I spoke last week during a Presidents Day luncheon at a local church on the subject of “patriotism.” After beginning the speech with vignettes about several of our 44 presidents, my remarks turned to our pledge of allegiance to the flag. What is more patriotic than reciting the pledge, hand over heart, facing the stars and stripes of this great nation?
As Americans, our way of life has, for more than 200 years, been based upon liberty and justice for all. Patriots, both men and women, have lived and died, serving beneath our national flag — the symbol of our liberty and justice — defending and protecting our way of life. Pausing to reflect on those sacrifices, the simple pledge to our flag is a small price to pay for the many blessings of liberty and justice we have accrued as Americans.
The pledge of allegiance was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister. The original pledge of allegiance was published in a September 1892 issue of a popular children’s magazine as part of the National Public School Celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas.
Bellamy’s original pledge read as follows: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” That original pledge has been modified three times. First, in 1923, the National Flag Conference called for the words “my Flag” to be changed to “the Flag of the United States,” so that new immigrants would not confuse loyalties between their birth countries and the United States. Second, the words “of America” were added a year later.
The United States Congress officially recognized the pledge for the first time, in the following form, on June 22, 1942: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
The final change, adding the words “under God” was a bit more convoluted. Louis Bowman was the first to initiate the addition of “under God” to the pledge and was awarded a medal by the Daughters of the American Revolution for, in their opinion, being the originator of the idea.
At a meeting on Feb. 12, 1948 (a Lincoln’s birthday celebration), Bowman led the society in swearing the pledge with the two words, “under God,” added. His rationale was that the words came from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Though not all manuscript versions of the Gettysburg Address contain the words “under God,” all the reporters’ transcripts of the speech do. Lincoln might have deviated from his prepared text and inserted the phrase when he said “that the nation shall, under God, have a new birth of freedom.” Later, the Catholic Church’s Knights of Columbus began using the words “under God” in the pledge each time it was rendered.
Several times during the period from 1948 until February 1954, attempts were made to have the words “under God” added to the pledge by act of Congress. Those attempts failed.
The final successful push began with George Docherty, pastor of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., who preached a sermon on Feb. 7, 1954, with President Eisenhower in attendance. The sermon was based upon Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
In his sermon titled “A New Birth of Freedom,” Docherty opined that the United States’ strength “might” lay not in its arms but rather in “its spirit and its higher purpose.” He noted that the pledge’s sentiments could be those of any nation, that “there was something missing in the Pledge, and that which was missing was the characteristic and definitive factor in the American way of life.” He cited Lincoln’s words “under God” as defining words that set the United States apart from other nations.
Eisenhower had been baptized a Presbyterian a year before. He responded enthusiastically to Docherty in a conversation after the service. Acting on Docherty’s suggestion, the next day, U.S. Rep. Charles Oakman introduced a bill to that effect. Congress passed the necessary legislation and Eisenhower signed the bill into law on Flag Day, June 14, 1954. Eisenhower stated, “In this way, we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way, we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource, in peace or in war.”
Presidents and a pledge — good partners on a cold February morning. Thank you, Gen. Eisenhower.
Art Callaham is a community activist and president of the Washington County Free Library Board of Trustees.