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New Horizons

Ardent Spirits: Presbyterians and Prohibition

Richard M. Gamble

January 17 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the Eighteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. From that day forward, the manufacture, distribution, and sale of alcohol was prohibited throughout the United States and its territories.

The accompanying Volstead Act defined “intoxicating beverages” as any that contained .5% or more alcohol by volume and provided the legal apparatus for enforcing the ban. Wine was permitted for sacramental use, and alcohol could still be prescribed by doctors and sold by pharmacies under strict federal regulation, but otherwise “John Barleycorn” had been defeated, and America had gone bone dry—at least officially.

America’s churches boasted that they had been instrumental in securing Prohibition’s victory. Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists stood in the front lines of battle. Liberals and fundamentalists made it their common cause to defeat the saloon and purify American civilization. The PCUSA and its Committee on Temperance did more than its share to put Prohibition “over the top” at the end of World War I. Charles Scanlon, the committee’s secretary for decades, produced annual resolutions, wrote dozens of articles, coordinated with the Anti-Saloon League, lobbied Congress, and took his crusade to Europe with the help of a generous congressional appropriation. A world made safe for democracy needed to be made sober as well.

The Temperance Movement

The PCUSA’s involvement in the temperance movement began in earnest in 1811. In that year, the general assembly formed a committee to combat the “mischiefs” caused by “the excessive and intemperate use of spiritous liquors.” The same assembly accepted a gift from Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush of one thousand copies of his popular treatise on “The Effects of Ardent Spirits on the Human Body and Mind.” Rush was an Edinburgh-trained physician, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and lapsed Presbyterian. The next year, the assembly urged ministers to preach “on the sin and mischiefs of intemperate drinking,” local sessions to be vigilant, and churches to publicize the dangers of “ardent spirits.”

Following the War of 1812, with consumption of distilled liquor rising, the denomination redoubled its efforts. Alcohol abuse was becoming a serious social problem, straining the resources of local communities to handle the consequences. Historians’ explanations for the increase include: farmers’ need to turn their corn into whiskey for the sake of cheap and convenient transportation; the growth of Irish and German immigration; the dislocation of families and communities in an increasingly mobile and urbanizing nation; and a rise in alienated young people thrown upon their own resources in a world where traditional family, community, church, and livelihoods were breaking down. More mechanized workplaces made the consumption of alcohol more dangerous, as well. Whatever the causes, and there were many, alcohol abuse threatened marriages and families, increased the risk of worker injuries and death, exacerbated poverty, crime, and mental illness, and brought scandal to the church.

The first temperance society appeared in Massachusetts in the 1820s, and its success was rivaled in the short term only by the one in New York City. Maine passed the first prohibition law in 1851, and even though it survived only until 1858, it became a model for other states seeking similar restrictions. Voluntary associations dedicated to controlling and then eradicating alcohol joined a host of benevolent societies mobilized for world peace, public education, poor relief, and colonization of freed slaves. Though controversial and often divisive, nondenominational tract societies, Bible societies, Sunday school unions, and home and foreign mission boards flourished alongside temperance reform, often led by the same trustees.


Calls for Christian temperance were nothing new in the nineteenth century. Faithful preachers had always warned against the sin of drunkenness. Since colonial times, church members and officers had been disciplined for habitual intemperance. Pastoral advice manuals consistently warned against the dangers of drink. No one disputed that the Old and New Testaments condemned the drunkard and demanded a life marked by sobriety. At the same time, the Bible described wine as a gift from God, further blessed by Jesus and central to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. John Calvin insisted on temperance but also taught that God provided wine “to make us merry.”

Historians often attribute Prohibition to a caricature of the dour and busybody Calvinist. But the record of America’s Calvinism shows that being a Calvinist did not automatically predispose anyone to be a prohibitionist. Something deeper was going on. In the PCUSA, reform-minded pastors and elders kept upping the ante for personal holiness. The trend is obvious. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the general assembly moved from lamenting the sin of intemperance, to calling for total abstinence from liquor and then wine, to denying membership and the sacrament to believers who consumed, manufactured, or sold alcohol, to sponsoring “temperance Sundays” and seeking new local and state legislation to close saloons. The 1866 assembly resolved that “total abstinence from all intoxicating drinks as a beverage is demanded from every Christian by the condition of society, the purity of the Church and the Word of God.” That sweeping statement was reaffirmed year after year by the assembly. By 1892, the general assembly was praising the “majority of our churches” for using grape juice for the sacrament.

To be sure, Old School Presbyterians worried about temperance societies and other voluntary associations that imposed standards of sanctification and fellowship beyond the bounds of Scripture. The Old School, while condemning intemperance, warned in 1848 that the “General Assembly, as a court of Jesus Christ, cannot league itself with any voluntary society, cannot exact of those who are subject to its discipline to do so, but must leave the whole matter where the Scriptures leave it—to the prudence, philanthropy and good sense of God’s children, each man having a right to do as to him shall seem good.” But in 1865, at the end of the Civil War, the Old School denounced the sin and curse of alcohol in the name of “piety and patriotism.”

A Divisive Issue

Prohibition continued to divide churches after the Great War. In 1926, the year the indefatigable Charles Scanlon testified before the Senate to preserve an unmodified Volstead Act, the PCUSA denied J. Gresham Machen appointment as professor of systematic theology and ethics at Princeton Seminary. His recent vote against his presbytery’s resolution in support of Prohibition doomed his chances, giving liberals one more reason to block him.

By the time of the OPC’s founding in 1936 as a refuge for confessional Presbyterians, the Eighteenth Amendment had been repealed and prohibiting liquor sales returned to the discretion of local and state authorities. But controversy over total abstinence and Christian liberty erupted in the OPC almost immediately. In 1937, an overture from the Chicago presbytery to reaffirm the PCUSA’s long-standing commitment to total abstinence was voted down. The OPC’s failure to endorse the ban helped to split the young denomination and, among other controversies, led to the founding of the Bible Presbyterians.

The centennial of Prohibition has given many Americans the opportunity to consider once more important questions about constitutionalism, federalism, political liberty, and the growth of the modern state. But at the same time, confessional Presbyterians ought to remember that no matter how noble the intentions behind the “noble experiment,” the crusade against alcohol divided Christians, brought politics into the pulpit and the pulpit into politics, and radically narrowed the sphere of Christian liberty. It mobilized the Bible and the church to wage a war for social transformation at odds with the testimony of Scripture, the Reformers, and the boundaries of our confessions. 

The author, an OP elder, is a professor at Hillsdale College. New Horizons, January 2020.

© 2020 The Orthodox Presbyterian Church



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