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Important anniversaries in 2020: Prohibition

Lynne Baab • Saturday February 22 2020

Important anniversaries in 2020: Prohibition

In 1880, a woman named Agatha lived in a small town in Kansas. Agatha had a millinery shop, so she knew many of the women in town. Agatha also had a limp, caused by permanent damage to her hip when her father knocked her down a flight of stairs at age 9. Her father was drunk at the time.

A temperance advocate, Drusilla Wilson, visited Agatha’s town to recruit women to fight for prohibition of alcohol. Agatha signed up because of her own story, and because she knew so many of the stories of the women in town. Too many of them had husbands who spent every evening in a saloon. These women often had to stretch every penny because their husbands spent most of their income on alcohol.

Agatha and other women stood outside saloons every night, singing temperance songs, passing out pamphlets about the evils of alcohol, and trying to sign up men to take a vow of sobriety. One night a five-year-old boy joined them, in tears. Willy’s mother had died a few months earlier, and he was looking for his father, who was inside the saloon. Willy’s father left him home alone every night, and Willy was terrified of the dark.

Agatha was heart-broken at the thought of a small boy being left at home alone. She longed to be a wife and mother, but always felt that her limp turned men away. Her own story of growing up with a father who drank too much, the stories of other women, and Willy’s situation made her even more committed to fight for temperance.

Agatha made the temperance movement come alive for me. She and Willy are fictitious characters in a novel by LaVryle Spencer, The Gamble. Drusilla Wilson was real. Kansas went dry in 1881 because of the work of committed Christian women like Drusilla Wilson, who saw drunkenness as a significant factor that reduced quality of life for men, women, and children.

Kansas was dry longer than any other state (1881 to 1948). In the whole United States, the manufacture and sale of alcohol was prohibited from January 29, 1920 to 1933.  So we are less than one month past the 100th anniversary of the beginning of prohibition in the United States.

Did prohibition work? Did quality of life improve for most people? The answer isn’t clear. One of the unintended consequences of 13 years of prohibition – for better and for worse – is a shift in drinking patterns. Before prohibition, most drinking took place in saloons and bars, and most of the people who drank alcohol were men. Of course, some women drank secretly, but very few in comparison to the larger number of men in saloons and bars. After prohibition, alcohol consumption moved into the home, and men and women began to drink equally.

This anniversary of prohibition raises the question of how Christians can use their energies to raise the quality of life for others. In what instances does it work best to make something illegal? When is it best to rely on education or higher taxes? When do other significant factors need to be addressed first?

One of the unexpected juxtapositions that illuminates these questions relates to drinking age. We lived for  ten years in a university town in New Zealand, where the drinking age is 18. Drunkenness among students is a serious problem. One time a drunk young woman wondered away from the university and almost died of exposure. The news reported that drunk students damaged property and raped other students. The whole time we lived in New Zealand, we read articles and editorials advocating raising the drinking age. Making alcohol illegal for 18- to 20-year-olds, these people believed, would mean students would drink less.

During that same decade, we also read the local newspaper of our hometown, Seattle, which has several universities with all the associated problems of drunkenness. Every few years a student dies from consuming too much alcohol under pressure from friends. The drinking age in Seattle is 21, and we read numerous articles and editorials advocating lowering the drinking age to 18. The writers felt that making alcohol less of a “forbidden fruit” would reduce consumption.

Extreme drunkenness by students is a serious problem. We want to do something to make it better. Changing the drinking age seems like a logical approach until you see clearly that students – and a lot of other people – drink to the point of damage to themselves or others whether or not alcohol is illegal.

This question of how to bring about better, more healthful, and more ethical behavior relates to many, many questions, including sugar consumption, using seat belts and bike helmets, driving within the speed limit, domestic violence, and abortion. The best approach probably varies from issue to issue.

Several generations of Christian women, in the United States and other countries, used a large portion of their time and energy to fight for temperance. Was that a good use of that energy? I invite you to think about that 13 year period when alcohol was illegal in the United States and compare it to issues today. How do we encourage healthy and moral behavior? How can Christians bring the shalom of God into our cities, regions and countries? What works?

The word “temperance” means moderation, self-restraint, or self-control. We know that self-control is one of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). Nurturing self-control in ourselves – or allowing God to nurture it through the Holy Spirit – is challenging, and figuring out how to encourage it in others is very complicated. All parents know this. Lord, have mercy on us. Guide us. Give us your wisdom.

Next week: another important anniversary in 2020 – women got the vote in 1920 in the United States. Illustration by Dave Baab – a commissioned painting of two students at Unicol, one of the colleges (dorms) in Dunedin, New Zealand. I love getting new subscribers. Sign up below.

Two options for Lenten devotionals (Lent begins next week on February 26 this year):

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