The right to affirm is provided for those giving evidence in English civil courts who, with or without religious faith, object on conscientious grounds to taking an oath. Affirmation is distinguishable from oath-taking in that no penalty can be invoked for false witness. The practice probably arose originally because of the scruples of witnesses in court who were afraid to invoke the name of God (as in oath-taking) in case false evidence should be given unconsciously.
Historically, affirmation is associated particularly with the Quakers,* who were persecuted in the seventeenth century for refusing to take oaths. By an Act of 1696 they were eventually allowed to affirm instead, except in criminal proceedings; but even this restriction was in due course removed. The Common Law Procedure Act of 1854 extended the right of affirmation to any who for conscientious reasons objected to being sworn; but this option did not explicitly include atheists until the Oaths Act of 1888.
Affirmation in this sense is to be distinguished from the (Auburn) Affirmation in America (1924), the Presbyterian document pleading for a liberal statement of Christian truth.