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 ...

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