'In God We Trust:' Our Money's Message for 141 Years

By Randy Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:31 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - Removing the motto "In God We Trust" from American currency would mark the end of a tradition that began during the Civil War to rescue the country from "the ignominy of heathenism" and was expanded in the 1950s to combat the philosophy of communism.

The target of atheist Michael Newdow's lawsuit is one of many phrases that have been printed on U.S. money since Congress in 1787 authorized the first American one-cent piece to display "Mind Your Business" on the front and "We Are One" on the back.

During the early 1800s, "E Pluribus Unum" ("Out of Many, One") was placed on coins by the U. S. Mint, though this was not mandated by law. David Lange, research director of the National Guaranty Corporation (NGC), told Cybercast News Service that the phrase was dropped during the 1830s because the mint director believed it was redundant with "United States of America."

According to the website of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the motto "In God We Trust" was first placed on United States coins "largely because of the increased religious sentiment existing during the Civil War."

While Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase received many appeals on the topic, the first was a letter sent on Nov. 13, 1861, by Rev. Mark Watkinson from Ridleyville, Pa., who proposed "the recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins" even as the nation was being torn apart by internal conflict.

"What if our Republic were not shattered beyond reconstruction?" the Baptist minister asked in his missive. "Would not the antiquaries of succeeding centuries rightly reason from our past that we were a heathen nation?"

He then suggested replacing "the goddess of liberty" on U.S. coins with a design that included an "all-seeing eye, crowned with a halo; beneath this eye the American flag," as well as the words "God, Liberty, Law."

"This would make a beautiful coin, to which no possible citizen could object," Watkinson added. "This would relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism. This would place us openly under the Divine protection we have personally claimed."

A week later, Chase wrote to James Pollock, director of the Mint at Philadelphia, that "the trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins." Therefore, Pollock was instructed to "cause a device to be prepared without unnecessary delay with a motto expressing in the fewest and tersest words possible this national recognition."

In December of 1863, Pollock submitted designs to Chase for new coins with the mottoes "Our Country," "Our God" or "God, Our Trust." Chase responded that the phrase should read "In God We Trust," and Congress approved the design on April 22, 1864. Later that year, a two-cent piece became the first U.S. coin to carry the motto.

"Since then, the motto must appear on all silver and gold coins by law, this being extended to the base metal coins which have since replaced the silver issues," Lange of NGC said, even though "no law has ever been passed requiring its use on the minor coins (cents and nickels)."

That loophole came into play in 1883, when Chief Engraver Charles Barber chose to drop "In God We Trust" from his new design for the five-cent piece and bring back "E Pluribus Unum." "No official notice was made of this change, nor was there any public outcry," Lange said.

The next controversy regarding the motto came in 1907, when President Theodore Roosevelt commissioned sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens to prepare new designs for the gold eagle and double eagle, without the words "In God We Trust" because Roosevelt considered it sacrilegious to put the Lord's name on something as common as money.

However, when the new coins were released the following year, the public outrage was so great that not only did Congress order the motto restored, the Act of May 18, 1908, also made the phrase mandatory on all coins upon which it had previously appeared. "In God We Trust" was then added to the one-cent coin in 1909 and the 10-cent piece in 1916.

After 55 years, the motto returned to the nickel in 1938, when the phrase was included among the items specified in a design competition for a new coin featuring the images of Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president, and his home in Monticello, Va.

"This decision was made by the Treasury Department, probably because the motto by then appeared on all of the other current coins," Lange noted, though he added that government officials probably remembered the incident in 1907.

'A single man with a determined mind'

While all U.S. coins have carried "In God We Trust" since 1938, the motto was not displayed on paper money -- which was introduced during the Civil War to temporarily replace coins in a metal shortage -- until Matthew Rothert gave an offering at a church service in 1953.

As Rothert dropped a bill into the collection plate, he noticed that it didn't display the same motto as the coins. He wondered why, especially since paper money had surpassed metal coins as the most common form of U.S. currency.

On Nov. 25, 1953, Rothert sent Treasury Secretary George Humphrey a letter noting that people in foreign countries, even those behind the communist Iron Curtain, were anxious to obtain the currency of the United States of America.

"President Eisenhower puts primary emphasis on religion and spiritual values," he wrote. "People abroad, as well as at home, should see and recognize this emphasis on our most popular medium of exchange, our paper money."

One of Humphrey's assistants responded to Rothert's letter, suggesting that such an action would best be taken by Congress. Undaunted, Rothert began writing hundreds of letters to senators, newspapers and even the president. As word of his campaign grew, he received support from a number of Christian organizations.

Eisenhower approved a joint resolution of Congress on July 30, 1956, declaring "In God We Trust" the national motto of the United States, and the phrase was first used on paper money in 1957, when it appeared on the one-dollar silver certificate.

"Through the persistent efforts, flood of letters and speeches made by Matt Rothert, the phrase 'In God We Trust' is now on all paper money currency of the United States," said Aaron Martin on the Arkansas Memory Project website.

"The bill that was passed helped keep our faith alive worldwide, but more importantly, it showed how a single man with a determined mind has the power to change some of the biggest things in the world," Martin added.

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