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.”