U.S. Temperance Movement

When not on a media fast–which she is currently doing with some friends–my wife loves to watch genealogy programs like African American Lives (Henry Louis Gates, Jr.) and Who Do You Think You Are? As the family historian, these shows fits her perfectly.

I have been interested to hear about the U.S. temperance movement twice on the U.S. version of Who Do You Think You Are? It has surfaced in episodes focusing on Helen Hunt and Kelly Clarkson, and the two conversations followed a similar trajectory. Both women were embarrassed that their relatives were against alcohol, and then both were encouraged to learn that the temperance movement was about women’s rights, family values, and also health. Here is the dialogue between Clarkson and her research guide, Thomas Pegram, when she learns that her relative was a leading temperance advocate in the Ohio Senate in 1906:

Clarkson: What is the temperance [movement]?

Pegram: The temperance movement at this time was a large movement in Ohio and elsewhere to restrict or even eliminate the liquor industry.

Clarkson: Oh! So he’s a part of the people who don’t want liquor.

Pegram: He is indeed a part of that.

Clarkson: (Gasp) Hiccup in the ancestry department. So he’s trying to wipe-out all liquor.

Pegram: Actually saloons, retail saloons. They didn’t attack individual drinkers so much. The idea was that the liquor industry, and that saloons were for men mainly. Women were generally not allowed. Paychecks were cashed in saloons, and men spent a lot of time drinking in saloons. There was a great deal of domestic violence that accompanied drinking. This was also seen as a women’s issue. The argument was: the saloon then was hampering their family life, their children’s lives, health, safety.

Clarkson: Right on. I’m glad he’s for women. That’s awesome.

Helen Hunt had virtually the same conversation but in the context of New England politics.

While the “liquor industry” is not my top concern today, this subject is of interest to Adventist Activists because it is a case study on how Ellen White and other early leaders engaged their society on a pressing social and political issue. While discussing another topic, Andrews University Seminary professor Nicholas Miller told me recently that White’s largest audiences were at temperance events.

On this issue White wrote:

The advocates of temperance fail to do their whole duty unless they exert their influence by precept and example—by voice and pen and vote— in favor of prohibition and total abstinence. We need not expect that God will work a miracle to bring about this reform, and thus remove the necessity for our exertion. We ourselves must grapple with this giant foe, our motto, No compromise and no cessation of our efforts till the victory is gained…. (Gospel Workers, p. 387)

When Adventists say that we should not get involved with political matters because White was against activism, we should remember this history. Yes, her guidance can be difficult to understand, but we cannot ignore social issues simply because of their inherent complexity.

Temperance/Prohibition Reading List

This list is based solely on Amazon reviews; I have not read these.

  • Battling Demon Rum: The Struggle for a Dry America, 1800-1933 (Pegram, 1999)
  • The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition (Rorabaugh, 1981)
  • Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (Daniel Okrent, 2011)
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