A hundred years ago our nation had a major revulsion against alcoholic beverages and made them illegal through a set of laws known as Prohibition. My mother and father firmly believed that God had ordained those laws. Although they were strict prohibitionists they did not really understand how the laws worked. They thought that it was illegal to own and drink alcohol. Owning and drinking were legal, however, so wealthy people bought out the liquor warehouses in the months before Prohibition officially started, stored the wine and liquor in their wine cellars, served it at parties, and drank as much as they wanted. It was the middle- and lower- economic classes, who could not manage the cost, who did not have access to legal booze.
The roots of Prohibition developed about the same time that we became a country. Almost everyone drank wine or beer and almost everyone knew an alcoholic. Alcoholism, then as now, was the leading addition and caused serious disruptions within families. That was a time when married women were not allowed to work outside the home, and most were completely dependent on their husbands for support. If the husband spent most of the family money on alcohol or drugs, the wife and children could literally starve to death. This recognition developed into a minor cause, and local organizations started to lobby to ban the sale of beer, wine, and distilled liquor.
Within a few years, the prohibition of alcoholic beverages developed into a religious cause among some Protestants. In particular, the Wesleyan Methodist Connexion forbade the use of fermented wine in their communion services. For a while, they made do with raisin -soaked water and similar work-arounds, but in 1869 a Methodist preacher, Thomas Bramwell Welch, developed a pasteurization process for grape juice and used it in his Communion Services. The idea spread to other Methodist churches and to other denominations. His son, Charles Welch, expanded the business and developed the Welch’s Grape Juice Company.
By the late 1800’s a pattern had emerged. Since drinking alcohol was considered disruptive to family life, women largely stopped drinking, and it became the province of men. Women were the protectors of the family, the moral leaders, the victims who suffered abuse at the hands of their drunken husbands.
The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the WCTU, was formed not with the idea of temperance in drinking, but of banning alcohol outright. It was successful in that several states passed laws banning it. On the other side, the WCTU developed into a radical woman’s movement, pushing for women’s suffrage, the banning of tobacco, and various other causes. This radicalization caused the WCTU to be denounced by many men who felt that women were trying to usurp their prerogatives.
The WCTU had a great influence on fundamentalist Christian churches, and many of them passed out the WCTU anti-alcohol literature without worrying about the truth of the articles. After all, if it had a good effect, it did not matter if it was one hundred percent right.
[I remember a WCTU pamphlet passed out in my church when I was a boy that claimed that anyone who took the first drink was almost certain to become an alcoholic.]
The most popular lithograph ever made by Currier and Ives illustrated the WCTU propaganda. It showed the progress of a man who started out with one drink, gradually developed into an alcoholic, and committed suicide after ruining his family by turning to crime.
Before too long the banning of alcohol developed into a national cause, and most of the pietistic Protestants pushed their legislatures for laws doing just that. The forces for Prohibition attracted some unlikely allies in the process. For example, the Ku Klux Klan, which started a comeback in 1915, joined forces with the Anti-Saloon League and encouraged its members to raid bars, dump out the beer and liquor, and destroy the equipment. This resulted in several minor wars, in which people were killed. [The national Klan leaders, who were completely cynical and mainly interested in making money from their followers, bought and drank all of the illegal alcohol that they wanted.]
There was pushback, of course. The German immigrants tried to fight back, but had been so weakened politically by the First World War that they had almost no political power. The Catholic and Episcopal churches fought against Prohibition because they used wine in their services, but to no immediate effect. When the Prohibition laws were drafted, however, churches did retain the right to buy wine and serve it in Communion Services.
The forces for Prohibition won in an even more spectacular way than they could have hoped. In 1919 Congress passed not just laws banning the manufacture, distribution, and sale of alcohol, but a Constitutional amendment, which was quickly ratified by the requisite number of states.