The words “under God” have been part of America’s fabric since its inception; any school child will recognize the words in the Pledge of Allegiance. But did the Founding Generation use this phrase the same way we do today?
In 1775, Col. Benedict Arnold led a detachment of Continental forces into Canada. George Washington admonished Arnold to respect all the people of Canada, as “the Success of this Enterprize (under God) depends wholly upon . . . the favourable Disposition of the Canadians & Indians.” George Washington often used the phrase “under God.” In his General Orders for July 2, 1776, Washington reminded his troops, “The fate of unborn Millions will now depend, under God, on the Courage and Conduct of this army.” Washington counseled Col. Fisher Gay: “Your own Reputation—the safety of the Army, & the good of the Cause depends, under God, upon our vigilance & Readiness.” In July 1776, Washington observed that the safety of the United States “depends (under God) solely on the success of our arms.”
Americans also used “under God” in their messages to George Washington. Edward Rutledge, one of the South Carolina delegates to the Continental Congress, wrote to Washington, “Our Reliance continues. . . to be (under God) on your Wisdom & Fortitude & that of your Forces.” Asa Douglas compared Washington to Parliamentarian Oliver Cromwell, whose takeover of England led to the 1649 execution of King Charles I. Douglas exclaimed, “Great Cromwell, under God, I rest upon you to save this country from ruin!”
In practice, “under God,” meant “after God” or “other than God.” Depending on the moment, the Revolution’s only hope, other than God, was the strength of the currency, the conduct of the army, or the wisdom of George Washington. In 1777, for instance, John Adams wrote, “The success of our Cause appears to me to depend intirely, under God, on our Supporting the Credit of our Currency.”
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) offers two definitions for “under God.” The first is “under God” denoting rank. On a ship, as any sailor knows, there was God and then, immediately under God, the captain. Second, “under God” indicates a person or thing that is a secondary cause, or a secondary recipient of thanks. This second meaning of “under God” can also signify “with God’s permission.” In this respect, “under God” was an apotropaic measure (having the power to avoid evil or bad luck) analogous to “God willing” (Deo volente in Latin, inshallah in Arabic). Such precautionary sayings avert misfortune by blunting excessive praise or tempering high expectations.
On October 18, 1774, the Continental Congress approved a plan for a Continental Association to enforce a boycott of British goods. The measure called for local committees on the town or county level. Each committee was to monitor residents, publish the names of residents buying British goods, and announce a boycott of offenders. Over the course of 1775, Americans pledged their support for the congressional boycott of British imports, producing a number of documents that often featured the phrase “under God.”
In the founding charters of local and provincial associations, Americans often invoked the phrase “under God.” On January 12, 1775, for instance, the Committee of Darien, Georgia, established a committee of the Continental Association, “Being persuaded that the salvation of the Rights and Liberties of America depend, under God, on the firm union of its inhabitants.” Likewise, the May 4, 1775, town meeting of Newark, New Jersey, also established a committee of the Continental Association, “firmly convinced that the very existence of the rights and liberties of America can, under God, subsist on no other basis than the most animated and perfect union of its inhabitants.”
A search of two databases for “under God” in documents from 1776 confirmed a marked preference in the Founding Generation. Of forty-four usages of “under God,” a total of thirty-two (seventy-three percent) signify a secondary recipient of thanks, “after God” or “other than God.” Preaching before the General Assembly of Connecticut, Rev. Judah Champion assured officers of the militia, “Your country reposes the highest confidence (under GOD) in your wisdom, prudence . . . and heroic valour.” In other words, the country put its greatest faith, after God, in the officer corps. Likewise, Rev. Eleazar Wheelock said of American unity, “the continuance of it will, under GOD, be our best defence and security.” In other words, the best protection, other than God, is unity. Seven (almost sixteen percent) of the references suggested God willing or with God’s permission. Gen. Griffith Rutherford, for example, pleaded with the North Carolina Council of Safety, “Pray, gentlemen . . . send us plenty of powder, and I hope, under God, we of Salisbury district are able to stand them.” Three references proved too ambiguous to assign only one connotation exclusively. One reference signified an oath or exclamation comparable to “by God!” Samuel West exclaimed, “UNDER GOD, every person in the community ought to contribute his assistance” to the resistance movement. Another single usage was an identification of rank. This was a customary bill of lading (i.e., a list of items in a shipment). In the standard phrasing of a bill a lading, the document identified the captain as “master, under God” of a ship. A few documents used “under God” more than once. Rev. Samuel West, for instance, used “under God” three times in one sermon, and he used the phrase a different way each time.
With the Treaty of Paris (1783), Britain recognized the independence of the United States. Americans acknowledged any human contribution to the Revolution as secondary to God. Delivering a sermon in Lexington, Massachusetts, in 1783, Rev. Zabiel Adams told members of the local militia, “To your conduct, under GOD, we are much indebted for the present independent station we hold among the nations of the earth.”
Americans gave much credit to Washington, while still recognizing his secondary role. In August 1783, for instance, a town meeting of Killingworth, Connecticut, declared that Washington “may justly be reputed under God, the saviour and deliverer of his country.” In a 1783 address to Washington, the trustees and faculty of the University of Pennsylvania wrote, “Long may you live, to enjoy the . . . prosperity and peace, which your arms have, under God, given to America.”
During the American Civil War (1861–1865), Unionists and secessionists agreed on the meaning of “under God.” In an 1861 letter to a Raleigh, North Carolina, newspaper, “J.B.” declared himself “devotedly attached to the Union, which under God, has been instrumental in giving us civil and religious liberty.” In an 1862 tract, Rev. James Henley Thornwell called on men to enlist in Confederate ranks. Since the Confederacy could not depend on foreign assistance, Thornwell asked his readers “to see that all under God, depends on ourselves.” Abraham Lincoln reportedly used “under God” in the Gettysburg Address (November 19, 1863), but whether or not he did, its distinction by commas in his handwritten recreation of the speech concurs with contemporary usage, when he hoped, “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom. . . .”
Only in the twentieth century did “under God” lose its earlier meaning when the words became a component of longer slogans rather than a parenthetical expression. In 1934, the National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ) launched an annual observance of “Brotherhood Day” to combat religious bigotry. In 1936, Brotherhood Day became “Brotherhood Week.” In the 1940s, the NCCJ repeatedly made “brotherhood under God” the theme of Brotherhood Week. Sermons, speeches, and newspaper columns promoted “brotherhood under God.” In 1945, influential syndicated journalist Jay Franklin supported the effort by promoting “brotherhood under God” over the “racial supremacy embraced by Germany and Japan.”
In 1951, pastoral organization Spiritual Mobilization used its magazine and its national radio show to promote the week of July 4th as “Freedom Under God Week.” Over the next several years, Spiritual Mobilization continued Freedom Under God Week as an annual event. Throughout the early 1950s, several governors and hundreds of mayors issued proclamations honoring “Freedom Under God Week.”
In February 1953, Washington, DC, powerbroker fellowship organization The Family held the first National Prayer Breakfast. The theme of the event was “Government Under God.” The Committee on the Uniform Series, a source of pastoral Bible study plans since 1872, established the sermon subject for Sunday, December 6, 1953, as “Government Under God.” Across the United States, Protestant clergy of various denominations delivered sermons on the theme. As a rebuttal to “godless” communism during the Cold War, Americans welcomed nonsectarian acknowledgements of God.
In 1954, the Senate and the House of Representatives passed a joint resolution adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the change into law on Flag Day, June 14, 1954. Almost immediately, “one nation under God” became a popular compound phrase that no longer reflected the Founding Generation’s usage of “under God.” Newspapers branded the change with the headline, “One Nation Under God.”
Harry S. Truman was the last president who consistently used “under God” as the Founders did. By the time Truman left office in 1953, the older usage retired with him. Through radio, print, and sermons, recurring public awareness campaigns conditioned Americans to think of “under God” as merely a component of slogans like “brotherhood under God,” or “freedom under God,” or “one nation under God.” In 1776, however, “under God” was the Founding Generation’s equivalent of “after God” or “God willing.” How different is the meaning of “one nation, God willing, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”? Is there a simple piousness reflected in Revolutionary-era usage that has been lost to the certitude of our own? Nevertheless, words and phrases can change meaning or become lost over time, a natural reflection of a “living language;” all of us can immediately think of words that now have different meanings than before. Historians understand that this is an important consideration in any attempt to interpret past events or intentions.
George Washington to Benedict Arnold, September 14, 1775, Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-01-02-0356.
George Washington, General Orders, July 2, 1776, Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-05-02-0117; George Washington to Colonel Fisher Gay, September 4, 1776,Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-06-02-0174.; George Washington, General Orders, July 9, 1776, Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-05-02-017.
Edward Rutledge to George Washington, September 11, 1776, Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-06-02-0228; Asa Douglas to George Washington, June 7, 1776 (?), in Peter Force, American Archives, 3rd Series, 6:746, Northern Illinois University Digital Library, digital.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A80847.
John Adams to Joseph Palmer, February 20, 1777, in Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789, ed. Paul H. Smith, Gerard W.Gawalt, Rosemary Fry Plakas, and Eugene R. Sheridan, vol. 6 (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1980), 327, Library of Congress, American Memory,memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lwdg.html; Scott Bomboy, “Thomas McKean: A Founding Father with a Double Life,” March 19, 2019, Constitution Daily, National Constitution Center, constitutioncenter.org/blog/thomas-mckean-looking-at-a-most-interesting-founding-father; Thomas McKean to John Dickinson, December 25, 1780, in Smith, et al. Letters, 16:481; Hugh Williams and William Blount to the Chevalier de La Luzerne, August 14, 1782, in Smith, et al., Letters, 19:65.
Oxford English Dictionary, www.oed.com/(OED).
OED; Weight of Gunpowder shipped at St. Eustatius, June 29, 1776, enclosed in James Smith to the Committee of Safety of Any Port or Place, except Philadelphia, June 28, 1776, Peter Force, American Archives, 6:1114 digital.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A105140. Joseph T. Shipley, The Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), 418; Margo DeMello, Faces Around the World: A Cultural Encyclopedia of the Human Face (Denver: ABC-CLIO, 2012), 89.
“Darien, Ga., January 12, 1775” in Gehrke and Buchmuller, “Texts of Associations,” in Maria Gehrke and Caren Buchmuller, “Texts of Associations, 1774-1776,” in The Revolution of the People: Thoughts and Documents on the Revolutionary Process in North America, 1774-1776, ed. Hermann Wellenreuther(Gottingen, Germany: Gottingen University, 2006), 154; New York Association, April 29, 1775, in Gehrke and Buchmuller, “Texts of Associations,” 170; “Town-Meeting, Newark, New-Jersey, May 4, 1775,” in Gehrke and Buchmuller, “Texts of Associations,” 174.
The documents derive from two digitalized collections, American Archives, Librarian of Congress Peter Force’s collection of documents from the Revolutionary War; and Early American Imprints, Series I, Charles Evans’s collection of historic books published in America. American Archives provided thirty usages of the phrase, Early American Imprints the remaining fourteen. Several authors contributed more than one document.
James Cogswell, Faithfulness in the Service of Christ, Encouraged and Inforced . . .(Norwich, Conn.: John Trumbull, 1776), Early American Imprints, Series 1, no. 14685, page 15; Judah Champion, Christian and Civil Liberty and Freedom Considered and Recommended: A Sermon . . .(Hartford: E. Watson, 1776), Early American Imprints, Series 1, no. 14675, page 28; Samuel West, A Sermon Preached before the Honorable Council, and the Honorable House of Representatives, of the Colony of the Massachusetts-Bay, in New-England. May 29th, 1776(Boston: John Gill, 1776), Early American Imprints, Series 1, no. 15217, page 61; William Foster, True Fortitude Delineated: A Sermon . . .(Philadelphia: John Dunlap, 1776), Early American Imprints, Series 1, no. 14758, page 21; Andrew Lee, Sin Destructive of Temporal and Eternal Happiness . . .(Norwich, Conn.: Judah P. Spooner, 1776), Early American Imprints, Series 1, no. 14826,page 27; Henry Cumings, A Sermon, Preached in Billerica, on the 23d of November, 1775: Being the Day Appoints by Civil Authority, for a Public Thanksgiving Throughout the Province of Massachusetts-Bay (Worcester, Mass.: I. Thomas, 1776), Early American Imprints, Series 1, no. 14723, page 15; Eleazar Wheelock, Liberty of Conscience; or, No King but Christ, in His Church: A Sermon . . .(Hartford: Eben, Watson, 1776), Early American Imprints, Series 1, no. 15220, page 29; William Tryon, To the Inhabitants of the Colony of New-York(New York: Hugh Gaine, 1776), Early American Imprints, Series 1, no. 14920, page 4; New Jersey Provincial Congress, An Ordinance for Incorporating the Minutemen Lately Raised in This Colony, into the Body of Militia; and for further regulating said militia, in Journal of the Votes and Proceedings, as well of the Committee of Safety, at a sitting in January, 1776, as the Provincial Congress of New-Jersey, at a sitting at New-Brunswick, began January 31, and Continued to the Second Day of March Following(New York: John Anderson, 1776), Early American Imprints, Series 1, no. 14913, page 136; Peter Thacher, An oration delivered at Watertown, March 5, 1776. To commemorate the bloody massacre at Boston: perpetrated March 5, 1770(Watertown, Mass.: Benjamin Edes, 1776), Early American Imprints, Series 1, No. 15101, page 15; Rhode Island General Assembly, An Act Establishing an Independent Troop of Horse in the County of Providence, by the Name of the Captain-General’s Cavaliers for the County of Providence, in October, 1775. At the General Assembly of the governor and Company of the English colony of Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations, in New-England, in America, begun and holden (in consequence of warrants issued by His Honor the deputy-governor) at Providence(Providence: John Carter, 1776), Early American Imprints, Series 1, no. 14423, page 144; S. McClintock to William Whipple, August 2, 1776, in Peter Force, ed., American Archives, 1: 735, digital.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A106564; Petition of Peter Goulay, September 23, 1776, in American Archives, 2: 787, digital.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A96176; Petition of William Pascall, September 18, 1776, in American Archives, 2: 786, digital.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A91689; George Washington to the President of Congress, April 18, 1776, American Archives5: 977, digital.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A83230; Gov. Cooke to Massachusetts Assembly, November 26, 1776, American Archives, 3: 865, digital.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A81000; North Carolina Council of Safety, Directions for Appointing Proper Persons to Explain to the People of the Western Parts of the Colony, August 3, 1776, American Archives, 1: 1371, digital.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A80906; George Washington, General Orders, July 2, 1776, American Archives, 6: 1270, digital.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A101218; George Washington to Col. Fisher Gay, September 4, 1776, American Archives, 2: 166, digital.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A98237; Benjamin Rush to Richard Henry Lee, December 30, 1776, in American Archives, 3: 1488, digital.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A96310; George Washington, General Orders, July 9, 1776, American Archives1: 226, digital.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A96084; Pennsylvania Council of Safety, Address to the Inhabitants of Pennsylvania, December 23, 1776, American Archives, 3: 1375, digital.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A90601; Town Meeting of Wrentham, Massachusetts, Instructions of the Town of Wrentham to Benjamin Guild, Joseph Haws, and Doctor Ebenezer Daggett, June 5, 1776, American Archives, 6: 700, digital.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A87602; Worcester County Committee, Resolutions of the Committee for Worcester County, Massachusetts, to discourage exorbitant prices, June 26, 1776, American Archives, 6: 1088, digital.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A84067; New Jersey Provincial Congress, Ordinance for Incorporating the Minute-Men, March 2, 1776, American Archives 4: 1622, digital.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A78981; Account of General Howe’s Retreat From Boston, March 21, 1776, American Archives, 5: 424, digital.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A106135; George Washington, General Washington’s Orders to General Putnam, August 25, 1776, American Archives, 1: 1149, digital.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A103351; John Glover, Extract of a Letter from Colonel Clover [sic], October 22, 1776, American Archives, 2: 1188, digital.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A90506; William Tennent, An Oration Delivered at the Head of Colonels Mott’s and Swift’s Regiments, when under arms, expecting the approach of the enemy hourly, October 20, 1776, in American Archives, 2: 1145, digital.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A86539; Asa Douglass to George Washington, June 7, 1776, in American Archives, 6: 746, digital.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A80847; Samuel J. Atlee, Journal of Transactions on Long-Island, August 27, 1776, American Archives, 1: 1255, digital.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A84503; William Henry Drayton, Judge Drayton’s Address to the Grand Jury at Charlestown, South-Carolina, April 23, 1776, American Archives, 5: 1032, digital.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A92538.
General Griffith Rutherford to the Council of Safety of North-Carolina, July 14, 1776, American Archives, 1: 613 digital.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A83853; Virginia Convention, Proceedings of the Convention of Delegates, held at the Capitol, in the city of Williamsburg, in the colony of Virginia, on Monday the 6th of May, 1776 (Williamsburg: Alexander Purdie, 1776), Early American Imprints, Series 1, no. 15198, page 10; Letter from London, April 7, 1776, American Archives 5:810digital.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A88470; Letter from Major Daniel Ilsley, August 28, 177, American Archives, 1: 1207, digital.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A101543; Letter from an Officer in New-York to His Father in Massachusetts, July, 177, American Archives, 1: 230,digital.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A89241; May 7, Committee of Privileges and Elections to Examine Persons Committed on Suspicion of Being Inimical to Rights and Liberties of America . . ., May 7, 1776, American Archives, 6: 1513,digital.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A81780; Letter from the Rev Mr. [Samuel] Kirkland to Genera [Philip] Schuyler, March 12, 1776, American Archives, 5: 773, digital.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A105658.
William Foster, True Fortitude Delineated: A Sermon . . .(Philadelphia: John Dunlap, 1776), Early American Imprints, Series 1, no. 14758, page 8; West, A Sermon Preached, 41, 67; George Washington, General Orders, June 30, 1776, American Archives6: 1150 digital.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A102705.
John Taylor, Bill of Lading for Five Hundred Weight of Gunpowder shipped at St. Eustatius, June 29, 1776, enclosed in James Smith to the Committee of Safety of Any Port or Place, except Philadelphia, June 28, 1776, American Archives, 6: 1114, digital.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A105140; “Shippers by Sea Godfearing Men in Old Colonial Days,” Chicago Tribune, January 2, 1927.
“At a Town-Meeting, Held in Killingworth,” The Connecticut Courant and Weekly Intelligencer, September 2, 1783; “The Address of the Trustees and Faculty of the University of Pennsylvania,” The Independent Gazette (Philadelphia), December 20, 1783.
Abraham Lincoln, Address Delivered at the Dedication of the Cemetery at Gettysburg, First Draft, in Abraham Lincoln, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler, vol. 7 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 18 (Collected Works); Abraham Lincoln, Address Delivered at the Dedication of the Cemetery at Gettysburg, Second Draft, in Lincoln, Collected Works, 19; The Weekly Raleigh Register, February 13, 1861; “Thinks Lincoln Revised Speech at Gettysburg: Man Who Heard Talk Doesn’t Recall Words ‘Under God’ as Part,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 12, 1930; The Weekly Raleigh Register, February 13, 1861, J. H. Thornwell, “Our Danger and Our Duty,” North Carolina Argus (Wadesboro, NC), April 22, 1862; Benjamin Morgan Palmer, The Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell: Ex-President of the South Carolina College (Bedford, Mass.: Applewood Books, 2008 ), 513.
Abraham H. Feinberg, “Hitler and the German Situation,” April 8, 1934, in Marc Saperstein, ed., Agony in the Pulpit: Jewish Preaching in Response to Nazi Persecution & Mass Murder 1933-1945 (New York: Hebrew Union College Press, 2018), 183; Brotherhood Week Throughout U.S. Has Been Decreed, Rushville (Ind.) Republican, January 26, 1940; Jay Franklin, “Race Supremacy Is Basic Issue,” The Decatur Herald, January 26, 1945.
“Nation’s Leaders Urge Freedom Under God,” Monroe Morning World (Monroe, LA), July 3, 1955; “Churches Plan Observance; ‘Freedom Under God’ Topic,” The Cincinnati Enquirer, July 3, 1955Eckard V. Toy, “Faith and Freedom, 1949-1960,” in The Conservative Press in Twentieth-Century America, ed. Ronald Lora and William Henry Longton (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999), 153; Kevin M. Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 27-31, 92.
“Fellowship of Prayer,” The Orlando Sentinel, February 15, 1953; Julien C. Hyer, “Government Under God,” Dayton Daily News, December 5, 1953; “Trinity Lutheran,” “St. John’s Lutheran,” “First Baptist, Pennsville,” and “Church of God, Indian Head,” The Daily Courier (Connellsville, PA), December 5, 1953; History: Committee on the Uniform Series: A Brief History, National Council of Churches, nationalcouncilofchurches.us/cus/?page_id=9.
Kruse, One Nation Under God, 102-104, 110; Richard J. Ellis, To The Flag: The Unlikely History of the Pledge of Allegiance (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2005), 130, 255-256n26; Daily Independent Journal (San Rafael, CA), July 3, 1954; “One Nation, Under God,” Elmira Advertiser, June 22, 1954 “‘One Nation Under God’ Inserted in Pledge to Flag,” The News (Paterson, NJ), June 9, 1954; “One Nation Under God,” Daily Mountain Eagle(Jasper, Alabama), June 24, 1954; “Diamond Methodist” and “Emmanuel’s Ev. [Evangelical] & Reformed,” The Plain Speaker (Hazelton, PA), July 3, 1954; “Fourth Street Methodist Church” and “Newfield Methodist Church,” The Daily Journal (Vineland, NJ), July 3, 1954; “The Central Union Church,” The Honolulu Advertiser, July 3, 1954.
Harry S. Truman: “Message to the Congress on the State of the Union and on the Budget for 1947,” January 21, 1946. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=12467; “Vote Your Convictions: President,” The Oneonta Star (Oneonta, NY), November 2, 1948.