100 years since Prohibition


MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, January 16th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

Coming next on The World and Everything in It: 100 years ago today, North Carolina, Utah, Missouri, Wyoming, and Nebraska become the latest states to ratify the 18th Amendment. That made Prohibition the law of the land: alcohol was illegal to make, transport, or trade.

REICHARD: Prohibition addressed very real problems in American life: Alcohol abuse was rampant, and many families suffered.

Throughout the previous century, the church and civic associations promoted temperance, and fought to shut down exploitive drinking establishments. But by World War I, the message shifted from responsible moderation to outright abstinence.

EICHER: Paul Butler is here now to tell us more about the context and legacy of Prohibition.

PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER: Our nation’s relationship with alcohol goes all the way back to the American founding.

AUDIO: [Colonial music]

In colonial America, alcohol played an important part in daily life. Water was often contaminated, so small beer, hard cider, and other fermented beverages were in the larders of even the strictest Puritan homes. Moderation was a virtue. Benjamin Franklin once said: “Eat not to dullness, drink not to elevation.”

Local governments regulated taverns and inns to minimize drinking to excess.

AUDIO: [Saloon music]

But license replaced virtue, and taverns became synonymous with gambling, “loose living,” and drunkenness.

The Industrial Revolution didn’t help matters, it brought hundreds of thousands of rural Americans and immigrants to crowded cities, without a lot to do. Bars and saloons flourished, especially after the foreman paid their laborers.

WARD: When our organization came into focus was the 1870’s when women could not care for their families…

Sarah Ward is former President of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, started in 1873:

WARD: And so when their husbands were drinking up all the money, they couldn’t feed their families, they couldn’t clothe them, and they had to resort to begging from neighbors or family or the church.

During the second great awakening, many religious, political, and civic groups turned their attention to these troubled homes and the bars that wreaked havoc on the family. Anti-saloon and temperance movements sprouted up all across the country.

WARD: Anything we feel that would be damaging to the home, we want to protect it from. And that’s the been the role of motherhood to stand at the door and protect their family.

Religious women filled the ranks as temperance, suffrage, and social work joined forces. Church historian Martin Marty:

MARTY: You have to get people to believe in something, and I think when they convinced people to either abstain or be temperate, then you could see the influence of the prophets and the gospel.

However, in the years between the Civil War and World War 1, temperance and moderation gave way to government restriction and prohibition. More than 20 states passed legislation outlawing some aspect of the sale and/or manufacture of alcohol.

MARTY: When temperance turned to prohibition, it lost its soul.

SONG: [How Are You Going To Wet Your Whistle]

President Wilson first instituted national prohibition in 1917 to save grain for food production during The Great War. Congress took the opportunity to broaden the plan and submitted the 18th Amendment to states for consideration. It banned the manufacture, transportation and sale of “intoxicating liquors.” In a little over a year, three-quarters of the states approved it, making it binding for all. Again, Martin Marty:

MARTY: There’s two tragedies in life: “not getting what you want” and “getting what you want.” And I think a lot of people woke up the day after Prohibition started and saw that they had wished for something more stringent than could be sold…

Legislators didn’t clearly define what they meant by “intoxicating liquors,” nor did they provide much detail on enforcement. So Congress passed the Volstead Act nine months later—making alcohol in any form illegal to “manufacture, barter, or sell” with very few exceptions.

SONG: [The New Lost City Ramblers – Goodbye Old Booze]

NOLL: There were many good things accomplished, but there are also things accomplished that people didn’t anticipate.

Mark Noll is Research Professor of History at Regent College. He says Prohibition brought with it a number of unintended consequences:

NOLL: One of the least serious of these was the churches that used wine and communion had to get special permission from the government where the government shouldn’t have been involved at all. More serious was the upsurge in lawbreaking.

While individuals could still brew small batches of cider, beer, or wine at home for personal use, breweries could no longer make it, and drinking establishments could no longer buy or sell it, leading to an illicit underground market.

SONG: [The Bootlegger’s Story]

WARD: We always hear, “Oh, it was terrible…” and we had the gangsters and Al Capone down in Chicago…

Sarah Ward of the WCTU says the failings of Prohibition are often overstated, while the good is ignored:

WARD: Well, the benefits were numerous. When you look at the charts, there was hardly any cirrhosis of the liver. Police practically had no job. There was better economics for everybody…

Christian historian Mark Noll agrees that Prohibition did address many of the health and societal effects of alcohol abuse. But it didn’t really solve the problem of the human heart.

NOLL: Prohibition did a lot of positive good, but whether those good things justified a law that changed the behavior of many people and that could be easily exploited, that remains an open question that I think should be on the forefront of people’s mind who think about imposing morality in legislation today…

In his letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul writes that “all things are permissible,” but not all things are beneficial. And that believers ought not be mastered by anything. In Ephesians 5, he argues against drunkenness, but doesn’t offer prohibitions as the solution, rather, the Holy Spirit’s filling. Historian Martin Marty believes this temperance message speaks loudly today.

MARTY: Total prohibition was a total failure. Temperance, you’re changing individuals. You’re teaching moderation. You can even say it’s God’s gift and fits into the whole pattern of what you’re doing. So I think that there are ways in which temperance and moderation can fit together, and do so.

And even WCTU’s Sarah Ward agrees that for Prohibition to work, it cannot be only external:

WARD: Moderation in all things healthful, total abstinence from all things harmful, but it won’t be through legislation. It will be through each individual making a wise and responsible decision for him or her.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Paul Butler.


Today’s interviews were originally recorded for People of Faith, an American church history documentary (pilot episode) by the Institute for American Evangelicals, produced by Paul Butler. Interviews are courtesy of his personal archive from unpublished project footage.

The music selections for today’s feature, in order of appearance:

1. Prohibition Blues by The Missourians 

2. Planxty Browne / Planxty Burke by Hesperus Early Music Ensemble

3. How Are You Going To Wet Your Whistle – Sung By Billy Murray (1919)

4. Goodbye Old Booze by The New Lost City Ramblers

5. The Bootlegger’s Story by The New Lost City Ramblers

6. Temperance Reel by Spencer Strickland, Jimmy Edmonds, Gerald Anderson, and Wayne Henderson


(Photo/Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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