Presbyterians of the Past

Centennial of Prohibition

In January 1920 the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution went into effect having obtained sufficient state votes for ratification the previous January. The law banned the manufacture, distribution, and sale of alcoholic beverages. As the era unfolded application of the Eighteenth Amendment was tweaked as Americans responded to some of the implications of Prohibition.

Efforts to control the use of alcoholic beverages in the United States extend back to colonial days in the eighteenth century. There had been anti-spirits movements, sometimes associated with revivals or travelling evangelists’ special meetings, but temperance efforts increased as the supply of what were described as ardent spirits became more plentiful. For example, farmers growing corn in western areas found greater profits in shipping whiskey east rather than through selling the corn itself. The Whiskey Rebellion is a case in point regarding the importance of distillation and its taxation. Physician and founding-father Benjamin Rush’s An Inquiry into the Effects of Spirituous Liquors on the Human Body, 1790, brought problems associated with distilled spirits to public attention. As a physician, Rush commented about the damage spirits effected on the liver, stomach, digestion, physical appearance, and their tendency to degrade muscle tissue. He also noted the problems spiritous beverage use might cause for personal finances, family, and society. Much of what he said over two-hundred years ago could simply be dittoed today, however, Rush was not an alcohol abolitionist but rather proposed temperance in the Bible’s sense of the word—moderation. Doctor Rush was appealing to drinkers to consider the negative side of what they imbibed and his diagram at the end of his pamphlet, “A Moral and Physical Thermometer,” was intended to graphically stimulate drinkers to consider whether they should continue their practice. Rush did not want abolition of spirits, because, as he said at the beginning of his pamphlet, spirits were first used for medicine and were still needed for that purpose, but his concern was their increased use for social gatherings resulting in inebriation. Undoubtedly, fellow-founding-father George Washington, who owned a distillery, appreciated Rush’s non-prohibitionist-true-temperance presentation. Rush believed beer and wine were suitable social beverages but suggested that fermented juices such as apple cider and punches with low levels of alcohol could be refreshing beverages on a hot day. He proposed that the best drink is made of vinegar, water, and molasses, which he believed had health benefits to offer (but the taste would seem to be wanting). Alcohol and Rush’s suggested drink with vinegar—acetic acid—were used in the era to provide purified beverages in the midst of cholera and other water born diseases.

Even though temperance supporters initially took aim at ardent spirits, their efforts became prohibitionist as the years passed. In the beginning years of the nineteenth century, the abuse of spirits was a horrendous problem. Believe it or not, during industrial expansion in the nineteenth century bosses offered free shots of whiskey to cajole workers to return to their machines so they would work for the whole day. OSHA would not approve.

Throughout the nineteenth century, temperance ebbed and flowed but it was always there. For example, the Washingtonian Temperance Society was started in 1840 when “six poor drunkards met in a grog shop” in Baltimore to reform their ways. Washingtonians did not promote the end of alcoholic beverage production and distribution but instead were temperance proponents. The Washingtonian method involved recruiting individual users and abusers to pledge cessation of drinking, and they buttressed each other with meetings for their united purpose. On through the Civil War and into the next century the temperance movement evolved from promoting moderate use of some forms of alcoholic beverages to elimination of it completely.

So, what does temperance and prohibition have to do with Presbyterians? Quite a bit because a survey of publications by nineteenth century ministers and their judicatories shows that sermons or lectures on temperance may rank with those on social dancing, gambling, and worldly amusements. Presbyterians were not the only ones promoting temperance because other Reformed churches along with Baptists, Methodists, and other individuals who claimed no religious affiliation at all were joined in committees within churches, para-church organizations, or secular social clubs to promote temperance. After the division into Old and New Schools in 1837, through the division of Presbyterians at the time of the Civil War, and past the reunion of 1869, temperance was a common point of emphasis. The soldiers fighting for North and South drank as a way of life amidst the horrors of combat. The problem of inebriated soldiers was addressed by chaplains’ sermons and ministers’ tracts and after the war temperance groups arose to help alcoholic veterans. In 1881, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) established the Permanent Committee on Temperance which continued for several years under an assortment of name changes until it was absorbed into The Department of Moral Welfare of the Board of Christian Education in 1923. There was likewise concern about the use of alcoholic beverages in the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS), which was constituted of churches located predominately in the South. The PCUS had said it wanted to distance itself from promoting prohibition or any particular view of temperance believing it was a political issue, but sometimes the spirituality of the church was not kept in view. For example, in response to a communication from the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in 1886, the PCUS General Assembly provided a response:

As the traffic in and use of intoxicating liquors as a beverage are the prolific causes of so much crime, poverty and suffering in our land, and as it costs the people so much money in criminal prosecutions and the support of the victims of drink, and as it is one of the greatest enemies of the Church of Christ in destroying the sanctity of the Christian Sabbath in its right observance wherever its blighting influence is felt, and as we are warned against its effects in 1 Cor. 6:10; therefore, in view of these terrible effects, this General Assembly bears its testimony against this evil, and recommends to all our people the use of all legitimate means for its banishment from the land.

It is a strong statement—banishment from the land. Even though the PCUS said it did not want to make a statement on the issue of temperance, it in fact did through its recommendation. Here is seen the clear way temperance had been redefined as abolition or prohibition, but it would be more than thirty years before the ambitious goal of temperance would be achieved. Benjamin Rush’s arguments were against the use of spirits, but he also promoted—at least accepted, the continued use of beverages with low amounts of alcohol, but since his day temperance had evolved into prohibition.

Many years before Prohibition there was a movement indicative of the sincere concerns of some Christians about the use of alcohol and it involved the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Arthur (1786-1865) and Lewis Tappan (1788-1873) were devoted members of the temperance movement. They were New School rather than Old School Presbyterians who enthusiastically and monetarily supported temperance in its most aggressive form, abolition of the manufacture, distribution, sale, and use of beverages containing alcohol. The Tappans earned a sizable fortune in the silk business in New York and in their later years were philanthropists. Arthur believed in what he described as “pure wine,” which is not a fine vintage honored with august prizes from wine connoisseurs but rather wine without alcohol, grape juice. The trouble was grapes naturally ferment. But Arthur Tappan died before 1869 when a Methodist minister-doctor-dentist named Thomas Bramwell Welch (1825-1903), yes that Welch, developed the process for pasteurizing juice harvested from Concord grapes. The process removed the yeast from the grape skin. The Welch’s website specifically says (as of the date of this post) their founder developed the process “to produce a non-fermented sacramental wine for fellow parishioners at his church in Vineland, New Jersey. His achievement marks the beginning of the processed fruit juice industry.” Even though alcohol-free grape juice arrived after Arthur Tappan died, he may have provided a bequest to fund the development of “pure wine,” but regardless, he would have been happy with Welch’s product. With temperance movement momentum varying through the nineteenth century and on to Prohibition, Welch’s real Concord grape juice provided the ferment-free alternative that prohibitionists needed to completely remove alcoholic beverages from society. So, if you have ever wondered why many of the Evangelical churches and parachurches use grape juice rather than wine, the source for the change is not only different exegetical interpretations of the Bible but also a heavy portion of the temperance movement.

It is not a purpose of this post to disdain those who choose to abstain from alcoholic beverages nor is it to promote drinking Christians; the issue of alcohol has and will continue to be divisive among Christians. Nor is this post intended to diminish the tragedy of alcoholism and substance dependency. The Presbyterians saw the trouble that alcohol use could cause in homes, churches, and society, and the motive was to help a troubled society. Prohibition and its antecedent temperance movements constituted a dominant aspect of the churches’ work through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. If one reads the minutes of both the PCUS and PCUSA general assemblies, temperance sermons, publications, committees, and considers their affiliation with para-church temperance societies, it is clear alcohol was a central issue. Sometimes the line between ministering to the church and evangelizing the world is blurred and often in judicatory records there are found general comments against the manufacture, distribution, or use of alcohol. The Presbyterians were making condemnatory remarks about the general problem of alcohol in society, the evils of drink production, and the business of beverage distributors. Did and do Christians need to condemn the non-Christian world? Are not non-Christians already condemned? Is not the minister’s message one of Gospel grace that pulls feet out of the miry clay of all forms of sin and sets them upon the rock–even the mire of alcohol dependency? Would the nation and world be a different place today if the time, effort, committees, and funding put forth by Presbyterians to develop temperance into prohibition had been expended for Gospel propagation? Did and does the church look outward at the evils of the world instead of looking inward at the evils among its congregants and the need to provide spiritual instruction–a congregation growing in sanctification through systematic exposition of Scripture propagates the Gospel? This does not mean that ministers are to suppress what the Bible has to say about alcohol when they exposit Scripture, but it does mean the first concern of the church in its ministry of sanctification is encouraging and instructing its members—the world needs evangelism because it stands condemned. The problems that alcohol can cause are indicative of the fundamental flaw of sin and the dead heart that needs to be transformed by God. The centennial of Prohibition is not only an opportunity to reflect on its political and social aspects, but it is also a time to consider history and learn from the past with regards to the spiritual ministry of the Gospel and how the church addresses the world.


Notes— The portrait in the header is Benjamin Rush (1746-1813). Benjamin Rush’s beverage of molasses, water, and vinegar could be switchel, which Noah Webster’s first edition American Dictionary of the English Language, 1828, attributes to an 1800 origin, but Rush might not have cared for the inclusion of rum as noted by Webster’s definition. The quote about Washingtonians is on page 4 of A. B. Grosh, Washingtonian Pocket Companion: Containing a Choice Collection of Temperance Hymns, Songs, &c. With Brief Directions for Commencing, Organizing, and Conducting the Meetings of Washingtonian Temperance Societies; and for the Private Action of Washingtonians, 1842. The block quote is from Alexander’s digest, 365-66.

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