Since the concept of God’s superintending care in the founding of America is so often mentioned in the writings of the Founding Fathers and the Pilgrims and Puritans who preceded them, it is difficult to say where the phrase In God We Trust originated. A similar phrase, “In God is our trust,” appears in the last stanza of The Star Spangled Banner.
From written records regarding the early American settlers, we know most of them believed they were on a Providential mission and that they trusted God to guide and protect them. Those records are filled with stories of various ways in which their faith was rewarded in seemingly miraculous ways. The favorable outcome of so many events along their difficult path to independence gave them sufficient reasons to conclude that their trust in God’s guidance and protective care was the only possible explanation for their success in eventually prevailing against great odds.
The official story of how In God We Trust was first placed on U.S. coins appears on the public education website of the U.S. Treasury Department. It began with a letter dated November 13, 1861, to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase (appointed by President Abraham Lincoln) from Rev. M. R. Watkinson, a Christian minister from Ridleyville, Pennsylvania.
In his letter, Rev. Watkinson said, “One fact touching our currency has hitherto been seriously overlooked. I mean the recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins…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.”
Secretary Chase liked the idea and, on November 20, sent a letter to James Pollock, Director of the Mint at Philadelphia, in which he said: “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.”
After another exchange of letters between Chase and Polk, it was decided that In God We Trust are the words that would be placed on a shield included in the design of new one-cent and two-cent coins. The design was approved by Congress April 22, 1864.
An act of Congress passed March 3, 1865, allowed the Mint Director, with the Secretary’s approval, to place the motto on all gold and silver coins that “shall admit the inscription thereon.” Under the act, the motto was placed on a number of other coins including the silver dollar, the half-dollar and the quarter-dollar coins. On February 12, 1873, Congress passed the Coinage Act that authorized the Secretary to “cause In God We Trust to be inscribed on such coins as shall admit of such motto.”
As a bit of historical trivia, it is interesting to note that Chase’s picture appears on the face of the $10,000.00 bill and that he has been credited with convincing Americans to switch to paper currency.
In 1955, Congress required that In God We Trust be included in the design of all paper currency with this statement of confirmation: “In these days when imperialistic and materialistic Communism seeks to attack and destroy freedom, it is proper to remind all of us of this self-evident truth that as long as this country trusts in God, it will prevail.”
In God We Trust didn’t officially become the national motto until 1956 when this statement was included in the Congressional Record: “At the present time the United States has no national motto. The committee deems it most appropriate that In God We Trust be so designated as the U.S. national motto.” After Congress approved adoption of the motto, it was signed into law by President Dwight Eisenhower on July 30, 1956.
Read more history in our Metro Voice special series “History you should know but probably don’t”:
It was also Eisenhower who signed an act of Congress in 1954 that had added the phrase “Under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. At the signing ceremony, the President said, “In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource in peace and war.”
President John F. Kennedy spoke to that subject in 1961 when he said, “No man who enters upon the office to which I have succeeded can fail to recognize how every president of the United States has placed special reliance upon his faith in God.”
Historical records show that Providential involvement in America’s protection and rapid rise as an economic and military power in the world has been acknowledged by most American Presidents since the office was first occupied in 1789.
America’s tradition of depending on God for guidance and protection could even be said to have begun with Christopher Columbus who relied on his trust in God to make his dangerous and visionary mission a success. We know that because he said so in his hand-written journal entitled Libro de las profecias (Book of Prophecies). In it, Columbus wrote: “It was the Lord who put into my mind (I could feel His hand upon me) the fact that it would be possible to sail from here to the Indies. All who heard of my project rejected it with laughter, ridiculing me. There is no question that the inspiration was from the Holy Spirit, because he comforted me with rays of marvelous illumination from the Holy Scriptures, a strong and clear testimony from the 44 books of the Old Testament, from the four Gospels, and from the 23 Epistles of the blessed Apostles, encouraging me to press forward, and without ceasing for a moment they now encourage to make haste.”
Verbalizing the thoughts of most, if not all, of his fellow Founding Fathers, the venerable Benjamin Franklin attributed the successful conclusion of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to God’s intervention and guidance.
–Bob Gingrich is a Kansas City author, historian on the founding of our nation and Metro Voice Contributor. You can search Bob’s name in our search bar for his other columns.
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