Taking the Pledge (September 1983)

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.

That’s the way it was written and the way school children recited it for more than 60 years.

And then came the McCarthy era, with its religious fervor, its fear of freethought and its equation of any nontheistic belief with communism. So, in 1954, the words “under God” were added.

Most students, whether elementary school children or public university students, do not know that the pledge they have repeated is different from the one their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents learned.

The Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag was first published in a national magazine, Youth’s Companion, on September 8, 1892 in connection with the National Public Schools Celebration of Columbus Day in October of that year.

Simultaneously, it was printed in leaflet form and distributed throughout the country. During the celebration of 1892 more than 12 million public school students around the country “took the Pledge.”

The authorship of the pledge was disputed by the families and descendants of two members of the staff of the Youth’s Companion. Francis Bellamy of Rome, New York and James Upham of Alden, Massachusetts were both staff members of the magazine at the time the Pledge originally was published. In 1939 the United States Flag Association decided to appoint a committee to determine the disputed question of authorship.

The committee was composed of two historians, Charles Tansill and Bernard Mayo, and a political scientist, W. Reed West. These three studied the evidence submitted by the two contending families and decided on May 18, 1939 that Francis Bellamy was the author, a finding accepted by the American Flag Committee.

Bellamy had served as chair of the committee which prepared the National Public Schools Celebration of Columbus Day in 1892 and was responsible for much of the publicity which attended it.

When it was first published, the Pledge of Allegiance contained the phrase “my flag.” Eventually this wording was criticized because some worried types thought that foreign-born children and adults, when giving the pledge, might have in mind swearing allegiance to the flag of their native countries. In order to eliminate this concern, the First National Flag Conference, held in Washington, D.C. on June 14, 1923, recommended and adopted a change in wording substituting for “my flag” the more specific “the Flag of the United States.”

An unconstitutional change that has not been challenged was made by Congress in 1954. House Joint Resolution 243, approved by President Dwight Eisenhower (Public Law 396, 83rd Congress, 2nd Session) amended the language by adding the words “under God.”

Anyone debating separation of state and church in this country, whether in public or private conversations, can expect to be told in no uncertain terms by religionists that we are not a secular nation and “if you don’t believe it, tell me why we refer to God in the Pledge of Allegiance.”

Do tell them!

–Anne Nicol Gaylor

Freedom From Religion Foundation