Updated: Aug 29
Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by Brendan Payne, a Ph.D. candidate in U.S. History at Baylor University finishing his dissertation, “Cup of Salvation: Race, Religion, and (Anti-)Prohibition in Texas, 1885-1935.” Enjoy!
Woman’s Christian Temperance Union or a minister who railed against demon rum, while those who mention their grandfather’s bootlegging have little to comment on his piety. The implicit assumption – that religion inspired only prohibition’s backers and not its opponents – may be too blunt for most scholars to state plainly, though this assumption casts a significant shadow over much of prohibition scholarship. Only a few books, such as Marni Davis’s Jews and Booze, deal in-depth with an overwhelmingly wet religious minority, though even that work is more interested in the tremendously important questions of ethnicity and American identity than in religion as such. Too many academic works on prohibition that address religion either focus almost exclusively on drys or oversimplify the connection between faith and prohibition, with (for example) Catholics always being wet and Baptists invariably dry.
Carrie Nation and her infamous hatchet
The root of such oversimplified thinking stems from the prohibition movement itself, which wore the mantle of religion proudly. The American Temperance Society, the first major organization in the United States dedicated exclusively to total abstinence from alcohol and its legal prohibition, was co-founded in the 1826 by Congregationalist minister Lyman Beecher. The spiritual roots of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union are evident in its title, yet the astonishing Woman’s Crusade of 1873-74 that led to the WCTU’s founding are even more clearly religious: over several months women knelt in prayer, sang hymns, and earnestly exhorted men to quit their drinking and tavern-keeping in the name of the Lord. Likewise Carrie Nation felt that God had audibly instructed her to begin her hatchet-wielding and rock-throwing campaign against saloons in Kansas and beyond. The most powerful lobbying organization for prohibition, the Anti-Saloon League, grandiosely conferred onto itself the title, “The Church in Action Against the Saloon.” That motto was somewhat justified by the extensive financial, vocal, and spiritual support it received from most Protestant denominations, including the mainline umbrella group, the Federal Council of Christian Churches (later renamed the National Council of Churches). While some denominations – particularly Catholic, Jewish, Episcopalian, and Lutheran groups – generally refrained from prohibition activism and a few of their clergy actively opposed it, no distinctively religious anti-prohibition groups existed on anywhere near the scale of groups such as the WCTU and ASL. Size does matter, and the numbers disparity justifies disproportionate attention to religious prohibitionists, whose groups were stronger, more overtly religious, and louder than their religious detractors.
Even so, religious anti-prohibitionists have been dramatically understudied given their real influence. Part of this is due to a lack of adequate attention to the divide between pulpit and pew, between ardently dry clergy and their sometimes skeptical congregants. Laments of political unfaithfulness from co-religionists on the alcohol issue ring out from various Methodist and Baptist sources over the decades, indicating that organizational agreement on the clerical level did not always translate into as many supporters on the parishioner level as one might expect. Church structure also mattered, with more liturgical and traditional denominations such as Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Catholics more likely to preserve ancient Christian tradition allowing moderate alcohol use than more innovative groups largely contained within the United States. And clerical silence on such a major culture war issue as prohibition speaks volumes about differences between ministers on how far one should digress from matters spiritual to matters political, as well as the power of social expectations to produce conformity within religious communities.
The impact of religious convictions and practices upon prohibition extended beyond clerical leaders or functionaries of explicitly religious organizations. Laypersons and other non-professional people of faith could and did speak articulately on spiritual issues relating directly to prohibition. When a shocking number of biblical scholars held to the “two-wine thesis,” which improbably held that all the Bible’s positive references to wine indicated alcohol-free grape juice while all the bad references signified the alcoholic beverage, one Edward R. Emerson had published in 1902 A Lay Thesis on Bible Wines, an erudite challenge to the popular “two-wine” theory. Likewise, a Columbia English professor, John Erskine, deployed sophisticated theological arguments as he exposed contradictions between prohibition and classical Christian thought in his coyly entitled 1927 book, Prohibition and Christianity and Other Paradoxes of the American Spirit. Even the leading fundamentalist intellectual, J. Gresham Machen, thought smoking and drinking perfectly acceptable behaviors and was censured by his liberal colleagues at Princeton Seminary in the 1920s ostensibly for his permissive stance to tobacco and alcohol. My own research has uncovered how even white Methodist or Baptist politicians wielded convincing arguments from the Bible or Christian tradition to justify their resistance to prohibition. Many wets were committed people of faith who used religious arguments far more ably than their dry opponents.
When the stories of such religious wets are excluded or included only marginally in the story of prohibition, our understanding of the past becomes warped in a way that would have delighted partisans in the WCTU or ASL. They claimed that people of good faith could only stand on one side of a divisive cultural issue and so constructed a warfare approach to political engagement in which the world divided into two camps: the faithful and the infidels.
Dry figures who encouraged this dichotomizing message, such as Billy Sunday and J. Frank Norris, attract historical attention for the same reason they attracted media attention in their day: their statements of calculated outrage were intensely interesting and entertaining for friend and foe alike. Religious anti-prohibitionists, however, tended to exercise more nuance towards the question of alcohol and, like Lutherans and Episcopalians in U.S. history more generally, seem simply too boring for most historians to bother studying them. One consequence of ignoring such “boring” moderate voices that challenge age-old stereotypes is a more flattened, narrowed vision of the past. Such an overly simplified vision of the past makes our currently imagined world of polar opposites and irreconcilable extremes too comfortable and too plausible to question.
One way we can contribute to richer, more nuanced discussions of current debates today is to reach back into a past that we all too often imagine in simple binaries and reveal how the binaries didn’t always fit, even then. If religious people spanned the entire spectrum of views on prohibition back then, shouldn’t we expect people of faith to take on the full array of positions on all manner of political issues today? The minority voices of religious anti-prohibitionists need to be recovered to remind ourselves that the world is more complex than it may seem at first glance, and the loudest and simplest voices may win for a day but shall not always prevail.