January 16, 1979, marks an important anniversary in American history. But no one will have noticed it. Sixty years ago, we ratified the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which made the country “dry.” The issue of drinking is still alive in evangelical circles. Let’s look at how evangelical attitudes toward drink developed over the years.

If in 1630 someone could have asked godly John Winthrop, first governor of Puritan Massachusetts, what Bible passage best summed up his attitude toward alcoholic beverages, he might have replied, Psalm 104:14–15: “Thou dost cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the heart of man.…” If three hundred years later well-known revivalist Billy Sunday had been asked the same question, he may well have replied, Proverbs 20:1: “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler; and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.” American Christians have held widely differing attitudes toward strong drink. Most believers before 1800 regarded the moderate use of alcoholic beverages, particularly beer and wine, as a privileged blessing from a gracious God. A significant minority still do. A few believers before 1800 saw drinking as a sinful blight with which no Christian should ever be associated. Now that is the majority opinion.

In the early days of settlement in America, Christians, no less than other colonists, provided themselves with fermented spirits. The persecuted Pilgrims carried with them an ample supply of “hot water,” as it was then called, when they arrived aboard the Mayflower in 1620. The pious Reverend Francis Higginson embarked for Massachusetts Bay in 1629 with forty-five casks of beer and twenty gallons of brandy for the use of his family and the wider Puritan community. (You can read about this in the pamphlet by Gerard Carson, “Rum and Reform in Old New England,” Old Sturbridge Village, 1966.) By 1670 the cultivation of apples had advanced to the point in New England where hard cider, or applejack, became standard fare at most public gatherings, including the ordination of ministers. When Jonathan Edwards’s father was ordained in 1698, for example, provision for the festivities included fourteen pounds of mutton, eighty-eight pounds of beef, four quarts of rum, and eight quarts of wine.

New England did, however, take strong measures against those who overindulged in drink. The punishment was not a night in the city jail to dry out, as now, but time in the stocks or a whipping. The venerable Cotton Mather spoke from the pulpit against the immoderate use of alcohol, particularly the excessive tippling that went on when local militia companies gathered for Training Days. He was also concerned that drunkenness among the Indians made them incapable of receiving the Gospel. Yet Mather, too, looked upon the milder forms of liquor as good gifts of the Creator to the creature. Some historians think it was Mather who coined the old New England proverb: “Wine is from God, but drunkenness from the devil.” In short, no one felt any tension between Christianity and the moderate use of alcohol. Of the Scotch-Irish who came to America from Londonderry, Ireland, for example, it was said: “The Derry Presbyterians never gave up a pint [i.e., point] of doctrine, nor a pint of rum.”

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The ready use of liquor by colonial Christians was due as much to living conditions as to theological convictions. The colonial diet was monotonous; settlers ate great quantities of meat that had been preserved by salting; lives were filled with hardship and disease; liquor was widely thought to be of general medicinal value; and there was no central heating. All of these factors encouraged the use of alcoholic beverages. In addition, the trade in sugar, molasses, and rum had come to be an important part of colonial economic life by the mid-eighteenth century. Venerated patriot leaders such as Sam Adams, John Hancock, and Paul Revere were among the many people who engaged in the illegal, but highly profitable, rum traffic with the West Indies and Africa.

Reaction to the use of alcohol set in with the revival of Christianity at the start of the nineteenth century, known as the Second Great Awakening. One of the leaders of that movement, Lyman Beecher, disgustedly tells of a meeting of Connecticut ministers that was marred by an unseemly use of alcohol: “The sideboard with the spillings of water, and sugar, and liquor, looked and smelled like the bar of a very active grogshop.” In Beecher’s opinion, such untoward use of alcohol befogged the minds and contaminated the spirits of the Connecticut ministers; it was “nullifying the means of grace.”

Beecher was one of the leaders of the Second Awakening, a movement that combined zeal in evangelism with a fervor for social reform. As spiritual revival spread throughout the country, concern for the character of American life spread just as rapidly. Believers labored for the conversion of lost America, and they worked to transform America into a godly land. The perfectarian impulse in American life came to the fore not only in the zealous efforts of the revivalists, but also in the effort to clean up the lives of the people. Not the least of concerns was intemperance.

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Beecher himself set out the case against “ardent spirits” in a hard-hitting book first published in 1826. Its title summed up its contents very well: Six Sermons on the Nature, Occasion, Signs, Evils, and Remedy of Intemperance. Beecher condemned beverage alcohol because of the harm it did to “the health and physical energies of a nation,” to the “national intellect,” to the “military prowess of a nation,” to the “patriotism of a nation,” to the “national conscience or moral principle,” to the “national industry,” and to “civil liberty.” But Beecher’s greatest concern about liquor was “the moral ruin it works in the soul.” Very obviously, Beecher saw liquor reform as part of the effort to smooth the way for the Gospel and to improve American society.

At least four problems confronted believers, however, as they began to turn aside from the widespread use of drink. First, should reform be directed toward moderation in the use of alcoholic beverages or total abstinence from them? As early as 1780 American Methodists declared themselves for total abstinence, but the first voluntary temperance society in Connecticut, established at Litchfield in 1789, argued only for moderation. By the 1840s, temperance opinion was coming down on the side of total abstinence, as when Beecher argued in the tenth edition of his Six Sermons: “There is no prudent use of ardent spirits, but when it is used as a medicine.”

This point of view did not, to make a bad pun, go down easily, particularly on the frontier. In tiny New Salem, Illinois, in the 1830s, for example, some of the citizens were confirmed teetotalers, including young Abraham Lincoln who had had several disquieting experiences with liquor. But Dr. John Allen, founder of the New Salem temperance society as well as of its debating society and its Sunday school, “found his worst opponents among the church members, most of whom had their barrels of whiskey at home.”

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Many believers who would have condemned the New Salem whiskey drinkers had their doubts about less intoxicating drinks. When Lyman Beecher first spoke out against the use of liquor, he made no mention of wine or beer because he knew that most Christians considered them acceptable beverages. Yet gradually these milder forms of alcohol fell under condemnation also. So effective was the drive to suppress all forms of liquor that even the White House went “dry” for a few years after the Civil War. “Lemonade Lucy” Hayes (a Methodist) and Mrs. James A. Garfield (of the Disciples of Christ) served no alcohol of any kind at presidential functions. Thus, from 1876 to 1881 the temperance crusade conquered the White House where, in the words of a visiting statesman, “the water flowed like champagne.” As an aside, it is important to note that among evangelical immigrants from Europe, particularly from Germany and Holland, the distaste for beer and wine never took hold. To this day hymn-singing and beer-drinking often go hand in hand in Dutch Reformed Grand Rapids or German Lutheran St. Louis.

A third related issue was “the communion question.” Would the practice of the Christian centuries be altered to exclude fermented beverage from the Lord’s Supper? As teetotalism continued to grow, and as some Bible commentators even interpreted the “wine” of Scripture as an unfermented drink, it was not long before grape juice replaced wine in many Baptist, Presbyterian, Disciples, Mennonite, and other evangelical churches. B. B. Warfield, the defender of biblical inerrancy, was one of a small handful to resist this move. Warfield argued that the integrity of the Bible—which did read “wine” and not “grape juice”—was at stake, but his argument had little effect.

The last issue concerned the public implementation of abstinence. At first reformers relied upon public sentiment. But then they sought legal means to prohibit the sale and use of alcoholic beverages. Maine instituted the first prohibition law in 1846. As the nineteenth century wore on, the Methodist church—with its strong perfectionist bent—spearheaded the drive to outlaw all forms of alcoholic beverage. The Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, under the dynamic leadership of Frances Willard, gave broad public impetus to the drive. These evangelically based organizations were aided, surprisingly enough, by some Roman Catholics who wanted to prove themselves good fellow Americans. The drive for prohibition was also helped by many proponents of the social gospel, who saw the movement as a way to improve the quality of American life.

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When the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, prohibiting “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors,” took effect on January 17, 1920, millions of evangelicals heralded the bright dawning of a new day. In Norfolk, Virginia, Billy Sunday staged a funeral service for “John Barleycorn,” in which much of the Christian animus against the liquor trade was summed up. “Good-by, John,” the revivalist said. “The reign of tears is over.… The slums will soon be only a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs. Men will walk upright now, women will smile, and the children will laugh. Hell will be forever for rent” (Herbert Asbury, The Great Illusion: An Informal History of Prohibition, Greenwood, 1968, pp. 144–145).

Prohibition had praiseworthy aims, and its actual effects seem to have been positive. But it was rejected by the decision-makers of the nation. Evangelicals gradually gave up the effort to outlaw drink, and the Twenty-first Amendment (1933) ended the “noble experiment” itself.

The acknowledged social cost of alcoholism, the carnage done by drunken drivers, the admittedly dangerous effects of alcohol on intellectual capacity, and the increased willingness to recognize alcohol as a mind-altering drug have justified much of the evangelical testimony against intemperance.

Yet the battle against liquor went on. Although more evangelicals probably drink now than in the 1930s, sentiment is still unanimous against the immoderate use of alcohol. And a majority of modern evangelicals probably would still be counted as total abstainers.

This resistance by evangelicals to intemperance is no cause for embarrassment in modern American society. The acknowledged social cost of alcoholism, the carnage done by drunken drivers, the admittedly dangerous effects of alcohol on intellectual capacity, and the increased willingness to recognize alcohol as a mind-altering drug have justified much of the evangelical testimony against intemperance. In spite of an inability to convince the American public about the dangers of drink, evangelicals have made the case against intemperance honestly and competently.

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The evangelical crusade against drink has not been without difficulties, however. Some evangelicals have made opinions on liquor more important for fellowship and cooperation than attitudes toward the person of Christ or the nature of salvation. This is particularly unfortunate since the Bible speaks clearly about Christ and salvation, but not about the question of total abstinence. Ardent concern for intemperance has also blinded evangelicals to other abuses in society that need Christian correction and reform. A good number of evangelicals, including many people in the Reformed and Lutheran communions, have continued to enjoy wine, beer, and even moderate amounts of harder spirits as gifts of God, which should suggest that evangelicals frame their arguments against liquor in terms of expedience rather than divine absolutes.

Mark A. Noll is a fellow of a National Endowment for the Humanities program at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

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