The Currency of Faith


How one man put God into circulation.

Fifty years ago, the phrase "In God We Trust" first appeared on our nation's one-dollar bill. But long before the motto was signed into law by President Eisenhower, it was considered for U.S. coins during the divisive years of the Civil War.

On Nov.†13, 1861, in the first months of the war, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase received the following letter from a Rev. M.R. Watkinson: "Dear Sir, 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 now shattered beyond reconstruction? Would not the antiquaries of succeeding centuries rightly reason from our past that we were a heathen nation?"

The clergyman surmised correctly. Chase was indeed a Christian.

As a young man at Dartmouth College, Chase had described himself as skeptical of the Christian faith. He had written to a friend, Tom Sparhawk, in 1826: "A [religious] revival has commenced here [at Dartmouth]. I was not taught to believe much in the efficacy of such things but I do not know enough concerning their effects to oppose them." Not only did Chase tolerate Dartmouth's revival of 1826, but he emerged as one of 12 new followers of Christ. As Chase wrote to another acquaintance in April of that year, "It has pleased God in his infinite mercy to bring me .†.†. to the foot of the cross and to find acceptance through the blood of His dear Son."

While the thought of a revival at an Ivy League school seems odd today, they were relatively commonplace back then. Like his contemporaries, Dartmouth President Bennet Tyler believed in the importance of integrating faith, virtue and knowledge: "As the obligations of morality are founded in religion, so also the only efficacious motives to a virtuous life are derived from the same source. The man who discards all religious belief .†.†. knows no law but his own inclination, and has no end in view but present gratification." As Chase would write to Sparhawk one year later: "Remember too that the religion of the Bible is the religion I would recommend .†.†. and I would wish you to make that book your counselor and your guide never forgetting to implore the teachings of the Holy Spirit of Truth."

Chase wrote the following to the director of the Mint in Philadelphia: "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."

Chase's relationship and trust in God would put him on a path that would affect both him and the country in the years to come. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa, Chase became a lawyer. Believing slavery to be a sin, he defended many escaped slaves in his early years of practice in Cincinnati. He tried to argue, for instance, against the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 on the grounds that Ohio was admitted to the Union as a free state and not allowed to have slaves based on the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Chase eventually gained the nickname "attorney general for runaway Negroes." He embraced the title (which was intended to be an insult) and went on to fight the institution of slavery while serving first as a U.S. senator and then as the governor of Ohio.

When then-Secretary Chase was chosen by President Lincoln to serve as chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1864, he appointed the first black lawyer to argue before the Supreme Court. And in an 1865 letter to black Americans in New Orleans, Chase encouraged "the constant practice of Christian virtues" to combat "unjust hostility" and "prejudice."

Given the association of his name with Chase Manhattan, however, Salmon P. Chase is largely remembered for his role as secretary of the Treasury from 1861 to 1864. Seven days after reading the 1861 letter from the Pennsylvania pastor, Chase wrote the following to the director of the Mint in Philadelphia: "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."

It was several years in the making, but on March†3, 1865, Congress passed a bill calling for "In God We Trust" to be inscribed on U.S. coins. It would be one of the last acts President Lincoln signed into law.



John Andrew Murray. "The Currency of Faith." The Wall Street Journal (November 30, 2007).

Reprinted by permission of the Wall Street Journal and the author, John Andrew Murray.


John Andrew Murray holds a B.A. from Vanderbilt University and an M.A.L.S. from Dartmouth College.† He has been in the education world for 15 years, serving in the Headmaster role for the last seven. While at Dartmouth, Murray wrote his masterís thesis on the history of American higher education from 1636 to 1933.† Entitled The Cross in the Ivy, his work explored the Christian history of the Eastern and Ivy League colleges and how they became secularized.†† Murray is also the writer and director of the award-winning film Think About It: Understanding the Impact of TV/Movie Violence.† It comes with a faith-based/public school discussion guide which allows teachers to tailor their presentation to their respective audiences.

Copyright © 2007 Wall Street Journal

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