The phrase “In God We Trust” first appeared on U.S. coins during the Civil War.
The idea came from a letter that Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase got from an influential Pennsylvania minister named Reverend M. R. Watkinson. “You are probably Christian,” Watkinson wrote.
“One fact touching our currency has hitherto been seriously overlooked. I mean the recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins.”
Watkinson advocated replacing the “goddess of liberty” with a more Christian-friendly design, adding that “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.”
Then, as now, politicians knew the danger of alienating religious folk. While Chase disregarded Watkinson’s design suggestions, he took the idea of putting some sort of religious inscription on the coins.
Chase requested that his staff come up with the shortest possible motto so it would fit onto the coins. Although “Yay, God!” would’ve been shorter, he finally settled on “In God We Trust,” figuring it was short enough, dignified, more or less nondenominational, and it came from a verse of the Star Spangled Banner to boot (“and this be our motto / ‘In God is Our Trust’ “).
Chase authorized adding the phrase to some of the existing coin designs.
Chase left office, and the designs of coins continued to change in the following years. With the war over, the slogan appeared on some coins and didn’t on others, according to the whims of coin designers and politicians.
In the early 1900s, Teddy Roosevelt tried to get the slogan banned. Finally, though, in 1954, during the height of McCarthyism, overenthusiastic anti-Communists passed a law mandating that the phrase must appear on America’s money. At about the same time, the zealots also added the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance.
Both actions were designed to make it easy to differentiate the good, God-fearing Americans from those godless communists.