I have a friend who makes artisanal beers for Jesus.

He is devoted to the small and local, to slow food and slow drink. Inspired by Shane Claiborne and Wendell Berry, he named his beer company—if the word company is applicable to two guys making beer in a garage—Mad Farmer Ales, in homage to Berry's famous poem "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front." My friend sees the commitment to the simple and poor, to making things with his own hands, as central to who Christ wants him to be. And beer is a just aspect of heeding Berry's instruction to

Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
… Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

My friend finds affinity among fellow evangelicals. From the growth of "Theology on Tap" discussions in bars, to relaxed policies for faculty and staff at Christian institutions—most recently, the venerable Moody Bible Institute—to anecdotal everyday practice among devoted 20-somethings, one thing is clear: There has been, as The New York Times called it in reporting on the Moody story, a "culture shift" regarding evangelicals and alcohol.

I don't know if my friend has ever considered that generations of evangelical forefathers and foremothers saw not drinking beer as central to who Christ wanted them to be. I do know that for many of his peers, the word temperance conjures legalistic rules ("don't drink, don't smoke, don't chew, don't go with girls that do") and a dim memory of learning in school that Prohibition was a Really Bad Thing: speakeasies, bootlegging, Al Capone.

But temperance has a longer history—and a more surprising one.

In All Things, Moderation

Once, long ago, there was Plato. In The Republic, composed nearly 2,400 years ago, the Greek philosopher wrote of the virtues necessary for right living in a properly constituted social order. These were prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude—or, in terms we might better understand today, wisdom, justice, moderation, and courage. His list became known as the four "cardinal virtues." It was picked up by Christian thinkers, who added specifically Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love.

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Temperance—defined as total abstinence, not just moderation—was a progressive cause in 19th-century America, and one rooted in what was understood to be the best science available.

For centuries, temperance meant "moderation" to the average Christian listener. It meant experiencing food, drink, and other pleasures in the right proportion to the experiences of one's life, and being aware of the inward effect of all outward behaviors. Sometimes it included ascetic behaviors such as abstaining from food, drink, or sex—either at certain times (in the Middle Ages, "don't have sex for three days before receiving Communion") or for certain people (then and now, "don't own property if you're a monk").

The Methodists would later define temperance as "distinctively a Christian virtue, enjoined in the Holy Scriptures. It implies a subordination of all the emotions, passions, and appetites to the control of reason and conscience." The Catholic Catechism still defines it as "the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. It ensures the will's mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable."

Of course, moderation wasn't always practiced. In many times and places, it was honored more in the breach than the observance. And it may sometimes have counseled practices that sound odd to us (Wait, what was that about sex and the Eucharist?). But at its best, the Christian tradition spoke the wisdom that all created things are good, but that all created things must be consumed in balance.

In the 19th century, temperance took on a narrower meaning to many American Protestants and a few Catholics. A number of factors led to that narrowing. From the time the colonies were settled, Americans had been a hard-drinking lot in general. But things changed after 1800. The century saw the rising popularity of whiskey (other drinks suffered from Revolutionary-era blockades) and lager beer (brought by German immigrants). Add to that the social disruption of industrialization. The nation moved from small villages where everyone watched out for the local drunk and where tasks were done slowly with hand tools, to urban settings where one could drink in perfect anonymity and where complete sobriety was necessary to operate heavy machinery. At the same time, a growing number of liquor outlets dotted the urban centers. All these factors led to a growing consensus that the best way to practice temperance in regard to alcohol was not to drink it at all.

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Three Misconceptions

There are a number of misconceptions about the 19th-century temperance movement. The first, which was shared by temperance activists themselves, is that it didn't work. In fact, it did. American drinking dropped dramatically after the temperance movement took off in the 1830s. Americans in 1830 were drinking 7.1 gallons of absolute alcohol per year per person. (That's the equivalent of drinking 36 750mL bottles of pure alcohol in a year.) By 1835, they were down to 5.0 gallons; by 1840, 3.1. By 1910, shortly before Prohibition, this had dropped to 2.6 gallons; post-Prohibition, it was down to 1.2, or about 6 750ML bottles in a year. Even after every moral loosening the 20th century wrought, from flappers to the counterculture movement, by the year 2000, the average American drank less than a gallon of absolute alcohol. That's more than six gallons less a year than their ancestors had about 200 years before.

The second misconception—perpet­uated for years by historians as well as average folk—is that temperance was a reactionary, backwards movement led by reactionary, backwards people to impose an outdated morality. In the 1960s, a reputable American historian described temperance activists as the direct ancestors of those who protested in the 1950s against "fluoridation, domestic Communism, school curricula, and the United Nations." Other historians argued it was all an economic plot to make workers labor efficiently with heavy machinery. One writer noted that the switch from moderation to abstinence was from "advocacy of a Christian virtue" to "insistence on a social taboo." Goodbye, theological concern; hello, opiate of the masses.

The truth is that temperance—defined as total abstinence, not just moderation—was a progressive cause in 19th-century America, and one rooted in what was understood to be the best science available. Various famous experiments (including one where physician William Beaumont looked through an open wound at a patient's stomach and tested various food and beverages on it) made it clear that beer and wine were not a completely safe alternative to distilled spirits. Doctors were also getting better in the 1800s at outlining the exact physical and mental effects of alcoholic excess. The Methodist Episcopal Church could argue to a willing audience, directly after its definition of moderation quoted above, that "both science and human experience unite with Holy Scripture in condemning all alcoholic beverages as being neither useful nor safe."

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Whatever we might think of temperance science or exegesis, temperance also enjoyed progressive political bedfellows. Before the Civil War, temperance and abolition of slavery were closely linked; for example, Southern members of the Methodist Episcopal Church were nervous, when a debate on the matter arose in 1844, about restoring some of John Wesley's original behavioral prohibitions to their church laws because Wesley had prohibited slavery alongside liquor-selling. After the Wesleyan Methodist Church was founded in 1843 to protest mainline yielding to middle-class interests, Wesleyans protested against slavery, hosted the famous 1848 Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention, participated in the first-ever female ordination in the Western hemisphere—and fought for temperance.

Later holiness denominations (Free Methodists, Nazarenes, and most famously the Salvation Army) would follow suit. Salvationists gave men and women equal rank in the Army and practiced urban ministry with the poor on a large scale; they also preached total abstinence as they labored in pubs to save the destitute.

Many temperance advocates also promoted voting rights for women. After all, women were more likely than men to vote to shutter the saloons that were destroying their homes. Carrie Nation and her hatchet may be the most famous image, but the 1873–74 Woman's Crusade—which led to the founding of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU)—is a more accurate representation, with its crowds of nonviolent protesters linked arm-in-arm before saloon doors. A later WCTU historian described the crusade in Ohio:

Walking two by two, the smaller ones in the front and the taller coming after, they sang more or less confidently, "Give to the Winds Thy Fears," that heartening reassurance of Divine protection now known to every WCTU member as the Crusade Hymn. Every day they visited the saloons and the drug stores where liquor was sold. They prayed on sawdust floors or, being denied entrance, knelt on snowy pavements before the doorways, until almost all the sellers capitulated.

The temperance movement was even partially responsible for the introduction of public drinking fountains as a free alternative to alcohol.

The third misconception about the temperance movement—and many associated lifestyle issues, ranging from encouraging plain dress to avoiding dancing and theatrical productions—is that those lifestyle issues sprang from a desire to keep Christians from having fun. To be sure, lots of literature from the time suggests that temperance advocates were worried about uncontrolled passions—whether for alcohol, tobacco, fancy clothes, the theater, or the opposite sex. But that concern was rooted at least partially in where they thought improper passions might lead—namely, to lower-class destitution.

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As young men moved to cities to work, they disappeared into urban "sporting culture," marked by easy access to alcohol and prostitutes. The boundary between working in the theater and working in the sex trade sometimes blurred. Even a desire to wear the latest fashions could bankrupt; churches encouraged plain dress by reminding members how much more money they could give to the poor if they didn't spend it on fancy hats for themselves.

One temperance writer believed that referring to Jesus as a wine-drinker meant also claiming him on the side of "wife-beating and child-beating" and "seven-eighths of all the crimes committed in the civilized world." At their best, temperance advocates labored alongside the poor, reminding their peers that what some moderate drinkers, safe in their middle-class safety nets, could handle, other people with weaker wills—or weaker safety nets—could not. Methodists wrote in their 1868 Discipline: "We entreat all who are tempted by the fashions of worldly society, or of personal appetite, to abstain from this appearance and reality of evil. . . . Our wealth will bring with it the heaviest curse of Heaven if it becomes a source of corruption through any such complicity with popular sins."

In Remembrance

Many things combined to hide all these stories from the evangelical heirs of the WCTU and the Salvation Army. For one, Prohibition might have brought alcohol consumption down, but it failed as a social experiment. The resulting rebellion against it, especially among the intellectual elite, echoed through the decades. In the 1920s, an eminent historian described temperance folks as being on the side of "Philistinism, Harsh restraint, Beauty-hating, Stout-faced fanaticism, Supreme hypocrisy, Canting, Demonology, Enmity to True art, Intellectual Tyranny, Grape juice, Grisley sermons, Religious persecution, Sullenness, Ill-Temper, Stinginess, Bigotry, Conceit, Bombast." It is not too difficult to find members of the intellectual elite—Christian and secular alike—who would say the same today.

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For another, some Christians forgot where their lifestyle rules had come from. Giving up drinking or smoking or wearing jewelry or going to movies remained as boundary markers of evangelical identity in settings where their connection with ministry to the poor and marginalized had long disappeared.

When a generation of young evangelicals arose who were concerned about the relationship of holiness to what we eat and drink, and who wanted to live their lives in tune with Berry's poetic manifesto, they did not know that their temperance ancestors had traveled that road before them. As today's evangelical Christians take up freedom to make beer for Jesus, it might help to also remember that freedom is not license—and that there is more than one way to practice resurrection.

Jennifer Woodruff Tait is the managing editor of Christian History magazine and the author of The Poisoned Chalice: Eucharistic Grape Juice and Common-Sense Realism in Victorian Methodism (University of Alabama Press). Research at Asbury Seminary's Wesleyan Studies Summer Seminar contributed to this article.

See also D. L. Mayfield's companion article and this month's cover story, "Why I Gave Up Alcohol."

[ This article is also available in español. ]

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