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The Temperance Movements: A Brief Survey

How Did We Get Here?

If the case for real wine in the Lord’s Supper is so strong, why do not more Christians and churches support the use of wine? Many—perhaps even most—oppose wine, or are at best indifferent to it. Even wine’s defenders seem to be resigned to sacramental compromise. In our day, wine has become an unwanted orphan.

As we saw on previous pages of this web site, things were not always as they are now. Even in the mid-nineteenth century, the great Princeton theologian, Charles Hodge, wrote, “The plain meaning of the Bible on this subject has controlled the mind of the Church.” In our own time, Keith A. Mathison said, “For the first 1,800 years of the church, the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper was an undisputed and noncontroversial practice.” Why did that change? Did the church arrive at a new and better understanding of the Holy Scripture? Or is the explanation to be found elsewhere?

As William Shakespeare wrote, “What’s past is prologue.” We can only understand the present popularity of grape juice in the sacrament by studying the recent past. Specifically, we must very briefly examine the temperance movements of the nineteenth century.

The Origins of the Temperance Movements

From the very beginning, alcoholic beverages, especially distilled drinks such as rum and whiskey, were an integral part of early American life. As Jack S. Blocker, Jr. wrote, “One fact that seems clear is that throughout the American colonies, as in their European parent societies, alcoholic beverages were a staple of daily diet and represented the principal form of liquid nourishment. Virtually everyone drank virtually all the time” (American Temperance Movements, page 3). Americans drank alcohol in the period from 1620 to 1830 at an astonishing rate. By 1830 annual per capita consumption reached nearly four gallons of absolute alcohol. When the Arbella arrived in 1630 with Governor John Winthrop and the main contingent of Puritan settlers for Massachusetts Bay, it carried 10,000 gallons of beer, 120 hogsheads of malt for brewing more, and 12 gallons of distilled spirits—in addition to what each family had brought from Europe with them. A generation later, Increase Mather, while warning against drunkenness and its attendant ills, said, “Drink is in itself a creature of God, and to be received with thankfulness.” Early American Christians would not have disagreed.

But during the nineteenth century, Protestant America would experience a seismic shift in the way it viewed alcoholic beverages.

The temperance movements began in the early days of the American Republic. They can be defined as efforts to control the drinking of alcoholic beverages, after drunkenness, which had already been condemned, entered the public consciousness as a wide-spread social problem. We use the plural noun here—“movements,” instead of “movement”—because the proponents of temperance, while predominantly middle class, were animated by a variety of goals, motives, strategies, and ideologies. Some were religious in nature, while others were secular. Some favored moderation, while others insisted on total abstinence. Moreover, proponents of temperance used various ways and means, including persuasion, coercion, and everything in between. Some were fairly conservative, while others were more radical and militant. Proponents founded a number of diverse organizations to promote their causes. During the nineteenth century, the temperance movements took their place alongside other popular movements to reform society, such as the anti-slavery movement and women’s rights.

Among the early forerunners of the temperance movements in America, three figures are especially prominent. In 1771, Francis Asbury arrived in America as John Wesley’s General Assistant. Asbury, who was a strict abstainer from hard liquor, preached temperance, and persuaded the General Conference of Methodist Societies to adopt a resolution disapproving the distillation of grain into liquor. In 1774, Philadelphia Quaker and reformer Anthony Benezet published the first American pamphlet advocating total abstinence from distilled liquor, entitled, “The Mighty Destroyer Displayed.” Dr. Benjamin Rush published writings in which he urged moderation in wine and strong drink in 1772. Later, Rush published his An Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits upon the Human Body and Mind, in which he called into question the regular use of distilled alcohol in medicine, and suggested substitutes for it such as cider, wine, tea, or coffee. Rush also suggested that the excessive use of distilled alcohol causes physical illnesses and even a “disease of the will.” According to Rush, hard liquors result in “poverty, misery, crimes and infamy, disease and death.” Rush’s work became a prototype of later temperance literature. Later, in 1789, Rush published A Moral and Physical Thermometer, in which he graphically illustrated the direct relation between the use of water, milk, and small beer and health, wealth, serenity of mind, reputation, long life and happiness; meanwhile the chronic use of gin, brandy, rum, and whiskey led to theft, murder, suicide, madness, palsy, apoplexy, and death. Rush’s thermometer was then used in other temperance literature.

The nineteenth century brought other changes as well, and some of these encouraged the new attitudes toward alcohol. Though not to be compared with the twentieth century in these respects, the United States was becoming less agrarian, and more industrialized and more urban. New inventions, such as Eli Whitney’s cotton gin and the telegraph, and new ways of transporting goods, such as the building of the Erie canal and the advent of the steamboat, permitted greater economic growth and thus more opportunities for farmers and businessmen. Except for the Civil War, the century was a time of relative peace and stability, while the country expanded geographically, thus providing even more opportunities. Expanding opportunities for profits naturally resulted in new business practices, which in turn changed the prevailing patterns of work and leisure. In the past workmen might work intermittently, but harder when working; they now worked more consistently and evenly. Employers began to value discipline and self-control—in themselves and their workers—to a greater degree than ever before. For many segments of society, the nineteenth century was a time for optimism. The values Americans most cherished were changing, and this necessarily changed their view of wine and alcohol.

The Rise and Influence of the Temperance Movements

The influence of Rush did not end with his death in 1813. Though further advances in medical science would disprove their conclusions, many physicians became convinced that alcohol was injurious to health. In most early thinking about temperance, a distinction was made between distilled liquors, such as whiskey and rum, on the one hand, and fermented beverages, such as beer and wine on the other. However, during the 1820s the findings of chemist William Brande that alcohol was present in fermented liquor were disseminated, and popular attitudes began to change. As the nineteenth century progressed, wine and beer fell under the same judgement from the advocates of temperance. In 1835, a biblical scholar like Moses Stuart could confidently assert that “water is the best of all drinks.”

Proponents of temperance formed organizations to achieve their goals. “By early 1835 the [American Temperance Society] had reached the peak of its organizing success, claiming over 1.5 million members in more than eight thousand auxiliaries.” (American Temperance Movements, page 14). Since the population of the United States was fewer than 13 million in 1830, this was an impressive achievement. Throughout the nineteenth century, millions of people signed pledges of temperance. From 1830 to 1840, per capita consumption of alcohol dropped significantly.

The Washingtonians, or Washingtonian Temperance Society, was started by six drunkards on April 2, 1840 in Chase’s Tavern in Baltimore. This movement stressed the individual, and members believed they could keep each other sober. It was not religious, and soon became completely extinct.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Movement, after the election of the dynamic Frances Willard as president in 1879, became an important part of the temperance movements. Her “Do Everything” philosophy involved the WCTU and its members in all sorts of nineteenth century causes, including women’s suffrage and socialism.

Although many early temperance movements concerned themselves with moral persuasion, some took the form of political action and sought to bring the power of the state to bear. In some cases, the sale or distribution of alcohol was regulated or taxed. These efforts eventually led to prohibition in some communities or states, and the Maine Law was passed in 1851. The Maine Law soon became the model for similar laws in other states, such as New York, Iowa, and Kansas.

The Prohibition party was formed to use political power in order to promote temperance. Its membership reached 150,000 in 1884. Leaders were predominately native-born and evangelical. Its candidates, who were often former Republicans, competed for election with candidates from the other political parties, and were sometimes successful in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. After succesful efforts by the Anti-Saloon League to attract the support of evangelicals, the Prohibition party organized denominational temperance forces by forming the Inter-Church Temperance Federation in 1907 and the National Church Temperance Council in 1911.

From a Christian perspective, perhaps the most important of the temperance organizations was the Anti-Saloon League, which was founded after the decline of the Prohibition party. “The first institution to which Anti-Saloon League men turned was the churches. Where Prohibition party editorialists had vilified the evangelical churches, the Anti-Saloon League announced that it was ‘the Church in Action Against the Saloon.’ The League was organized at the grass roots with local pastors, which were encouraged to enroll their congregations as League affiliates. Lists of church members willing to vote for politicians sympathetic to League measures were drawn up from these contacts. Each cooperating local church set aside one Sunday each year for an ‘Anti-Saloon League field day’ on which a League representative spoke from the pulpit outlining the League’s progress and prospects and soliciting pledges of financial support. Representatives of supportive denominations were placed on the governing boards of state leagues and the national League; after 1903 they were given procedural control over the affairs of the state and national organizations.” (American Temperance Movements, pages 102-103) Clergymen made up three-fifths of Anti-Saloon League leaders, and among the paid officials of the League the proportion of clergymen was even higher.

The new ideas about alcohol were promoted by means of a flood of tracts, plays and novels about temperance during the nineteenth century. Temperance cookbooks provided recipes without alcohol as an ingredient. Proponents even published their own song books, such as Congregationalist minister John Marsh’s Temperance Hymn Book and Minstrel.

Because the Bible was a very important part of American life and thought in the nineteenth century, the Bible needed to be reconciled to the new attitudes about wine and other alcoholic beverages. This was not easy to do. New methods of interpretation were suggested or adopted. The more radical of these new methods threatened the authority of the Bible. As historian Jack Blocker has written, “During the 1830s wine was used in every Communion service, so the teetotal pledge threatened widespread disruption. Teetotal advocates addressed the problem in two ways, neither of which was likely to induce comfort among the devout. Gerrit Smith spoke for one teetotal position when he argued that, although the Bible did indeed condone wine drinking, new conditions and new knowledge in the nineteenth century rendered this biblical view obsolete.” (American Temperance Movements, page 24). A second approach, favored by many with a higher view of Holy Scripture, was to argue that the favorable references to wine in the Bible were actually to unfermented grape juice. This “two-wine theory” was proposed by George Duffield in 1835. The theory was promoted by a pamphlet published in 1848 by Moses Stuart, entitled Scriptural View of the Wine Question. In 1849, Stuart published an important book, with a similar title, that promoted his views even further. In 1870, British Christian scholar Frederic Lees wrote his magisterial and highly influential Temperance Bible Commentary, which also promoted the “two-wine theory” on both sides of the Atlantic. Some proponents of the “two-wine theory” began to speak of the positive examples of wine as “unfermented wine.” Opposition to the “two-wine theory” soon appeared, however; an article in The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review in 1871 called the “two-wine theory” “a new and unprecedented exegesis of the Scripture teachings respecting wine” and said that “this interpretation was new to the church.” By the end of the century, most scholarly opinion was against the “two-wine theory,” but it continued to have a lasting impact.

These new attitudes about wine were destined to lead to a change to the content of the communion cup. In 1835, Moses Stuart published an important essay entitled, “What is the duty of the churches, in regard to the use of fermented (alcoholic) wine, in celebrating the Lord’s Supper?” According to Stuart, a “satisfactory answer to this question is necessarily connected with the present state of the temperance question in general.” Although Stuart conceded that Jesus used real wine at the institution of the Lord’s Supper, Stuart said modern Christians need not do likewise. Jennifer L. Woodruff Tait calls Stuart’s essay the “first article ever questioning the use of alcohol in the Eucharist.” (Stuart’s article is reproduced elsewhere in this web site.) Even with Stuart’s prodding, however, the use of wine was not abandoned immediately, and not until 1880 did the Methodist Church, by far the leading church in the temperance movements, outlaw the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper. By the end of the century, however, the use of grape juice was the norm, except for the Lutheran and Episcopal churches.

The Successes of the Temperance Movements

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, and largely as a result of the Anti-Saloon League’s efforts, many states and counties, especially in the South, outlawed the sale of alcohol. The Anti-Saloon League persuaded the US Congress to pass the Webb-Kenyon Act in 1913, which prohibited interstate shipment of alcohol into a state contrary to the laws of that state.

The successes of the temperance movements, especially the Anti-Saloon League, were also evidenced by the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the US. Constitution, which declared the production, transport, importation, and sale of alcohol (though not the consumption or private possession) illegal. The separate Volstead Act, intended to enact the Eighteenth Amendment, took effect on January 17, 1920. According to the best estimates, per capita consumption of absolute alcohol fell to 1.1 gallons in the years 1927-1930, compared to about 1.7 gallons in most of the pre-Prohibition years between 1906 and 1917. Beer consumption was perhaps most affected, but wine drinkers were relieved to learn that the law permitted sales of grape juice and grape juice concentrate, and so the manufacture of wine in private homes increased.

However, the prohibition measures legalized by the Eighteenth Amendment proved to be impossible to enforce and highly unpopular, so the Twenty-first Amendment to the US Constitution was passed 13 years later in order to repeal it, and national prohibition was ended.

Alcoholics Anonymous was founded on June 10, 1935, the date on which Dr. Robert Smith, with the help of Bill Wilson, took his last drink. A.A. adopted some of the same tools that had been used in the past, such as experience speeches and mutual support networks, but it also insisted on a new view of alcohol and drunkenness. “Although they agreed with earlier temperance reformers that alcohol was addictive, they insisted that alcohol produced unique effects among one group of drinkers whom they labeled ‘alcoholics.’ This effect was a loss of control over drinking, an irresistible craving that drove the alcoholic to destruction. Acceptance of this idea was crucial to their strategy for recovery; unless the alcoholic conceded his own powerlessness over alcohol, Wilson and Smith believed, he or she had no hope of recovery. This view of alcohol’s effect drove a wedge between ‘normal’ drinking (that which was controlled) and pathological drinking, and therefore between social drinkers and alcoholics…This new view of drinking and addiction is usually referred to as the ‘disease concept of alcoholism,’ although its originality lies not in the claim that chronic drunkenness is a disease but rather in the distinction it makes between drinkers who are and are not susceptible to the affliction…The disease concept gained currency because of its employment by Alcoholics Anonymous and also because of its advocacy by a crucial handful of academic experts.” (American Temperance Movements, page 132-133)


After our brief study of the American temperance movements, we are compelled to make a few observations.

  1. The temperance movements were an understandable reaction to the abuse of alcohol prevalent in America, especially in the years 1790-1830, but this reaction was not primarily based on Christian or biblical principles. Changes in attitudes about the consumption of alcohol and drunkenness were mostly the result of new intellectual currents and new patterns of work and leisure.
  2. The temperance movements both contributed to, and resulted from, the growing trend of secularization. They were a part of an effort to bring about the reformation of both individual morals and society apart from the gospel. As some clergymen of the time said, the temperance movements were a reformation without a salvation. Charles Hodge said that the temperance movements were infused with an “infidel spirit.”
  3. The interpretation and application of the biblical texts about alcoholic beverages was greatly influenced by new developments in philosophy, science, and religion during the nineteenth century.
  4. The temperance movements promoted significant changes in how the abuse of alcohol was viewed and treated. Before the impact of the temperance movements, the abuse of alcohol was considered to be the sin of drunkenness; afterward, in the minds of both the general public and Christians, it was the disease of alcoholism. In turn, the abuse of alcohol was no longer a matter for the pastor; it became the province of the therapist or the psychologist. Help and encouragement were no longer to be found in the church, but rather from other drunkards and groups like Alcoholics Anonymous.
  5. The temperance movements promoted changes in attitudes about wine in general, but also changes in attitudes about wine in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. These new attitudes ultimately resulted in new sacramental practices. As the Methodist Charles Welch, founder of the famous grape juice company remarked, “Unfermented grape juice was born in 1869 out of a passion to serve God by helping his church to give at its Communion ‘the fruit of the vine’ instead of ‘the cup of devils.’”


As Keith A. Mathison has correctly observed, “The substitution of grape juice had its origins, not in the study of Scripture, but in the capitulation of much of the American evangelical church to the demands of the nineteenth-century temperance movement.” Charles Welch’s “passion,” and the intense feelings of many more like him, is understandable from an historical perspective, but it cannot be supported by the Holy Scriptures.

The effects of the temperance movements are still very much with us. As William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Churches and Christians are still burdened with notions about wine and the cup of the Lord that were invented in the early nineteenth century. Sadly, our past is not dead; indeed, it’s not even past.