The pledge: Origins and travails – James T. McCollum

This speech was delivered at FFRF’s Lake Hypatia Freethought Hall on July 2, 2011, at the Alabama Freethought Association’s annual July gathering.

I pledge allegiance to the flag of my country and the republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. — Francis Julius Bellamy, 1891

Ever since the founding fathers created a secular foundation for this country and enshrined it in the Constitution, specifically Article 6 and the First Amendment, Christian activists have steadfastly connived to revert back to the bad old days of a government based on religion — their particular brand of Christianity, of course.

There is no more graphic example of this than in the story of the Pledge of Allegiance. There has been much discussion of late about it, much of it centered around Michael Newdow’s litigation to have the offending phrase “under God” removed. Much misinformation is out there in the public forum. I believe it is high time that the myths be exposed.

The pledge was composed by Francis J. Bellamy, an ordained Baptist minister and Christian socialist. He was a first cousin of Edward Bellamy, a famous American socialist and novelist, whose most notable novel was entitled Looking Backward. Published in 1888, it described a socialist utopia in Boston in the year 2000.

Francis graduated in 1876 from the University of Rochester in New York and from the Rochester Theological Seminary a year later. He entered the Baptist ministry in Little Falls in the Mohawk Valley of upstate New York. From there he was called to the Bethany Baptist Church in Boston, located on the edge of its working class neighborhood. In 1891, he left the parish ministry (with some encouragement from his congregation) to work for The Youth’s Companion, a popular national magazine, sometimes described as the Reader’s Digest of its day. It contained a myriad of short articles and essays, with a patriotic bent, by various authors and gleaned from various sources.

Daniel Ford, owner of The Youth’s Companion, had been a congregant at Bethany Baptist Church and had been impressed by Bellamy’s sermons. So, in 1891, after Bellamy and the Bethany Baptists had parted company, Ford hired him to work with Ford’s nephew and junior partner, James Upham.

In 1888, Upham launched a campaign to place the Stars and Stripes in front of all public schools, not a common practice in those days. The National Education Association and the federal government soon picked up on the idea. Upham, through The Youth’s Companion, inaugurated a nationwide essay contest on the subject, “The Patriotic Influence of the American Flag When Raised over the Public Schools.”

He also produced cards with the inscription, “This Certificate entitles the holder thereof to one share in the patriotic influence of a Flag over the schoolhouse.” Schools sold the cards for 10 cents to raise the $10 necessary to buy a U.S. flag from the magazine. About 25,000 were sold by the end of 1891!

Protestants vs. Catholics

In 1891, Upham conceived and promoted the idea of celebrating the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. This was in the context of a reaction to the immigration of largely Catholics and Jews pouring in from eastern and southern Europe, many of whom were gathering in ethnic neighborhoods and didn’t speak English. Catholic immigrants in particular were being encouraged to attend parochial rather than public schools.

Indeed, in some large urban areas, battles between advocates for parochial and public schools were fierce. Catholics were accused of voting against appropriations for public schools because they opposed having to pay taxes to support them. Upham and many other white Protestants regarded this as a threat and felt that public schools were the way to “Americanize” immigrants and, I suppose, even wean them from the pope.

Laws were passed to thwart Catholics from promoting their schools. These included efforts to compel parents to send their children to public schools, a move declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Pierce v. Society of Sisters in 1925.

The National School Celebration of Columbus Day program was sponsored by the NEA and planned by an executive committee headed by Francis Bellamy. Parts of the official program, including the Pledge of Allegiance and the proposed ritual to be followed in its recitation, were written by Bellamy. The Youth’s Companion published the program and devoted its whole issue to it on Sept. 8, 1892.

Upham’s pledge promotion was so successful that many states later passed laws mandating pledge recitation in public schools to start the day. This spawned lawsuits by those who regarded it as idolatrous, principally Jehovah’s Witnesses. After a false start, the Supreme Court finally got it right in its 6-3 decision in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette in 1943. The court ruled, “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.”

After Upham and Bellamy died, Upham’s family tried to claim he wrote the pledge, something Upham never claimed. The U.S. Flag Association eventually upheld Bellamy’s authorship.

Changes to the pledge

There were four modifications over the years. The first change was by Bellamy himself, who added the word “to” before “the Republic” shortly after it was written. In 1923, the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution, two of the less enlightened organizations in the country, formed the National Flag Conference. Reacting to a rising tide of immigrants, they feared that immigrants might interpret the pledge’s “allegiance to my flag” as referring to the flags of their native lands. So the pledge language was changed from “my flag” to “the flag of the United States.”

Bellamy, who died in 1931, objected to that change and to one that added “of America” a year later. And, of course, pursuant to pressure from the Knights of Columbus, “under God” was added by Congress and President Eisenhower in 1954 in reaction to “Godless communism.”

In recent years, Michael Newdow, an atheist physician/attorney, challenged the addition of “under God” by Congress. The Supreme Court on June 13 refused to accept his appeal of an adverse decision by an appeals court. It’s highly unrealistic to expect the Supreme Court, with five activist, conservative Catholic justices to ever turn a sympathetic ear to this cause.

While researching this subject, I ran across an acceptable way, at least for me, to deal with the “under God” phrase. Instead, say “under law!” If you want to really make a statement, say it loud enough so that those around you can hear it.

A side note: Bellamy originally considered adding “equality” and “fraternity” to stand with “liberty and justice” but feared it would be too controversial, since the NEA’s leaders were sexists and segregationists.

It’s also interesting and highly significant to note that although Bellamy was a man of God, he purposely left out any reference to religion or God. Unlike Southern Baptists and their fellow travelers, he felt that the pledge was for everyone and, needed to be secular. Indeed, he even opposed the 1923 and 1924 additions.

The original copy of the pledge is in the Rush Rhees Library at the University of Rochester. More information about its history and author are detailed in Dr. John Baer’s book The Pledge of Allegiance: A Revised History and Analysis and in Bellamy’s papers archived in the Rush Rhees Library.

By the way, The Youth’s Companion was published by the Perry Mason Co., later Perry Mason & Co., a name chosen by Daniel Ford to protect his privacy. Erle Stanley Gardner, an avid reader of the magazine as a child, got the name of his famous lawyer character from it.

FFRF Lifetime Member Jim McCollum is a retired attorney and educator now living in Arkansas. Jim received a Champion of the First Amendment award from FFRF in 2006. Jim’s mother, Vashti McCollum, brought on his behalf the landmark Supreme Court case McCollum v. Board of Education (1948), in which religious instruction in public schools was ruled unconstitutional. 

Freedom From Religion Foundation