In the Municipal Law perjury is defined to be a wilful false swearing to a material matter, when an oath has been administered by lawful authority. The violation of vows or promissory oaths taken before one who is not legally authorized to administer them, that is to say, one who is not a magistrate, does not in law involve the crime of perjury. Such is the technical definition of the law; but the moral sense of mankind does not assent to such a doctrine, and considers perjury, as the root of the word indicates, the doing of that which one has sworn not to do, or the omitting to do that which he has sworn to do.
The old Romans seem to have taken a sensible view of the crime of perjury. Among them oaths were not often administered, and, in general, a promise made under oath had no more binding power in a court of justice than it would have had without the oath. False swearing was with them a matter of conscience, and the person who was guilty of it was responsible to the Deity alone. The violation of a promise under oath and of one not under such a form was considered alike, and neither was more liable to human punishment than the other. But perjury was not deemed to be without any kind of punishment. Cicero expressed the Roman sentiment when he said in Latin, Perjurii poena divina ezitium; humana dedecus, meaning the divine punishment of perjury is destruction; the human, infamy. Hence every oath was accompanied by an execration, or an appeal to God to punish the swearer should he falsify his oath.
"In the case of other sins," says Archbishop Sharp, "there may be an appeal made to God's mercy, yet in the case of perjury there is none; for he that is perjured hath precluded himself of this benefit because he hath braved God Almighty, and hath in effect told Him to His face that if he was foresworn he should desire no mercy." It is not right thus to seek to restrict God's mercy, but there can be no doubt that the settlement of the crime lies more with Him than with man. Freemasons look in this light on what is called the penalty; it is an invocation of God's vengeance on him who takes the vow, should he ever violate it; men's vengeance is confined to the contempt and infamy which the foreswearer incurs (see Penalty also Oath, and Oath, Corporal).
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