One of the pervasive proofs for the strong affinity between Judeo-Christian ethics and the role that these principles played in the formation of American political consciousness is the national motto “In God We Trust”. This inscription is engraved on our currency. It’s inscribed on the pediment above the Speaker’s podium in Congress. It’s featured on dozens of public buildings and schools across the country. It’s printed on police cars and stamps. It’s on official state documents and generously sprinkled throughout historical speeches. It’s placed over the judge’s bench in many of our courts and it’s even featured on license plates in several states. A 2016 Gallup poll found that the majority of Americans support this motto, with close to 90% of those surveyed saying they also approve of the inscription on our currency.
Despite its ubiquity and popularity, this motto has been under attack and the subject of repeated challenges in court for the past 40 years. The leading argument has been that its use violates the first amendment clause of the constitution. The use of the motto has also been actively opposed by the majority of progressive civil liberties groups on ideological grounds.
Another leading contemporary argument against the use of the “In God We Trust” is the proposition that the founders were secularists who deliberately chose the Latin phrase E pluribus unum (from many to one) because they were political inclusivists who wanted to extract religious language and symbolism from state affairs. In this post, I’ll briefly review the history of the motto, it’s deep connection to the American psyche, and refute the secularist founders argument.
A Brief History of the ‘…Trust in God’ Phraseology
More than two thousand years before the term made its way into our political iconography and phraseology it was already in wide circulation. The primary source for the phrase and its permutations is the Hebrew Bible. The term appears in a number of books including:
And He has put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God; many shall see, and fear, and shall trust in GOD.
וַיִּתֵּן בְּפִי, שִׁיר חָדָשׁ–תְּהִלָּה לֵאלֹהֵינוּ:יִרְאוּ רַבִּים וְיִירָאוּ;יִבְטְחוּ, בַּיהוָה
Trust in GOD with all your heart, and lean not upon your own understanding.
בְּטַח אֶל-יְהוָה, בְּכָל-לִבֶּךָ;וְאֶל-בִּינָתְךָ, אַל-תִּשָּׁעֵן
The fear of man brings a snare; but who so putt his trust in GOD shall be set up on high.
חֶרְדַּת אָדָם, יִתֵּן מוֹקֵשׁ;וּבוֹטֵחַ בַּיהוָה יְשֻׂגָּב
Happy is the man that has made GOD his trust, and has not turned unto the arrogant, nor unto such as fall away treacherously.
אַשְׁרֵי הַגֶּבֶר–אֲשֶׁר-שָׂם יְהוָה, מִבְטַחוֹ;וְלֹא-פָנָה אֶל-רְהָבִים, וְשָׂטֵי כָזָב
But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, that I may tell of all Thy works.
וַאֲנִי, קִרְבַת אֱלֹהִים–לִי-טוֹב:שַׁתִּי, בַּאדֹנָי יְהוִה מַחְסִי;לְסַפֵּר, כָּל-מַלְאֲכוֹתֶיךָ
It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in man.
טוֹב, לַחֲסוֹת בַּיהוָה–מִבְּטֹחַ, בָּאָדָם
Prior to the American revolution, there were a number of hymns and manuscripts that used this and similar terms. One example is the 1770 The New England Psalm Singer songbook which contained an hymn titled “Chester” by William Billings. In 1778, Billings wrote a second version of the hymn in his The Singing Master’s Assistant . This version was sung during the American Revolutionary War.
The first stanza of this hymn contained a verse similar to the motto we use today:
Let tyrants shake their iron rod,
And Slav’ry clank her galling chains,
We fear them not, we trust in God,
New England’s God forever reigns.
Howe and Burgoyne and Clinton too,
With Prescot and Cornwallis join’d,
Together plot our Overthrow,
In one Infernal league combin’d.
When God inspir’d us for the fight,
Their ranks were broke, their lines were forc’d,
Their ships were Shatter’d in our sight,
Or swiftly driven from our Coast.
The Foe comes on with haughty Stride;
Our troops advance with martial noise,
Their Vet’rans flee before our Youth,
And Gen’rals yield to beardless Boys.
What grateful Off’ring shall we bring?
What shall we render to the Lord?
Loud Halleluiahs let us Sing,
And praise his name on ev’ry Chord.
An example of a pre-revolutionary era manuscript that illustrates the co-dependency of the pre-republic on G-d is the July 1774 Draft of Instructions to the Virginia Delegates in the Continental Congress written by the future president Thomas Jefferson which contained the following lines:
“The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time” and ”Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are of God?”
A similar phrase “In God is Our Trust” can also be found in the 4th stanza of the 1812 broadside the “Defence of Fort M’Henry“, a poem that later became our national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner”.
The Need for a Religious National Motto
In 1776, work began on the design of the official seals for the new nation. The seal was to be used to formalize legal documents and international treaties. When John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson—the committee of three appointed to the task by the Continental Congress—submitted a design for the seal it included three mottos.
One of these three Annuit coeptis (G-d favors our undertakings) had an unmistakable religious tone. The other two: E pluribus unum (from many to one) and Novus ordo seclorum (new order of the ages) emphasized the republican aspects of the new nation.
The motto “In God We Trust” began its rise to prominence as both a religious and political device during the Civil War. This was in response to the war’s carnage and horror following the terrible losses in the war’s first few months. According to US treasury documents, the genealogy of the motto on our currency can be traced back to an appeal written to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase by Rev. Mark R. Watkinson, a Baptist minister from Ridleyville, Pennsylvania. In the letter dated November 13, 1861 Watkinson expressed concern about the absence of any reference to G-d on the country’s currency. He wrote:
Ridleyville, Pennsylvania, to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase:
You are about to submit your annual report to Congress respecting the affairs of the national finances. One fact touching our currency has hitherto been seriously overlooked. I mean the recognition of the Almighty God in some form in our coins. You are probably a Christian. What if our Republic were now shattered beyond reconstruction? Would not the antiquaries of succeeding centuries rightly reason from our past that we were a heathen nation?
What I propose is that instead of the goddess of liberty we shall have next inside the 13 stars a ring inscribed with the words ” perpetual union” ; within this ring the all seeing eye, crowned with a halo; beneath this eye the American flag, bearing in its field stars equal to the number of the States united; in the folds of the bars the words “God, liberty, law.” This would make a beautiful coin, to which no possible citizen could object.
This would relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism. This would place us openly under the Divine protection we have personally claimed. From my heart I have felt our national shame in disowning God as not the least of our present national disasters. To you first I address a subject that must be agitated.
In January 1862, Rev. Watkinson followed with a second letter stating:
Will you allow a few suggestions respecting the devices upon our American coins? Is it not a burning shame that this far in our national history our coins have been so thoroughly heathenish?
Suppose our governmental fabric were now dissolved [due to the civil war]; suppose in a future era some antiquary searching among the ruins of our public edifices, even of our churches, would alight upon the corner stone memorials of them; would he not justly pronounce us an idolatrous people, worshipping [sic] the “goddess of liberty;” and perchance pantheistic also, so far as to worship eagles?
Can God, the eternal arbiter of national destiny, have been pleased with this displacement and superseding of Himself?
As a result of a nationwide campaign and the appeals from clergy and multitudes of individuals, Secretary Chase instructed James Pollock, Director of the mint at Philadelphia, to prepare a befitting motto.
Finalizing the Motto’s Verbiage
In November 20, 1861, Chase addressed the following letter to James Pollock, Director of the Mint in Philadelphia:
Dear Sir: No nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense. The trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins.
You will cause a device to be prepared without unnecessary delay with a motto expressing in the fewest and tersest words possible this national recognition.
And on that with the shield, it should be changed so as to read: IN GOD WE TRUST.”
In December 1863, the mint Director Pollock submitted designs for new one-cent, two-cent, and three-cent coins to Secretary Chase for approval. Pollock proposed the following two motto variations:
“Our Country; Our God” and “God Our Trust”, which he took from a line (“And this be our motto: In God is our trust”) from the fourth stanza of the “Star-Spangled Banner”. Interestingly, Pollock referred to the poem as “our National Hymn”. In a December 9, 1863 letter to Mint Director Pollock, Secretary Chase replied:
“I approve your mottos, only suggesting that on that with the Washington obverse the motto should begin with the word Our, so as to read Our God and Our Country”
After some additional back-and-forth, the phrase was eventually finalized as “In God We Trust”. Legislation for adding the motto was passed in April 22, 1864, and US coinage widely adopted the motto in 1865.
The Ideology Behind the Motto
Creating the new motto was an exercise in religious nationalism. The war rekindled the flame of a religious revival in the North and South armies with both sides calling on G-d for guidance. When the Confederate States of America wrote their own constitution, its preamble read as follows:
“We, the people of the Confederate States, each State acting in its sovereign and independent character, in order to form a permanent federal government, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity—invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God—do ordain and establish this Constitution for the Confederate States of America.”
Many northern clergy reacted to the confederate constitution by calling for the federal leaders in DC to make a similar religious statement.
The Steady Growth in the Motto’s Popularity
The motto was intended to deliver the message that the United States was a nation of believers, and it that spirit, it appeared on some of the coins in 1864, about a year before the end of the war.
But, not everyone celebrated the new phrase. The New York Times, in true character to its MO, campaigned against it calling it a “new form of national worship”, describing “such tract-printing by the government as “always improper” and asking Americans “to carry our religion—such as it is—in our hearts and not in our pockets”.
Five years after the war, the motto was added to other denominations and with the increased circulation it gained more popularity and made its way into everyday use. By the 1870s, many Americans were already referring to “In God We Trust” as “our nation’s motto”. Moreover, it quickly became associated not only with the country’s currency, but also with our political culture. By the 1880s, the slogan was adopted by many groups such as Masonic orders in decorating their lodges.
Further, Prohibitionists embraced it as an unofficial motto for their movement. Activists across the political spectrum from pacifists to nativists made use of it. Political parties utilized it to lend credence to their case. In the election of 1896, for example, with the free silver political debate, Bryan Democrats charged their Republican opponents with seeking to change “In God We Trust” to “In Gold We Trust”, while McKinley Republicans responded that if Bryan won, “In God We Trust” would mean only that the coin holder could “trust in God for the balance due”.
By the close of the nineteenth century, “In God We Trust” had taken on universal religious and political meanings. The motto’s character was embraced by all religious streams, Protestant, Catholic and Jewish alike. In 1883, the Reverend William Harris of Garrison Avenue Congregational Church in St. Louis told a multi-congregation Thanksgiving Day service how “In God we Trust” was “stamped on the coins of our country” and how he “hoped to God the same motto was stamped upon the hearts of the American people”.
In the Reconstruction era, “In God We Trust” emerged as the common ground for national reconciliation. In less than fifty years since its creation, the new motto was as revered as the American flag and became the core of the American civil religion.
In 1893, Boston’s Congregation Ohavei Sholom (the Lovers of Peace) marked its fiftieth anniversary with a celebration attended by the Mayor of Boston and the Governor of Massachusetts, featuring a sermon by Rabbi Joseph Silverman on America’s “liberty and good will” toward the Jewish people and the singing of a special hymn, titled “In God We Trust”, written for the occasion.
Removing the Motto from the Currency
Interestingly, the biggest challenge to the motto came not from atheists or a progressives but rather from a religious statesmen who had given several speeches urging the American public to read the Bible regularly. Theodore Roosevelt had long felt that placing G-d’s name on the currency was a sacrilege because it was an object of greed and materialism.
Roosevelt saw his opportunity in 1907 when a new coin was being designed. He directed the mint’s artist to omit the motto which had been on coins for over fifty years by that time. His decision would evoke heated debates across the country, uniting preachers, rabbis, politicians, and ordinary citizens around the meaning of the motto and its status as a sacred and secular symbol.
The debate only lasted a few months but in the process, Roosevelt become the the first and last national political leader to question the use of the motto. Roosevelt, attempting to emulate the elegance of European coins, instructed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to create new designs for the new ten- and twenty-dollar dollar currency. Saint-Gaudens suggested that extraneous inscriptions including “In God We Trust” be removed, and Roosevelt agreed. He then authorized the Director of the Mint to issue the coins without the motto. The first of these coins went into circulation in 1907, only to be met by immediate criticism.
Roosevelt tried to defend his action by releasing a letter in which he described “In God We Trust” as a sacred symbol, a “solemn” statement of faith that “should be treated and uttered only with that fine reverence which necessarily implies a certain exaltation of spirit.” He argued that it was appropriate to place the motto on the nation’s monuments and public buildings but not on anything as common as its currency. To “leave it on [the currency] would be nothing less than “irreverence, which comes dangerously close to sacrilege”. But that was too late, the flood gates of national consensus around the motto were wide open.
Among the first to take on Roosevelt were Presbyterian leaders who denounced the design of the new coin and condemned the President’s actions and called on “all Christian ministers” to join the “fight to the bitter end for the restoration of the old motto”. In Chicago, Catholic clergy were united in their stand against removing the motto. In Baltimore, a minister preaching a sermon opposing the change convinced his congregation to petition Congress to restore the inscription. In the South, Methodist conferences passed resolutions calling on the President to rescind his order and maintain the motto on the country’s coins. Most arguments for reinstating the motto were that it was a religious statement, a clear expression of America’s belief in G-d. To strip it represented forgetting and repudiating G-d and attacking American embrace of religion.
In demanding the motto’s return, many argued that its purpose on currency was to provide a spiritual disinfectant to the otherwise corruptible worlds of investment, commerce, and trade. Boston’s Rabbi M. M. Eichler wrote that the motto should be seen as a means to overcome the growing gap between “the domain of God and the domain of gold” by reminding everyone “that all blessings come from God”.
As the debates raged on, the motto gained the support of the general public. Its promoters became more emboldened as congregants began to express strong opposition to the President’s decision. Faith-based organizations such as the Gideons mobilized in support of the motto and were joined by an coalition of civic, patriotic, and veterans groups that included chapters of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Finally, by 1908, Roosevelt realized his defeat and performed a strategic retreat, announcing that he would not veto any bill in congress to reestablish the motto on American currency.
At that point, the motto was set in stone. A House committee wrote a bill recommending that it be restored to the country’s coins. Charles G. Edwards (D-GA) wrote “the Methodist, the Baptist, the Presbyterian, the Catholic, the Hebrews, the Episcopal, in fact all churches, all creeds, who have a belief in God, are as one in the opinion that it was a great mistake to ever have removed this motto from our coins”. Washington Gardner (R-MI) spoke about the motto’s importance for national reconciliation. He wrote “We of the North join hands with you of the South and say, your God is our God, as your people are our people”.
In 1956, after 48 years of uninterrupted use, and two years after incorporating the phrase “under God” into the pledge of allegiance, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a law officially declaring “In God We Trust” to be the nation’s official motto. The law, P.L. 84-140, also mandated that the phrase be now printed on all American paper currency.
Since the 1960, in spite of numerous challenges, the Supreme Court uphold the motto, which remains the official expression of US government to this day.
The Motto in the Post Modern Era
Through extensive litigation over recent years, the progressive movement has been promoting the argument that “In God We Trust” should not be our national motto because we have now become a pluralistic society.
To all of you post modernists/revisionist cauldron stirrers hard at work boiling hedonistic atheism as the nourishment for the new American Socialist Democracy, you may want to go back and examine the primary sources from the Revolutionary era. These days, much is being said about the separation of church and state and the removal of G-d from all public life. But as is abundantly clear from the writings of our founding fathers, there was never a doubt in their mind as to the role that G-d played in the formation of the American republic and his continued involvement in its future welfare. Let’s pray that future generations will remember our dependency on the divine. Or as George Washington wrote in 1792:
To John Armstrong
Dear Sir,Philad. March 11th 1792
“…I am sure there never was a people who had more reason to acknowledge a divine interposition in their affairs than those of the United States; and I should be pained to believe that they have forgotten that agency which was so often manifested during our Revolution—or that they failed to consider the omnipotence of that God who is alone able to protect them.
Your friendly wishes for my happiness and prosperity are received with gratitude—and are sincerely reciprocated by Dear Sir, Your affectionate & obed. Servt
Sources and References:
George Washington to John Armstrong, March 11, 1792 – George Washington Papers
From George Washington to John Armstrong, 11 March 1792 – National Archives
The Eagle and the Shield – A History of the Great Seal of the United States – page 514
Defence of Fort M’Henry – The poem that became the “The Star-Spangled Banner”
The U.S. National Motto & the Contested Concept of Civil Religion – Michael Lienesch
The Complex Personality of Rev. Watkinson – by Roger W. Burdette
“On November 25, 1860, in a sermon from his pulpit, Rev. Watkinson let his people know where he stood. He declared himself forthrightly in favor of the course of the South, and in opposition to the views of abolitionists. The sermon created a sensation; many people were overjoyed and called for a church conference that evening to request a copy of the sermon”
“When the Virginia Legislature passed a secession bill in April 1861, rioting and violence
threatened Portsmouth. The United States flag was torn down on April 20, 1861. Ships were burnt in the Gosport Navy Yard in nearby Norfolk – the region seemed in open rebellion. Apparently, some of the violence was directed at Rev. Watkinson and his family due to his position in the community. His family was in danger and he quickly sent his wife and children northward by steamer.”
“As the last boat was about to leave for the North on April 23, 1861, he stepped aboard leaving behind his church and congregation. There were many harsh words about his disloyalty to Virginia, and the inconsistency of his sermon versus his act of abandoning Portsmouth.”
“The next Sunday afternoon 19-year Annie M. Cox [one of Watkinson parishioners] wrote in her diary:
1861 – APRIL 28TH Sabbath afternoon. I did not go to church this morning as it commenced raining just about church time. Pa went down but there was no preaching. Alas! We are now left without a pastor. Mr. Watkinson has taken his departure, gone north & sent a letter of resignation to the church. I think it would have been much more manly & better for him if he had resigned before he left. I am very sorry that he has acted thus & that is after preaching and talking so much against abolitionists to go right among them. But we cannot judge him. God alone knoweth the heart.
1890 Director Edward Leach “In God We Trust” Letter – Based on research by Roger W. Burdette
“1890 letter from Director Edward Leech responding to a congressman’s inquiry on the origin of “In God We Trust” on U.S. coinage. The motto first appeared on the two-cent piece in 1864, although pattern pieces dated 1863 alternately employed GOD AND COUNTRY, GOD OUR TRUST, and IN GOD WE TRUST. The adoption of “In God We Trust” is one of the better documented design changes within United States coinage and is traced back to a November 13, 1861 letter from Rev. Mark Watkinson of Ridleyville, PA to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase, urging acknowledgement of Almighty God on American coinage.
Watkinson’s original proposal was much different than that eventually adopted: “What I propose is that instead of the goddess of Liberty we shall have next inside the thirteen stars, a ring inscribed with the words perpetual union. Within this ring the all-seeing eye, crowned with a halo. Beneath this eye the American flag, bearing in its fields stars equal to the number of the States United. In the fields of the bars the words God, liberty, law.”
Copyright 2020 Yaacov Apelbaum, All Rights Reserved.