Fifty years ago, on July 30, 1956, “In God We Trust” officially became our national motto. The half-century anniversary comes at a time when radical, antireligious elements file lawsuits to eradicate every reflection of America’s Judeo-Christian heritage from the public square.
“In God We Trust” has been the informal national motto for nearly a century and a half. It captures the essence of the American people’s firm belief since the earliest Colonial days, through the War for Independence and the Civil War and through recent times.
In 1861, a Pennsylvania minister, the Rev. M.R. Watkinson, wrote Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase suggesting “the recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins. … This would place us openly under the Divine protection we have personally claimed.” Chase agreed. He ordered that “In God We Trust” appear on U.S. coins. In 1908, a law was enacted requiring all coins to bear the motto. In 1955, another law expanded that requirement to include paper currency. In 1956, what had been the nation’s de facto motto was made official.
The motto, as Chase coined it, embodies the central tenet of American patriotism and heritage. For instance, the Mayflower Compact of 1620, which the Pilgrims wrote and signed, established “for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith” a “civill body politick” in Massachusetts. The Pilgrims and the Compact placed a firm trust in God for the Colony’s success.
Colonists up and down the seaboard looked to the protection of God as they settled here. They faced danger and privation with an abiding faith in the Almighty. Only by God’s hand would the colonists succeed, prosper and carve out Western civilization’s foothold in North America.
Americans had in mind scriptural guidance such as Psalm 33:12, Psalm 127:1 and Proverbs 14:34. From such passages they learned that “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord;” “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain;” and “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people.”
The Declaration of Independence premised its course of action not only on evidence of the British Crown’s “long train of abuses and usurpations.” It also was based on “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.”
That basis led to the outright expression of trust in God by the Declaration’s signers. The proof text: “And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”
A longstanding practice of Colonial times continued throughout the American Revolution and beyond. Days of prayer and fasting were designated. It is hard to prove much more fully America’s heritage of trusting in God than that.
This trust was recounted at the Constitutional Convention. There, Benjamin Franklin noted, “All of us who were engaged in the struggle [for independence] must have observed frequent instances of a superintending Providence in our favor. To that kind Providence, we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity.”
In his first Inaugural address, President George Washington voiced his trust in God: “It 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 council of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and the happiness of the people of the United States, a government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes, and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success the functions allotted to his charge.”
From that day forward, through every trial, tribulation and blessing that has befallen the United States, the American people have trusted God for this nation’s security and preservation. Most presidents including Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan have reiterated the essential truth that the nation’s trust rests upon the God of the Bible.
On this 50th anniversary month, House Concurrent Res. 411 and Senate Concurrent Res. 96 each recognize this deep-seated Judeo-Christian heritage and the accuracy of “In God We Trust” as the national motto.
It would be a national shame to let this occasion pass unobserved. If the United States is to continue as a beacon of hope to the world, its people must remember the nation’s spiritual heritage, as an act of patriotism and piety.
James R. Edwards Jr. is an adjunct fellow with the Hudson Institute.