“In God We Trust” on National Motto and Currency

Congress adopted “In God We Trust” as a belated motto in 1956. The original motto, “E Pluribus Unum” (From many [come] one), chosen by Franklin, Adams and Jefferson, celebrates the state-federal form of government and pluralism. It is still a national motto.

Congress in 1955 ordered that the motto “In God We Trust” appear on all paper currency, and it first appeared on paper currency in 1957. The idea for the motto originated during the Civil War with Baptist minister Mark R. Watkinson, who wrote to U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase on Nov. 13, 1861, suggesting the religious motto. Watkinson argued that a religious phrase on coins would “relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism.” Chase endorsed the idea in a letter of Nov. 20, 1861 to U.S. Mint Director James Pollock: “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.”

The 1864 2-cent coin was the first coin to bear the phrase, and it began appearing on the 1-cent coin. President Theodore Roosevelt explicitly requested that the religious phrase not appear on new designs for $20 gold double eagles and $10 gold eagles, regarding it as sacrilegious. Congress reacted by the Act of May 18, 1908, making the phrase mandatory on some coins, but excepting certain dimes, and 1- and 5-cent coins. Coin World claims that by 1938, when the Jefferson 5-cent coin was introduced, “In God We Trust” was found on all U.S. coins.

Another religionist, Arkansas collector Matthew H. Rothert, noticed while attending a church service that only U.S. coins bore the “In God We Trust” imprint. He wanted “a message about the country’s faith in God” to be “carried throughout the world” on paper currency, launching a lobbying campaign. Public Law 140 was signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on July 11, 1955, mandating that the motto appear on all U.S. coins and paper money. A $1 silver certificate bearing the legend first appeared in October 1957.

The religious agenda behind the adoption of this motto is inconsistent with a secular nation, where all citizens, regardless of religious beliefs or nonbeliefs, are equal. These acts of Congress, which have disrespected the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, are anachronisms that should be repealed.