The Origins of ‘In God We Trust’

Historian Thomas Foster writes about the history of the motto of the United States, particularly the fact that the founding fathers tasked with putting together a national seal and motto explicitly rejected religious themes in favor of a secular one.

In July 1776, almost immediately after signing the Declaration of Independence, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson were tasked with designing a seal and motto for the new nation. In August John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, that he had proposed the “Choice of Hercules” as the image for the seal. Adams believed that individuals should choose to lead moral personal lives and to devote themselves to civic duty, and he preferred a secular allegory for that moral lesson.

The other two committee members proposed images that drew on Old Testament teachings, but neither shared the beliefs of those today who assert the role of God in our national government. Benjamin Franklin, a deist who did not believe in the divinity of Christ, proposed “Moses lifting up his Wand, and dividing the Red Sea, and Pharaoh, in his Chariot overwhelmed with the Waters.” This motto he believed, captured the principle that “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”

Thomas Jefferson, who later created his own Bible by cutting out all mentions of the miracles of Jesus Christ (as well as his divine birth and resurrection), envisioned “The Children of Israel in the Wilderness, led by a Cloud by day, and a Pillar of Fire by night, and on the other Side Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon Chiefs, from whom We claim the Honour of being descended and whose Political Principles and Form of Government We have assumed.” Of all of his accomplishments, Jefferson selected just three for his tombstone, one of which was writing the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which established a separation of church and state.

The three men worked in consultation with an artist, Eugène Pierre Du Simitière, who rejected all of the ideas of the three committee members. His own first attempt was also rejected by Congress. It would take years and several more committees before Congress would approve the final design, still in use today, of an American bald eagle clutching thirteen arrows in one talon and an olive branch in the other.

Only the motto “E Pluribus Unum” (“from many, one”) survived from the committee on which Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin had served. All had agreed on that motto from the beginning.

“In God We Trust” first began to appear on a few coins during the Civil War and was adopted as the national motto by Congress in 1956, at the height of our “we have to get those godless commies” zeitgeist.

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  • Michael Heath

    I’m always chagrined that history lessons like this one require so much framing to distinguish the difference between someone smartly promoting an idea based on the lessons we learn from our myths from those who contemporaneously exploit such opportunities. Where these contemporaries’ obvious motivation is to falsely claim our ancestors were promoting their orthodox beliefs assumed by faith alone as objective truth.

  • Chiroptera

    The other main motto that appears with the nations seal is “Novus Ordo Seclorum,” which translates as “The New Order of the Age.” Pretty secular, if you ask me.

    About the closest religiously themed motto would be “Annuit Coeptis” which means, “He approves of the undertakings.” Interestingly, no hint that his approval was sought to begin with.

    (Translations courtesy of Wikipedia.)

  • abb3w

    An “-orum” ending is plural; thus, “ages”.

    Annuit cœptis is a bit more discreet in its religiosity than the current motto. It might make for an interesting entry to the meme wars for someone to push to replace “In God we trust” with “Annuit cœptis” as the motto “the way the founders wanted it”.

  • I’ve taken a new habit… of striking out, with a Sharpie marker, that offensive term from all my paper money.

    I don’t care how “passive-aggressive” or “childish” some may think that is… our legal tender should not endorse religion of any kind.

  • Thanks for reminding me, slydog. I need to correct a bunch of ones I got from breaking a 20.

  • @slydog… what is this paper money you speak of? All my money says is VISA.

  • I’d find it more acceptable (at least on money) if they added what must surely have been in the backs of the minds of the Congress “…all others pay cash!”

  • I bet if people started crossing off “god” and writing “allah” there’d be wingnut frenzy a’plenty. And then rational people could say “maybe we could lose that slogan completely.”

  • Pierce R. Butler

    In what way does the story of Hercules, son of a god (and a dubious role model), qualify as a “secular allegory”?

  • dan4

    I would think a better motto reflecting America’s battle against the (now former) USSR would have been “In Capitalism We Trust.”

  • lofgren

    In what way does the story of Hercules, son of a god (and a dubious role model), qualify as a “secular allegory”?

    I think you’ll have a hard time arguing that it was an attempt to proselytize the glory of Zeus by the time the 18th century rolled around, let alone the 19th. A god who has been demoted to a fairy tale becomes secular. Whether you’re a Barton fan or a Rhodda fan I think we can agree that the risk of ancient Greek becoming a state-sponsored religion was relatively slight.

  • Chris from Europe


    Why not “In Liberalism We Trust”? Capitalism would be less clear regarding invidual liberty.

  • Midnight Rambler

    “In God We Trust” first began to appear on a few coins during the Civil War and was adopted as the national motto by Congress in 1956, at the height of our “we have to get those godless commies” zeitgeist.

    It first shows up prominently, though, in one of the later, more jingoistic verses of “The Star-Spangled Banner”:

    Bless’d with victory and peace, may the heav’n rescued land

    Praise the power that hath made, and preserved us a nation

    So conquer we must, when our cause it is just,

    And this be our motto, ‘In God is our trust’

  • bad Jim

    My childish attack on our sacred currency is to amend the motto with a green fine tip artist’s pen, adding letters here and there. My current favorite is WINEGODSWEPTRUST, which could be either “Wine gods wept rust” or “Wine god swept rust”.

    Although it was more satisfying to hand my 4yo nephew a marker and a stack of twenties and show him what to do, my current course is more discreet.

  • bad Jim

    NINEGODSWENTRUSTY (Nine gods went rusty) is mildly amusing if you’ve ever confronted the problem of exactly which Greek gods belonged to the canonical twelve, or tried to decide how the commandments are divided into ten.

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