So help me God are words often stated at the end of an oath, which is a solemn appeal or vow attesting to the truth of one’s words, the sincerity of one’s promise, and the faithfulness of one’s commitment to performing a duty. Oaths that contain this saying are typically administered under political, ecclesiastical, and legal heads of civilized nations. In legal oaths, such as when a witness is sworn in to take the stand and give testimony in a court of law, the person states, “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.”
The essential purpose of saying “so help me God” is to express sincerity and emphasize greater vigilance: “I mean what I am saying, my testimony is true, and I will do everything I can with God’s help to perform my duty with the utmost diligence and integrity.” Summoning the Lord’s help acknowledges God’s existence as the supreme authority and invokes His punishment if an oath is broken. The significance of saying “so help me God” flows from the tiny word so, which adds to the oath a kind of energy that declares, “Upon condition of my speaking the truth, or performing this promise, and not otherwise, may God help me!” (Watson, R., “Oath,” A Biblical and Theological Dictionary, Lane & Scott, 1851, p. 709).
In many countries, oaths of citizenship and enlistment, oaths of allegiance and supremacy, and oaths of office and public service conclude with the words so help me God. When the Queen of England performed her coronation oath on June 2, 1953, her closing words were, “The things which I have here before promised, I will perform and keep. So help me God” (www.royal.uk/the-coronation-history-and-ceremonial, accessed 5/3/23). Other religious oaths taken by priests, professors, bishops, etc., are called oaths of conformity and obedience. These also end with the words so help me God.
Some historians submit that George Washington, while taking the presidential oath in 1792, spontaneously added, “So help me God,” before taking his hand off the Bible. At that time in United States history, “the phrase was not in the oath, but it has been a regular part of it since” (Kling, D. W., Christian History Magazine, Issue 50: Christianity & the American Revolution, 1996). Today, under the “No Religious Test Clause,” the words are optional for most oaths of office and military enlistments taken in the US.
Some Christian groups such as the Quakers cite Matthew 5:34 and refuse to take oaths. However, Jesus was not making an absolute condemnation of all oaths in that passage. Throughout Scripture, God encourages solemn and serious-minded keeping of vows, oaths, and promises (Numbers 30:2; Deuteronomy 6:13; 10:20; 23:21; Ecclesiastes 5:4; Psalm 15:4; 50:14; 66:13–14; Romans 1:9; Galatians 1:20; Hebrews 6:13–17; James 5:12). The psalmist declares, “I took an oath, and I will keep it. I took an oath to follow your regulations, which are based on your righteousness. . . . Help me God, as you promised” (Psalm 119:106, 116, GW). God Himself confirmed the covenant with His chosen people by an oath (Hebrews 6:17; 7:20–22).
What Jesus was cautioning against in Matthew 5:34 was the practice of making shallow and careless oaths. Christ calls His followers to a life of truthfulness, integrity, and sincerity before Him and all people. Sadly, so help me God has become a reckless oath on the lips of many who often spout it as an angry threat.