My writing interests are general, with expertise in science, history, biographies, and “how-to” topics. I have written over seventy books.
If you have looked at a coin or a bill in your billfold or purse, you have probably seen the legend “In God We Trust” somewhere on the currency. In our increasingly secular age, where did the reference to God come from? There is an interesting story behind these four words that appear on billions of coins and Federal Reserve Notes issued by the United States government.
A Call to the Almighty
God is never dead in times of war. That was apparent in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when “God Bless America” became a national hymn, just as it had been in the depths of the two previous World Wars. War stirs the hearts and souls of soldiers—and nations—to seek hope and solace in the bosom of religion. It was in the early 1860s, when America was nearly torn apart during the Civil War—another event that sent Americans searching for consolation and guidance from above.
In 1863, The U.S. Treasury wanted coinage to be spent, not saved. By the beginning of that year, virtually all U.S. government coinage had vanished from circulation as frightened Americans hoarded it compulsively. An even more devastating crisis was averted when resourceful entrepreneurs devised a clever replacement: They issued bronze tokens that carried an implied—or even explicit—promise of redemption in goods, services or money. These “Civil War tokens” enjoyed broad acceptance and served for the duration as a useful substitute for money.
Problems with Money
In most cases, Civil War tokens had the same diameter as the Indian Head cents being minted by the government. They were thinner, though. Rather than being made of a copper-nickel alloy, like the Indian cents of the day, they were bronze. By using cheaper metal and smaller amounts, the merchants who issued the tokens could achieve a greater profit—and because bronze is more malleable, production was easier. The coin minting facilities of the government were not sufficient to keep up with the demand for coinage.
It had long been assumed that Americans would reject debased coinage—coins whose face value greatly exceeded the value of the metal they contained. The initial success of the small-size cent upon its introduction in 1857 suggested that the populace was willing to accept a tradeoff in the case of the “penny,” giving up full value in return for greater convenience. Only after seeing the bronze tokens’ liquidity did government officials fully grasp how far money-starved Americans would go to keep the lines of commerce moving. Mint Director James Pollock noted this in his annual report of October 1, 1863. “Whilst people expect a full value in their gold and silver coins,” Pollock wrote, “they merely want the inferior money for convenience in making exact payments and not at all for the value of the copper, tin or nickel which may be present.” He went on to propose that the cent’s metal content be modified so that it “shall be composed of 95 per cent copper; remainder, tin and zinc in suitable proportions.”
The Two-Cent Coin is Born
Just three months later, Pollock sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase in which he urged not only a metallic makeover for the cent but also the authorization of a new coin—a two-cent coin—of the same bronze composition. He reasoned that thinner cents made of bronze, modeled after the popular Civil War tokens, would help overcome the coin shortage through the sheer volume that could be pumped into circulation, especially when paired with a two-cent piece doing double the work. Events soon proved him right: Following their issuance in 1864, the new coins won ready acceptance and reestablished a presence for federal coinage, effectively supplanting the substitute money. This popularity was short-lived.
The making of the two-cent piece with the motto “In God We Trust” appears to have been a marriage of convenience. Since early in the war, Secretary Chase had been pondering the placement of some such inscription on one or more U.S. coins, and the two-cent piece—because it was brand new—made this possible without undue disruption. Up to then, U.S. coinage had never made mention of a supreme being, but the strong religious fervor born of the Civil War created a climate conducive to the use of such a motto.
Historians credit a Baptist minister, the Reverend Mark R. Watkinson of Ridleyville, Pennsylvania, with planting the seed that led to this unprecedented action. In a letter to Secretary Chase in 1861, Watkinson urged that provision be made for “the recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins. This,” he said, “would relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism. This would place us openly under the Divine protection we have personally claimed.”
The seeds of change evidently took root, for as discussions proceeded on a possible two-cent piece, Chase made a point of calling for the placement of some such motto on the coin. The exact wording “In God We Trust” didn’t come from Watkinson; rather, it evolved as the coin-design process moved along. Initially, Mint Chief Engraver James Barton Longacre fashioned two pattern two-cent pieces bearing not only dissimilar designs but also different inscriptions. One of the patterns featured a right-facing portrait of George Washington on the obverse, with the words “God and Our Country” above the bust. The other design, which was adopted, depicted a simple shield with crossed arrows running through it; above this, a scroll proclaimed, “God Our Trust.” On both patterns, and on the coin itself, the reverse was dominated by the statement of value, “2 Cents,” within a wreath of wheat, encircled by the words “United States of America.” Compared to some of the other more artistic coins produced by the mint, the two-cent coin was rather plain, but it filled the void at the time.
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“In God We Trust” Becomes Americana
Over the years, the motto “In God We Trust” was added progressively to other U.S. coins as well. It has appeared on every denomination since 1938, when the Buffalo nickel, the last coin lacking this inscription, gave way to the Jefferson version, which ironically honors a man viewed by some as an atheist. The Jefferson nickel is the five-cent coin issued today by the United States mint. The motto’s use wasn’t mandated until 1908, and even then, the order applied only to gold and silver coins. It wasn’t until 1955 that Congress enacted legislation requiring the inscription on all U.S. coins and paper money.
In the long term, the two-cent piece was a coin of no great consequence. It was minted for just 10 years, in quantities that dwindled annually, and in its final year, it wasn’t even made for circulation, being produced exclusively in a proof version meant for collectors. Most people don’t even know that a two-cent coin was ever minted. Its long-range significance has been tremendous, though, for this was the coin that introduced the motto “In God We Trust.”
If you want to own a historic two-cent coin, they aren’t as expensive as you might guess. You can pick one up at your local coin shop or on eBay for around $20. A coin in uncirculated condition will cost over a $100.
- Taxay, Don. The U.S. Mint and Coinage: An Illustrated History from 1776 to the Present. Arco Publishing Company, Inc. New York. 1966.
- Garrett, Jeff (Senior Editor) and R.S. Yeoman. A Guide Book of United States Coins 2021. 74th edition. Whitman Publishing, LLC. 2029.
- West, Doug. Coinage of the United States: A Short History. C&D Publications. 2015.
© 2017 Doug West
Doug West (author) from Missouri on September 29, 2017:
That is unusual to find an Indian Head cent in your change. Someone must have pilfered a coin collection and just spent the money. Coin dealers typically pay 50 to 75 cents each for the 1907 cent in Good condition.
Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on September 29, 2017:
Hi Doug - interesting background on one of those things we just take for granted. Oddly enough, I recently found one of those old Indian head pennies in my purse, I got it in change at a store! It's dated 1907 and is in between good and fine condition.
Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on January 01, 2017: