On July 30, 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a law declaring “In God We Trust” the official motto of the United States. Public Law 84-851 was based upon a 90 year tradition of inscribing “In God We Trust” upon American coins and a centuries old heritage of recognizing God’s sovereignty in our nation’s affairs.
America Acknowledges God
From the very beginning, American public documents have acknowledged and given tribute to God. The first Charter of Virginia (1606) granted the king’s authority to launch a British colony in the New World. After naming the persons receiving the grant, the charter began:
We, greatly commending, and graciously accepting of, their Desires for the Furtherance of so noble a Work, which may, by the Providence of Almighty God, hereafter tend to the Glory of his Divine Majesty, in propagating of Christian Religion to such People, as yet live in Darkness and miserable Ignorance of the true Knowledge and Worship of God…”
Using similar language, the Pilgrims of Plymouth set forth the purpose of their government in the first few words of the Mayflower Compact:
In the NAME OF GOD, AMEN…Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country…
The Declaration of Independence, drafted by Thomas Jefferson, looked to the “laws of nature and of nature’s God” and to the unalienable rights of men given “by their Creator” to justify the colonists break from Great Britain The signers of this historic document acknowledged their trust in God by appealing to “the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions,” and pledging to defend the Declaration “with a firm reliance on the protection of DIVINE PROVIDENCE.”
It was Jefferson who also drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1786), a forerunner of the First Amendment, which prohibited government control of religion because:
Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishment…are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion, who, being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either.
Since its earliest days, the leaders of our republic have acknowledged God’s hand in America. In his first inaugural address, George Washington confessed dependence upon God and His providence in the affairs of the United States:
[I]t would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a Government…No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token on providential agency.
The Influence of Religion in America
The substantial influence of religion in American history makes the adoption of “In God We Trust” as our national motto particularly appropriate. Americans have a rich heritage of religious faith and practice. Foreign visitors were impressed by the religious character of early Americans. Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman who traveled extensively in America noted in his famous book, Democracy in America:
America is still the place where the Christian religion has kept the greatest real power over men’s souls; and nothing better demonstrates how useful and natural it is to man, since the country where it now has widest sway is both the most enlightened and the freest.
Robert Baird, an observer of religious trends in the early 1800’s, spent the years 1835-1843 in Europe studying the roots of American religious freedom. At the end of his study, he published his classic work Religion in America in which he said,
To their religion the New England colonists owed all their best qualities. Even their political freedom they owed to the contest they had waged in England for religious liberty…Religion led them to abandon their country, rather than submit to a tyranny that threatened to enslave their immortal souls, and made them seek in the New World the freedom of conscience that was denied to them in the old.
Baird observed that, “In no other part of the world, perhaps, do a larger proportion of the inhabitants attend church than in the United States,” This led Baird to conclude:
It is just because of these influences—the Sabbath, the Church, the Bible—that a vast country of now more than twenty-seven millions of people can be governed, and is governed, without the bayonet and the cannon.
Commenting on his travels in America during the 1850’s, German agnostic and foe of religion Karl Griesinger was forced to ask why church attendance in America was “more common here than anywhere else in the world?”
Even to Griesinger, the statistics would have seemed astounding. During the period of the Revolution and the drafting of the Constitution, it is estimated that 59%-77.5% of all Americans were churched. The Second Great Awakening in the early 1800’s and the expansion of Methodist and Baptist Churches in this country pushed the figures even higher. The American Almanac and Repository of Useful Knowledge estimated that in 1831 there were 12,136,953 members and adherents of various American denominations. The population of the U.S. that year was estimated at 13,321,000, indicating 91% of the population was involved in churches Robert Baird found that in 1955 there were approximately 22,762,000 members and adherents among evangelical denominations and Catholics, which was 86% of the total population of approximately 26,500,000 people in the United States. The amazing influence of the churches on American life persisted up through the Civil War, during which the phrase “In God We Trust” first appeared on United States coins.
Recognizing God on U.S. Coins
According to the U.S. Treasury Department records, the first request for recognition of God on U.S. coins was made in a letter from the Reverend Mr. M. R. Watkinson of Ridleyville, Pennsylvania to Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, dated November 13, 1861:
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.
Reverend Mr. Watkinson’s request was not without precedent. The colonial governments, as early as 1694 had issued coins bearing reference to God:
The Carolina cent minted in 1694 bore the inscription ‘God preserve Carolina and the Lords proprietors.’ The New England token of the same year bore the inscription ‘God preserve New England’. The Louisiana cent coined in 1721-22 and 1767 bore the inscription ‘Sit nomen Domini benedictum’—Blessed be the name of the Lord. The Virginia halfpenny of 1774 bore an inscription in Latin which translated meant “George the Third by the grace of God” Utah issued gold pieces in the denominations of $2.50, $5, $10, and $20 in 1849 bearing the inscription ‘Holiness to the Lord.’
Secretary Chase, responding within a week to Rev. Watkinson’s suggestion, wrote the Director of the Mint:
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.
James Pollock, who in May 1861 had been appointed Director of the Mint by President Lincoln, began preparing appropriate designs for coins incorporating such mottoes as “Our country; our God,” and “God, our Trust.” On December 9, 1863, after reviewing Pollock’s proposals, Secretary Chase approved the present motto, “In God We Trust.”
On April 22, 1864, Congress passed new legislation authorizing one- and two-cent coins and granting the Director of the Mint and the Secretary of the Treasury discretion to fix “the shape, mottoes, and devices” of the new coins. Consequently, the mint issued the new two-cent bronze coin on which the motto “In God We Trust” first appeared.
On March 3, 1865, Congress expanded the mint’s authority to use the motto “In God We Trust” on still other coins. Pursuant to this law, the new motto was incorporated into the designs of the shield-type nickel, the quarter dollar, half dollar, dollar, half eagle ($5.00), eagle ($10.00) and double eagle ($20.00) coins beginning is 1866. This permissive grant of authority was restated in the Coinage Act of 1873.
Controversy Over the Motto’s Use
Use of the national motto “In God We Trust” on coins continued from 1864 up to 1907. At that time, the U.S. Mint released new eagles and double eagles designed by Augustus Saint-Gardens. President Theodore Roosevelt had commissioned Saint-Gaudens to design the new coins in a high relief style. The new eagles and double eagles did not include the motto “In God We Trust” in their design.
Public outcry for the motto’s restoration arose soon after the new coins’ release. President Roosevelt defended the motto’s removal. In a letter to the Reverend Mr. Roland C. Dryer of Nunda, New York, who along with many others had protested the omission, Roosevelt stated that public recognition of God was important and that “In God We Trust” was “indeed well to have inscribed on our great national monuments, in our temples of justice, in our legislative halls, and in buildings such as those at West Point and Annapolis-in short, wherever it will tend to arouse and inspire a lofty emotion in those who look thereon”. Roosevelt expressed fear that use of the motto on coins was “in effect irreverence which comes dangerously close to sacrilege.”
The President pointed out he had never heard anyone speak reverently of the motto on coins. He cited examples of how people had used the phrase in a jesting manner during debates over the free coinage of silver in the 1800’s. Noting the law did not require the motto, but only permitted its use. Roosevelt followed his personal conviction and chose not to use it. He did point out, however, a law could be passed mandating the use of the phrase “In God We Trust” on all coins. Roosevelt stated he would comply with such a mandate as the desire of the American people expressed through Congress.
Responding to increasing public demand, Congress did pass legislation requiring the use of the phrase “In God We Trust” on all coins which had previously borne the motto. The law stated:
That the motto “In God We Trust,” heretofore inscribed on certain denominations of the gold and silver coins of the United States of America, shall hereafter be inscribed upon all such gold and silver coins of said denominations as heretofore.
President Roosevelt signed the new law of May 18, 1908, and “In God We Trust” was restored to the coins.
Expanding References to America’s Trust in God
The new law only required that the motto be placed on coins which had previously borne the inscription. The next coin issued, however, incorporated “In God We Trust.” The Lincoln penny, released in 1909 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, was a particularly appropriate coin for the motto. President Lincoln recognized the providence of God at work in the nation’s history and in his own life. His wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, observed the President’s deep devotion and reliance upon God:
[W]hen Mr. Lincoln became elevated to Office—with the care of a great Nation, upon his shoulders—when devastating war was upon us—then indeed to my own knowledge—did his great heart go up daily, hourly, in prayer to God—for his sustaining power.
As other coins were redesigned or new coins created, “In God We Trust” was incorporated into their pattern. The Mercury Dime of 1916, the Jefferson Nickel of 1938, the Standing Liberty Quarter of 1916, the Washington Quarter of 1932 and the Roosevelt Dime of 1946 are just some of the many new coins that bore the inscription.
Expanded use of the motto was not limited to coins, however. “In God We Trust” appeared on a 1928 two-cent stamp which featured a picture of General George Washington kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge. Francis Scott Key’s poem “The Star Spangled Banner,” was penned in 1814 and was officially adopted as the national anthem on March 3, 1931. The fourth verse states:
“O, thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
Between their lov’d home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with vict’ry and peace may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto—”In God is our Trust.’
And the Star-Spangled Banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Our nation’s reliance upon God was again acknowledged by Congress in 1954. In that year, the House and Senate voted to add the phrase “Under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. The House Committee on the Judiciary supported passage of the bill, finding that:
Our American Government is founded on the concept of the individuality and the dignity of the human being. Underlying this concept is the belief that the human person is important because he was created by God and endowed by Him with certain inalienable rights which no civil authority may usurp. The inclusion of God in our Pledge therefore would further acknowledge the dependence of our people and our Government upon the moral directions of the Creator.
The Motto Appears on Currency
Congress further expanded the us of “In God We Trust” in 1955, passing a law calling for its inscription on all coins and on all paper money. The bill was conceived at the grass roots level by Mr. Matthew Rothert of Camden, Arkansas. Writing to Senators, Representatives, civic organizations, interest groups and individuals, Rothert initiated a groundswell of support for legislation placing the motto on United States bills. Organizations such as the American Numismatic Association and the American Legion joined Mr. Rothert in his efforts to promote the use of “In God We Trust” on all U.S. currency.
In response to the many petitions received by Congress, Representative Charles Bennett of Florida initiated a bill on January 5, 1955, calling upon the mint to place “In God We Trust” on all coins and paper money. The new law took effect when the Treasury Department instituted a new printing system requiring new dies. Presenting the bill to the House of Representatives, Congressman Bennett cited the long use of the motto and other public recognitions of God. He also noted that current world politics suggested a need for America to more clearly distinguish itself from other world superpowers.
In these days when imperialistic and materialistic communism seeks to attack and destroy freedom, we should continuously look for ways to strengthen the foundations of our freedom. At the base of our freedom is our faith in God and the desire of Americans to live by His will and His guidance. As long as this country trusts in God, it will prevail.
The bill unanimously passed both the Senate and the House of Representatives and was signed into law by President Eisenhower July11, 1955.
The following year, Representative Bennett introduced additional legislation, passed and signed July 30. 1956, designating “In God We Trust” as the official motto of the United States.
Modern Challenges to the Motto’s Use
Since 1955, all the United States coins and currency have carried the motto “In God We Trust.” Not until 1970 and 1978 were the laws authorizing its use legally challenged. Responding to atheist Madalyn Murray O”Hair’s charge, the court rejected her argument that the phrase, “In God We Trust,” violated the First Amendment. The court cited remarks about the motto made by Justice William Brennan in his concurring opinion in Abingdon v. Schempp, (the case which struck down school Bible reading) stating:
It is not that the use of these four words (In God We Trust) can be dismissed as ‘de minimis’… The truth is that we have simply interwoven the motto so deeply into the fabric of our civil policy that its present use may well not present that type of involvement which the First Amendment prohibits.”
The United States Supreme Court refused to hear her appeal.
Public recognition of God and the use of our motto “In God We Trust” on our coins and currency have a long, well founded place in America’s heritage. The Supreme Court recognized this heritage when Justice William O. Douglas stated, “We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.”
As we enter our third century as a nation we must not forget the legacy of dependence upon God as reflected in our national motto “In God We Trust.” Only by remembering this legacy can we say with Abraham Lincoln “…that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”
© 2018 National Legal Foundation