I was wondering about the evangelical opposition to drinking and smoking. The early American Church (I am Canadian), with its European origins, did not make drinking and smoking an issue. How did this disapproval originate historically?—Derrick

Though Christian objections to alcohol and tobacco may be called "Puritanical" by some, these stances are actually of much more recent vintage. In fact, the Puritans drank beer. The Mayflower log book from 1620 records that one of the reasons that ship stopped at Plymouth, rather than searching for a more hospitable spot further south, was "our victuals being much spent, especially our beere."

American colonists soon took a fancy to native tobacco as well. Some colonial leaders in New England, though, opposed smoking right away, primarily because of health concerns. For example, the governor of New Amsterdam (now New York) banned smoking in 1639, and the general court of Connecticut declared in 1650 that only persons over 21 who had a prescription for tobacco could smoke. Massachusetts outlawed smoking in 1683. Meanwhile, Anglican clergymen in Virginia were routinely paid in tobacco rather than currency.

Concerted campaigns against drinking and smoking began in the early nineteenth century. Alcohol—particularly hard liquor—was the primary concern. Coalitions of pastors, civic leaders, and especially women argued that liquor destroyed lives, ravaged families, eroded morality, and contributed to crime. Drinkers were called upon to "temper" their habits, switching from spirits to beer, or to abstain from alcohol completely. Smoking got lumped in with the temperance campaign because it was reputed to disease both mind and body, and because it was said to dry the mouth, making the smoker pant for a drink.

Nineteenth-century temperance work appealed to a broad swath of society, including many members of what would later be deemed "liberal" churches. This changed somewhat in the early twentieth century, when prohibitions on drinking, smoking, dancing, cards, movies, revealing dress, and so forth became hallmarks of Fundamentalism and emerging Pentecostalism. Some of the older efforts continued, though. When I was in elementary school, in the 1980s, the local chapter of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (founded 1873) sponsored an annual contest for the best anti-drug poster. Each participant received a pencil emblazoned with the classic temperance slogan, "My body is a temple of God." I think the winner got $20.

Legal prohibition of alcohol, interestingly, may have had as much to do with patriotism as with religion. Families of German origin—such as Pabst, Miller, Schlitz, and Anheuser—controlled most of America's major breweries in the early 1900s. Then, in 1917, America declared war on Germany. It's more than coincidence that Congress passed the Volstead Act, the basis for Prohibition, just two years later.

Temperance forces made less of an impact in Canada than in the United States. A smaller minority there held fundamentalist views, and Canada's Western frontier never quite succumbed to the raucous saloon culture that prompted some of the boldest action by American temperance crusaders (think ax-wielding Carry Nation). Yet Canada did flirt with Prohibition. In 1916, Ontario outlawed the sale of alcohol, except native wine for medicinal purposes. British Columbia followed in 1917. Quebec passed a weaker law, aimed only at hard liquor, in 1919, then repealed it in 1921. Canadian brewers and rumrunners greatly benefited from Prohibition in America.

American Prohibition was repealed in 1933, but Fundamentalists, their neo-evangelical heirs, and Pentecostals still generally shun drinking. These Christians may also object more strenuously to smoking than does the general population, though they also may not, considering that America's Bible Belt doubles as its main tobacco-producing region. I've never seen statistics either way.

For more information on this topic, see:

CH issue 41: American Puritans, available for purchase at

CH issue 55: Fundamentalism

CH issue 58: Pentecostalism

Beer and America (from American Heritage magazine)

Woman's Christian Temperance Union

temperance movement

History of Craft Beer in Canada

Canada and the War: Temperance and a Total War Effort

Christian Character—Alcohol, Tobacco & Drugs (Official A/G Perspective)

Tobacco Timeline

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