Though it did not become the official U.S. motto until 1956, the phrase In God We Trust owes its appearance on U.S. coins, in part, to Civil War America, when increased religious sentiment called for some type of acknowledgement be added to coins.
According to the U.S. Treasury website, then Secretary of the Treasurer Salmon P. Chase (a future Supreme Court Justice who appointed the first African-American attorney to argue cases before the Supreme Court) received a letter from a Reverend Watkinson who urged for the “recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins”.
His letter concluded:
“This would make a beautiful coin, to which no possible citizen could object. This would relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism. This would place us openly under the Divine protection we have personally claimed. From my hearth I have felt our national shame in disowning God as not the least of our present national disasters.”
Secretary Chase was convinced enough to order the Director of the Philadelphia Mint to take action:
“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.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.”
After some legal wrangling, In God We Trust finally appeared on the two-cent coin in 1864.
There were glitches along the way. For reasons unknown, it disappeared completely from the five-cent coin in 1883. Interestingly enough, it did not reappear until the production of the Thomas Jefferson nickle in 1938.
It began showing up on dollar currency in 1957.
Hopefully, In God We Trust still applies today.