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The long struggle of the American church against drunkenness as a social and public evil begins at an early date. One of the thirteen colonies, Georgia, had the prohibition of slavery and of the importation of spirituous liquors incorporated by Oglethorpe in its early and short-lived constitution. It would be interesting to discover, if we could, to what extent the rigor of John Wesley's discipline against both these mischiefs was due to his association with Oglethorpe in the founding of that latest of the colonies. Both the imperious nature of Wesley and the peculiar character of his fraternity as being originally not a church, but a voluntary society within the church, predisposed to a policy of arbitrary exclusiveness by hard and fast lines drawn according to formula, which might not have been ventured on by one who was consciously drawing up the conditions of communion in the church. In the Puritan colonies the public morals in respect to temperance were from the beginning guarded by salutary license laws devised to suppress all dram-shops and tippling-houses, and to prevent, as far as law could wisely undertake to prevent, all abusive and mischievous sales of liquor. But these indications of a sound public sentiment did not prevent the dismal fact of a wide prevalence of drunkenness as one of the distinguishing characteristics of American society at the opening of the nineteenth century. Two circumstances had combined to aggravate the national vice. Seven years of army life, with its exhaustion and exposure and military social usage, had initiated into dangerous drinking habits many of the most justly influential leaders of society, and the example of these had set the tone for all ranks. Besides this, the increased importation and manufacture of distilled spirits had made it easy and common to substitute these for the mild fermented liquors which had been the ordinary drink of the people. Gradually and unobserved the nation had settled down into a slough of drunkenness of which it is difficult for us at this date to form a clear conception. The words of Isaiah concerning the drunkards of Ephraim seem not too strong to apply to the condition of American society, that "all tables were full of vomit and filthiness." In the prevalence of intemperate drinking habits the clergy had not escaped the general infection. "The priest and the prophet had gone astray through strong drink." Individual words of warning, among the earliest of which was the classical essay of Dr. Benjamin Rush (1785), failed to arouse general attention. The new century was well advanced before the stirring appeals of Ebenezer Porter, Lyman Beecher, Heman Humphrey, and Jeremiah Evarts had awakened in the church any effectual conviction of sin in the matter. The appointment of a strong committee, in 1811, by the Presbyterian General Assembly was promptly followed by like action by the clergy of Massachusetts and Connecticut, leading to the formation of State societies. But general concerted measures on a scale commensurate with the evil to be overcome must be dated from the organization of the "American Society for the Promotion of Temperance," in 1826. The first aim of the reformers of that day was to break down those domineering social usages which almost enforced the habit of drinking in ordinary social intercourse. The achievement of this object was wonderfully swift and complete. A young minister whose pastorate had begun at about the same time with the organizing of the national temperance society was able at the end of five years to bear this testimony in the presence of those who were in a position to recognize any misstatement or exaggeration:

     "The wonderful change which the past five years have witnessed in the manners and habits of this people in regard to the use of ardent spirits--the new phenomenon of an intelligent people rising up, as it were, with one consent, without law, without any attempt at legislation, to put down by the mere force of public opinion, expressing itself in voluntary associations, a great social evil which no despot on earth could have put down among his subjects by any system of efforts--has excited admiration and roused to imitation not only in our sister country of Great Britain, but in the heart of continental Europe."[287:1]

It is worthy of remark, for any possible instruction there may be in it, that the first, greatest, and most permanent of the victories of the temperance reformation, the breaking down of almost universal social drinking usages, was accomplished while yet the work was a distinctively religious one, "without law or attempt at legislation," and while the efforts at suppression were directed at the use of ardent spirits. The attempt to combine the friends of temperance on a basis of "teetotal" abstinence, putting fermented as well as distilled liquors under the ban, dates from as late as 1836.

But it soon appeared that the immense gain of banishing ardent spirits from the family table and sideboard, the social entertainment, the haying field, and the factory had not been attained without some corresponding loss. Close upon the heels of the reform in the domestic and social habits of the people there was spawned a monstrous brood of obscure tippling-shops--a nuisance, at least in New England, till then unknown. From the beginning wise and effective license laws had interdicted all dram-shops; even the taverner might sell spirits only to his transient guests, not to the people of the town. With the suppression of social drinking there was effected, in spite of salutary law to the contrary, a woeful change. The American "saloon" was, in an important sense, the offspring of the American temperance reformation. The fact justified the reformer in turning his attention to the law. From that time onward the history of the temperance reformation has included the history of multitudinous experiments in legislation, none of which has been so conclusive as to satisfy all students of the subject that any later law is, on the whole, more usefully effective than the original statutes of the Puritan colonies.[288:1]

In 1840 the temperance reformation received a sudden forward impulse from an unexpected source. One evening a group of six notoriously hard drinkers, coming together greatly impressed from a sermon of that noted evangelist, Elder Jacob Knapp, pledged themselves by mutual vows to total abstinence; and from this beginning went forward that extraordinary agitation known as "the Washingtonian movement." Up to this time the aim of the reformers had been mainly directed to the prevention of drunkenness by a change in social customs and personal habits. Now there was suddenly opened a door of hope to the almost despair of the drunkard himself. The lately reformed drunkards of Baltimore set themselves to the reforming of other drunkards, and these took up the work in their turn, and reformation was extended in a geometrical progression till it covered the country. Everywhere meetings were held, to be addressed by reformed drunkards, and new recruits from the gutter were pushed forward to tell their experience to the admiring public, and sent out on speaking tours. The people were stirred up as never before on the subject of temperance. There was something very Christian-like in the method of this propagation, and hopeful souls looked forward to a temperance millennium as at hand. But fatal faults in the work soon discovered themselves. Among the new evangelists were not a few men of true penitence and humility, like John Hawkins, and one man at least of incomparable eloquence as well as Christian earnestness, John B. Gough. But the public were not long in finding that merely to have wallowed in vice and to be able to tell ludicrous or pathetic stories from one's experience was not of itself sufficient qualification for the work of a public instructor in morals. The temperance platform became infested with swaggering autobiographers, whose glory was in their shame, and whose general influence was distinctly demoralizing. The sudden influx of the tide of enthusiasm was followed by a disastrous ebb. It was the estimate of Mr. Gough that out of six hundred thousand reformed drunkards not less than four hundred and fifty thousand had relapsed into vice. The same observer, the splendor of whose eloquence was well mated with an unusual sobriety of judgment, is credited with the statement that he knew of no case of stable reformation from drunkenness that was not connected with a thorough spiritual renovation and conversion.

Certainly good was accomplished by the transient whirlwind of the "Washingtonian" excitement. But the evil that it did lived after it. Already at the time of its breaking forth the temperance reformation had entered upon that period of decadence in which its main interest was to be concentrated upon law and politics. And here the vicious ethics of the reformed-drunkard school became manifest. The drunkard, according to his own account of himself (unless he was not only reformed, but repentant), had been a victim of circumstances. Drunkenness, instead of a base and beastly sin, was an infirmity incident to a high-strung and generous temperament. The blame of it was to be laid, not upon the drunkard, whose exquisitely susceptible organization was quite unable to resist temptation coming in his way, but on those who put intoxicating liquor where he could get at it, or on the State, whose duty it was to put the article out of the reach of its citizens. The guilt of drunkenness must rest, not on the unfortunate drunkard who happened to be attacked by that disease, but on the sober and well-behaving citizen, and especially the Christian citizen, who did not vote the correct ticket.

What may be called the Prohibition period of the temperance reformation begins about 1850 and still continues. It is characterized by the pursuit of a type of legislation of variable efficacy or inefficacy, the essence of which is that the sale of intoxicating liquors shall be a monopoly of the government.[290:1] Indications begin to appear that the disproportionate devotion to measures of legislation and politics is abating. Some of the most effective recent labor for the promotion of temperance has been wrought independently of such resort. If the cycle shall be completed, and the church come back to the methods by which its first triumphs in this field were won, it will come back the wiser and the stronger for its vicissitudes of experience through these threescore years and ten.

 

FOOTNOTES:

[264:1] "An impression was made that never ceased. It started a series of efforts that have affected the whole northern mind at least; and in Jackson's time the matter came up in Congress, and a law was passed disfranchising a duelist. And that was not the last of it; for when Henry Clay was up for the Presidency the Democrats printed an edition of forty thousand of that sermon and scattered them all over the North" ("Autobiography of Lyman Beecher," vol. i., pp. 153, 154; with foot-note from Dr. L. Bacon: "That sermon has never ceased to be a power in the politics of this country. More than anything else, it made the name of brave old Andrew Jackson distasteful to the moral and religious feeling of the people. It hung like a millstone on the neck of Henry Clay").

[265:1] "A Century of Dishonor," pp. 270, 271.

[266:1] "A Century of Dishonor," pp. 275, 276.

[268:1] See above, pp. 203-205, 222.

[270:1] Deliverance of General Assembly, 1818.

[271:1] The persistent attempt to represent this period as one of prevailing apathy and inertia on the subject of slavery is a very flagrant falsification of history. And yet by dint of sturdy reiteration it has been forced into such currency as to impose itself even on so careful a writer as Mr. Schouler, in his "History of the United States." It is impossible to read this part of American church history intelligently, unless the mind is disabused of this misrepresentation.

[271:2] "Christian Spectator" (monthly), New Haven, 1828, p. 4.

[272:1] "Christian Spectator," 1823, pp. 493, 494, 341; "The Earlier Antislavery Days," by L. Bacon, in the "Christian Union," December 9 and 16, 1874, January 6 and 13, 1875. It is one of the "Curiosities of Literature," though hardly one of its "Amenities," that certain phrases carefully dissected from this paper (which was written by Mr. Bacon at the age of twenty-one) should be pertinaciously used, in the face of repeated exposures, to prove the author of it to be an apologist for slavery!

[273:1] "Christian Spectator," 1825-1828.

[273:2] Wilson, "Slave Power in America," vol. i., p. 164; "James G. Birney and his Times," pp. 64, 65. This last-named book is an interesting and valuable contribution of materials for history, especially by its refutation of certain industriously propagated misrepresentations.

[274:1] "Birney and his Times," chap. xii., on "Abolition in the South before 1828." Much is to be learned on this neglected topic in American history from the reports of the National Convention for the Abolition of Slavery, meeting biennially, with some intermissions, at Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington down to 1829. An incomplete file of these reports is at the library of Brown University.

[274:2] Wilson, "The Slave Power," vol. i., chap. xiv.

[275:1] See above, pp. 204, 205.

[275:2] Newman, "The Baptists," pp. 288, 305. Let me make general reference to the volumes of the American Church History Series by their several indexes, s. v. Slavery.

[275:3] One instance for illustration is as good as ten thousand. It is from the "Life of James G. Birney," a man of the highest integrity of conscience: "Michael, the husband and father of the family legally owned by Mr. Birney, and who had been brought up with him from boyhood, had been unable to conquer his appetite for strong liquors, and needed the constant watchful care of his master and friend. For some years the probability was that if free he would become a confirmed drunkard and beggar his family. The children were nearly grown, but had little mental capacity. For years Michael had understood that his freedom would be restored to him as soon as he could control his love of ardent spirits" (pp. 108, 109).

[277:1] "If human beings could be justly held in bondage for one hour, they could be for days and weeks and years, and so on indefinitely from generation to generation" ("Life of W. L. Garrison," vol. i., p. 140).

[278:1] "New Englander," vol. xii., 1854, p. 639, article on "The Southern Apostasy."

[278:2] _Ibid._, pp. 642-644.

[281:1] "New Englander," vol. xii., 1854, pp. 660, 661.

[281:2] Wilson, "The Slave Power," vol. i., pp. 190-207.

[282:1] "Biblical Repertory," Princeton, July, 1833, pp. 294, 295, 303.

[282:2] The true story of Mr. William Lloyd Garrison and his little party has yet to be written faithfully and fully. As told by his family and friends and by himself, it is a monstrous falsification of history. One of the best sources of authentic material for this chapter of history is "James G. Birney and his Times," by General William Birney, pp. 269-331. I may also refer to my volume, "Irenics and Polemics" (New York, the Christian Literature Co.), pp. 145-202. The sum of the story is given thus, in the words of Charles Sumner: "An omnibus-load of Boston abolitionists has done more harm to the antislavery cause than all its enemies" ("Birney," p. 331).

[285:1] Birney, p. 321.

[287:1] Sermon of L. Bacon (MS.), New Haven, July 4, 1830.

[288:1] "Eastern and Western States of America," by J. S. Buckingham, M. P., vol. i., pp. 408-413.

[290:1] By a curious anomaly in church polity, adhesion to this particular device of legislation is made constitutionally a part of the discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church. In most other communions liberty of judgment is permitted as to the form of legislation best fitted to the end sought.

Source: A History of American Christianity chapter 16, by Leonard Woolsey Bacon etext available at the Project Gutenberg website.