Latest News

'Allegiance to the flag' was writer's only goal

John Bellamy relishes the story.

The year was 1954, and anti-communist fervor was in full swing. David Bellamy, John's uncle, wrote to Congress to protest the addition of the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance. David was certain that his father, Francis Bellamy, the pledge's author, would have contested the change. Because Francis had died more than 20 years earlier, David Bellamy protested in his stead.

With a smile, John Bellamy -- David's nephew and Francis' grandson -- quotes Rep. Kenneth B. Keating, R-N.Y., who responded to the protest by saying, "You cannot vote against matters of motherhood and God."

It's a parched afternoon in San Rafael, and John Bellamy's condominium is immaculate except for a coffee table strewn with papers: a copy of the handwritten pledge signed by Francis Bellamy, a letter describing how he wrote the pledge, and a photo of Francis and John Bellamy standing side by side in Berkeley.

John Bellamy, now 81, sits on a plush couch, his niece Sally Wright beside him.

"I'm more violently opposed to the 'under God' than anybody," he said. "People should be able to pledge the flag even if they're atheists."

Bellamy and Wright are reflecting on the history of the pledge, their relative who wrote it, and last month's 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the "under God" portion of the pledge is unconstitutional. The ruling came in the case of a Sacramento atheist who doesn't want his daughter subjected to the pledge.

Judge Alfred Goodwin, who wrote the court's majority decision last month, reasoned that calling the United States one nation "under God" is the equivalent of saying "under Vishnu" or "under Zeus." A day after the decision was released, Goodwin stayed his own ruling, pending appeals.

"We've talked about the pledge more in the last three weeks than we have in the last 20 years," said Wright, who agrees with Goodwin's decision. "It helps us to examine our values and disagree. That's what America's about."

The 1954 "under God" addition was the third amendment to the Pledge of Allegiance since its publication in 1892.

"It was a little test," said Wright, who remembers the change being made when she was a child. She cranes her neck as if surveying a crowded room. "If you saw someone say the pledge and they didn't say 'under God,' they were a communist."

In 1923, "the flag of the United States" was substituted for "my flag." In 1924, "of America" was added. The changes were made so immigrant children would not erroneously pledge allegiance to the flags of their birth countries. Francis Bellamy protested both additions, calling them "a clumsy redundancy ... a mangling of the original."

"He opposed it because, first, he thought it was silly. How could you pledge another flag when you're saluting the American flag?" John Bellamy said. "Second, it spoils the poetry of it."

Francis Bellamy did not live to see the third change, the addition of "under God," but family members are sure he would have objected.

"He was so for the separation of church and state that he was against parochial schools because he thought education should be a state matter," Wright said.

Francis Bellamy wrote the pledge in 1892 for a national public school celebration of Columbus Day, the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' landing in America. At the time, Bellamy was the associate editor of the Youth's Companion in Boston, a magazine of 500,000 circulation that Wright calls "like 'Sesame Street,' the common denominator for schoolchildren."

In a letter to then-10-year-old John Bellamy dated March 21, 1931, Francis Bellamy describes the process: "One night in August 1892, I sat down to write the words of the salute to the flag. I worked on it for three hours and threw into the wastebasket a lot of attempts."

Francis Bellamy first heard the pledge on Columbus Day of that year as he stood in Boston before 6,000 high school boys who recited it. Nationwide, school-age children recited it simultaneously.

"It thrilled me," Francis Bellamy wrote to his grandson. "And I wished I might hear the 13,000,000 public school boys and girls on that day say it in unison."

Before becoming a writer and editor, Francis Bellamy had been a Baptist minister. He had left the church because his sermons were considered too radical.

"It was during a time when capitalism had no checks and balances. He thought that wasn't OK. In those days, that (opinion) was called socialism," John Bellamy said.

Whether he was fired or left the church willingly is unclear. He was a member of socialist organizations at the time and had recently written a sermon called "Jesus the Socialist."

"That would certainly get you kicked out," Wright said.

But according to John Bellamy, Francis called the job boring and said he quit.

"He wasn't the type to admit getting fired," John Bellamy said.

Though he was still young when his famous grandfather died, John Bellamy remembers one aspect of his personality vividly.

He points to a photo of them posed together, John a timid child, the elder Bellamy perfectly erect with a walking stick and stern expression.

"You can see there: He didn't have any sense of humor. He was a real curmudgeon," said John Bellamy, adding that his father, John Bellamy Sr., had wanted to be an engineer but Francis Bellamy had forced him to study English.

"My father had a stutter. My mother claims it was because his father was a martinet," John Bellamy said.

Francis Bellamy died five months after writing the letter to his grandson. He was 76 years old.

"He particularly would have fought it," John Bellamy said. "The final 23 words were perfection. By themselves, they tell the whole story."

About the Writer


The Bee's Alicia Roca can be reached at (916) 321-1958 or .