Magazine. In addition to numerous articles, she is the author of ten books, including the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition, Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors, and Digitizing Your Family History.

8 thoughts on “Oaths in early New England

  1. Thank you, Rhonda, for the history relating to the Freeman’s Oath and other oaths. I am reading my father’s diaries, 1912 to 1973, and in 1920 he took the Freeman’s Oath in Newfane, Vermont. There is a website for the Freeman’s Oath in that state but I did not find the origins as you have related. I was surprised that this oath survived into the 20th Century.

  2. You mention that taking the oath allowed them to vote. I know in at least some towns in what became CT, you were required to vote under a substantial penalty if you did not, along with attending meetings, serving on juries, etc.

    1. CT with its Standing Order or Blue Codes detailed the behavior that all of its residents had to obey at that time. In the Hartford Library, History Room, I examined an original copy of the CT Standing Order and compared it with the Blue Laws of the Virginia colony as both were framed in the 1680’s. Striking differences between the extreme Puritan faction in control of the southern New England colonies and the more moderate Anglicanism of Virginia (and the Province of Maine under Gorges). For the same offence- in Virginia you paid a fine or got your head stuck in the common stock for a preset number of hours; in Connecticut ….. and each order backed up with a selective verse from the Old testament …. you got your head off ! In CT… three warnings were given for such “offenses” as kissing your wife on the Sabbath, smiling or showing any sort of mirth on the Sabbath. With the fourth warning, it was decreed that the offender was “possessed by the Devil and for the good of the public” needed to be done away with by such means as Dragged, Quartered, drowned, etc. by the “Saints” of the community. Some of these Blue Codes are still on the books in CT !

  3. From the late 1650s, Quakers, who according to scripture didn’t believe in swearing oaths, were forced to swear or be heavily fined, disfranchised, beaten, and imprisoned. From the records of Robert Harper and others in Sandwich (Plymouth), it looks like the magistrates harassed them for an oath as often as quarterly. And it appears to me, 350 years later, that the motive was money.

    1. But this was done as well by the magistrates in order to implement the strict sanctions of the Extreme Puritan Theocracy of the Mass. Bay Colony whereby any deviations from their interpretation of Calvinism was unacceptable. Sandwich families such as the sons of Deborah Bachiler Wing were all caught in the cross fire here. The early governance of New England was not a pretty one. With the Puritan extremes taking advantage of the long voyages between New England and London to implement, distort or change whatever policy or legal decree/oath that they wished without the approval of the British Crown !

  4. Vermont’s first Freeman’s oath was developed somewhat later, and was based on the PA oath (PA having been originally founded by Quakers as a place open to all faiths, though that went better in the concept than in practice). Vermont at the time was an independent republic (1777 to 1791), with its own Constitution, and while conservative in many respects, had a different attitude toward the role of the individual. The Oath reflected that difference: the 1920s oath in Vermont in no way resembled the rigid oath of the earlier coastal colonies.

    The original read (more or less) as follows:
    ” I, __________, being by God’s providence an inhabitant and freeman within the jurisdiction of this Commonwealth, do freely acknowledge myself to be subject to the government thereof, and therefore do here swear … that I will be true and faithful to the same…. Moreover, I do solemnly bind myself in the sight of God, that when I shall be called to give my voice touching any matter of the State … I will give my vote and suffrage, as I shall judge in mine own conscience may best conduce and tend to the public weal of the body without respect of persons or favor of any man. So help me God.”

    The Oath was not mandatory, unless one wanted to vote. One had to be male, at least 21 years of age, a US citizen, and a resident of Vermont. Wording was modified from time to time to reflect changing conditions, but it never resembled the rigid requirements of the

    The Oath is still required to vote though age now is18.. It is now called the “Voter’s Oath” to better indicate its role in a modern society, but there is a straight line decendency from the original “Freeman’s Oath” and is sometimes still informally referred to as such. It needs to be taken only once, either orally or by signing a written version.

    It appears in the third person on voter applications and on absentee ballots thus: “You solemnly swear or affirm that whenever you give your vote or suffrage, touching any matter that concerns the State of Vermont, you will do it so as in your conscience you shall judge will most conduce to the best good of the same, as established by the Constitution, without fear or favor of any person.”

    http://freedomandunity.org/new_frontier/republic.html (from Vermont Historical Society)

  5. When it was said that a person must be a church member before he was allowed to be a freeman is not accurate. An example of this would be in Dedham, MA. Dedham was one of the first two satellite towns of Boston and Watertown. Concord being the other. The founders of Dedham found it easier to create a town than create its church. During town creation, there were individuals who became freeman before the establishment of the church. It took two years after the town founding that church leaders were chosen through a rigorous vetting system. Dedham also was the precedent of separation of Church and state. The church was mentioned three times in town meetings during its first couple years of existence.

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