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How did those words get on our money?
From the US Treasury's website:
From Treasury Department records it appears that the first suggestion that God be recognized on U.S. coinage can be traced to a letter addressed to the Secretary of Treasury from a minister in 1861. An Act of Congress, approved on April 11, 1864, authorized the coinage of two-cent coins upon which the motto first appeared.
The motto was omitted from the new gold coins issued in 1907, causing a storm of public criticism. As a result, legislation passed in May 1908 made "In God We Trust" mandatory on all coins on which it had previously appeared.
Legislation approved July 11, 1955, made the appearance of "In God We Trust" mandatory on all coins and paper currency of the United States. By Act of July 30, 1956, "In God We Trust" became the national motto of the United States.
Several years ago, the appearance of "In God We Trust" on our money was challenged in the federal courts. The challenge was rejected by the lower federal courts, and the Supreme Court of the United States declined to review the case.
The first directions as to mottoes on currency were given in Statute II, Chapt. II, January 18, 1837, "An Act supplementary to the act entitled 'An Act establishing a mint, and regulating the coins of the United States.'" In it (a) Sec. 2, Sixth read:
"The engraver shall prepare and engrave, with the legal devices and inscriptions, all the dies used in the coinage of the mint and its branches."
And Sec. 13 read:
"And be it further enacted, That upon the coins struck at the mint there shall be the following devices and legends; upon one side of each of said coins there shall be an impression emblematic of liberty, with an inscription of the word LIBERTY, and the year of the coinage; and upon the reverse of each of the gold and silver, there shall be the figure or representation of an eagle, with the inscription United States of America, and a designation of the value of the coin; but on the reverse of the dime and half dime, cent and half cent, the figure of the eagle shall be omitted."
The coinage was totally secular; as clean from a mention of god as was the Constitution.
As the theistic community grew, its power grew so that by the pre-Civil War days church membership was up to 23 percent. hoping to overcome the 'omission' of god from the Constitution, on February 3, 1863, 11 Protestant denominations organized the National Reform Association whose primary mission was to amend the Constitution of the United States to "declare the nation's allegiance to Jesus Christ," to "indicate that this is a Christian nation," and to "undeniably" put the "legal basis" of the land on "Christian laws, institutions and usages." the Association formally petitioned Congress to amend the Preamble of the Constitution so as 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 constitute a Christian government, and in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to ourselves, our posterity, and all the people, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."
Fortunately, the "Christian amendment" never succeeded in obtaining either approval of Congress or any state. the National Reform Association continued its efforts into the 20th century when it still had registered lobbyists up to the late '50s. The NRA attracted eminent men into its ranks in 1863; a Supreme Court Justice [Strong], a couple of Pennsylvania governors [Geary and Pollock], Harvey of Kansas, Stewart of Vermont and the Commissioner of Public Schools of Rhode Island to name a few.
Pollock, who became Director of the Mint, figures largely in placing the motto "In God We Trust" on U.S. coins. What those who advocated the "Christian amendment" could not do overtly with the support of the electorate, was accomplished covertly, through the determination of one of their members.
Since the Act of 1837 proscribed any mottoes other than those enacted, Pollock and his pals slipped in a seemingly innocuous amendment to the Act in the form of "An Act in Amendment of an Act entitled, 'An Act Relating to Foreign Coins and the Coinage of Cents at the Mint of the United States,' approved February twenty-one, eighteen hundred and fifty-seven," was passed by Congress on April 22, 1864. That Act read as follows:
"Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of American in Congress assembled, that, from and after the passage of this act, the standard weight of the cent coined at the mint of the United States shall be forty-eight grains, or one tenth of one ounce troy; and said cent shall be composed of ninety-five per centum of tin and zinc, in such proportions as shall be determined by the director of the mint; and there shall be from time to time struck and coined at the mint a two-cent piece of the same composition, the standard weight of which shall be ninety-six grains, or one fifth of one ounce troy, with no greater deviation than four grains to each piece of said cent and two-cent coins; and the shape, mottoes and devices of said coins shall be fixed by the director of the Mint, with the approval of the Secretary of the Treasury; and the laws now in force relating to the coinage of cents and providing for the purchase of material and prescribing the appropriate duties of the officers of the mint and the Secretary of the Treasury be, and the same are hereby, extended to the coinage provided for."
Pollock now had carte blanche to Christianize our coins. He minted 26+ million two-cent pieces with his motto. Next came "An Act to authorize the Coinage of Three-Cent pieces, and for other Purposes," passed by Congress on March 3, 1865, Section Five of that Act being:
And be it further enacted, That, in addition to the devices and legends upon the gold, silver, and other coines [sic] of the United States, it shall be lawful for the director of the mint, with the approval of the Secretary of the Treasury, to cause the motto 'In God We Trust' to be placed upon such coins hereafter to be issued as shall admit of such legend thereon."
The motto was applied here and there to various denominations of coin after 1866. President Teddy Roosevelt commissioned an artist to design new coins in 1905 and the artist disliked the inartistic intrusion of the god motto and opted for 'E Pluribus Unum' which Roosevelt also liked. Roosevelt tried to have the motto removed, saying that it was offensive to truly religious people, that it cheapened religion, etc, but Congress refused to remove it, and so it remains to this day.
The first coins with that motto were issued in 1907.
When religious factions discovered that the religious motto had been replaced by a more proper and secular motto a political hot potato resulted.
Chronology of Religious Measures Introduced in Congress between 1888 - 1910, especially that portion beginning with the Sixtieth Congress -- First Session https://members.tripod.com/~candst/law1888.htm
Eventually Congress passed Public Law No. 120 making it a law that motto would be on the coins.
The first coin minted with the legalized motto was the Lincoln penny of 1909.