How did "In God We Trust" come to be on American currency?

A 19th century Presbyterian played a major role
Published by the Log College Press
July 25, 2020

James Pollock left his mark on history. Born on September 11, 1810, he graduated from the College of New Jersey (Princeton) and became a lawyer, a judge and congressman. At one point he roomed with Abraham Lincoln and they developed an enduring friendship. He was present when Samuel Morse sent his first message by telegraph: "What hath God wrought?" and helped to support telegraph technology financially. He was the first in Congress to advocate for the construction of a transcontinental railroad. He later served as Governor of Pennsylvania, Director of the U.S. Mint, and as President of Lafayette College.

In 1861, in the midst of war, while James Pollock was serving as Director of the U.S. Mint, Mark Richards Watkinson (1824-1877), a Baptist minister from Pennsylvania, wrote a letter to Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase.

Dear Sir: 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.

Your are probably a Christian. What if our Republic were now shattered beyond recognition? Would not the antiquaries of succeeding centuries rightly reason from our part 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.

Within a week, Secretary Chase wrote the following to Director Pollock:

Dear Sir: 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.

Pollock gave an official response to Chase's request in an 1862 report:

The distinct and unequivocal recognition of the divine sovereignty in the practical administration of our political system is a duty of the highest obligation. History unites with divine revelation in declaring that “happy is that people whose God is the Lord.” In the exercise of political sovereignty our nation should honor him; and now, in this hour of peril and danger to our country and its liberties, it is becoming to acknowledge his power and invoke his protection. Our national coinage in its devices and legends should indicate the Christian character of our nation, and declare our trust in God. It does not do this. On the contrary, ancient mythology, more than Christianity, has stamped its impress on our coins. It is, however, gratifying to know that the proposition to introduce a motto upon our coins, expressing a national reliance on divine support has been favorably considered by your department, and will no doubt be approved by an intelligent public sentiment. The subject is under the control of Congress; and without a change in existing laws, no alteration in the legends and devices of most of our national coins can be made; a motto, however, may be added without additional authority or violation of the present law.

In consideration of the legal provisions referred to, it will be necessary, in attempting to introduce a motto on the face of our coins, to interfere as little as possible with the present legal devices. The first difficulty to be encountered is the necessary condensation. The idea should be unmistakably expressed in our own language, and at the same time the letter should be distinctly and easily legible. To unite these desiderata within the limits presented on the face of the coin, in connexion with the required arrangement of the legal devices, demands much reflection. The motto "In God is our trust," which has become familiar to the public mind by its use in our national hymn the "Star Spangled Banner," would be an appropriate one, but it contains too many letters to insert in the place of the crest, without crowding - too much for good taste. For greater brevity we may substitute the words, "God our trust," which convey the same idea, in a form of expression according with heraldic usage, and as readily understood as the more explicit form of the other -- The adoption on our coin of the motto "God our trust," or some other words expressive of national reliance upon divine support, would accord fully with the sentiment of the American people, and it would add to the artistic appearance of the coins.

In the next annual report to the Secretary (1863), Pollock followed up with these remarks:

I would respectfully and earnestly ask the attention of the department to the proposition, in my former report, to introduce a motto upon our coins expressive of a national reliance on divine protection, and a distinct and unequivocal national recognition of the divine sovereignty. We claim to be a Christian nation. Why should we not vindicate our character, by honoring the God of nations, in the exercise of our political sovereignty as a nation? Our national coinage should do this. Its legends and devices should declare our trust in God; in him who is the "King of kings and Lord of lords." The motto suggested, "God, our trust," is taken from our national hymn, the "Star Spangled Banner;" the sentiment is familiar to every citizen of our country; it has thrilled the hearts and fallen in song from the lips of millions of American freemen. The time for the introduction of this or a similar motto is propitious and appropriate. 'Tis an hour of national peril and danger, an hour when man's strength is weakness, when our strength and our nation's strength must be in the God of battles and of nations. Let us reverently acknowledge his sovereignty, and let our coinage declare our trust in God.

Secretary Chase's response to this report, dated December 9, 1863, was:

I approve of your mottoes, only suggesting that on that with the Washington obverse the motto should begin with the word, "Our," so as to read, "Our God and Our Country." And on that with the shield it should be changed so as to read, "In God We Trust."

The first appearance of the motto In "God We Trust" on American coinage was on the obverse side of a two-cent piece.

The motto for American coins "In God We Trust" was approved by Congress on April 22, 1864. It was not until July 11, 1955, that Congress authorized the use of this motto on paper currency as well. This was at the urging of Congressman Charles Bennett of Florida, known also for his role in the establishment of a national memorial near Jacksonville, Florida to commemorate the French Huguenot settlement at Fort Caroline. This writer had the privilege to correspond with Congressman Bennett on certain matters before his passing.

James Pollock was a link in the chain which led to an important statement, however symbolic, of national reliance upon God as expressed in our currency. He was a Presbyterian, and a member of the National Reform Association, and the stamp he left upon history, and upon our national coinage, endures.

Why James Pollock Choose "In God We Trust"