“The ethics and self-discipline that came out of evangelical individualism ironically fed into one of the largest efforts in American history to deploy state power to control individual behavior, [which was] the Prohibition movement.”1 The Prohibition movement had its beginnings in the North around the time of the Second Great Awakening. During this time there were initial societies that were formed to help rid America of its sinfulness and to make it into a truly Christian nation. One of the more prominent societies formed was the American Temperance Society, which was formed in 1826. This society, along with others at the time, focused on temperance and moderation rather than complete prohibition. But as the consumption of hard liquor increased, societies moved towards total prohibition. During this time, most historians would agree that the movement was weak in the South, with only a handful of societies and only around eight percent of all recorded pledges during the time. The main reason contributed to the lack of Southern support dealt with the fact that most supporters of the Prohibition movement were also supporters of the Abolitionist movement and the Southern societies tried to distance themselves from the abolitionist. They went as far as to denounce abolitionism and many of the Southern societies ignored or completely separated from the American Temperance Society by the 1830s. Instead of Southern societies advocating legal prohibition, they focused on moral suasion or the act of converting drunkards to sobriety. Many of the southern churches claimed that the societies were not mentioned or sanctioned in the bible and claimed that they were unscriptural. Another of the barriers to prohibition in the south was the doctrine of the “Spirituality of the Church” which was the belief that the church and state were separate spheres and they should not overlap, but this was just a way to continue to denounce abolitionist so they naturally stuck to their guns and were careful not to contradict their use of the scripture. But in reality this was hypocritical at the least because of the moral dilemma that the Southern people were faced with. It was not until after the war that the Southern views on Prohibition began to change and the reasons for their change were not completely spiritually based, but they made it seem that way. Throughout this paper I intend to address the role that religion played in the implementation of prohibition in the Southern United States. I also will look at how race played a role in its enactment and what effect it had on the south and the entire nation.
The First State to adopt Prohibition statewide was Maine in 1851. According to Edward Jewitt Wheeler, “[Maine] was the pioneer State in the movement and gave to State Prohibition the first trial it had ever had.”2 The Law became known as “The Maine Law” and instantly was a political issue of a very large magnitude.3 Even while other States in the North drafted up similar laws and enacted them, the south still didn’t show much support for the movement. The South continued to distance themselves from the abolitionist at the times, which in the North were also the same societies that supported prohibition. The Southerners would not join in the support for Prohibition mainly because they denounced the Abolitionist. They would use scripture to defend slavery as a Christian Institution and they would also say that Prohibition was not sanctioned in the Bible and say that it was unscriptural. The Southern attitude at the time can be summed up as, “The slaveholders of the South believed in liberty more strongly than any other men on this continent.”4 This is a very good image of the Antebellum South, they were focused primarily on defending their rights as slaveholders and Prohibition was not a major priority especially when it was also an objective of the abolitionist and if they were to defend one and accept the other they would be chastised as hypocrites and they were not willing to do that. One of the doctrines use in the South to defend slavery against the abolitionist was to denounce them as corrupting the church by introducing political tests of faith that were not sanctioned by the Bible. The abolitionist continually insisted that slavery was a sin and tried admirably to get the church to condemn slaveholding. This issue by far was the leading reason that prohibition had virtually no support in the South. If not for the dual support of abolition and prohibition in the North, I feel that prohibition would have had more support in the Southern States. But as they defended slavery with the Bible they also denounced Prohibition as not being biblical as a way to stay in line with what they were preaching. Charles Stelzle says it best, “Prohibition is based upon the idea that you can take away one man’s liberty because of another man’s act.”5 This was defiantly the attitude of many, not just in the South, but the entire nation at the time. By the time the Civil War had begun most of the Northern State Prohibition laws had been repealed. The issue would not pick up again until after the Civil War had ended and the regional influence would shift but for different reasons.
Immediately following the Civil War, the issue of Prohibition was not a very hot topic. Most of the political fights were focused on Reconstruction and redeeming the south. What talk of Prohibition there was merely dealt with the issues before the war and accusations that the Southern defenders were hypocritical in their defense of slavery and denouncement of prohibition. It was not until around the 1880s that the Prohibition Movement began to heat up again. By this time there was an emergence of a newly formed Prohibition Party that was beginning to gain popularity. The opponents during this time would use the concept of the “Spirituality of the Church” to condemn prohibition, claiming that alcohol abuse was a moral issue and not a political issue. And this once again brought up the subject of hypocrisy referring back to the fact that Southern ministers preached sermons defending slavery taking a political issue and turning it into a spiritual issue. Nevertheless the leading prohibitionist claimed that since it was a moral issue then they had a right to involve a political question to solve it. The ministers were saying that when a moral question is acted on by the state then the truth surrounding the question becomes an urgent task for the church. This led the Prohibition Party to challenge the Democratic Party beginning in 1890. The main goal of the Prohibition Party was to gain union at the ballot box. According to Wheeler they had three plans to successfully achieve this union in addition to their new party plan. The first one being, “By Massing in one of the old parties and moulding its policy,” secondly they would attempt to “[form] a balance-of-power party, which, while making no nominations of its own, shall vote for those candidates on old-party tickets who are best disposed to this reform” and lastly attempt “By union in non-partisan organization for the adoption of Prohibition in a non-partisan election.”6 Their number one objective was to try and join an existing party to try and get their legislation passed. Second they would attempt to create a party that would challenge the balance of power in hopes of getting their legislation passed. And last if those failed then they would attempt to create an organization that would help them get what they wanted to accomplish. David Kelley, who was a leading Tennessee Methodist minister, who also ran for governor of the Prohibition Party, was one of the leading ministers claiming that you cannot separate your religion from your politics and that is was the duty of Christians to preserve the society from corruption. And that is exactly what the Prohibition Party was attempting to do.
With national Prohibition looking as if it was an almost impossible feat, Southern States initiated laws that allowed for local option. Under this law municipalities and counties had the right to vote for prohibition. In most Southern states there were an overwhelming number of counties voting “dry” as opposed to voting “wet”. To help spread the word and attempt to get people to join the cause of Prohibition, the white evangelicals of the South began to speak of the treat of the “New Negro,” which referred to the black males who had been born after slavery. They claimed that these men had not been civilized under the institution of slavery because they were born into freedom. By being born into freedom these men also demanded equal rights as the whites and the whites claimed that they did not know their place. They also claimed that the “New Negroes” were regressing back to savagery and back to their pagan ways that they once knew in Africa. These blacks were blamed for the raping of white women. The Evangelicals claimed that these savage acts, which were blamed on the blacks, were committed while they were under the influence of cheap, easily accessible, alcohol. These campaigns by the white ministers led to a greater support for prohibition. Under the institution of slavery, blacks were prohibited by state laws from obtaining alcohol, which also included free blacks. During the antebellum period black drunkenness had not been a major issue, but not suddenly with the blacks holding the same rights as the whites, it became a major problem for the whites. During this time the white evangelicals who were using the “New Negro” as their main cause for Prohibition, they also hoped that many of the black Christians would join the cause a help to fight against the drunkenness and denounce the use of “demon rum” as it was known at the time. And in most cases the black ministers cooperated and also supported the prohibition movement and denounced the use of alcohol amongst their congregations. The white evangelicals believed that the blacks were to be placed under white guidance, in a paternalistic way that they could be educated and even be taught to live good moral lives. The National Temperance Society was one of the leading societies spreading the word of prohibition to the black community. According to H.A. Scomp, “One of the grandest works in which the society has been engaged, is in the dissemination of temperance literature among the freedmen of the South.”7
Eventually the South emerged as the region with the strongest support of Prohibition by the turn of the 20th century. In 1907, Georgia passed a state wide law that banned the manufacture and sale of alcohol, followed in 1908 by Mississippi, North Carolina, Alabama, and Tennessee in 1909. Eventually the whole nation would be under the blanket of Prohibition when congress passed the 18th amendment in 1919. Mississippi became the first state in the union to ratify the amendment. The law lasted for 13 years until it was repealed in 1933 with the 21st amendment. During the time that Prohibition was in effect there were was an increase in organized crime which was a result of illegal alcohol manufacture. Ironically Mississippi was the last state to officially repeal the 18th amendment, only proving that Mississippi cannot seem to let go of its past. Prohibition was a very controversial topic within the United States throughout the entire 19th and the early 20th century. And the use of alcohol in the South is still debated today among evangelical Christians and will be for some time to come.
1 Paul Harvey, Freedom’s Coming, (The University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 55.
2 Edward Jewitt Wheeler, Prohibition: The Principle. The Policy and The Party., (New York: John Anderson, Co., 1889), 109.
3 Wheeler, 109.
4 James C. McGinnis and Charles Robinson, Prohibition; It is in Violation of the Reserved Rights of the Citizen; is not Sanctioned by the Teachings of the Bible; and is Impracticable and Delusive as a Temperance Expedient, (St. Louis: Woodward and Tiernan, Printers, 1884), 44.
5 Charles Stelzle, Why Prohibition!, (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1918), 76.
6 Wheeler, 162.
7 H.A. Scomp, King Alcohol in the Realm of King Cotton, (The Blakely Printing Co., 1888), 778.