The Southern Baptist Convention Looks Back at Prohibition 100 Years Later

Jan. 16 marked the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which outlawed “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.”

NASHVILLE (BP) — When the 18th Amendment was ratified 100 years ago and prohibition became law of the land, the Southern Baptist Convention called it “the greatest victory for moral reform in America since the Declaration of Independence.”

The convention’s jubilance came in part because Southern Baptists had worked at least three decades to secure legal prohibition. They saw the 18th Amendment as a culmination of their labor. They also had come to view prohibition advocacy as a defining mark of Baptist identity.

Still, Southern Baptists wondered whether the anti-alcohol effort that helped bring about prohibition would persist.

A ‘sin against God’

Prominent Southern Baptists led state and national campaigns for prohibition since at least the 1880s. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary founder B.H. Carroll headed an 1887 Texas campaign for prohibition. In 1896, Baptist layman Joshua Levering — who chaired Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s trustee board — was nominated by the Prohibition Party for president of the United States.

Beginning in 1890, the SBC “supported prohibition at every annual meeting” until it became law, wrote Bill Sumners, retired director of the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives, in a 1975 master’s thesis. The convention also appointed a permanent Committee on Temperance in 1910.

Greg Wills, professor of church history at Southern Seminary, said “a Christian duty to avoid consumption of alcohol” was “the fundamental issue” for Baptists, “not whether our states and municipalities would prohibit [alcohol’s] manufacture, sale and consumption.” Southern Baptists “believed you would be hard pressed to identify any other single factor that caused so much widespread suffering, injury and damage as the widespread abuse of alcohol.”

One of the SBC’s strongest statements against alcohol came in 1896, when it called “the policy of issuing government licenses” for “the liquor traffic” a “sin against God and a dishonor to our people.”

“We furthermore announce it as our conviction that we should by all legitimate means oppose the liquor traffic in municipality, county, State, and nation,” the convention stated. “Furthermore, we announce it as the sense of this body that no person should be retained in the fellowship of a Baptist church who engages in the manufacture or sale of alcoholic liquors.”

North Greenville University history professor Brendan Payne wrote in his 2017 doctoral dissertation, “With this official declaration, prohibition advocacy had become a defining issue of Baptist identity.”

At its first annual meeting following the 18th Amendment’s ratification, the SBC adopted a report stating, “Thus dawns the date for which we have labored and prayed…. It is the greatest victory for moral reform in America since the Declaration of Independence.”

The report also asked whether Baptists could “now cease or slacken our efforts” to combat alcohol. The answer was “an emphatic negative.”

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Source: Baptist Press