Armed with a fierce determination to reform American society, Methodists led the charge to ban alcohol from society, ushering in Prohibition and the era of speakeasies, gangsters and bootlegged whiskey. The Methodist zeal for prohibition was a product of their reformist history, maintained well into the Prohibition era even after the failure of its enforcement became apparent.
Methodists in the Temperance Movement
The Methodists' views on prohibition were rooted in the temperance movement that grew out of the late 19th century. Many Protestant churches in the United States that had supported the abolition of slavery joined the temperance movement, believing it was a new force for positive change in the country. Methodist ministers, along with the Baptists and others, saw the social and human consequences of drinking. The problems of alcohol were evident in public drunkenness, the “sins” of the saloons, domestic violence, and other social issues. Methodists began advocating temperance before Prohibition; Methodist ministers preached moderation before later preaching abstinence.
The Protestant American Methodists also viewed the abuse of alcohol as being a Catholic and a foreign problem. Catholic and German immigrants were blamed for the excesses of alcohol and for undermining American values. The movement from temperance to Prohibition was helped by the American entrance into the First World War. Methodists and others blamed German immigrants for weakening the United States. The temperance movement was seen by Methodists as a way of curbing the social consequences of alcohol abuse and the undermining influence of Catholics and foreigners on American values.
From Temperance to Prohibition
According to Daniel Okrent, author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, "the organization that made Prohibition happen was the Anti-Saloon League, and the people who dominated the Anti-Saloon League from the beginning were Methodists.” Many Methodists on the board of directors made use of their connections and were able to raise money for the Prohibition movement and gain support from congregations across the country. Methodists argued that the elimination of alcohol would solve many of the major problems facing society. Some even suggested that Prohibition would make prisons obsolete, and that after Prohibition, all men could lead good and productive lives.
Methodist Support for Greater Measures
The Anti-Saloon League, with the support of numerous other groups, eventually succeeded in pressuring the government to pass the Volstead Act, bringing about Prohibition. Methodists remained strong supporters for the Act throughout the 1920s, often decrying the government’s failure to properly enforce the law. The Methodist Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals was one of the loudest voices in support of prohibition, and its members voiced concern that not enough was being done to eliminate the consumption of alcohol, especially in the big cities. The organization made headlines for advocating mandatory five-year sentences for anyone charged with drinking alcohol, and for suggesting that the government send in soldiers to shut down speakeasies, using violence if necessary.
- Hemera Technologies/PhotoObjects.net/Getty Images