There are few unmixed blessings. This was especially true 150 years ago, when “In God We Trust” was first placed on United States coins at the suggestion of a certain Delaware County minister. Looking back, one must embrace the circumstances under which it was done. It was a package deal—one of national devastation and 750,000 dead. It was all about religion.
Rev. Mark R. Watkinson probably would have agreed. In 1861, Watkinson was pastor of Ridleyville’s First Particular Baptist Church, now Prospect Park Baptist. That year, he wrote to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase. It was November of the year in which Ft. Sumter had fallen, and Union forces had been defeated at First Bull Run. Prospects for restoring the country seemed dim. Watkinson’s remedy: Add the words “God, Liberty, Law” to the national coinage.
“You are probably a Christian,” he said to Chase, asking how the United States would be remembered if Confederate secession was successful. “Would not the antiquaries of succeeding centuries rightly reason from our past that we were a heathen nation?”
Chase bought the logic, if not the wording. Raised by Episcopal bishop Philander Chase, he’d made a name for himself applying his religious views to the cause of abolition. Before joining the Lincoln cabinet, Chase regularly defended runaway slaves, and the white citizens who helped them, while denouncing fugitive-slave laws. Within the week, he wrote to James Pollock, director of the U.S. Mint: “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 was the right man for the job. A former Congressman and Pennsylvania governor, he was also vice president of the American Sunday School Union, a non-denominational group founded in 1790 to establish adult Sunday schools in rural communities. Pollock held that position for 35 years, and was also active in his local church. The director of the mint was, according to his 1890 obituary, “always eager to do the Lord’s business.”
Pollock’s credentials neatly illustrate the issue, according to historian David Goldfield. He believes the Civil War—and other 19th-century horrors—were the result of evangelical Christians pushing their views and their black-and-white analysis of issues into the public realm. “Evangelical Christianity’s influence was everywhere in the political arena, in discussions about the West, about Roman Catholics and especially about slavery,” wrote Goldfield. “What was troubling about this religious immersion was the blindness of its self-righteousness, its certitude and its lack of humility to understand that those who disagree are not mortal sinners and those who subscribe to your views are not saints.”
It began, Goldfield contends, with the Second Great Awakening, a Protestant revival of the early 1800s that rejected the skepticism, deism and rational Christianity of the Founders’ generation. The movement’s influence was particularly felt in Baptist and Methodist congregations, and in the passion for reform it encouraged to repair a sinful world before the Second Coming. The temperance crusade, nativism, woman’s rights and anti-slavery campaigns all date to this period. “Evangelical Protestantism in the South was more concerned with individual conversion,” he wrote. “Its adherents looked with alarm on the mixture of religion and politics brewing toxic potions in the North.”
Goldfield dates the political outbreak of evangelism to 1834, when a Protestant mob burned a Catholic convent at Charlestown, Mass. It was rumored that a Protestant woman was being held inside and tortured in order to change her religion. (She was actually a nun whose commitment had wavered, but returned to the convent voluntarily.) Thirteen rioters were charged, but only one was convicted—and he was pardoned.
Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher, co-founder of the American Temperance Society and father of Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe, condemned the destruction. But he did say that preventing the conversion of innocent Protestant girls was “a noble cause.”
Beecher’s activities within the Presby-terian Church led to its north-south split. “Catholics menaced not only the Revolutionary legacy, but also God’s plan for the New World,” wrote Goldfield in describing the widespread attitude at the time. “Evangelical Protestants believed that it was more than coincidence that the Reformation had followed closely upon the European discovery of America.”
Journalist John L. O’Sullivan coined the term “manifest destiny” to describe Americans’ responsibility to spread their government and religion far and wide to save mankind. Fulfilling this destiny meant removing those who stood in the way, an attitude demonstrated in the Mexican and Indian wars. Americans also justified the latter in religious terms, denigrating the “savages” as poor stewards of God’s creation and impediments to progress. Support for a transcontinental railroad was based largely on a desire to crush Indian resistance. Pollock was the first in Congress to advocate its construction.
Other than his proposal to treasury secretary, Rev. Watkinson left remarkably few historical footprints. He was born in New Jersey and prepared himself for the ministry at the University of Lewisburg (now Bucknell University) and Columbian College (now George Washington University). He was active in the American Baptist Missionary Union.
In 1850, Watkinson was living in the Spring Garden section of Philadelphia. He came to Ridleyville the following year. He was not yet ordained, and seems to have remained at First Particular until about the end of the Civil War. Oddly enough, though, the 1860 census taker found Watkinson and his entire family at Portsmouth, Va.
In 1865, Watkinson was back in New Jersey where, two years later, he led 47 members out of Camden’s Second Baptist Church to form a new congregation, which folded after his departure. He was in Baltimore by 1871, when a majority of the High Street Baptist congregation chose him as pastor. “The minority comprised the official and active portion of the church,” wrote G.F. Adams, author of an 1885 history of Baptist churches in Maryland. “Mr. Watkinson [hoped] to harmonize both sides.”
He resigned two years later. Following his departure, Watkinson was briefly pastor at a private chapel in Baltimore. He died in Philadelphia and is buried in Pemberton, N.J., where a plaque near his tombstone reads, “The world is blessed most by men who do things and not by those who merely talk about them.”
As for the wording on the coins, Congress gave the treasury secretary carte blanche. “In God We Trust” fit best. The phrase went first on one- and two-cent coins, and eventually on everything. In 1956, during the Cold War, Congress passed a joint resolution that made it the official national motto, also adding it to paper money.
By the time the phrase first appeared on coins, however, evangelical political fervor was falling out of favor. President Lincoln had declared Thanksgiving—previously a Protestant religious feast—a national holiday in 1863.
Then evangelicals petitioned for his support in modifying the opening paragraph of the Constitution to read, “We the people of the United States, humbly acknowledging Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the Ruler among the nations, His revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to form a more perfect union,” etc.
Lincoln was polite. “The general aspect of your movement I cordially approve,” he wrote in response. “In regard to particulars, I must ask time to deliberate, as the work of amending the Constitution should not be done hastily.”
According to Goldfield, the carnage of war had made Americans more skeptical of evangelical enthusiasms. In 1861, both sides had marched off sure that God was on their sides. A Louisiana woman described the conflict as “a Battle of the Cross against the modern barbarians.” In the North, thousands responded to Julia Ward Howe’s new Battle Hymn of the Republic, which urged Christ-like martyrdom: “As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.”
But, by 1864, that was a few hundred thousand corpses ago. In the South, Confederate chaplains struggled to explain how they were losing if God gave victory to His chosen people. “At the beginning of the war, every soldier had a Testament in his pocket,” lamented one. “Three years later, there were not half dozen in each regiment.”
It wasn’t loss of faith, said Goldfield. Americans are religious. Instead, it was a belief that God did not, after all, have His hand in the bloody war. The soldiers, and the country, just wanted to finish the job and go home. They had rejected the package deal.