Temperance after Prohibition

Temperance after Prohibition February 28, 2017

Yesterday the Minnesota Senate voted to repeal a law whose roots reach back to the birth of the state in 1858: a ban on Sunday liquor sales. Gov. Mark Dayton has already said that he would not veto that change, so if the House and Senate versions can be reconciled, Minnesotans will no longer need to drive to Wisconsin to buy alcohol on the Sabbath. I’m not sure that will change my life all that much, but as a historian, this news did get me thinking that the Temperance movement lived on long after Prohibition became a byword for failed legislation.

Even before statehood, Minnesota had a Sons of Temperance chapter; in 1852 the territory adopted a version of Maine’s model of prohibition. That law didn’t survive a court challenge, but the first state legislature decided to keep Minnesotan Sundays free not only of alcohol, but work, hunting, shooting, and sports. Later blue laws prohibited dancing and gambling on the Lord’s Day. For state historian Theodore Blegen, such legislation illustrated “the spirit of New England piety and Puritanism that hovers over frontier Minnesota.”

As the 19th century turned to the 20th and immigration brought new religious movements to the state, Minnesota was home both to beer-brewing German families (e.g., the Schells in New Ulm and the Schmidts in St. Paul) and teetotaling Scandinavian evangelicals. For example, in mid-1917 Swedish Baptists adopted the language of the World War in order to

urgently implore our churches and individual members to vigilantly stay in the fight and to co-operate with the Anti-Saloon League and work hand in hand with all sane temperance forces so as to maintain our captured trenches and make our positions secure and our ultimate goal—a saloon-less and temperate nation—a question of only a very short time.

Prohibition button: "Wear this button! Save [the] 18th Amendment"
Pro-Prohibition button – CC BY-SA 2.0 Minnesota Historical Society
Within less than two years, the 18th Amendment had been ratified. The law enacting it was written by Minnesotan congressman Andrew Volstead — who soon lost his seat to a Lutheran pastor who proclaimed himself to be “drier” than the incumbent.

It was a remarkable achievement for the Temperance movement. Yet “[i]n almost every respect imaginable,” concludes Dan Okrent in his popular history, Last Call, “Prohibition was a failure.” Yes, Americans did drink less… but at the cost of increased “criminality and institutionalized hypocrisy,” a pervasive “culture of bribery, blackmail, and official corruption,” the loss of rights and loss of revenue, and deaths resulting from accidental poisoning and premeditated murder.

It also proved to be “a major setback for evangelicals active in the cause in America and beyond,” according to Australian scholar Geoffrey Treloar. By supporting Prohibition so staunchly, evangelicals “encouraged perceptions of organized Christianity as joyless moralistic legalism, and thereby furthered the loss of public influence evangelicals were seeking to curb… If the interwar era had begun with a great victory, it ended in a significant setback for evangelical social reformism and claims for cultural authority” (The Disruption of Evangelicalism, p. 261).

Not that the aforementioned Swedish Baptists were willing to give up the cause. They continued to adopt prohibitionist resolutions, often aimed at limiting the exposure of young people who were now “constantly tempted by the open sale and clever advertisement of liquor.” In November 1939, the Swedish Baptists’ youth publication editorialized that the participation of women and girls in manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages “is a greater problem for us than an European or even a World War.” Pearl Harbor only amplified their concerns: Bethel College professor A.J. Wingblade celebrated that the Swedish Baptist school in St. Paul would mark March 8, 1942 as “Temperance Sunday,” an occasion to take a stand against “our fourth enemy” — alongside Germany, Italy, and Japan.

(During the latter days of Prohibition itself, Bethel president Arvid Hagstrom had tasked Wingblade with investigating a new restaurant a few blocks from campus. He reported back ominously that it was actually a “speakeasy” serving “moonshine.”)

Pro-Prohibition poster from Sweden, 1922
Back in Wingblade and Hagstrom’s mother country, Swedish voters rejected prohibition in a 1922 referendum – Royal Swedish Library/Wikimedia

While these Swedish Baptists were disappointed to learn that the Roosevelt administration had no intention of reprising the 1917-18 alliance between prohibitionists and the U.S. military, temperance advocates continued to win tactical victories. Okrent points out that Repeal actually “made it harder, not easier, to get a drink” in certain parts of the country, since the 21st Amendment replaced “the almost-anything-goes ethos [of Prohibition] with a series of state-by-state codes, regulations, and enforcement procedures.” The Minnesota law being repealed, for example, dates to 1935. Several states continued stronger forms of prohibition until after World War II; Mississippi, the longest hold-out, stayed officially dry until the mid-1960s.

There are only a smattering of fully dry counties left in the U.S., but at the local level, prohibition remains in effect in several states. Most are in the South, but in Pennsylvania over 500 municipalities ban all alcohol sales and dozens more prohibit the sale of either beer or liquor. And even with yesterday’s vote, eleven states still restrict sales on Sundays.

My part of the country has mostly shed even these remnants of Prohibition, but temperance convictions continued to shape life at religious colleges like mine even into the 21st century. It was less than ten years ago that we Bethel professors were first allowed to drink alcohol, and students still agree to that prohibition when they sign our community’s Covenant for Life TogetherIn 2013 Moody Bible Institute received the attention of the New York Times when it dropped its ban on faculty drinking. “We know the Bible tells us that God gives us our food and gives us our drink,” Moody president J. Paul Nyquist had argued. “So use your biblically discerned conscience and do what God wants you to in these areas.”

Nor has the Christian temperance movement disappeared entirely. The American Council on Addiction and Alcohol Problems, a much-weakened descendant of the once-mighty Anti-Saloon League, still draws support from religious groups like North Carolina’s Christian Action League. Last year the CAL executive director “unashamedly [argued] that alcohol is a bigger and even more urgent problem than guns. And while I don’t believe we need further restrictions on gun ownership,” wrote Rev. Mark Creech, “I do believe governments, local, state and federal, should do more to tighten alcohol policy.”

(The idea for this post first came to me last fall, when my family relocated to the Blue Ridge Mountains for my sabbatical. We didn’t stay in dry counties or towns, but one day I turned on an AM radio station broadcasting out of Mount Airy, North Carolina and heard a sermon by a self-proclaimed “Holiness temperance preacher.”)

But at least here in the North Star State, religion played little role in the argument about Sunday liquor sales. The chief opponents of the repeal have been the liquor stores themselves, most of them small businesses or municipal operations that fear rising labor costs will not be offset by increased revenue. One of the legislators to shift to the repeal side this year was a Republican named Dan Hall, a former Christian school principal and pastor who told KSTP-TV that “the government needs to stay out of private businesses and this gives business local control.”

And for the record, one of the Democratic (well, DFL) votes for repeal came from my own state senator: John Marty, a Lutheran whose father is the eminent church historian Martin Marty.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!