Guest Author - Rebecca Graf
Jessica Warner, a Yale and Princeton graduate, wrote “Temperance, alcohol, and the American evangelical: a reassessment” in 2013 for the journal, Addiction. She works at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Ontario, Canada where she has also authored three books: Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason, The Incendiary, and All or Nothing: A Short History of Abstinence in America. Her articles can be found in Social Science History, the Journal of Social History, and the Journal of British Studies. Warner has explored addictions in American history as well as the cultural and political impacts.
The article addresses three related topics in Antebellum America that have rippled out to present day with a loud roar: temperance, alcohol, and evangelicals. Ms. Warner starts by addressing the understanding of temperance by today’s standards and then explains how the modern idea of the origins of the movement are not entirely in line with historical accounts. When discussing temperance, most people believe that the temperance movement in Antebellum America was “the great cause of evangelical Protestants.” While she goes on to prove that in a sense this is true as it was the religious movement of the Second Great Awakening that helped push temperance forward, she also points out that it was not a movement fully supported by a number of evangelicals.
The history of the temperance movement by way of religion is followed in the article as is a step back further in history to the founders of the various Protestant denominations. The thoughts of Luther and others on the idea of abstinence are explored from tobacco to alcohol to intimate relations. Warner looks into what obstacles were removed in Protestant circles to allow the temperance floodwaters to rush across America: the doctrine of predestination and the focus of human depravity. The temperance cause was not something that was readily pushed forward nor was it something that was accepted easily by all Protestants. Today, the Methodist denomination is synonymous with the temperance movement but at it was at first “chary” of it. For many Protestants, it would take decades up until the early twentieth century to accept the stance of the temperance movement while even those within the various supporting Protestant groups did not one hundred percent become teetotalers. Historian Joe Cocker explores the stance of many protestants in his book, Religion in the South, where he points out that it was not uncommon for many Protestant denominations to print in their newsletters and papers recipes for homemade wine and how to use alcohol for medicinal purposes in daily life.
Ms. Warner states that her purpose of the article is to “show how the doctrine [temperance] came to be radicalized in America, providing, in the process, a powerful rationale for abstinence.” Her intent is to show that the temperance movement did not start off as it ended nor was it as clearly defined. This thesis is stated after she has two pages worth of introduction where she gives background on evangelicals and the movement from statistics of those within each Protestant group today who are teetotalers after the manner of most that followed the temperance movement in Antebellum America.
Evidence to support this thesis includes the stance of Protestants and Protestant organizations in the nineteenth century. Warner cites how even the President of the Methodist General Convention would not prevent the army canteens from selling alcohol and the Pennsylvania Methodist conference “fired the editor if its newsletter for being a prohibitionist.” The Methodist reaction to temperance was mainly in the North while in the South it was the Baptists that would take up the temperance banner. Warner shows how even though most abstinence supporters were Baptist it was not officially accepted as part of the Baptist doctrine and conference mandates until close to the turn of the century. The most prominent Baptist organization, the Southern Baptist Convention, did not officially make alcohol abstinence a condition of being a member of one of their churches until 1890. This is supported by research done by historians, H.A. Scomp, Charles Childton Pearson, J. Edwin Hendricks, Rufus B. Spaain, and John Lee Eighmy in their various books on the South and the religious and cultural history of the Southern Baptist Convention. By showing exactly how the official religious organizations stood on abstinence, Warner is able to show that it was not a radical movement that took over the official religious conferences but more of a personal movement that swept up into the organizations instead of being pushed down on the people. The temperance movement was personal. Henry Steele Commager shows how personal and volatile the subject was as state after state addressed the situation and many officials were elected solely on their stance of the temperance subject.
Warner does not limit herself to America in her arguments. She jumps across the Atlantic and discusses how those same denominations were handling the subject in England. This is not a large section of her article, but it does show how it was not a movement that was reserved strictly for America and American culture. The temperance movement did not get near the size or the power as it did in America, but it did have a presence that became a thorn in many religious and political sides in England.
Taking a step away from the entirely religious stand on temperance, Warner explores how many of those supporters, religious and not, were intent on a “game of moral one-upmanship when they swore off liquor.” These included many who were struggling to establish themselves in the current society of America – the America between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. It was mainly the “African Americans [slave and non-slave], middle-class matrons, young men on their way up, native-born Protestants on their way down” that felt the attraction of temperance and took the moral and political stance. By pointing this out, Warner makes a good case how temperance was powerful enough to press outside the religious confines and be attractive to various cultural groups within American society for a variety of reasons, mainly a way to better oneself morally. This evidence can be seen in works by others like Denise Herd, Harry Gene Levine, and Scott C. Martin to name a few where they explore in their works the social dynamics of the time and the effect of temperance.
To further her argument, Warner then turns to asking “why it [temperance] seems to make particular sense to so many American evangelicals”. She points to John Thomas who as an American historian in the 1970s who “saw a connection between the moral absolutes of the antebellum reformers and the hopeless idealism of the Romantics.” The temperance followers were reaching back to a time of idealism that they all longed for. They were searching for perfection. It took the Second Great Awakening to ‘open the eyes’ of the religious and see how they had strayed so far from perfection. By finding this evidence, Warner is showing why the temperance movement was so attractive and why it was clung to so deeply. The emotional desire of the people to find a Utopia of their own outweighed any rationale about the use of alcohol.
Warner shows how the religious teachers and leaders of the time took doctrine from Wesley and Luther and expanded on it. While Wesley looked for believers to find perfection within their religious walks, American religious leaders such as Charles Grandison Finney and Asa Mahan took those teachings further by proclaiming “that sanctification should be entire, touching every possible area of the Christian’s life.” It was becoming more than something in the heart or within the confines of a church building. This movement was to stretch to all areas including those that touched the lives of others.
Warner writes in a manner that is not far above the heads of the average reader, especially a reader that would be interested in the article. It does help to have an understanding of religious terminology and history. There is no clear definition of what an evangelical is or why one would be so attracted to the temperance movement. It is explained later in the paper, but the direct connection between what an evangelical is and the movement is not plainly made. Warner approaches it as though anyone reading the article is fully aware of these definitions. The fact that the author relates the topic to present day is crucial in getting many readers’ attention. When one can see it in their lives and culture, they are more attuned to the words and the message the author is delivering. By giving the statistics of today’s teetotalers in the various Protestant organizations, Warner has the reader thinking of the people they know and their stance religiously and on the subject of drinking alcohol.
This article was very well done in that it links history to present day while exploring much deeper issues. It was not an article just on temperance or religion. It addressed how temperance invaded the culture and was radicalized by the religious and why. Their desire for perfection was founded in religious teachings and therefore justified in making it a culture and political one. This was an excellent article on the social history of the religious backbone of the temperance movement.
Coker, Joe. Religion in the South: Liquor in the Land of the Lost Cause: Southern White Evangelicals and the Prohibition Movement. University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 2007.
Commager, Henry Steele. The Era of Reform, 1830-1860. Van Nostrand: Princeton, 1960.
Warner, Jessica. "Temperance, alcohol, and the American evangelical: a reassessment." Addiction 104, no. 7: 1075-1084.