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Ask a Genealogist: The difference between various colonial oaths.

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What are the differences between the Freemans Oath, The Oath of Allegiance and the Oath of Fidelity in the Massachusetts Bay Colony?


Reply from Rhonda McClure, NEHGS Genealogist                                   

The history of oaths in the American Colonies actually requires the researcher to go back to the early 1600s under King James. After all, those who were living in the colonies were still technically British subjects.

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 highest supreme office “of this realm.” Brewster and company though hoped that the administering of the Oath of Allegiance which also called the King the lawful and rightful king of the realm and denied the power of the Pope. It also made those who took it swear to be obedient to the King and to not try and overthrow the King or be involved with any attempts to assist the Pope in overthrowing the King of England. In essence it was to acknowledge the King of England as the supreme ruler and head of the church and to swear allegiance to this person in all things.

In the early 1620s, The Oath of Allegiance and Fidelity was actually a single oath given in Plymouth Colony. This applied primarily to Plymouth Colony which was not actually a New England Colony. 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 Coporation 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 which swore 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” in addition to continuing not to do anything to cause the destruction of New Plymouth.

Sir Henry Rosewell and his associates were granted a charter 4 March 1628/29. The charter mentioned individuals in charge and business was conducted for Massachusetts Bay Colony in London until 1630 when Govenor John Winthrop was chosen.

Massachusetts Bay Colony took a slightly different approach to the Oath of a Freeman, in that they required that in order to become a freeman, the person must first be a church member, which usually meant 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.

Massachusetts 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, who was not “infranchized” be required to take the Oath of Residents. This oath admitted that the person understood they were bound by the laws of the colony, and that in addition to being protected by them, that the person taking the oath would be bound by those laws and follow them.

The earlier Oath of a Freeman was revoked at the general court held at Boston May 14, 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.

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