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The Bible and the American Temperance Movement: Text, Context, and Pretext

  • John L. Merrill (a1)


Following the failure of national prohibition, the temperance movement came to be regarded as an alien blight that had afflicted the American landscape. Richard Hofstadter spoke for many historians when he suggested that the story of prohibition seems “like a historical detour, a meaningless nuisance, an extraneous imposition upon the main course of history.” Rather than being viewed as somehow integral to and indicative of developments in American society and culture, the temperance movement has more commonly been exploited as a quarry for providing colorful instances of human folly and fanaticism. The tendency is natural for, unlike other leading reform movements such as antislavery and women's suffrage, which have legacies most historians are eager to affirm, the crusade against drink seems odd and misplaced to contemporary minds. But this approach has overlooked important features of the movement, failing to show why it did not strike its many advocates as a pseudo-concern or do justice to its widespread support and distinction as the longest continuous reform movement in American history.



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1 Hofstadter, Richard, The Age of Reform, From Bryan to FDR. (New York: Knopf, 1955) 287.

2 These recent studies have sought to understand the concern over drink in light of a number of different pressing factors. Some emphasize various social and economic changes of the early national period as factors in the new value given to sobriety. Others stress the real increase in alcohol consumption and changing medical opinion concerning the effects of drinking. Still others have related it to tensions between social classes or ethnic groups, or viewed it as a form of status politics. Useful orientations to the new historiography are Kett, Joseph F., “Review Essay/Temperance and Intemperance as Historical Problems,” Journal of American History 67 (1981) 878–85; and Dannenbaum, Jed, “The Crusade Against Drink,” Reviews in American History 9 (1981) 497502. Recent temperance studies helpful in providing the broader context for this present essay include Clark, Norman H., Deliver Us from Evil: An Interpretation of American Prohibition (New York: Norton, 1976); Lender, Mark E. and Martin, James Kirby, Drinking in America: A History (New York: Free Press, 1982); Rorabaugh, W. J., The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979); and esp. Tyrrell, Ian R., Sobering Up: From Temperance to Prohibition in Antebellum America, 1800–1900 (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1979). For a bibliography of the secondary literature, see Jessup, Jacquie, “The Liquor Issue in American History,” in Blocker, Jack S., ed., Alcohol, Reform, and Society: The Liquor Issue in Social Context (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1979).

3 Seventh Report of the American Temperance Society, Presented at the Meeting in Philadelphia, May, 1834 (Boston: Seth Biss, 1834) 1. In light of the attention that historians have begun to pay to the pervasive influence of the Bible in American life, the absence of an analysis of its role in the temperance movement is all the more striking. Among the recent studies of the Bible in American culture are Hatch, Nathan O. and Noll, Mark A., eds., The Bible in America: Essays in Cultural History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982); Swartley, Willard M., Slavery, Sabbath, War. and Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1983); and the series of volumes sponsored by the Society of Biblical Literature, including, Sandeen, Ernest R., ed., The Bible and Social Reform (1982), Johnson, James T., ed., The Bible in American Law, Politics, and Rhetoric (1985), David Barr and Nicholas Piediscalzi, eds., The Bible in American Education (1982), and Gunn, Giles, The Bible and American Arts and Letters (1983), published jointly by Fortress Press, Philadelphia, and Scholars Press, Chico, CA.

4 Increase Mather, Wo to Drunkards (Cambridge, MA: Marmaduke Johnson, 1673) 4. Studies of colonial attitudes toward drink include Dean Albertson, Puritan Liquor in the Planting of New England,” New England Quarterly 23 (1950) 477–90, and Lender, Mark, “Drunkenness as an Offense in Early New England: A Study of ‘Puritan’ Attitudes,” Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol 34 (1973)353–66.

5 Constitution of the Massachusetts Temperance Society, for the Suppression of Intemperance (Boston: Samuel T. Armstrong, 1813) 3.

6 Seventh Report, 5, 6.

7 Krout, John A., Origins of Prohibition (New York: Knopf, 1925) 113–14.

8 Seventh Report, 4.

9 Tyrrell, Sobering Up, 73. Tyrrell notes, however, that few congregations followed the national organization's recommendation to excommunicate the offending members.

10 Permanent Temperance Documents (3 vols.; New York: American Temperance Union, 18511852) 2. 25. For a discussion of the factors involved in the shift to teetotalism, see Tyrrell, Sobering Up, chap. 6.

11 Marsden, George M., The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience: A Case Study of Thought and Theology in Nineteenth-Century America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970) 26. See also Gribbin, William, “Republicanism, Reform, and the Sense of Sin in Ante Bellum America,” Cithara 14 (1974) 2541.

12 “National Temperance Convention,” New York Observer (27 August 1836) 137.

13 State of the Temperance Reform,” Christian Examiner 20 (1836) 102. See also Krout, Origins of Prohibition, 167.

14 See, e.g., the contributions of Edward C. Delavan, New York State temperance leader and former wine merchant, Adulterations of Liquors (New York: Brognard &Co., 1850), and idem, “Letter to General John H. Cocke of Virginia, on the Communion Question,” in idem, ed., Temperance Essays, and Selections from Different Authors (4th ed.; New York: National Temperance Society and Publication House, 1869) 56.

15 “National Temperance Convention,” New York Observer (27 August 1836) 137.

16 Tyrrell, Sobering Up, 145. For the response Smith's argument evoked from his more theologically orthodox compeers, see Harlow, Ralph V., Gerrit Smith: Philanthropist and Reformer (New York: Henry Holt, 1939) 7779.

17 Some contemporary antislavery advocates similarly argued that God left room for an evolution in moral practice that went beyond what was explicitly taught and practiced in the New Testament. Horace Bushnell was one who treated both temperance and antislavery in this manner; see his A Discourse on the Moral Tendencies and Results of Human History (New York: N. Y. Beach, 1843) 16; and The Census and Slavery (Hartford: Lucius Hurd, 1860) 18, 20. The argument was less convincing when applied to alcohol than to slavery, however, for while Jesus was not a slaveholder, the Bible seemed to indicate that he not only made and drank wine but actually instituted its use at the Last Supper; and few wished to claim to be preaching a level of morality that Jesus himself had not practiced. This disparity is suggested by a later anonymous writer who, while critical of the extremists of both movements, suggested that Christ's silence regarding the evils of Roman slavery was an example of a toleration of an organic wrong, the truth of which people were not yet able to bear; yet, he refused to make a parallel argument regarding drink (Abolitionists and Prohibitionists; or Moral Reform Embarrassed by Ultraism.New Englander and Yale Review 56 [1892] 910. 19–20).

18 Krout, Origins of Prohibition, 158.

19 Permanent Temperance Documents, 2. 26; Krout, Origins of Prohibition, 155–56.

20 Duffield, George, The Bible Rule of Temperance: Total Abstinence from All Intoxicating Drink (New York: National Temperance Society and Publication House, 1868) vii, viii. Though the phrase “total abstinence” originally referred to the forswearing of only distilled liquors, it eventually became shorthand for the creed “total abstinence from all that can intoxicate.” This is the sense in which the phrase is used here, and henceforth, in this essay.

21 “Letter of Edward C. Delavan, Esq., to the Editors of the ‘New York Observer,’” in Parsons, B., Anti-Bacchus (New York: Scofield &Voorhies, 1840) 349.

22 Hofstadter, Richard, Anti-intellectualism in American Life (New York: Knopf, 1963) 83. For a fine account of the interpretative anarchy besetting those of the early national period who pushed the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura to its extreme with their adherence to the maxim, “No creed but the Bible,” see Nathan O. Hatch, “Sola Scriptura and Novus Ordo Seclorum,” in idem and Noll, eds., The Bible in America. On the restorationist theme in American Protestantism, see the articles by Spalding, James C., Hill, Samuel S. Jr, Gaustad, Edwin S., Hughes, Richard T., and Mead, Sidney E. in JAAR 44 (1976) 47113.

23 Nevin, John W., “Early Christianity,” Mercersbwg Review 3 (1851) 549.

24 Thayer, William M., Communion Wine and Bible Temperance (1869; reprinted New York: National Temperance Society and Publication House, 1878) 90, 6.

25 George M. Marsden, “Everyone One's Own Interpreter? The Bible, Science, and Authority in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America,” in Hatch and Noll, eds., Bible in America.

26 These events are recounted by Marsh, John, secretary of the American Temperance Union, in his Temperance Recollections. Labors, Defeats, Triumphs. An Autobiography (New York: Charles Scribner & Co., 1866) 6869, and in his “Introduction” to B. Parsons's Anti-Bacchus, 16–21.

27 Duffield. Bible Rule of Temperance, 159. In those few cases where Scripture speaks well of yayin, Duffield said, it was being used loosely as “a word of generic import.” and in each case had as its referent an unfermented form of the fruit of the vine (ibid., 160). First published in May, 1835 in the Philadelphia Observer, Duffield's essay was reprinted as the second half of his Bible Rule of Temperance.

28 This process of preservation, according to the ancients cited, consisted in boiling the juice down to syrup. When reconstituted with water, this inspissated must was consumed as a beverage (ibid., 197–98).

29 A sense for the degree of interest that the two-wine interpretation generated can be gained by consulting the Temperance subject heading in the Dictionary Catalog of the New York Public Library, where over two hundred entries are listed under the subheading of Bible Arguments. The interpretation was treated in numerous other general works on temperance, and was the focus of countless newspaper and journal articles as well.

30 The earliest indication of Stuart's acceptance of the two-wine interpretation is found in a letter he wrote to the Temperance Intelligencer, August 1835. See also Sprague's, William B.Reply to Professor Stuart's Letter (Albany: Packard & van Benthuysen. 1835).

31 Stuart, Moses, A Scriptural View of the Wine Question, in a Letter to the Rev. Dr. Nott (New York: Leavitt. Trow & Company. 1848) 11. For a study of Moses Stuart and of early American biblical scholarship generally, see Brown, Jerry Wayne. The Rise of Biblical Criticism in America: The New England Scholars (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press. 1969).

32 Stuart, Scriptural View. 16. In adopting the phrase, “fermented wine.” Stuart challenged the Authorized Version's rendering, “vinegar of wine.”

34 ibid., 8, 38,42,41,44.

35 ibid., 49. Like Duffield and other two-wine proponents, Stuart also held that tirosh, the second most common Hebrew word translated wine, was used solely to designate unfermented wine (ibid., 25–29).

36 ibid., 49, 50, 53.

37 ibid., 37,61. It is interesting to note, however, that on other issues of the day with which Stuart was less taken, he felt distinctly uncomfortable with this attenuated version of sola scriptura. Of the recent attempt to reconcile the conclusions of the new geology with the “days“of creation in Genesis, Stuart exclaimed, “I am unable to see how the discoveries of modern science and of recent date, can determine the meaning of Moses' words” (Stuart, Moses, “Examination of Genesis I, in reference to Geology,” Biblical Repository and Quarterly Observer 7 [1836] 49. Quoted in Marsden, “Everyone One's Own Interpreter?” 93). On this subject, see also Hovenkamp, Herbert, Science and Religion in America, 1800–1860 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978) 6265.

38 Though the focus of this essay is on the American movement, it is worth noting that temperance reformers in Great Britain and America maintained close ties with one another. Though differing ecclesiastical and social contexts made for significant differences between the two movements, there are striking parallels nonetheless. For a brief treatment of the Bible wine controversy in Great Britain, see Longmate, Norman, The Waterdrinkers: A History of Temperance (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1968) chap. 17.

39 Maclean, John, An Examination of the Essays Bacchus and Anti-Bacchus. Published Originally in the Princeton Review (Princeton: John Bogart, 1841) 185, 126. Maclean himself answered this question in the affirmative; the same year in which he published these articles, he signed the teetotal pledge (Tyrrell, Sobering Up, 149).

40 Quoted in Maclean, Examination, 6–7.

41 ibid., 7, 9 n.

42 “Letter of Edward C. Delavan,” in Parsons. Anti-Bacchus. 351.

43 Mears, John W., “The Church and Temperance,” in Temperance Sermons (New York: National Temperance Society and Publication House, 1873) 126; Lees, Frederic Richard and Burns, Dawson, The Temperance Bible-Commentary (3d ed.; London: S. W. Partridge & Co., 1872) 368.

44 “Professor Stuart on the Wine Question,” Church Review 2 (1849–50) 186, 190. See also Lillie, James, A Reply to Professor Stuart and President Nott on the Wine Question, in a Letter to Gen. J. S. Smith (Philadelphia: Grigg, Elliot & Co., 1848).

45 “National Temperance Convention,” New York Observer (27 August 1836) 138. On the subject of ultraism and the temperance reform, see also Cross, Whitney, The Burned-Over District (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1950) 211–17. An explication of the malum in se position is found in the Cyclopedia of Temperance and Prohibition (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1891) 609. Added perspective is given by Mullin's, Robert Bruce“Biblical Critics and the Battle Over Slavery.” Journal of Presbyterian History 61 (1983) 210–26, which discusses the role of the malum in se argument in abolitionism.

46 Nott, Lectures on Temperance, 119, 118.

47 Quoted in Marsh, Temperance Recollections, 168. Stuart eventually conceded Nott's point, at least in theory, but in his discussion of Bible wines, he nevertheless used the words “intoxicating” and “fermented” interchangeably (Scriptural View, 39–40).

48 Nott, Lectures on Temperance, 128.

49 See editor's note in the 1857 edition, ibid., 117–18.

50 ibid., 130. Nott did, however, make an exception for church use.

51 ibid., xii, xv, xiv, xviii-xix, xv, xviii, xix.

52 Marsh, Temperance Recollections, 70; Tyrrell, Sobering Up, 146. Much of this initial lack of response can be attributed to the difficulty of acquiring an unfermented grape beverage, resulting from transportation difficulties, lack of refrigeration, and an unfamiliarity with pasteurization techniques.

53 Tyrrell, Sobering Up, 147; Fourth Annual Report of the Permanent Committee on Temperance of the Presbyterian Church (New York: Wm. C. Martin, 1885) 12. For a survey of denominational policy on temperance, see Wasson, E. A., Religion and Drink (New York; Burr Printing House. 1914) 188–98; and Cherrington, Ernest H., ed., Standard Encyclopedia of the Alcohol Problem (6 vols.; Westerville, OH: American Issue Publishing Company, 1925) 2. 670.

54 Hemenway, F. D., “Bible Wines,” Methodist Quarterly Review 60 (1878) 480. I refer to the two-wine theory here, and subsequently, to designate the more common view that Scripture distinguished between an alcoholic and nonalcoholic wine, not the minority view, represented by Nott. that the difference was between intoxicating and unintoxicating wine.

55 Howard Crosby. “Bible Wines,” The Cyclopedia of Temperance and Prohibition, 50. One proponent of the two-wine theory attempted to explain away the apparent significance of this scholarly consensus by attributing it to an uncritical deference to German biblical scholars: Germans had a vested interest in the Bible wine question, for virtually none of them were teetotalers. As G. W. Samson opined, “Not only the habits, but the scholarship of Germany, the resort of advanced American philologists, were indirectly opposed to the American reform; and many, whose education or studies in Biblical literature were drawn from Germany, … dissented from the leaders of that reform” (The Divine Law as to Wines [Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1885] 247).

56 Jewett, Edward H., The Two-Wine Theory Discussed by Two Hundred and Eighty-Six Clergymen, on the Basis of “Communion Wine” (New York: E. Steiger & Co., 1888) 3. Lyman Atwater similarly conjectured in 1871 that “not one in twenty who practise [teetotalism], does so, or feels any obligation to do so on any other ground” than the doctrine of Christian expediency (Lyman Atwater, “Church Action on Temperance,” Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 43 [1871] 602). Such statistics contrast sharply with Marsh's blanket claim that the clergy of New York State who signed the teetotal pledge in 1838 “were pleased with the new [two-wine] theory” (Marsh, Temperance Recollections, 70). These estimates should be taken with a grain of salt, however, for Marsh supported, and Atwater opposed, the two-wine theory. Jewett's book, which publishes the letters of these responding ministers, is an especially valuable document for revealing the opinions and attitudes of those clergy who did not normally commit their views to print. Virtually all contemporary biblical scholars, conservative as well as liberal in orientation, are united in their rejection of the two-wine interpretation. See, for example, The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, s.v. “Wine and Strong Drink”; and IDB, s.v. “Wine.”

57 Dannenbaum, Jed, Drink and Disorder: Temperance Reform in Cincinnati from the Washingtonian Revival to the WCTU (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1984) x.

58 Krout, Origins of Prohibition, 300.

59 Aaron, Paul and Musto, David, “Temperance and Prohibition in America: An Historical Overview,” in Moore, Mark H. and Gerstein, Dean R., eds., Alcohol and Public Policy: Beyond the Shadow of Prohibition, (Washington, DC: National Academy, 1981) 142.

60 Tyrrell, Sobering Up, 309. The standard treatment of the Anti-Saloon League is Odegard's, Peter H.Pressure Politics: The Story of the Anti-Saloon League (New York: Columbia University Press, 1928). Ruth Bordin notes that while some of the early WCTU members held that the Bible taught total abstinence, the direction of the organization was toward replacing “gospel temperance with the recognition that alcoholism was a serious public health problem,” and toward “seeing alcoholism as a disease rather than a sin” (Women and Temperance: The Quest for Power and Liberty, 1873–1900 [Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981] 99).

61 Delavan, ed., Temperance Essays, 307.

62 “Third National Temperance Convention,” New York Observer (7 August 1841) 126.

63 On the influence of the new historical consciousness on attitudes toward Scripture, see Grant Wacker, “The Demise of Biblical Civilization,” in Hatch and Noll, eds., The Bible in America. The impact of biblical criticism in this period is treated by Ferenc Morton Szasz, The Divided Mind of Protestant America, 1880–1930 (University, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1982) chaps. 2 and 3.

64 Patton, William, Bible Wines; or the Laws of Fermentation and Wines of the Ancients (New York: National Temperance Society and Publication House, 1874) 101.

65 John Cole McKim, “Prohibition Versus Christianity,” North American Review 208 (1918) 127.

66 See, e.g., John Henry Hopkins, The Primitive Church (Burlington, VT: Smith & Harrington, 1835) 126–52; and Alexander Campbell, “Temperance Associations,” Millennial Harbinger 6 (1835) 388–92.

67 One minister charged, “The temperance of the Bible is a Christian grace wrought in the heart by the Holy Spirit; whereas, this pretender numbers among his converts thousands who have no experience of the spiritual, regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit” (McCarrell, Joseph, Bible Temperance: In Three Discourses [Newburgh: David L. Proudfit, 1841] 22). For a denial of this claim, see, e.g., American Temperance Union, Permanent Temperance Documents, 2. 50–51. The broader accusation that “temperance is made a substitute for religion” is addressed by Samuel Chipman, The Temperance Lecturer (Albany: n.p., 1842) 55–56.

68 Cf. Brian Harrison's assessment of the movement in Great Britain: “Viewed in historical perspective, the temperance movement unconsciously realized atheist objectives by emphasizing man's control over his own fate, his capacity to triumph over sin, and the irrelevance of many Biblical statements as guides to modern living” (Drink and the Victorians: The Temperance Question in England 1815–1872 [Pittsburg: University of Pittsburg Press, 1971] 185).

69 Quoted in Lyman Atwater, “The Wine of the Bible, of Bible Lands, and of the Lord's Supper,” Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 43 (1871) 568.

70 In Jewett, Two-Wine Theory, 104. In this regard, another observer remarked that the greatest objection to teetotalism was its view that its “sense of Scripture must be accepted, else the Scripture itself is not worthy of credence” (George Johnston, “Wine and its Use,” Mercersburg Review 21 [1874] 576). The leading two-wine interpreter in Great Britain, Frederic Lees, whose works were widely read in American editions, similarly maintained that if the Bible conflicted with the principles of teetotalism, he would reject the Bible (Harrison, Drink and the Victorians, 186).

71 Jewett, Two-Wine Theory, 58.

72 On this point see Lillie's Reply to Professor Stuart, 32.

73 For an analysis of this crucial shift in the history of biblical interpretation, see Frei, Hans, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974) esp. chaps. 1–3. This change of orientation, of course, called into question not only the perspicuity of Scripture, but the broader Protestant interpretive ideal of sola scriptura.

74 Timothy Smith has made similar observations concerning the influence of the anti-slavery movement on biblical interpretation: “A n important by-product … was the spread of a rational and historical approach to the interpretation of Scripture long before German critical scholarship became a seminary fashion. … By making the law of love the key to the Scriptures and subjecting them to a Christian version of the doctrine of progress, Northern evangelicals escaped the strait jacket of literalism” (Revivalism and Social Reform: American Protestantism on the Eve of the Civil War [1957; reprinted Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1976], 217–19). See also, James Brewer Stewart. “Abolitionists and Slavery,” in Sandeen, ed., The Bible and Social Reform, 44–53.

75 I wish to thank Albert Raboteau, John F. Wilson, and, especially, Jeffrey Stout for their helpful comments on a previous draft of this paper.


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