The Origin of “In God We Trust”

tags: religion, In God We Trust

Thomas S. Kidd teaches history and is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, and the author of God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution (Basic Books, 2010). 

The national motto “In God We Trust” has a complicated and contested history. Even though the phrase first appeared on American coins during the Civil War, it was only officially adopted as the national motto in 1956, during the Cold War era.

Where did the phrase come from before the Civil War? There seems little doubt that it became more prominent in American parlance because of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” penned in 1814 by Francis Scott Key, which in its (almost never sung) fourth verse says “And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.” Not quite “In God We Trust,” but close enough. Of course, even the “Star-Spangled Banner” did not become the national anthem until 1931, and I defer to more knowledgeable folks about whether the fourth verse was ever commonly sung.

So the puzzle remains – was “In God We Trust” a well-known motto from the colonial period to the Civil War? I raise the question because in my research for my biography of Benjamin Franklin I came across an unexpected reference to the phrase. In a list of regimental banners for Franklin’s volunteer Pennsylvania militia of 1747-1748, sticking out like a sore thumb, is one with “a coronet and plume of feathers,” with the motto “IN GOD WE TRUST.”

These banners were designed and sewn by supportive women in Philadelphia, and most of them contained biblical or classical allusions or Latin sayings. Where did they get this English motto, then? Latin phrases like “In Deo confidimus” certainly appeared in widely-available texts, but that does not explain why “In God We Trust” appeared in English on this 1748 banner, unlike many of the other banners which featured untranslated Latin.

Of course, the King James Bible is always a likely source for any such saying, but the KJV never quite gets around to saying “In God We Trust.” One of the closest verses is 2 Corinthians 1:9, which has all the elements of the motto, but not in order. (“We had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead.”) My colleague Philip Jenkins (thank you Philip!) points out that some ‘metrical psalters‘ rendered Psalm 56:11 as “In God I trust; I will not fear,” which only required the exchange of ‘we’ for ‘I’ to produce the motto.

I have done some searching on digital collections of 17th and 18th century imprints and newspapers for similar uses of “In God We Trust” as a motto. It only appears occasionally, such as in a 1762 paraphrase of Psalm 73, but even there it is not really a motto but part of a longer verse.

This is a real puzzle, and please do weigh in with comments if you have tips on early and influential uses of the phrase. Based on its appearance on the regimental banner, we can reasonably surmise that it was a known, if not ubiquitous motto in 18th century Anglo-America, but one that hardly ever made it into print until “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

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