It has been 100 years since ratification of the 18th Amendment prohibiting “intoxicating liquors in America. (Of course, Prohibition was countermanded by the 21st Amendment less than 15 years later.) But neither the passage of laws nor the passage of time has ended the debate over liquor.
In the January 2019 issue of Christian Standard we published two essays responding to this question: “Is alcohol really a stumbling block?” Ken Idleman answered “Yes,” while Zach Spiering answered with a question of his own: “What if abstinence is the stumbling block?” (Check out the issue to read their “In the Arena” essays which start on p. 52.)
It caused me to wonder what Christian Standard had to say about the subject of Prohibition back in the early 20th century.
Prohibition—a nationwide constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages—was the law of the land in the United States from 1920 to 1933. Of course, Prohibition didn’t come about overnight. Groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League worked for decades to enact laws banning liquor.
On the subject of “Prohibition,” Christian Standard published approximately this many editorials, articles, and letters: 1880s (6), 1890s (5), 1900s (11), 1910s (57), 1920s (38), 1930s (104), 1940s (2).
Here are some other important dates and terms:
• “Wets”: People who opposed Prohibition.
• “Drys”: People who favored Prohibition.
• The Wartime Prohibition Act was approved by Congress on Nov. 18, 1918 (a week after World War I ended) and took effect June 30, 1919; the act banned the sale of alcoholic beverages having an alcohol content of greater than 1.28 percent.
• The 18th Amendment prohibiting “intoxicating liquors” was ratified as a part of the Constitution on January 16, 1919, and the country went dry one year later, on January 17, 1920.
• October 28, 1919: Congress passed the Volstead Act—the popular name for the National Prohibition Act—which established the legal definition of intoxicating liquors and penalties for producing them.
• March 22, 1933: President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law the Cullen–Harrison Act, legalizing beer and wine with an alcohol content of 3.2 percent.
• December 5, 1933: The 21st Amendment repealed the 18th Amendment.
I didn’t read 200 articles to find snippets from eight that I have chosen to highlight, but these are representatives of the articles I reviewed. (These are in chronological order.)
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They Out-Pilate Pilate
June 7, 1917 (an editorial)
History is a long, and yet unfinished, story of the plundering and impoverishing of the multitudes by the few who, by special privilege, official immunity, or economic conditions, have been able to reduce their fellowmen to economic slavery. . . .
The one form of this pandering to passion, which is more profitable to the panderers than any other, and, therefore, more universal, is the supplying of intoxicating drink. The desire for drink returns at short intervals and demands more and more frequent satisfactions. The demands not only recur more and more frequently, but become more and more imperative, and put the victims more and more in the power of the spoilers. . . . This is the most universal, ruinous, degrading, health-and-wealth destroying slavery that the world has ever known. It robs human beings of humanity.
None of these spoilers of enslaved humanity ever relinquish their hold upon their victims without resorting to every means of resistance, however criminal. . . . But of all the classes of spoilers, the rumsellers are the most shameless, reckless and heartless. They make allies of those who thrive upon the victims of licentiousness by pointing out how drink excites the passions. . . . When it comes to the crucifixion of innocence, the Herod of the saloon makes friends with all the Pilates of place and influence.
It is not strange, therefore, that even in a time like this, when nothing but the strictest sobriety, the utmost conservation of all of our resources—physical, mental and moral: of every ounce of sustenance for vigor and efficiency—can save civilization itself from the debris of a war-wrecked world—that in a time like this these human vultures that fatten upon soul-carrion should resist the effort to turn the millions of bushels of foodstuff, ordained for life and courage, which they are turning into the means of death, to their God-intended use. It is what was to be expected of them; but it is strange that there are so many Pilates in official place—even in Congress—who out-Pilate Pilate by refusing to attempt to wash their hands of this crime against mankind.
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Prohibition and Our Part In It
By L.E. Sellers, national secretary of the National Temperance Society, April 27, 1918 (a letter)
Are the churches of Christ in the Prohibition fight in a big way? Are they doing their full share in the present national movement? These questions would seem superfluous and the answers obvious. Certainly one would say that the disciples of Christ are throwing their heart and souls into this movement. One might even venture to say that we were supplying much of the leadership and money in this contest that has been waging for half a century. And such an assertion up to a generation ago could have been maintained.
The early days of the Prohibition movement found our people strong in their convictions against the legalized liquor traffic. Our membership, almost without exception, were not only total abstainers, but openly opposed the traffic. That was back in the days when a man subjected himself to criticism if he opposed the open saloon. Forty years ago most of our ministers were identified with the Prohibition Party, and many of our churches refused to employ a minister unless, as they said, “He voted as he prayed.” This attitude of the disciples of Christ twenty-five or thirty years ago gave them the name of being leaders in the Prohibition fight. With the broadening of the scope of the movement, with the increased activity of the W. C. T. U., and the birth of the Anti-saloon League, naturally the activities of our people became more diverse.
The writer has taken the pains of late to inquire into the present attitude of our people toward the leading Temperance organizations of the United States. The results have, to say the least, been illuminating, and, if true, are somewhat disquieting. Through inquiries of national officers of the W. C. T. U., I am informed that no one of our women today is a national leader in that organization—that is to say, no woman among us occupies an outstanding place in their work. That same is true of the Prohibition Party. In time past, some of our brethren have been leaders nationally in third-party activities; but such is not the case to-day. So far as the writer is able to learn upon careful inquiry, we have but two men of national reputation standing out distinctively as leaders in the third-party work. There are a few men, splendid spirits, who rank high in their respective States, but lose recognition in the national organization. The same is also true regarding the Anti-saloon League. . . . We are not leaders in the Anti-saloon League movement.
Nor is this all. Our own Temperance Board was organized in 1907, under the conviction that we were not, as a brotherhood, doing our part in destroying the liquor traffic. The success of this organization has not been brilliant. Many had felt, in its early days, that it led to confusion and duplication of effort, and, while the American Temperance Board has shown a remarkable increase in interest and efficiency in voicing the convictions of our brotherhood, yet even at the present time only about one thousand churches share in its activities or contribute financially to its support.
. . . We are told that the National Anti-saloon League raised, last year, in all fields and for all purposes, somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,500,000. This would mean that our brotherhood, one of the largest of the churches in the country, gave to the temperance cause $1 out of every $60 contributed.
Two questions remain for the serious consideration of our churches. First, are the disciples of Christ really in the Prohibition movement in a big way? Second, if not, has the time not come for us to assert ourselves before the problem, so far as this country is concerned, is finally solved without our full assistance?
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America’s Greatest Victory
January 25, 1919 (an editorial)
Every country, as well as every age, wrestles with problems difficult of solution. Each of these problems presents an issue that is far-reaching, for either weal or woe, in its effects upon humanity. Whether the issue respects religion, commerce, politics, or some phase of morality, it calls for men and women of conviction and courage, and urges them to battle for the right. . . .
Just now, there is great rejoicing among prohibitionists throughout the country—a reform movement which reaches back across the history of a century has, at last, unfurled its victorious banners! And this reform, like all others, has passed through stages that have been long and bitter and trying. . . .
As it is not the province of an editorial to announce current events, we shall forego the pleasure it would afford us to rehearse recent proceedings which will make the United States a dry nation a year hence.
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The Great Prohibition Victory
By O. J. Howearth (of Sebring, Ohio), February 1, 1919
. . . Every possible temptation has been dangled before the eyes of the American people to persuade them to leave the liquor traffic prolong its grip on the throat of the nation. We have been told that men would not make munitions or ships without beer to drink. We have been told to use all our energies to win the war instead of finishing up the task now. They who put their own interests ahead of that of the nation even traitorously threatened to hold up all war work, if their selfish interests were interfered with. But traitor within and enemy without alike met the same fate at the hands of an outraged people, and to-day this nation stands forth in its true greatness, the result of nearly a century and a half of freedom, making it the glory and the savior of the nations. While the soldiers and sailors have been fighting and dying for our country, we have been doing our part to make our people a nation worth fighting and dying for. It has been a gigantic task. . . .
All recognized that, unless the liquor power was overthrown from the directorate of American politics, it would work the same destruction for the national life that it works in the life of every individual who yields the control of his life to the demon of the whisky-glass. . . .
Our task, however, is not done. We have planned and carried to completion one of the greatest forward movements of all history. Yet, law will not enforce itself, and dangerous ground is yet to be passed over. No sadder mistake could be made than to come thus far, and fail to make permanent the result of these years of effort. The millions filched from wives and children in past years will not lie idly by without adding their power to defeat the purpose of the law. . . .
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The Benefits of Prohibition
By Mattie M. Boteler, September 4, 1920
(This comes from a topic-driven “Mid-week Prayer-Meeting” feature. It offered mainly anecdotal proof, from a Cincinnati perspective, of the success of Prohibition after “a single year.” Here’s the final item:)
Every day’s newspaper furnishes proof of the benefits of prohibition. A Humane Society official says that arrests of men for failing to support their families (on account of drunkenness) dropped the first year from forty to four. One side of this question can not be expressed in tabulated statements. No one can tell how many souls have been saved from perdition by the removal of the open saloon. While the churches may not yet have gathered much fruit from the prohibition victory, it has opened the way for us to go forward.
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February 5, 1921 (an editorial)
Prohibition has not yet been put to a fair test. It is a statute, but it is still a political issue, and its enforcement has not been strictly according to the letter.
Nevertheless, men who can speak with authority affirm that prohibition, though only partially enforced, is a tremendous success. Melvin Trotter, known the world over as an expert in city mission work, says:
“Prohibition has made a great change in city mission work. Very few of the old-time bums, so called, are lying around missions, looking for beds or meals. Wherever a mission was so located that it ministered only to this class, its work has fallen off perceptibly, while missions located near the heart of a city have been wonderfully helped and blessed by prohibition.”
While the liquor interests are busy trying to defeat the prohibition ideal, and many good people are misled by anti-prohibition argument, the majority of our representatives in the lower House of Congress are prohibitionists to the extent of preparing the way for nation-wide enforcement of the law. . . .
The great American reform is slow, but we are optimistic enough to think it is sure. Now that the corner saloon is gone, the people of this country do not wish it back. Nor will they tolerate for many years the “wink at the law” upon the part of unscrupulous druggists, physicians and soft-drink dispensers. . . .
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Now, finally, snippets from two editorials published the same day in 1932, a few days after Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated incumbent President Herbert Hoover.
The Country Is Wet
November 19, 1932 (an editorial)
The drys will gain nothing by continuing to insist that the nation is dry. They may argue themselves blue in the face, but in the end will have only a theory to put against a most stubborn fact. One might with better hopes of success argue that the country is Republican. . . .
[T]he vote for Mr. Roosevelt was a vote for what he stood for, and he stood for nothing more clearly than he stood for beer and wine and repeal. It would be impossible to think of any one being wetter than Mr. Roosevelt was. . . .
The country is wet. It is important that this fact be frankly faced, for it will make all the difference between a campaign to rally the voters and a campaign to educate and change the voters. . . .
Give Them All the Rope They Want
November 19, 1932 (an editorial)
The drys are in a dangerous predicament—especially the dry organizations and the dry politicians. They have reached the point where legislative and administrative control is to pass to the wets. They will be tempted to put up quite a fight to prevent wet enactments.
Without doubt the drys should go on record as opposed to such steps as the wets may take. All honorable men will respect them for insisting upon protest against what is done. . . .
The drys have only one honorable course, and it is a very strategic course as well. They should let the wets have their own way. Let the wets have no opportunity to place any of the responsibility for the new system upon the drys. . . .
We say this because of our absolute confidence in the dry cause. We say it because of our certainty of the wretched state into which the wets will bring us. We say it because we are sure prohibition will come sooner if we let the wets have their way at once.
Give the wets all the rope they want. We know what they will do with it.
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Jim Nieman, managing editor, Christian Standard