In God we trust

By the Rev. John Zehring

In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust.
Psalm 56:4a

I grew up in a church where a previous pastor, a century and a half before me, was responsible for the motto on our nation’s money: “IN GOD WE TRUST.”

His name was Mark R. Watkinson. Born in 1824 New Jersey, Watkinson became a Baptist minister. In 1850, he began to serve First Particular Baptist Church, a small church in Ridleyville, Pa. Ordained in 1851, he stayed at Ridleyville a few more years before going to serve First Baptist Church of Richmond, Va. Watkinson was in Virginia when the Civil War broke out and, in 1861, returned as pastor to First Particular Baptist Church.

They were troubling times, the depths of which we can hardly imagine as the country was divided, and no one knew how it would turn out. Watkinson felt that the Civil War was going to leave the country with a bad name because of brother fighting brother. So Watkinson wrote to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, suggesting that a motto that recognized God be placed on U.S. coins. Over the years, others wrote similar letters; however, according to U.S. Treasury Department records, the first appeal — and the one that made the difference — came in a letter dated Nov. 13, 1861, from the Rev. M.R. Watkinson of Ridleyville.

Watkinson wrote, in part: “Dear Sir: You are about to submit your annual report to the Congress respecting the affairs of the national finances. One fact touching our currency has hitherto been seriously overlooked. I mean the recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins. 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?”

Watkinson proposed a motto on the coin recognizing God, arguing: “This would make a beautiful coin, to which 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.”

As a result, Chase instructed James Pollock, Director of the Mint at Philadelphia, to prepare a motto, in a letter dated Nov. 20, 1861: Dear Sir: 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.”

Two years later, the director of the Mint submitted designs for a new one-cent coin, two-cent coin and three-cent coin to the secretary for approval. He proposed that upon the designs should appear either OUR COUNTRY; OUR GOD; or GOD, OUR TRUST.

In a letter to the Mint director on Dec. 9, 1863, Chase stated: I approve your mottoes, only suggesting that on that with the Washington obverse the motto should begin with the word OUR, so as to read OUR GOD AND OUR COUNTRY. And on that with the shield, it should be changed so as to read: IN GOD WE TRUST.”

Congress approved, and the motto IN GOD WE TRUST first appeared on the 1864 two-cent coin just three years after Watkinson wrote his letter from Ridleyville. Over time, the motto was placed on all U.S. coins and, in 1957, was added to our paper money.

Watkinson died in 1878 at the age of 54. His contribution of the motto on U.S. currency was largely forgotten until the 1950s, when research uncovered his role. In April 1962, a plaque was placed at Watkinson’s church, now named Prospect Hill Baptist Church on Lincoln Avenue in Prospect Park, Pa. I was there that spring day as a teen in 1962. That was my church. I spent the first years of my life in Prospect Park, lived a block away from the church, was baptized there, went to church school there, headed up the youth group there, and have even preached there.

It’s hard to grow up in the shadow of the origin of our currency’s motto IN GOD WE TRUST without incorporating that motto into daily thoughts. Psalm 56 proclaims: “In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust” — a frequent phrase in the Psalms.

Consider a few others:

  • “I trust in you, O LORD; I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your hand” (Psalm 31:14–15a).
  • “Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him. God is a refuge for us” (Psalm 62:8).
  • “You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the LORD, ‘My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust’” (Psalm 91:1–2).
  • “Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act” (Psalm 37:5).

The message of the Psalms and the message printed on our money reminds us that you can trust in God. Watkinson felt the nation needed that message during a time that was possibly the most divided time on our country’s history. Now, once again, polarization, divisiveness and partisanship wring goodness out of our nation. How urgently we need to hear once again that even in bad times — especially in bad times — our trust is in God.

The Rev. John Zehring has served United Church of Christ congregations for 22 years as a pastor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. He is author of more than 30 books and e-books. His most recent book from Judson Press is “Beyond Stewardship: A Church Guide to Generous Giving Campaigns.”

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.