Instead of creating a mere educational program, the Baptist minister set out to write something historic -- a patriotic rite for use across the United States.
This ritual included a proclamation from the president, the singing of "national songs" and prayer or Bible readings. But the pivotal moment would come after veterans raised the Stars and Stripes, when the assembled students recited their new pledge of allegiance.
As written by the Rev. Francis Bellamy, it said: "I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
The pledge was used for the first time on or around Oct. 12, 1892. The rest is a long story, a story that from the beginning has included tensions between church and state and between public and parochial schools.
"You know, it never would have occurred to Francis Bellamy to put 'under God' in the pledge, at least according to what he had to say at the time," said John W. Baer of Annapolis, Md., author of "The Pledge of Allegiance: A Centennial History, 1892-1992."
"I imagine that that he was thinking like a Mason and he was thinking like a Northern Baptist. Francis Bellamy had a thoroughly modern mind and he knew what he was trying to do. ... You're talking about creating a mandated form of patriotism to be used with millions of children in classrooms everywhere. So he chose every word for a reason."
As part of a prominent Baptist family, Bellamy had nothing against God.
Still, he wrote his pledge shortly after resigning at Bethany Baptist in Boston. It seems that several wealthy businessmen did not appreciate their pastor's many sermons on topics such as "Jesus the Socialist" and "The Socialism of the Primitive Church." But his fiery social activism did appeal to Daniel Ford, publisher of a prominent magazine entitled The Youth's Companion.
Thus, Bellamy leaped from a local pulpit to national journalism. Within weeks, he was helping the National Education Association plan a massive celebration of public schools, backed by publicity in The Youth's Companion.
"Our fathers in their wisdom knew that the foundations of liberty, fraternity, and equality must be universal education," wrote Bellamy, in a speech that was supposed to be read as part of the rites surrounding the pledge of allegiance.
"The free school, therefore, was conceived as the cornerstone of the Republic. Washington and Jefferson recognized that the education of citizens is not the prerogative of church or of other private interest; that while religious training belongs to the church, and while technical and higher culture may be given by private institutions -- the training of citizens in the common knowledge and the common duties of citizenship belongs irrevocably to the State."
This was, of course, a jab at the parochial schools being built by Roman Catholics, in part due to a rising tide of immigration from Eastern Europe. This was not the American way, said Bellamy. He even argued that God opposed parochial schools.
"We uplift the system of free and universal education," he said, "as the master force which, under God, has been informing each of our generations with the peculiar truths of Americanism." Thus, American children should attend the same schools, recite the same pledge and unite "under the sacred flag."
The pledge caught on in Protestant-friendly public schools, with the American Legion urging that its use be mandatory. Soon, noted Baer, "my flag" was changed to "the flag of the United States of America" because officials feared immigrants might think the pledge referred to the flags of their homelands. During World War II, students stopped extending their right arms in salute and began placing their hands over their hearts. Finally, the Knights of Columbus led a campaign to add "under God," in part so that public and religious schools could use the pledge.
That worked for a few decades.
"The public loves the pledge. That's the bottom line," said Baer. "But this is a form of conformity. Anyone who doesn't want to conform to this one prescribed version of patriotism is going to question it. ... The pledge has offended different kinds of people at different times. But it has always offended somebody."