The United Methodist Reporter is offering the latest headlines in the RSS format.
Q & A
Q&A: Anti-alcohol movement’s rise and fall Mary Jacobs, Jul 30, 2010
By all accounts, Prohibition was a colossal mistake, creating more organized crime than it did sobriety between 1920 and 1933. Behind the Constitutional amendment that enacted Prohibition was a diverse group of Americans, including the Ku Klux Klan, women’s suffragists, the left-wing Industrial Workers of the World (the “Wobblies”) and leaders of the Methodist church.
Daniel Okrent has created a definitive history in Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (Scribner), and Methodists figure prominently in the tale. Mr. Okrent recently spoke with staff writer Mary Jacobs.
How important were Methodists in the temperance movement? The organization that made Prohibition happen was the Anti-Saloon League, and the people who dominated the Anti-Saloon League from the beginning were Methodists. Its entire board of directors was made of Methodist and Baptist ministers, and they used their network of churches to raise money, to organize people and bring them into the political arena. Many were sincere; they felt the world was going to change for the better because of Prohibition. But there were other reasons why people in the churches supported Prohibition, like anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant feelings.
Protestants that did not support Prohibition were the Lutherans—many were German, so beer was part of their culture—and the Episcopalians, who are closer to Catholics. What about Methodists and Baptists would make them care more? I don’t know the answer to that.
But I think the xenophobic aspect was very strong. This was the final thing that enabled the ratification of the Prohibition amendment. You needed 36 states to approve it, and this was happening just as the U.S. was entering World War I. The great enemy was Germany—and the brewers were seen by the Prohibitionists as tools of the Kaiser.
Given that Jesus turns water into wine in the Bible, how did Methodists become so vehemently anti-alcohol? Interestingly, there was a new translation of the Bible in 1924 that changed the wedding at Cana and various other passages, so that references to wine were deleted. This was by a professor of theology at Yale who denied it was due to Prohibition sentiment, but it was a very unconvincing denial.
As to why the theology of Prohibition became central, I don’t know. What I do know is the reaction against the saloon in the middle of the 19th century, particularly among women, was so intense that it combined with this notion of proper moral behavior. And the drunkenness that women were subjected to—when they had no legal rights and no property rights—it was a real social problem. And Americans were drinking a lot before Prohibition began. So maybe the church leaders are saying, “We have a real social problem here, so how do we tie this into our theology?”
There were very powerful forces against Prohibition. If you follow the money, it doesn’t seem like anybody stood to profit financially. How did a grassroots group manage to defeat those? There’s a phrase that historians use to define who supported Prohibition—Baptists and bootleggers. Methodists were only left out because it isn’t alliterative. They were the ones who had the most to gain. Baptists, to impose a moral standard; bootleggers, because it gave them this huge business. They benefited from Prohibition—and by the way, [bootleggers] were very organized. The crime bosses had a meeting in Seattle in 1922, and it was conducted under Robert’s Rules of Order.
What did Methodists and Protestants in general think they’d accomplish by prohibiting alcohol consumption? Billy Sunday preached that with Prohibition, “We will turn our jails into corncribs, prisons won’t have to exist any more, people are going to be clean and proud and live upright lives.” If we take his words at face value, and I think we can, he sincerely believed it would make the world better.
So what were some of the unintended consequences of Prohibition? Prohibition denied the government revenue and enriched bootleggers. It fostered a lack of faith in the rule of law because Prohibition laws were so openly defied. So people thought, how seriously do we have to take any law? It also helped foster the creation of the national crime syndicate.
Given that Methodists still aim to positively influence morality in society today, are there any lessons learned from Prohibition? Prohibitionists discredited the anti-alcohol case by exaggerating it or misrepresenting it. So one lesson is: Don’t exaggerate; have your facts right. So much of the Prohibitionists’ efforts of persuasion against alcohol was alarmist and exaggerated. They promoted so-called “scientific” warnings, such as, “You’ll scar your esophagus forever with one glass of alcohol.” If you hear that, there’s no way you’ll ever be persuaded because you’ll think the persuaders are either fantasists or liars.
In the Prohibition movement, there were two factions. One group felt you could enforce this simply by law. Others thought you needed to have education, to persuade. Unfortunately, the first party won. But, as we’ve seen so many times, you cannot legislate against human appetites. It doesn’t work. It never has.
Were there any positives that came out of Prohibition? Yes. Americans were hard drinkers. In 1830, the year when Americans drank the most, it was 7.5 gallons of pure alcohol a year. That’s the equivalent of 90 fifths of 80 proof liquor for every man, woman and child over the age of 15. That was the average consumption. So Prohibition created an open and public issue about the dangers and consequences of drink. And after Prohibition, Americans were actually drinking less than they did before Prohibition. And we still do.