July/August 2002 Church & State | Featured

The recent uproar over the court ruling against the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance is a bit ironic, since those words weren't even part of the original Pledge. For more irony, consider that the Pledge was written by a Baptist minister who was a socialist to boot.

The Rev. Francis Bellamy is largely forgotten today, as are his reasons for writing the Pledge. In some ways, it was all an accident. After Bethany Baptist Church in Boston, Mass., fired Bellamy in 1891 for his perceived radicalism -- he was fond of lecturing on "Jesus the Socialist" and served as vice president of the Society of Christian Socialists -- the preacher joined the staff of The Youth's Companion, a widely read magazine.

Dr. John W. Baer, author of The Pledge of Allegiance: A Centennial History, 1892-1992, writes that the owner of The Youth's Companion had been a member of Bellamy's congregation and enjoyed his sermons. At the magazine, Bellamy presided over a project backed by the National Education Association to create a special observance to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of the New World. As part of the project, Bellamy devised a flag salute ceremony complete with Pledge.

Baer writes that American flags were not common in public schools at this time. The Youth's Companion, an immensely popular journal with a circulation topping half a million, had been working to remedy that by selling flags to schools, a project it launched in 1888. By 1892, the magazine had sold flags to about 26,000 schools.

In June of 1892, the magazine really struck pay dirt when Congress and President Benjamin Harrison endorsed Bellamy's flag ritual and the Pledge for use in public schools. The observance occurred for the first time nationwide the following Columbus Day. The ritual quickly became part of the daily life of public school students.

Bellamy's original Pledge read, "I pledge allegiance to my flag and the Republic for which it stands one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." In 1923 the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution pressed to have "my flag" changed to "the flag of the United States of America," arguing that the Pledge should specifically mention America.

Bellamy died in 1931. In 1940, the Supreme Court ruled that public schools could require schoolchildren to say the Pledge, rejecting a challenge brought by Jehovah's Witness families. (Witnesses refuse to pledge support to any government, saying their duty is to God.) But just three years later in the midst of World War II the high court reversed itself and ruled that public schools must allow objecting students to opt out.

Rejecting the claim that "national unity is the basis of national security," Justice Robert Jackson wrote in West Virginia v. Barnette, "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein."

"Under God" found its way into the Pledge in 1954 after a campaign led primarily by the Knights of Columbus. The move was also seen as a blow against "godless communism." Introducing the resolution in the Senate, Sen. Homer Ferguson, a Minnesota Republican, remarked, "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."

There was virtually no debate in Congress, and the measure sailed through. Signing legislation to make the change, President Dwight D. Eisenhower observed, "From this day forward, the millions of our schoolchildren will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural schoolhouse, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty."

Bellamy's granddaughter said he would not have liked the alteration.

Time will tell if the 9th Circuit's controversial decision will stand. But, given the emotional nature of debates about the Pledge, it's likely that the country hasn't seen the last argument over Francis Bellamy's handiwork.