Depending on your perspective, today is either Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples’ Day. I don’t intend to get into that debate, but I do want to share some information about this holiday’s overlooked connection to a familiar patriotic ritual, the Pledge of Allegiance, and explain how it got religious overtones – yes, Columbus is involved. 

In the year 1892, the country marked the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage to the New World. To mark the occasion, educators wanted to come up with some kind of special observance schoolchildren could take part in.

Enter Francis Bellamy. A Baptist minister, Bellamy had a year earlier been fired from his Boston pulpit for being too radical. Bellamy was a socialist, prone to launch broadsides against capitalism. In one of his most famous sermons, Bellamy made the case that Jesus was a socialist.

Casting about for a new gig, Bellamy ended up on the editorial staff of The Youth’s Companion, a hugely popular magazine at the time. There, to mark the Columbus quatercentenary, he penned what we know as the Pledge of Allegiance and devised a flag-salute ritual. (It may have been part of a plot by the magazine to sell U.S. flags to schools, but we won’t get into that now.)

Congress and President Benjamin Harrison endorsed the Pledge, and it took off. Soon it was being recited in schools nationwide. Children would begin the day by facing the flag, thrusting their right arms at it stiffly and saying the Pledge in unison. (For obvious reasons, the so-called “Bellamy salute” became problematic during the lead-up to World War II and was replaced with the hand-over-heart gesture we know today.)  

Bellamy’s original salute read, “I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Two changes were later made: In 1923, “my flag” became “the flag of the United States of America” after a campaign led by the American Legion.  

For advocates of church-state separation, the more significant change occurred in 1954. The words “under God” were slipped into the Pledge between “one nation” and “indivisible.” This came about after a pressure campaign spearheaded primarily by the Knights of Columbus. (The same group, incidentally, lobbied to make Columbus Day a national holiday in 1934.)  

During the 1950s, the United States was locked in an ideological struggle with “godless communism,” and adding a reference to God to the Pledge was seen by many as a good tactical move. When the Senate deliberated the matter, U.S. Sen. Homer Ferguson (R-Minn.) opined, “I believe this modification of the Pledge is important because it highlights one of the real, fundamental differences between the free world and the communist world, namely belief in God.” 

The Pledge’s place in public schools was thus secured – but not everyone was on board. Jehovah’s Witnesses, who don’t believe in pledging to anything other than God, refused to take part and went to court seeking an opt-out for their children. They lost the first case in 1940, but the Supreme Court soon realized its mistake and ruled in 1943 that public school students can’t be compelled to recite the Pledge.  

Today, Jehovah’s Witnesses still sit out the Pledge, as do some non-believers and others who want to engage in social protest. While youngsters have the right to refrain from reciting the Pledge, some school officials still try to force it. Every school year, Americans United has to remind a few schools that students have the right not to take part.  

Many of those who choose to recite it are probably not aware that the Pledge’s famous words, penned by a socialist, were originally wholly secular.