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In God We Trust: A Brief History

By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek ….
[Originally published September 17, 2012. —CW]

We pay attention to the news, so it follows that we pay attention to politics. After all, being involved is one of the original tenants of democracy[i]. When the news (especially politics in the news) touches on numismatics, it piques in us a strong, stubborn, contrary curiosity that won’t go away until we do the research and figure out just what part of it they got wrong. It’s too bad libraries don’t give out gold cards.

So on that note…

Mitt Romney took to the stump in our home state of Virginia on Saturday, September 8th, in an effort to claim its 13 electoral votes come November. Virginia, which went to President Barack Obama in 2008, is again considered a battleground state. In his remarks to a friendly Virginia Beach crowd, he accused the incumbent President and the Democratic party of wanting to, among other things, “take God off our coins”.[ii]

It’s not much of stretch to say that President Obama’s personal faith has played a key role in the attacks of his political adversaries on the right. America, due to its persistent yet forever changing multiethnicity, has long felt tension when homogeneous norms appear to be threatened. With Mr. Obama, a narrative about his otherness has been spun since the days of the 2008 campaign. Despite every appearance that he is a Christian, there are those who will never be satisfied and will continue to purport otherwise.

This would hardly be a concern to the rest of us, were it not that the Republican party currently relies on a coalition of activists whose priorities include the infusion of religious principles into American civic life. Article VI, paragraph 3 of the United States Constitution says that “the Senators and Representatives… and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution, but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States”.

Likewise, the First Amendment includes both the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause, which together state that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.

The Framers included these clauses in our governing document because they feared the religiously-motivated division and conflict, to say nothing of violence, that had occurred in Europe. While it’s true that many colonists from Europe came to North America seeking the freedom to practice their religions and create local religious governments, the founders of the United States sought to do more, and understood that to unify 13 colonies, with untold hundreds of different factions and communities, they would have to keep certain passionate issues out of the sphere of the fledgling government. One such issue, much to the Framers’ discredit and much to the chagrin of our nation to this very day, was slavery.

Much more wisely, the Founding Fathers separated Church and State.

Mr. Romney’s infusion of the national coinage into his campaign is not a response to any proposed policy on the part of the Obama administration or Congressional Democrats, but is instead an effort to glad-hand one faction of his political base by claiming that their party supports God while the other party does not. This is the very thing that the Founders tried to avoid.

But what exactly are the rules concerning coins and religion? Is it as clear-cut as we believe? What’s the history behind the motto? Why doesn’t everybody see the inspirational side of it? Here’s what we found out.


It is well-known in numismatic circles that the first federal coin to bear the inscription IN GOD WE TRUST was the 1864 two cent piece. The motto was created at the behest of Republican (formerly of the Free Soil party) Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, who in turn was responding to a letter dated November 13, 1861 by the Reverend M. R. Watkinson, out of Pennsylvania, who recommended that God be recognized on our coins. It said:

You are probably a Christian. What if our Republic were not shattered beyond reconstruction? Would not the antiquaries of succeeding centuries rightly reason from our past that 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 the 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.[iii]

Chase agreed in part, and ordered the Director of the Mint, James Pollock, to develop and implement a new motto that included God. From 1861 to 1864, Mint engravers experimented with several phrases before finally deciding on IN GOD WE TRUST – a version of which first appeared in Francis Scott Key‘s “The Star-Spangled Banner“ in 1814. The Coinage Act of 1864 did not mandate the motto[iv]; the motto was the initiative of Secy. Chase.

However, Congress liked the idea and expanded the use of the motto by passing an Act on March 3, 1865 that authorized, but did not demand, the use of IN GOD WE TRUST on “gold, silver and other coins”[v]. At this point, the 72-year-long secularism of American money had come to an end.


The last U.S. President to actively seek the removal of IN GOD WE TRUST from our national coinage was Republican President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt did not approve of using God’s name on coinage and instructed Augustus Saint-Gaudens to not include the motto in his gold eagle and double eagle designs.

Congress rebuffed the popular progressive President, passing an Act on May 18, 1908, requiring the motto to appear on all silver and gold coins starting in 1909. It was added to Victor David Brenner’s cent design shortly before that coin went to press. The last holdout was the nickel, which saw a design change in 1913 that omitted the inscription, before adopting it in 1938 when a design featuring Thomas Jefferson was introduced (talk about irony).

Roosevelt was not the only U.S. President that wasn’t particularly religious. According to historian Franklin Steiner, author of The Religious Beliefs of Our Presidents: From Washington to FDR, at least ten of the forty-three men who’ve held the office of Chief Executive have been either a-religious or non-practicing[vi]. His list includes: Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Tyler, Taylor, Van Buren, Arthur, and Lincoln. Of these men, only Arthur and Lincoln lived to see IN GOD WE TRUST circulate on U.S. coins.


As we noted in our article about the commemorative half dollar honoring African-American educators Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, American politicians were quick to adopt new strategies in order to defend the United States against the perceived communist threat. As communism was an atheistic religion, Americans saw religiosity as part of a good vs. evil binary.

This led to the adoption of religious language in a number of governmental and civic institutions, including the Pledge of Allegiance, the POW Code of Conduct, and the establishment of IN GOD WE TRUST as a national motto. On July 11, 1955, Congress passed a law requiring IN GOD WE TRUST to appear on ALL currency, thus completing the circle. The United States may not have sanctioned one particular religion, but it had established God as the de facto power that oversaw all manner of public life.

There have been a number of court cases challenging the constitutionality of the use of IN GOD WE TRUST as a national motto. So far, the courts have found that the expression, because it has become rote, lacks any religious meaning, and is instead “patriotic or ceremonial“ (Aronow v. United States)[vii]. This of course runs counter to experience when you consider things like the rally mentioned in the introduction. If IN GOD WE TRUST were not a religious sentiment, why then would a religious faction within a major party “mobilize the base” by fabricating a story that its opposition is determined to remove it?


The Mint’s artistic decision to de-clutter the Presidential dollar coins by moving IN GOD WE TRUST to the rim of the coin was the cause of great embarrassment when the media, driven by internet postings and chain emails, began to report that IN GOD WE TRUST was actually omitted from the new dollar coins.

Internet urban legend database posted a chain email that cries foul over the missing inscription. The email contains the factually inaccurate statement that one of the Presidents featured on the coins was responsible for the inscription being on our coins in the first place. The perceived attack on America’s religiosity moved some to boycott the coins (not that the Presidential dollar needed any help not circulating).

However, and also according to the site, the hysteria did result in the discovery of specimens of both the George Washington and John Adams coins with the motto missing from the rim. These so-called “Godless Dollars” were the result of mint errors, and not government policy.

Nevertheless, the meme reached the halls of Congress, where legislators amended the specifications of the Presidential dollar legislation by passing a rider in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2008. The rider ordered the Mint to move the inscription off of the rim and place it on either the obverse or reverse of the coins.


If religious tests are going to be the basis by which we judge a person’s fitness to hold elected office and serve the public good, then it’s no wonder why our Founders felt so strongly against the establishment of a national religion. It should also come as no surprise that they never intended our coinage to carry religious messages (we found no documentation saying otherwise).

Having grown up with IN GOD WE TRUST, we’ve never thought much about it, so in a way the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has a point. But what was really happening on our part was simply the unquestioned acceptance of an imagined homogeny. Now, with the 2008 election of Barack Obama standing as undeniable proof of long-term demographic change at work, we see factions that formerly enjoyed and leveraged their majority to institutionalize their religious views feeling threatened by groups of Americans who practice other faiths and belong to different cultures. The result so far has been histrionics and a race to pass bills that check future attempts by minority groups from somehow forcing their religious laws on everyone else. Take, for instance, efforts to ban the implementation of Sharia Law in states like Oklahoma and Tennessee.

Given that we currently have a two-party duopoly on government, with one party asserting its corner on all things religious, now would be a good time to remind ourselves of why our founders objected to such things. However well-intentioned the motto is, segments of our country now seek to politicize God for short-term, worldly gain. Lost in the tangle of national mottos and religion are two other mottos, longer in service and just as worthy: LIBERTY and E PLURIBUS UNUM.

Lost also might be the message of a certain Nazarene.


Speaking of Religion: At the height of the depression, the Roosevelt administration funded a settlement in Alaska, and offered settlers from Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota incentives to move to the great northern state and farm tracts of land allocated by the Department of the Interior. The program was called the Matanuska Valley Project. In 1935, several denominations of tokens were produced for the settlers to trade for supplies at the company store. Officially, these were Alaska Rural Rehabilitation Corporation tokens. Unofficially, they were referred to as Bingles, which is a reference to the Reverend Bert J. Bingle, a fellow settler and something of a father figure.

The dot you see on the left of a PCGS label when you hold the coin holder up to light? That’s where the label’s adhesive is located.

A variety you won’t see anymore: repunched mint marks (RPMs). Now that United States coins are made using a digital process, mintmarks are applied electronically and then hubbed as part of the coin’s main design. This means that we won’t be seeing any new instances of non-aligned mint mark punches.



[i] Thucydides. “Pericles’ Funeral Oration”, History of the Peloponnesian War (2.40). Trans. Rex Warner. London: Penguin Books, 1972. 147. Print.

[iv] Web. 11 Sept. 2012.

[v] Web. 11 Sept. 2012.

Steiner, Franklin. The Religious Beliefs of Our Presidents: From Washington to FDR. Prometheus Books, 1995. Print.

[vii] Aronow v. United States. 432 F. 2d 242. United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit. 1970. Web. 11 Sept. 2012.


Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker
Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker
Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker have been contributing authors on CoinWeek since 2012. They also wrote the monthly "Market Whimsy" column and various feature articles for The Numismatist and the book 100 Greatest Modern World Coins (2020) for Whitman Publishing.

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  1. The authors of this article have gone to no great lengths to conceal their personal political beliefs and have, unfortunately, produced a painfully slanted and biased article. I do appreciate the education regarding the history of the “In God We Trust” motto as for my whole lifetime I have heard Progressives and atheists decry its placement on our money as a “knee-jerk conservative reaction to social change that only dates back to the early 1950s.” It is nice to have the truth recognized that our current national motto has been in place on one form of currency or another for over 150 years! However the off-hand references to “separation of church & state” ignore the fact that our Founders desired no official state religion for the U.S., BUT they did not expect or desire a ban on all religious observance-of whatever variety- in our public spaces. Also, Sharia Law is inherently unconstitutional and would pose a threat to our religious and other freedoms under the Bill of Rights were it to be accepted within our borders. Finally, while Mr. Obama himself has not suggested that “IN GOD WE TRUST” be removed from our currency, members of Congress HAVE proposed such legislation numerous times over the past several decades and, to my knowledge-correct me if I’m wrong-all of those bills were originally proposed by Democrat members of the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives. BTW-it is historically inaccurate to infer that President Thomas Jefferson was not religious or a christian, though there have been many erroneously researched books claiming he was a Deist, etc. Jefferson was many things and among them he was a christian as were the majority, but not all, of the Founding Fathers…it never fails to amuse me how constantly folks choose to revise history when they have an axe to grind!

  2. Interesting article. I never quite understood in my life how Christians seem to always claim everything for themselves including our money and our country for that matter. Radicals like Christians should never be given the power of a country. As when this happens, people die and misery prevails. Just take a look through the history books. Christians are responsible for some of the most horrific things in our history. You see, for me it’s not the fact that our money bears the wording “In God We Trust”, it’s that this wording has been once again taken over by the Christians as they believe that only their idea of god is correct. When in fact, god has no religion! God is everything, everywhere. God is good and cannot be considered to be one who promotes violence against others, EVER! God is not Christian, never has been and never will be. God is now Jewish nor Hindu. God is of the whole universe and to think that god looks only upon our tiny pin prick of a planet among the entire universe is representative of such a narrow, small thinking species. Fortunately, we all are not of that nature.
    So to get back to the story, “In God We Trust” is not too far away from the point, but it has nothing to do with Christians no matter what they would have us believe.

  3. The history in this article is interesting, but the Republican bashing turns this into an unnecessarily partisan piece. I’d appreciate it if in the future this author tried to maintain a semblence of political neutrality.

  4. I invite those who not only disagree with our point of view, but also believe that even the effort of trying to explain the social motivations for the trench warfare that has enveloped our national political landscape to take a step back and see things through a more analytical lens.

    Speaking for myself, I have no desire to sequester cogent points in the event that some might disagree with me. The current “mini-controversy” regarding IGWT was established, as we have mentioned in our story by the Romney campaign at a stop in Virginia. These are facts. It is also a fact that a large part of the current Republican coalition is comprised of Evangelical Christians and that Mr. Romney’s stump speech was an attempt, cynical or not, to energize this segment of his base.

    We mention efforts legally to eliminate the motto but do not go to great lengths to mention bills that never came close to having the necessary support to become law. The only President to successfully (if you want to call it that) remove the motto was Theodore Roosevelt, and this was met by immediate Congressional rebuke.

    I invite those who wish to read more about Mr. Jefferson’s religious beliefs to follow this link to Monticello’s website.

    Hubert and I both attended the University of Virginia and consider Mr. Jefferson a personal friend, as such.

  5. Well written. I’d say as a freethinker I’d prefer that the “In God We Trust” motto wasn’t there and it certainly has no place being shoehorned into our secular republic. The supreme court case you mention that relegates it to ceremonial deism is important so that a precedent isn’t established by later court cases to further erode the first amendment. The choice of what goes on coins is fairly arbitrary and if everyone with an objection were satisfied I suppose you’d have nothing on the coins. For example some might object to Washington and Jefferson being on coins as they were slave holders. In reality personalities should have never made it to American coins. For example some wanted to put Reagan on the dime, but some thought that would be an insult to FDR. The Lincoln lobby is probably keeping the penny around longer than it should. E Pluribus Unum and the personification of liberty, the founders had it right.

  6. Say whatever you want but this has and will always be a Christian country. The mythical wall of separation from church and state is always taken out of context. Sure we were not going to make an official federal religion hence religious freedom. But it was never meant take God out of our daily life, walk, school, education, and law. Go to any monument, Library of Congress, or even the Supreme Court and you will see the Ten Commandments and Moses. Why are you so afraid of the Faith of our Fathers? Jefferson even said this which is inscribed on the Jefferson Memorial. “”God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. ” Amen.

  7. The authors make what I find to be an interesting and well-reasoned case. I followed the recent events closely and find what the authors said to be an accurate representation of what happened. It is the GOP candidate and other Republican politicians who seek to drive a wedge over religion by trying to act as if God is on their side. Otherwise, how do you explain the hyteria over “Godless dollars”? What was also interesting about Romney’s recent comments is that no mention whatsoever was made of the fact that it is the Congress that regulates the Mint and decides what mottos appear on our coinage and currency. Congress’ overturning of TR’s desires is a case in point. And it is simply undeniable that there has been an orchestrated campaign since the 2008 election to portray President Obama as “the other,” as un-American, as one of the them not us, as someone born somewhere other than America (depsite the fact that he would still be an American citizen even if he were born abroad because under US law he only needs one parent, in his case his mother, to have spent a certain number of years in the U.S. prior to his birth, which she had), as someone trying to impose Sharia Law because he is a secret Muslim, etc. Those are the facts, not political bias. And I do not know the authors.

  8. Don’t think you’ll have to worry about me coming to coin week website if all I’m going to get is a “BASHING” of political rhetoric. It would have a MUCH BETTER article if all they talked about was the motto, not someone’s political beliefs. Maybe the author’s should go back to college and learn how to write an essay on topic. OBTW, since you think shira law is the way to go, maybe you should relocate to one of the muslum countries. I’m sure you both will be thrilled.

  9. I think the authors were saying that when it comes to other religions that Americans want separation (ie Shariah Law) but when it comes to imposing a culturally dominant religion on others, this desire for keeping the government secular oftentimes falls by the wayside.

    It’s important also to remember that the Declaration of Independence states that rights are endowed by the creator. A close reading of the Constitution of the United States- our actual governing document- contains zero references to God.

    Also, the authors may find it interesting that there are other instances of religion finding its way into coins: churches are depicted on a handful of commemoratives, San Diego, Delaware and West Point being three that come to mind… and the Huguenot Walloon half dollar was made at the behest of a Church group in order to fund a church activity. In 1924 this was controversial stuff.

    I think it’s a good idea from time to time to look at how our ideals work in practice and I find no fault in the authors looking into the subject, even if its couched in their perspective- which doesn’t seem insulting to this Conservative.

  10. Gentlemen: The founding Fathers of your Great Nation has immense faith in God. They had chosen a correct motto IN GOD WE TRUST. President Eisenhower has wise said “Those country who do not have faith in God, will destroy them shelves” We saw it with U.S.S.R., communist country.

  11. I am a Christian, and I love seeing “In God We Trust” on our coinage. Adding my opinion to the other voices here, I think having the motto “In God We Trust” on our coinage does not constitute “an establishment of religion”, nor do I think it “prohibits the free exercise thereof”. While some see the motto as representing Christianity, it seems generic enough so that one could apply it to any faith. I certainly hope Americans of all faiths are interpreting the motto in a personal way. Of course, it obviously does not reflect the sentiments of agnostics or atheists. Although I love the motto, I think it would be cool if we had two varieties of each coin: One with the motto, and one without, as is the case with seated liberty coinage. Thanks for listening. I appreciate the thoughtful article, and the many comments that followed. Happy collecting.

  12. I was researching the phrase In God We Trust and when it appears on commemorative coins. The first example on these coins was 1915. The few before this coin have no IGWT.
    However the 1922 Grant commemorative skipped the phrase.
    Thought it was interesting and wanted to share.


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