Prohibitionists knew they owed their victory in 1919 to the nexus of war, religion, and reform. Prohibition triumphed thanks to a powerful mixture of three factors: total war mobilization of manpower and the economy, the self-mobilization of a particular kind of American Christianity, and the reformers’ decision to capitalize on the “plastic” moment created by the war to rid the nation of its greatest moral evil. Powerful individuals and institutions, having labored for generations to stamp out the detested “liquor traffic,” achieved their goal by enlisting the churches, the wider public, and government at every level. Above all, they turned historic Christianity’s rhetorical and spiritual warfare into a literal war of flesh and blood in the trenches of France and the trenches of American society.
The victory they won exactly a century ago had not come easily. The Eighteenth Amendment’s ban on the manufacture, distribution, and sale (but not consumption) of “intoxicating liquors” came at the end of a long fight reaching back another hundred years before that. When the House and Senate voted on the proposed amendment in 1914, it failed to gain the necessary two-thirds vote. In December 1917, as national preparedness to send troops to Europe ramped up, it passed. Nebraska’s ratification early in 1919 put the amendment “over the top,” and with that, the clock started ticking down to full enforcement in one year’s time, as specified in the law. Congress took up implementing legislation called the National Prohibition Act (better known as the “Volstead Act,” its language was drafted by the Anti-Saloon League) in the summer of 1919. The “wets” did legislative battle against the “bone-drys,” led by Minnesota Republican Representative Andrew Volstead. At the end of October, it passed, over the President’s veto.
“Christianity Plus Science Will Bring in the Kingdom of God”
It so happened that by this time, and thanks to the exigencies of war, the United States was mostly dry already. Preparations to go “Over There” seemed to demand intervention in the economy and in the lives of Americans. Conservation of resources topped the list, but each improvisation made restrictions on alcohol production and consumption tighter. Congress, cabinet officers, and federal agencies limited the amount of grain and coal brewers could buy; made the navy and then all the armed forces dry; banned alcohol at or near army cantonments, naval bases, and munitions plants; removed alcohol from train depots and advertisements from train cars; ended the importation of alcohol from abroad; and ultimately engineered the War Time Prohibition Act (set to take effect July 1, 1919) authorizing President Wilson to ban alcohol until America’s forces had been demobilized.
And that relates to Wilson’s veto of the Volstead Act. The veto was issued on October 27, 1919, just weeks after his massive and debilitating stroke. The veto message was written by his private secretary with the approval of First Lady Edith Wilson. Nevertheless, there was nothing in it that was inconsistent with President Wilson’s views. He had never been a hard “dry” or “wet.” He preferred to allow beer and wine production, especially to avoid alienating America’s industrial laborers. His objection to the Volstead Act focused on a narrow technicality: the law’s continued enforcement of wartime Prohibition along with enforcement of the new constitutional amendment. The Great War was over; the Treaty of Versailles doomed to defeat in the Senate.
Prohibition, Wilson’s veto notwithstanding, was the quintessential reform of the Progressive Era. The progressives’ articles of faith were all there: confidence in the expertise of technocrats, in enlightened public policy infused with sentimentalism about “humanity,” in social control for the sake of the public welfare, in the power of applied science, in the wisdom and justice of majoritarian democracy, and in national consolidation as the surest way to end social evils. The Christian Century proclaimed in 1918 that “Christianity plus science will bring in the Kingdom of God.”
Not every prohibitionist was motivated by the brand of Christian activism represented by the Christian Century, the Federal Council of Churches, the leaders of mainline or other denominations, or the countless reform associations. The more technocratic prohibitionists emphasized industrial efficiency, safety, and medical science rather than moralism or the Bible. But an appeal to religion pervaded the campaign as a whole. In the case of some Christians, war and Prohibition united them as never before—with such success that Protestant ecumenists considered it yet another sign of the approaching Kingdom of God (whatever that might mean). War and Prohibition divided other Christians; but for the moment, fundamentalists and modernists fought on the same side when it came to Prohibition.
The baseball star-turned-evangelist Billy Sunday and William Jennings Bryan, who had resigned as Wilson’s secretary of state in 1915 but supported the President’s domestic program, joined forces with theological progressives in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and at the Christian Century. Bryan and Charles Scanlon of the PCUSA together headed the National Dry Foundation. They all wanted to make America righteous no matter how much they differed over the Bible and doctrine.
Outside this cultural consensus lay the much-abused “confessionalists”: the more high-church, liturgical clergy and laity who adhered to distinctions of theology, forms of worship, ecclesiology, and the unique, spiritual task of one’s church over against amalgamation into what was shaping up into a national religion of social service and politicized pulpits. Confessional Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Catholics had known for a long time that they could never be pulled into the kind of national faith Prohibition demanded. They were “old school” in an epoch in which all things were being made new. The century of Prohibition-crusading that led to the passage of the Volstead Act is littered with stories of exasperated clergy. Though prohibitionists had been numbered among them, their stubborn adherence to creeds, confessions of faith, catechisms, and a secure border between Church and State turned them ipso facto into heretics and schismatics in the Church of America.
Prior to the movement to rid the United States of slavery, the most powerful reform crusade of the mid-19th century had been temperance. The temperance-spawned disputes concerning Biblical interpretation and the church’s mission predated the abolitionists’ efforts and the political upheaval over slavery. The older ethic of clerical self-restraint—never universal—came under tremendous pressure, especially when the silence of the apolitical pulpit seemed nothing less than tacit approval of evil. Reform causes were embedded in wider controversies over the revivalism of the so-called Second Great Awakening (1790 to 1840), the spread of Arminianized Calvinism, Charles Finney’s perfectionism, and the demand that true faith bear fruit in radical personal and social transformation.
No Christian disputed the Bible’s condemnation of drunkenness; be it noted, though, that temperance reformers tolerated beer and light wine early on. A flood of books and pamphlets appeared in the 1830s and 1840s promoting a novel interpretation of the wine used in the Old and New Testaments. Their arguments marshaled all sorts of dubious historical and exegetical evidence to prove that wine had been a low-alcohol beverage. They claimed that Jesus had turned water into this type of libation because a good God would never give his people such a pernicious evil. And they urged clergy to use grape syrup in the sacrament. (This was perhaps the most ironic of the innovations, since even the Volstead Act would protect sacramental wine.)
Reform of “the Alcoholic Republic”
Soon enough, religious leaders moved toward outright prohibition. What could have been kept a matter of prudence and expedience in the Christian life was turned into an uncompromising standard of holiness. For many churches, total abstinence became a standard for church membership, a qualification for church office, and a requirement for admission to Holy Communion. And make no mistake, Prohibition was an attempt to address real problems in American society, at a time of heavy consumption in what William J. Rorabaugh has called the “Alcoholic Republic.” For good reason, reformers blamed “ardent spirits” for poverty, crime, economic inefficiency, moral degradation, and the destruction of marriages and homes.
These concerns continued through the Civil War and into the Gilded Age. Reform associations proliferated, perfected their techniques, combined forces, published magazines, held national conferences, and rallied the churches. To one degree or another, Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Catholics, and others became active in the cause, whether as individuals or as institutions. In 1881, the PCUSA became the first denomination to sanction a standing Committee on Temperance, a board that would make itself central to the campaign for national Prohibition during the Great War.
Once Congress declared war in April 1917, prohibitionists made sure the struggle would “kill John Barleycorn” along with autocracy. Reformers continued what they had long been doing: blaming un-Americanized foreigners for “wet” resistance; criticizing any “high church” that placed creeds, liturgies, and “ecclesiasticism” above cooperation for social action; championing the church as the conscience of the nation; espousing a grand vision of American exceptionalism and mission; and mixing religious justifications with data and medical science.
Now a foreign war and the prohibitionists’ domestic war became two sides of one idealist crusade. “If America breaks the isolation of her water-barricaded shores to help make the world safe for democracy,” said an editorial in the Christian Century, “she must also cross them to help make it possible for that democracy to be sober and efficient. . . . Our next move should be to organize the world for the final battle on Kaiser Alcohol; let us bury the two Kaisers in the same grave.” Like all war idealists, religious prohibitionists made extravagant promises and exhibited little capacity for irony or expected unintended consequences.
In 1918, the PCUSA’s Temperance Committee, building to a rhetorical crescendo, asked the denomination’s general assembly to vote to reaffirm Presbyterianism’s “historic, open and irrevocable opposition to the beverage liquor traffic in every form and in every place, as unscriptural, unethical, unsocial, uneconomical, unpatriotic, and hails with joy and gratitude the prospect of its entire and speedy extermination in our beloved country.” In a separate report, with an American flag emblazoning the cover, the committee rejoiced that “ideals rule the world” and expressed its Wilsonian confidence that “the conflict which today is drenching Europe in the richest blood of the race is a last great struggle for supremacy between autocracy and democracy, between the classes and the masses, between might and right, and as God is stronger than all the powers of evil, so sure is the right to win.”
In the heady days of 1919, as reformers basked in the glow of their “new era,” the Great War still looked like a war of fulfillment. The nation’s conscience had been awakened, the people had amended their Founding document to strike out against “Kaiser Alcohol,” and the nation, in freeing itself of a great evil, was now rendered morally fit for its mission. The Christian Century asked churches to celebrate “Victory Sunday” near July 1 to inaugurate the “great moral victory” of War Time Prohibition. Among the suggestions? Sermons suited to the occasion, patriotic music, special offerings, and activities for the children, “who are all prohibitionists.” But the worship service would not be complete without looking ahead to “world prohibition.” After all, “The world can never be safe until it is sober.”
Shunting Aside the “Personal-Liberty Plea”
The Kingdom of God didn’t leave many free evenings, as Oscar Wilde might say. Once the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act took effect on January 17, 1920, prohibitionists had to prove that their experiment would work. Activists pushed for full enforcement, expansion beyond the United States, and no compromise with those who, in the decade ahead, would lobby Congress to modify the Volstead Act to exempt beer and light wine. Alcohol had had thousands of years to work its mischief; surely Prohibition needed more than a few years to prove its manifold blessings.
In testimony before a special subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1926, the Federal Council of Churches outlined its record of undeviating commitment to Prohibition. The council retained all the wartime language of democratic idealism, enlightenment, progress, civilization, social control, science, total solutions, disparagement of individual liberty, and the consolidation of national power. Its president called “the personal-liberty plea . . . a delusion and a snare.”
Church leaders behind Prohibition liked to present themselves as speaking on behalf of entire denominations and boasted of the millions united behind them. That claim masked deep divisions within American Christianity during World War I and into the 1920s. There were in fact Christians who rejected the whole superstructure of Prohibition and its moral and legal premises.
Baltimore’s James Cardinal Gibbons had always opposed Prohibition as a confusion of morals, as a source of political corruption and public disorder, an affront to personal liberty, and a violation of states’ rights. Spirited opposition also came from an Episcopal vicar named John Cole McKim in such essays as “Prohibition Versus Christianity” (1918) and “Prohibition and Principle” (1922). Columbia University’s John Erskine asked in 1922, “Must Christians Choose Between the Bible and Prohibition?” Erskine wondered whether the prohibitionists thought they had added the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution or to the New Testament. He charged that Prohibition had become nothing less than its own religion. Princeton Seminary’s J. Gresham Machen was passed over by the PCUSA for appointment to an important office in 1926 in part over his stance against Prohibition, even as Charles Scanlon, stalwart head of the denomination’s stalwart Temperance Committee, testified before the Senate in favor of leaving the Volstead Act intact.
The Permanent Solution to Man’s Vexing Problems
In an article for the Presbyterian New Era magazine in 1919, the PCUSA leader took stock of Prohibition’s achievements and prospects. He gave credit for victory to the “moral earnestness and persistence” impressed on America by a century’s experience with alcohol’s harm, reinforced now by the “sanction of religion,” the marked change in the nation’s “social customs,” the testimony of modern science, and the increasing demand on the part of competitive industry for sober workers. Tellingly, Scanlon praised the work of religion especially for having “fixed in the minds of millions of Christian men and women” the “feeling that not only actual intemperance was sinful, but that the traffic in alcoholic beverages itself was wrong.” Happily, “This laid a foundation for a revolution in ethics, social customs and Biblical interpretation, which as certainly forecasted the doom of the traffic as the growth of democracy sealed the fate of autocracy.”
As we now know, what looked like permanent victory at home and abroad in 1919 turned out to be temporary. But for the moment, the goal the Christian Century set forth in 1918 had been reached: two Kaisers buried in the same grave. Just as both struggles entailed making unrealizable promises about how great the gains for humanity would be, both underestimated the costs. Both challenged the American tradition of personal liberty, the institutional constraints of federalism and states’ rights, and the alleged inutility of churches worried more about theology and ecclesiology than about social activism. Both embraced a dizzying optimism about human rationality and benevolence in the midst of the most destructive war the world had ever seen. Somehow now at last, at this moment in history unlike at any other, humanity would show its capacity to escape experience and constraints. Ultimately, it was not two wars for righteousness but all one war for permanent, universal solutions to man’s most vexing problems.
Prohibitionists fought to rid America and the world of “ardent spirits” but were themselves the most ardent spirits of all. What are the consequences when a problem that could have been handled pragmatically, as a matter of common sense and mundane public policy, is turned into spiritual warfare?
Despite Prohibition’s much-touted reduction of consumption and alcoholism, improved worker safety and productivity, and some lower crime rates now that the saloon was gone, the total ban on alcohol encouraged organized crime, bootlegging, and dangerous home brew, and turned ordinary citizens into petty criminals as they resorted to the black market and speakeasies. Those wealthy enough to own well-stocked wine cellars and liquor cabinets could of course afford to ride out the ban.
Permanent Solution Repealed
It lasted until the New Deal. On December 5, 1933, the Twenty-First Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, ending at least one experiment with centralized social control. Repeal was advanced more as an economic measure to create jobs and commerce during the Depression and less as a concession to states’ rights or personal liberty, though the case for individual freedom and responsibility remained compelling arguments among repealers. What followed, however, was not a resounding victory for civil liberty but the jumble of state and local prohibition laws wedded to special interests and incomprehensible to ordinary citizens under which we still live. The churches were left to enforce total abstinence among their members, which they had done for a hundred years, and to support additional local and state restrictions.
The crusade’s effects might not seem to have lived on into our time—yet its tendencies are evident on the Left and Right in our politics today, and in the nation’s politicized churches. Intoxicated by war and reform, the prohibitionists raised the stakes to the heavens, made law a matter of absolute right and wrong, saw the world in Manichean terms, defined social problems as moral “evils,” stood on the right side of history, brooked no compromise, treated their opponents as perverse, and fought political battles as ultimate conflicts over the meaning and destiny of America.
Intemperate politics and wars come from many sources. It would be too easy to single out the modern political Left as the heir to this way of acting in the world. The awakened church has led to more than the “woke” church. No lines in history run straight. Clearly, the political Right also deploys this strategy. Both sides moralize politics and foreign policy, both raise the stakes in any debate to apocalyptic levels, both nationalize every question, both condemn compromise, and both expect their churches to help implement their vision of America. The centennial of Prohibition is an opportunity to retrace our steps and consider afresh the task of the church, the limits of politics, the capacity of war as an agent of social change, the high cost of unintended consequences, and at what level of society and government reform is best achieved. Otherwise, politics unchastened by history will bury us in the same grave.
What goes into one’s body can sometimes be an object for public concern; the question is when and how.
Prohibition may have been disastrous for America, but it reflected a deep respect for American constitutionalism we should envy today.
The very people the nativists sought to Americanize or, failing that, oppress and restrict, were oftentimes the very ones who benefited from Prohibition.
The question in 1919, and before and since, was whether such sweeping attempts at social control promoted responsible citizenship or undermined them.