The Weird History of How a Christian Socialist Wrote the Pledge of Allegiance
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Who wrote the Pledge of Allegiance for the United States? On this episode of Truce, we examine the conditions under which the Pledge was written and Francis Bellamy, the man responsible for our famous creed.
Along the way we learn about Bellamy’s belief in Christian Socialism, the Social Gospel, and Charles Sheldon’s book “In His Steps”. Even though it is one of the most popular works of fiction in history, it’s filled with controversial stuff.
Our guest this episode is Professor Charles Dorn of Bowdoin College. His books are Patriotic Education in a Global Age and For the Common Good: A New History of Higher Education in America.
- Additional voice over work done by Cale Nelson and his family. He’s the host of the Modern Christian Men Podcast
- Helpful article by Charles Dorn
- Complete text of “In His Steps” by Charles Sheldon
- Britannica article about Social Gospel
- Gospel Coalition critique of “In His Steps”
- Christianity Today article about pre-millenialism
- Is patriotic education okay in public schools?
- When did US flags first appear in schools?
- Who wrote the Pledge of Allegiance?
- When was the Pledge of Allegiance written?
- When did they add “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance?
- What is Christian socialism?
- Where does the phrase WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) come from?
CS: Chris Staron (host)
The Weird History of the Pledge of Allegiance
In His Steps by Charles Sheldon and the Social Gospel
CS: Hi everybody. This episode can stand on its own, but when you’re done go ahead and start back at the beginning of season three.
Pastor Maxwell liked to preach. He thought he was quite good at it, and enjoyed his job. The message that day was from 1 Peter 2:21
MAXWELL: “For hereunto were ye called; because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that ye should follow his footsteps.”
CS: A simple passage. Easy to understand… in a different translation. Basically, since Jesus suffered for you, you should follow (and here are the important words) in… his…steps. Maxwell delivered it with the passion and flair his congregation expected. This was the church to attend. He was good at his job. They had a great choir. This church had a lot going for it.
Just as Maxwell sat down and the choir started singing, they were interrupted by the voice of a man from the back of the room.
DRIFTER: (excuse me!)
CS: He was a drifter, on his way through town looking for work. The pastor had shrugged him off a few days earlier. Now he was back.
He told everybody that he’d lost his job as a printer. Maybe the church had grown tired of so many men looking for jobs. Whatever it was, he wasn’t given an opportunity. Or shelter. If these people were supposed to walk as Jesus, in His steps, as the sermon’s Bible reading said, why was he ignored? Perhaps the trouble in our world wouldn’t exist if the people in the pews simply lived as Jesus did.
The man stopped, stumbled, and fell to the ground. Only to die a short while later.
Pastor Maxwell was haunted by the man’s words. So much so, that he devised a plan. A challenge for his congregation. Only a few days after the vagabond’s death, he delivered a new sermon.
MAXWELL: “I want volunteers from the First Church who will pledge themselves, earnestly and honestly for an entire year, not to do anything without first asking the question, ‘What would Jesus do?’ And after asking that question, each one will follow Jesus as exactly as he knows how, no matter what the result may be.”
This story is from a work of fiction called In His Steps by Charles Sheldon1, first published in 1896. Estimates vary, but the book has sold between 30 and 50 million copies worldwide2. For sixty years after it’s publication it was the number one book in the US after the Bible3. It’s most famous for coining the phrase, “What Would Jesus Do?”
In His Steps, while popular, is also controversial. Though it didn’t start the movement, it was important in spreading what’s known as the Social Gospel. A movement that concerned itself with issues of labor and public welfare. While it promoted social action in Christian circles, it also frightened many Christians. Sounding a lot like socialism. Think about it. If people just acted a certain way, then all of mankind’s troubles would be over? In an era of collectivization, labor strikes, and impending world war… ideas like this were suspicious. The battle to nail down what was truly American was in overdrive. The struggle for a just society and an open market would come together under one flag.
You’re listening to the show that uses journalistic tools to look inside the Christian Church. We press pause on the culture wars in order to explore how we got here and how we can do better. I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.
Reconstruction: Life After the Civil War
The American Civil War ended in 1865. Family fought family. State against state. When the dust settled, there were a lot of moving pieces. How would the country, bloodied and disjointed, move forward? There were a lot of questions to settle as the nation rebuilt itself.
To help tell that story, we’ve got a special guest : Professor Charles Dorn.
Charles Dorn: I’m Charles Dorn. I’m a professor of education at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. And the author of Education and Democracy in the Second World War and my most recent book which I co-authored with my colleague Randy Curran at the University of Rochester is Patriotic Education in the Global Age.
CS: This was the era of Reconstruction. Where the nation put itself back together again.
Charles Dorn: This is a period of a significant divide in the nation’s history. It’s not as if the Civil War ends and American unifies and everyone’s happy again. It’s decades, decades worth of conflict and tension. There’s an impeachment mixed in there. There’s a northern army of occupation in the southern states. This is a time of real discord in the country.
CS: This is a fascinating era with lots of moving pieces. Northern troops withdrew from the South.Freed black slaves headed north.
Charles Dorn: Urbanization. The rise of the cities in the US.
CS: The temperance and suffrage movements. The introduction of a national currency. The settling of the West. Immigration.
Charles Dorn: Really when we’re in the post Civil War period stretching into the early 20th century, that is the period of largest immigration into the United States.
CS: Up until that point anyway. Immigrants from Eastern and southern regions of Europe were coming here in large number. Whereas before it had been from the north and western part of Europe. This was also a new age of empire where countries, including the US, claimed more and more land for themselves.
Charles Dorn:And all of this creates a tremendous amount of disruption in American society.
CS: We were looking very different as a country than we ever did before. With new immigrants who did not look like us or identify with the US the way that other Americans might. We were not a unified people.
Charles Dorn: And even before the Civil War in the United States, most people would not have identified themselves as Americans first. They would have identified themselves as citizens of their state, right? And that would have been true in the north as well.
CS: That kind of regionalism is dangerous because it pits us against ourselves. That’s a significant part of the Civil War: disunity. States vs big government. With the war over and new immigrants pouring in, how would we unify? Well, there were lots of ideas…
Charles Dorn: But one is to use public schools, really for the first time in American history, to use the public schools to foster a sense of national unity or identity.
CS: Public schools. When you’re trying bond all of the disparate people together as one a common base of knowledge and beliefs is important. But… which beliefs would we agree on? Even if we could decide on one set of beliefs for all schools to adopt… there is one teeny tiny little problem…
Charles Dorn: Even following the Civil War, for the states that do have, let’s say, state-level departments of education… the staff in those departments is usually one or two people. Public schooling occurs on a local basis in the US well into the 20th century.
CS: Ours was not a nationally organized education system. So how do you get people without a unified curriculum on the same page? It had to be simple. Schools were run by just a few people so you couldn’t create a lot of extra work. What to do, what to do? How about a symbol? A specific object or graphic that represents everyone?
Hey, it’s a basic part of humanity… we love symbolism. Roman emperors had their symbols on coins. Napoleon rallied the French around the image of bees, as do Mormons. Christians have the fish and the cross, and WWJD bracelets. We love symbols. What could the nation rally around?
How about the ol’ stars and stripes?
The Weird History of How American Flags Came Into Public Schools
Charles Dorn: This, I find this myself to be quite interesting. If you think about the public schools in your community or the public schools, if you went to public schools, flags were just ubiquitous. They’re right there in every classroom. And oftentimes they’re also flying from a flag pole that is right in the middle of the front of the school.
CS: We’re used to seeing them everywhere now. In every classroom. But if you went back in time to the 1850’s and walked around a school… mostly likely you would have seen no flags.
Charles Dorn: It’s the symbol war veterans groups, the women’s auxiliary group to the grand army of the republic plays a central role here and… and they basically work to have flags put into the classrooms and they’re very successful.
CS: Creating a big market for flags that… somebody had to fulfill.
Charles Dorn: And there is a magazine called The Youths Companion which is a well-subscribed magazine. One of the first magazines that is designed and marketed towards both adults and children. That magazine gets the idea that they can increase subscriptions by getting on board with the flag movement and encouraging people to purchase flags and they begin selling flags. And indeed their subscription rates go up but slowly over time the sort of flag market begins to saturate and flag sales are no longer increasing.
The Pledge of Allegiance Was Written By a Christian Socialist
CS: Some would say that sales were… flagging… uh… not my best.. The Youth’s Companion magazine needed to jumpstart sales. So they turned to a former Baptist minister…
Charles Dorn: A man by the name of Francis Bellamy.
CS: Francis Bellamy, to be in charge of their marketing campaign. He and a colleague came up with a big idea.
Charles Dorn: What they come up with is to tie the work that the Youth’s Companion has been doing, to tie that to the 400th celebration of Columbus’ voyage.
CS: In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue… plus 400 years…the celebration would take place in 1892. The country was already planning the Worlds Fair, the Columbian Exposition, in Chicago. The place where the world would be introduced to things like the Ferris Wheel. With all the excitement already in place… why not piggyback on that event?
Charles Dorn: It’s an interesting sort of thing that this effort to create a program that would unify the nation was tied up with marketing flags, right? It’s a very American story, I think.
CS: Patriotism by way of capitalism. Celebrating not only the end of the Civil War, but also the spreading of the US across a big chunk of North America (I’m looking at you, Manifest Destiny) and out into the oceans. Like Columbus.
Charles Dorn: Bellamy encourages that communities celebrate Columbus Day in a particular way and it’s going to be gatherings at the schools, bringing students together and families and communities together, and holding a sort of series of events on that day.
CS: Kind of like how people celebrate the 4th of July today. Some ceremonies, speeches. And what do you need at a patriotic celebration? Flags.
They wanted these events to be easy for people to produce on their own. So they created a kit that laid out the various stages of these celebrations. Patriotism by numbers.
Charles Dorn: And as a part of that, Bellamy writes a pledge of allegiance to the United States.
CS: A now famous pledge that would be said at the event. Yeah, this is the origin of the Pledge of Allegiance. Part of a kit celebration used to sell flags. But… the pledge we say now is not quite the pledge they said in 1892. The original went something like this:
CHILD’S VOICE: I pledge allegiance to my flag, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.
CS: You may notice some things are missing there. First of all, it doesn’t say which flag they are pledging to. And, of course, there is no mention of God. Kind of interesting considering it was written by a former minister.
Bellamy didn’t include the God stuff in his original version of the pledge. That’s worth noting. It would be decades, decades before that changed. This is one of those things people scrap about. With Christian Americans pointing to this mention of God in the national pledge as proof that the US is a Christian nation. Well… it did sneak into the pledge until the 1950s. 60 odd years after the pledge was originally written.
Also, just to make the story stranger… this guy Bellamy, the guy who got the capitalist urge to use the Columbia Exposition to sell flags… was a Christian socialist.
Charles Dorn: He is a part of what was called the Social Gospel movement in the United States. And this is a predominantly Protestant movement that develops in the United States. One way to describe this is that over the course of the 19th century, as the country begins to become a bit more secular and some distance from it’s Calvinist roots, the idea is that the nation is going to be able to find perfection of the Kingdom of God on earth.
CS: This may sound crazy, right? Bringing the kingdom of God to earth? But the 1800s were a time of massive change in Christianity. This is when preaching to the individual became the thing to do, encouraging a personal commitment to Christ. An individualistic approach to the gospel. We also saw the rise of utopian cults like the Oneida community. Spiritualism was on the rise. You know spiritualism, right? Consulting sprits. It’s the stuff Rasputin toyed within Russia. It started here in the United States in this era.
Was Pre-Millenialsim Always Popular With American Christians?
Pre-millennialism, the idea that God would snatch his people up to heaven before the end times tribulation, while not a new idea, was not nearly then as widespread as it is now. It’s maybe the most popular end-times idea in American Christianity today. But it wasn’t then. A lot of people believed heaven could exist here on earth. People like Bellamy.
Charles Dorn:And that Christians need to be acting in ways that will actually bring about that Kingdom of God on earth. And one of the impulses during this period in the US towards social, political, and economic reform is, in fact, this Christian motivation to perfect American society.
CS: Part of the Social Gospel’s aim was to bring about heaven on earth. To focus on the actions that individuals could do to make this world better. Though he didn’t invent the Social Gospel, Charles Sheldon’s book “In His Steps” from the top of the show, helped to popularize it. He imagined a small town where people went around asking themselves, “What Would Jesus Do?”.
In doing so, the book targeted other hot-button issues of the time. Like the local grocer in the story who rethinks the products that he’s selling. He’s been hawking tainted flour and meat. This was before there were laws about food safety in the US. At that time some people who sold dairy in the US thinned out milk with water that was colored with chalk or plaster dust. Food safety was a big deal. And Sheldon sneaked it into his book. Sheldon’s book addressed those plagues of his society. Sounds like good stuff, right?
Well, the Social Gospel has a lot of theological hurdles we can’t fully squeeze into in this episode. Essentially the argument against it is this: The Social Gospel is about “What Would Jesus Do?”. Whereas traditionally accepted, orthodox Christianity is more about what Jesus has already done.
Many Christians, myself included, believe what the Bible says, that we can’t earn our salvation.
What I need is for someone to pay my debt for me. That’s where Jesus comes in. His death on the cross takes away the punishment I deserve and could never work away. Critics of the Social Gospel say that the movement takes that onus off of Jesus and puts it back onto us.
Not that its necessarily wrong to ask “What Would Jesus Do?”. Morality is a good thing. But it’s not the final answer. Like so many things in this world, it’s about not throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
Remember this sentiment from the dying man at the beginning of the show? “Perhaps the trouble in our world wouldn’t exist if the people in the pews simply lived as Jesus did.” To some folks that sounds kind of like Karl Marx. You know, people being able to solve the world’s problems in one fell swoop, creating a utopia on earth. And if something even sort of sounds like Marx, it’s easy for some of us to dismiss it.
Okay… back to Professor Dorn talking about Bellamy, the guy who wrote the Pledge of Allegiance.
Charles Dorn: He has a cousin who writes a remarkably popular novel at the time called “Looking Backward” and its a utopian novel. The idea is that we actually can create the Kingdom of Heaven on earth and this is what it would look like if we do these things.
CS: Of course one way to create a better society was to take all of these disparate people from lots of backgrounds, former slaves, former slave owners, immigrants, pioneers in the west, city dwellers in the east… and get them on the same team. We needed to assimilate. To find some commonality.
Charles Dorn: And there are all sorts of different ways that we can do that, but one is to teach their kids to be good American citizens.
CS: Kids learn by repetition. Through things like the Pledge of Allegiance. Which was a big hit after the Columbus celebrations. It spread organically at first with schools adopting it here and there.
Charles Dorn: New York State is the first state to legislate the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and it’s essentially in response to the Spanish-American War.
CS: The day after we declared war on Spain, NY legislated the first mandatory pledge in schools. We covered the Spanish American War a few weeks ago. Early adopters of the pledge did not salute the flag the way we do, with our hands over our hearts. No, they extended their right arms out and up. Like… well, like the Nazi salute. I’ll give you one guess as to when we changed it to hand over the heart.
It wouldn’t become the official Pledge of the nation until 1942. The Pledge itself did quite a bit of shape shifting along the way.
Charles Dorn: Again, the original pledge says “I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands…” and in the early 20th century some of the promoters of Americanism become nervous that immigrant kids could be standing in class reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and when they say, “I pledge allegiance to my flag” they could be thinking of the flag of their homeland and not the US.
CS: This whole thing was supposed to bring unity. We couldn’t have students pledging to Italy and Austria, right? So it was changed to…
KID: 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.
When God Was Added to the Pledge of Allegiance
CS: All right, the pledge is sounding a lot like it does today… with one notable exception.
Charles Dorn: “Under God” isn’t added until 1954. (echoed)
CS: 1954. It’s not until 1954 that God is added to the pledge.
We’re going to be talking a lot about the 50s for the next few months. That era experienced a patriotic and spiritual explosion. Though the seeds of it were planted well before then. Adding “under God” to the Pledge in the Eisenhower administration didn’t happen in a vacuum. Or just because of a revival of faith in the public square. It was also in response to the rise of communism and socialism. Maybe you’re wondering what does, “under God” have to do with fighting communism? If you remember, the textbook version of communism, the Marxist ideal, is inherently atheistic. We like to refer to godless communism like it’s a joke. Godless communism. But, remember, Russia had two pro-communist magazines called Godless. They openly persecuted religious people. Marx said that once communism was realized that the world would have no need for religion, which he saw as an invention humans created to dull their pain. In response to atheistic, collectivist communism, as we’ll demonstrate, the US did its level best to marry religion, capitalism, and patriotism. Especially in the public square.
Charles Dorn: And one way to do it is to get kids to recite a pledge that declares that they’re one nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.
CS: Seems a little simple, right? Fight communism with a short pledge? But that’s how we as citizens learn stuff from an early age. Through things like pledges. Simple recitations.
We’ve done this throughout Christian history too, creating simple creeds and songs so people can understand Christianity.
Of course… not everyone is excited about adding “under God” into the Pledge. And not everyone is okay with a pledge at all. We’ll get into that in a bonus episode next week. For the rest of this episode, lets focus on the idea of the pledge as it is.
When I think about pledges and trying to get patriotic ideas into kids heads… I feel a little squeamish. This kind of education sounds… a little creepy, right? Less like education and more like indoctrination, right? I asked Professor Dorn about my misgivings.
The Difference Between Education and Indoctrination
Charles Dorn: It’s a very interesting question, this idea that… what is indoctrination and what role does it play in schooling? So, there are a couple of things you can say about that. One is that all education is political to some degree and in some way. Education certainly in the 21st century is central to developing a student’s sense of themselves as citizens in a democratic republic. And that means we need them to question things. Indoctrination on the other hand is sort of the other side of that, which is “no, actually we don’t want them to question. We want them to believe a set body of knowledge about something”. And so, those two things are very much in tension. Schools are the places where those tensions become sort of manifest and certainly we ask public school teachers on a daily basis to sort of navigate the tensions that we’ve imposed on them when it comes to asking them to both teach their students to think critically and teach them to adopt some sort of an identity that has something to do with being an American citizen.
CS: Going forward you’re going to see that there are loads of parallels between US history and Soviet history. We went through labor disputes at the same time. We struggled to create a national identity at the same time. We set off to create empires, us with the Spanish American War, and them with the Russo-Japanese War. The difference is how we handled those conflicts. We were in no small part driven to become the nation we’ve become because of their decisions. They went collectivist, we focused on the individual not just economically but theologically. They went communist and we struggled with labor unions.
This Fourth of July as you think about patriotism, as you maybe wave a flag at a parade, think about the decisions that were made that brought you there. About the teachers who helped to shape you into who you are today. While our goal may not be heaven on earth, consider how you and yours can help others.
And, if you like, with your hand over your heart, not out in front of you like a Nazi, over your heart… consider the weird twist of events that brought about flags in every school and our ever changing pledge.
Do you have thoughts on the Pledge of Allegiance or on education? We’d love to hear them. Contact me via social media, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook at at trucepodcast. I’d love to see a picture of where you are on the 4th. Take a photo and tag us.
Thanks to Professor Charles Dorn. His books are “For the Common Good: A New History of Higher Education in America” and “Patriotic Education in a Global Age”. For a list of select sources, check out our website at www.trucepodcast.com. Once you’re there you can join our email update list, hear previous episodes, and donate to keep this show going. If you want to keep hearing great content, please donate to keep it coming.
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Thanks for listening! I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.