In the Land of Sin and Salvation
A local author explores the Prohibition movement.
Joe Coker: It’s kind of a study of how religion influenced the Southern culture but also how Southern culture influenced religion, and how things like racial attitudes were adopted into the [temperance] movement. It’s about the roles Southern white evangelicals played in pushing for statewide Prohibition, basically beginning in 1880 and achieving victory by about 1915.
What led you to this topic?
It grew out of my doctoral dissertation. I’m working on a theological library cataloging temperance hymnals. There are hundreds and hundreds of hymnals written expressly for temperance rallies. A whole book of hymns was dedicated to eradicating liquor from culture. [Titles include "Rallying Songs for Young Teetotalers," "Temperance Songs for the Cold Water Army," and "An Hour with Mother Goose and Her Temperance Family."] Then I became fascinated with the movement, especially here. The temperance movement started in the North in the early 1800s and didn’t really take root here in the South before the Civil War. It was a Yankee reform movement tied in to anti-slavery and wasn’t very welcome. After the Civil War, it really took root among Southern white evangelicals.
Was it evangelically driven in the North?
It was driven by Northern white evangelicals. Canals built after the War of 1812 into upstate New York allowed liquor distilled from crops to be shipped into places like New York City or Boston, which led to a lot more drunkenness, which led to a lot of evangelicals being concerned about it.
Was the entire North dry?
Maine was the first state to pass statewide prohibition, but Maine and about a dozen Northern states went dry before the Civil War around 1840. Most of those prohibition laws were repealed by the 1850s through court challenges. Only one or two states remained dry. After the war, the Southern states went dry.
Why after the war?
Evangelicals in the South started flexing their political muscle. They wanted more reform. After the Civil War, Southerners really took on a sense of “Okay, we were wrong about slavery, but we’re still morally superior to the North.” The temperance movement demonstrated moral superiority to the North. Another motivation came from the tensions that developed from having a free black community in the South and concerns about African Americans exercising liberties, such as being able to go out and enjoy themselves. A lot of it was fear of having an African American community that was no longer under the control of a white majority. Some of these fears fueled arguments for Prohibition. There was a sense that black men would get drunk and sexually assault white women, which generally was the justification for a lot of the lynching taking place in that time period. So Southern white evangelicals tapped into this and said, “The solution to the lynching epidemic and the solution to perceived black lawlessness is to cut it off at the source, because if they didn’t have these saloons they wouldn’t get drunk, then they won’t attack white women, then they wouldn’t get lynched. And it was really that argument that was one of the most effective in persuading white voters to vote for Prohibition.
Was there ever any talk of allowing only whites to drink but not blacks?
Sometimes it was kind of couched as a paternalistic self-sacrifice: “We whites are willing to give up our right to drink in order to make society safer, because, unfortunately, [for] the black men in our society, [alcohol] leads them all to this behavior.” But there were few efforts to prohibit only blacks from drinking.
Do you see vestiges of the temperance movement today?
The state Baptist Convention in Florida passed a resolution saying that you couldn’t serve on the board unless you abstained from alcohol. And in a lot of churches and church-run schools, any alcohol is viewed as sinful. There’s one 19th-century author who said that if Jesus had known what we knew, he would have drunk tea instead of wine with his disciples. &
Coker will sign copies of his book at Jonathan Benton Bookseller in Mountain Brook Village on Saturday, April 12, from 2 to 4 p.m. Details: 870-8840.