National Prohibition was enacted in 1919 with the Eighteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. Methodism, having espoused a strong anti-liquor stance since at least the early nineteenth century, was a leading force for implementing and sustaining Prohibition. Both northern and southern Methodism even created special agencies to focus on temperance and Prohibition. Methodists and other temperance advocates justifiably faulted alcohol for fueling poverty and family breakdown. They linked the liquor trade to gambling, prostitution, salacious entertainments and political corruption. Many Methodists from all regions and across the theological spectrum saw Prohibition as central to becoming a godly nation.
The northern church’s 1900 General Conference opposed local license laws and federal taxes that levied “tribute” on “this corrupt traffic”, demanding the liquor traffic’s “entire destruction”. Granting that the church could not control the votes of its members, the General Conference still insisted the church could not be silent about “great wrongs”. The northern Methodists admonished Christians not to align themselves with any political party unless in “open hostility to the saloon”. [Journal of the General Conference, Methodist Episcopal Church (1900), pgs 378-381].
Most Methodists preferred moral and political persuasion. A Methodist Protestant Church minister explained at a temperance rally in Washington, DC, in 1903: “We cannot have too much Christian integrity in our political life, and every voter should cast his ballot on election day, not only in accordance with his political convictions, which are all right in their place, but also on the side of good, clean, wholesome, and righteous control of our state, municipal, and national affairs.” He further cautioned,”the voter should regard his religious convictions, and not sacrifice them to politics.” [“Saloon and Politics”, Washington Post (10 May 1903), pg.5].
In 1903 a northern Methodist minister at a prominent New York City church lamented his state’s possibly permitting restaurants to serve liquor on Sunday:”The liquor traffic is already the most inveterate foe of public decency and social order. But it’s not satisfied debauching society and politics six days a week, it clamors for the right to profane the Sabbath day as well.” He warned:” If the Republican Legislature thrusts this iniquity upon the people of this Commonwealth, it will find itself rebuked at the polls with an overwhelming defeat, for the better element of the state, Protestant and Catholic alike, will rise against any party which in this high-handed fashion dares to insult its intelligence and moral sense.” [“Clergy Rise Against Sunday Liquor Law”, New York Times (14 May 1904), pg 9].
The northern bishops told their 1904 General Conference in Los Angeles that American Methodists were marching in a “holy war” for “total abstinence” and a constitutional Prohibition amendment. Citing liquor’s financial costs for society, the bishops bemoaned that the “sober and industrious” must subsidize the liquor-inspired “dissipated criminal class.” The 1904 General Conference resolved:”When the Christian citizen is as prompt with his political rewards and punishments as is the supporter of the saloon the cause of civic righteousness will have made a noble advance.” [Journal of the General Conference, Methodist Episcopal Church (1904), pg. 406].
Northern Methodists organized the Temperance Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, headquartered in Chicago. It hired Clarence True Wilson, a long-time temperance advocate and Oregon pastor. [Robert Dean McNeil, Clarence Darrow’s Unlikely Friend: Clarence True Wilson, Debaters but Always Friends (Portland, Ore: Spirit Press. 2007),pgs. 51-52]. Wilson and southern Methodism’s Bishop James Cannon would become two of America’s most politically prominent prohibitionists across more than 20 years. As early as 1906, Cannon helped persuade the southern General Conference “inalterably” to oppose any liquor sales on US government property and to so notify the US President. [Journal of the Fifteenth General Conference, Methodist Episcopal Church, South (1906), pg. 219]. I guess they didn’t mind mixing politics and the church or offending anyone.
At the 1908 northern General Conference in Baltimore, the bishops celebrated that Methodist pastors were “unsparing, non-quarter” enemies of this “sneaking, law-breaking, and murderous traffic”, which deserved neither “charity nor mercy”. Profits from liquor could not compensate for the “corruption of our politics, the emptiness of the drunkard’s home or the fullness of prisons and graves…rise here and now and pledge eternal enmity to this foe of man and God.” [Journal of the General Conference, Methodist Episcopal Church (1908), pgs. 131-133].
Southern Methodists were somewhat less outspoken on prohibition politically. The southern church’s Committee on Temperance told the southern General Conference in 1910 that the US President and Congress should “take immediate action” to regulate interstate liquor traffic for the “protection of the people from this great curse”. [Journal of the Sixteenth General Conference, Methodist Episcopal Church, South (1910), pgs. 167-168].
Northern bishops, at the 1912 General Conference, warned that all the “woes of perdition”, conspiring against “decency of living, peace of home, good of country, progress in achievement, honor in men, purity in women and hope in humanity” lurked in the barroom. They commended the Anti-Saloon League for its “militant campaign’. [Journal of the General Conference, Methodist Episcopal Church (1912), pgs. 217-218].
Urging support for state-wide prohibition in Maryland in 1914, a Methodist Protestant editorial implored: “We appeal to our people everywhere to stand with their religion and their Lord, with their church and their Conference action in support of this measure.” The liquor traffic bears the “curse of God” and every Maryland Methodist was summoned to be “earnest in pushing the prohibition amendment to victory.” [“The Prohibition Amendment”, Methodist Protestant (4 March 1914)].
The report of The Methodist Protestant Church’s Conference on Temperance to the denomination’s 1916 General Conference demanded the “utter annihilation” of the “liquor traffic” calling it the “greatest enemy of mankind…” What is “morally wrong” cannot be “made right by law” and Methodists should “sever this unholy alliance of our government with sin.” [“Report of the Committee on Temperance”, Methodist Protestant Church General Conference Minutes (1916), Wesley Theological School Library]. Lamenting Prohibition’s failure to pass Congress in 1914, a Methodist Protestant Church editorial inveighed against the “whiskeyites” and asserted :”We can never finally defeat the saloon element unless we blankly refuse to vote for men in any party who are either directly or indirectly tied up with the liquor interests.” [“National Prohibition”, Methodist Protestant (30 December 1914)].
At the 1916 northern General Conference in Saratoga Springs, New York, the bishop’s episcopal address reiterated a long-time refrain that liquor could not be legalized “without sin” and urged a constitutional amendment for national Prohibition leading to “speedy outlawry of the execrable traffic.” [Journal of the General Conference, Methodist Episcopal Church (1916), pgs. 195-196]. The 1916 General Conference was the first to specifically ask the US Congress to approve a constitutional amendment for “absolute” prohibition. [Ibid.,pg. 525]. Greeted by enthusiastic applause, William Jennings Bryan delivered a rip-roaring pro-Prohibition speech before the 1916 northern General Conference. [“Bryan Cheered as He Talks to the Conference for National Prohibition”, New York Tribune (23 May 1916), pg. 9].
During World War I, liquor sales to military personnel in the US were prohibited. However, the European allied governments never banned alcohol for the US military. [The Voice, Clarence True Wilson Papers, United Methodist Archives Center, Drew University (1918), pg. 3]. In 1918, southern Methodists formed the commission on Temperance and Social Service, headed by Bishop James Cannon. [Robert A. Hohner, Prohibition and Politics: The Life of Bishop James Cannon, Jr. (Columbia, SC, University of South Carolina, 1999) pg. 293]. After the war the Anti-Saloon League dispatched three Methodist bishops, including Cannon, to the Peace Council meeting in Paris to urge international prohibition. [ “Anti-Saloon League Sends Methodist Bishops”, Boston Daily Globe (20 January 1919) pg.14].
National prohibition started in 1920 with passage of the Eighteenth Amendment. What would the Methodists do now that their push for prohibition had been successful? Next week we will take a look.
– Bob Munsey
It’s ‘we the people’ who pick the president, not the congress.