American consumption of alcohol has never been a joke, and in spite of many attempts to treat it that way, neither was the effort to control it. Consumption of alcohol was a lot higher than it was today. There were five times the amount of saloons and historians sometimes referred to nineteenth-century America as the “alcoholic republic.” Behind the Eighteenth Amendment (1919), which prohibited “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors,” lay more than a century of organized effort to stem the flow of alcohol. It may come as a surprise to some people that the temperance movement, which confusingly has always meant total abstinence, had nothing to do at all with the Puritans. Cotton Mather declared wine to be “of God” and drunkenness of the devil. The movement arose out of complex developments at the start of the nineteenth century. The overproduction of corn (more salable as whiskey than as grain) and the social anxieties that came from the westward movement and the swift democratization of national life combined to create a staggering liquor problem. In some regions, annual consumption of absolute alcohol exceeded ten gallons for each adult white male. Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln were only a few of the public figures who spoke out against the national excess of alcohol.
But evangelical leaders, with Lyman Beecher in the vanguard, became the chief opponents of booze. In their minds the progress of the gospel and the moral perfection depended on the control of alcohol. Neal Dow, who spearheaded the campaign for the first state prohibition law (Maine, 1846) called the effort “Christ’s work” for which “every true soldier of the Cross” should fight.
After the Civil War, the prohibition movement went national. Americans were actually drinking less. Yet the hazards of overindulgence seemed greater in the new cities and in its effects upon industrial production. The tavern, once a place of community conviviality, had now become the saloon. And the saloon business-the “whore-making, criminal-making, madman-acting business”as prohibitionists called it-loomed as threatening to America as Communism would in the 1950s.
The campaign for prohibition involved many people. Methodist Frances Willard, a sometime associate of Dwight Moody, was the driving force the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Her public activity, which included women’s suffrage, marked a new prominence for women’s evangelical reform in the U.S. The Anti-Saloon League, founded in 1893, became a national movement and the most effective lobbying tool for prohibition in the states and in Congress. The Methodists, with their perfectionist theology, led most of the Anglo-American Protestant denominations in the fight. Some Catholics, preeminently archbishop John Ireland, also joined the fight against alcohol. These Catholics saw prohibition both as a means to end a social ill and prove the Americanness of their denomination, whose Irish and German members routinely slandered them as drunkards. Businessman, social scientists, and proponents of the social gospel also added their voices to the effort to remake American life. And World War I, which linked the crimes of the Kaiser to brewers, set the stage for passing the Prohibition Amendment.
But, as we all know, this great moral experiment failed in many ways. The “great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose,” as Herbert Hoover called it, did not remake America the perfect moral nation. It did not as Billy Sunday predicted “turn our prisons into factories and our jails into corncribs.” Although prohibition probably improved public health and morals generally in the nation, it also led to public mockery of the law, to the massive strengthening of the organized crime, and with widespread disillusionment with efforts to enshrine the ideals of nineteenth century reform into national legislation.
Prohibition was a disaster for the country. It led to a massive stranglehold of organized crime and a nation of bootlegging criminals, and cost the federal government billions of dollars in lost tax revenue. And tax is no laughing matter and now more than ever the government needs cash. With the stock market crash of 1929, the country is broke. A tax on alcohol is a solution. So in December 1933, the eighteenth amendment is repealed–killed for the need for cold hard cash. It’s a remarkable u-turn; the only time an amendment to the Constitution is repealed. Yet the issues which Prohibition movement raised still remain for Christians to this day. The debate continues and sometimes rages in the church. And the answer depends on who you talk to.