The Pledge of Allegiance is a recitation that is immensely familiar to American schoolchildren and adults, alike. The much-heralded statement of national unity, though, also holds the power to spark intense debate, particularly when it comes to the words “under God.”
Considering the pledge’s prominence and the ongoing debate about the separation of church and state, TheBlaze decided to explore its unique history.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing elements surrounding the recitation is that the words “under God” weren’t originally a part of the text when the Pledge was penned in 1892. In fact, the text has undergone several changes since then.
It originally read, “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
The Controversial Author
Originally penned by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister (there’s obviously irony in noting that he was a faith leader who didn’t invoke God in the original text), the text has remained popular for more than 100 years.
Bellamy, himself a controversial figure, first published the Pledge in The Youth’s Companion, a family magazine. He was hired as a part of the periodical’s promotions department and, thus, tasked with coming up with a patriotic program to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in America.
The Pledge developed as part of an effort to create a new salute for the flag that school kids could say in unison, Smithsonian Magazine explains. In the end, Bellamy was successful and completed the Pledge’s original text in just two hours. Millions of kids apparently took part in the mass recitation for the first time in October of that year.
The faith leader was employed by the The Youth’s Companion after being forced from his preaching position, Fox News noted in a 2002 profile of the recitation’s history.
His offense? Preaching socialism from the pulpit.
One NPR article written last year goes as far as to label Bellamy a “fascist preacher.” Here’s how the article framed the faith leader and his outlook — one that would surely turn off most conservative Americans:
Francis Bellamy was a minister who was thrown out of his Baptist post because of sermons describing Jesus as a socialist. He and novelist cousin Edward Bellamy both saw a future for the United States as a country in which the government controlled virtually every aspect of a person’s life.
Francis Bellamy (who also wrote for a magazine underwritten by flag sales and therefore stood to gain by having schools require a flag salute each day) and his friends got President Benjamin Harrison to incorporate Bellamy’s pledge into the 400th anniversary celebration of Columbus’ arrival in the New World. It has been recited in public schools ever since.
Bellamy was from Upstate New York. An educator, he was reportedly a member of the National Education Association and he received his own education at the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York.
The Pledge’s Evolution
Regardless of his sociopolitical views, it didn’t take long for the Pledge to catch on, with millions of schoolchildren saluting the flag and reciting the defunct preacher’s famed words.
After its completion, the Pledge’s evolution quickly began, with some of its words changing over time.
The first amendments came in 1923 and 1924, when the words “my flag” were changed to “the Flag of the United States of America.”
Fearing that incoming immigrants would salute their home flag instead of America’s, the words were purposefully amended. And Bellamy apparently didn’t like the changes, but was seemingly powerless to prevent them. This, of course, was only the beginning.
Despite his protest, the Pledge was forever changed to focus more on the U.S. It was apparently the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution who urged the change on the part of the National Flag Conference.
Mainstreaming the Pledge
It wasn’t until 1942 that the U.S. government began to mainstream and integrate the recitation into the U.S. Flag Code. After America entered into World War II, Congress endorsed the Pledge for the first time (it was at this time that the hand-over-heart gesture was adopted).
Interestingly, World War II had another noteworthy impact on the Pledge. Originally, it was said while the right hand made the “Bellamy Salute.” This meant that reciters’ arms would extended outward from the chest. But Hitler and his Nazi salute left people fearing that the Pledge’s gesture was too similar.
So, the practice was amended.
In 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that schoolchildren could not be forced to recite the pledge. And in 1945, as the American Legion notes in its history of the proclamation, the official name, “The Pledge of Allegiance,” was adopted.
The Government’s Official Adoption of the Pledge
This court case was especially interesting considering the fact that “under God” — arguably the most contentious portion of the text — hadn’t yet been brought into the mix. That development didn’t emerge until 1952, when the Knights of Columbus joined other faith organizations and pushed Congress to add the Almighty into the Pledge.
And another faith leader was at the center of advocating for its inclusion — a Scottish immigrant known as George MacPherson Docherty, a Presbyterian minister. He later became a civil rights activist and worked with Martin Luther King Jr. (another fun fact: two years later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower also signed a law declaring “In God We Trust” the national motto), according to NPR.
In 1954, Eisenhower and Congress officially added “under God.” At a 1954 Flag Day speech, the president explained why he added the Lord into the Pledge. Rather than attempting to push his beliefs on others, he explained, the action was taken in an effort to recognize America’s religious heritage.
“In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future,” Eisenhower said. “In this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource in peace and war.”
Considering the time — one in which the U.S. was experiencing anti-communist sentiment — it’s no surprise that the environment lent itself to the inclusion of the Almighty. The words, in a sense, sent a message to non-believers and ultra-secularists in other countries about what America stood (and stands) for on both theological and geopolitical fronts.
And that’s how we ended up with the modern-day version, which reads, “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Atheists have repeatedly argued that both the Pledge and “In God We Trust” violate the separation of church and state. One of the most prominent critics, a lawyer and emergency room doctor named Michael Newdow (also an atheist), has continued to challenge God’s placement in these arenas, with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals throwing out his challenges in 2010.
Interestingly, the same court sided with Newdow in 2002. When the case reached the Supreme Court, though, in 2004, the justices ruled that the atheist activist did not have legal standing to wage a case.
The debate has continued to be a contentious one, but, so far, the courts have sided with conservatives and others who find no offense in either proclamation.
Of course, the battle isn’t over, but the history is certainly noteworthy and under-covered.