Even at this late stage in the social history of alcohol, some Temperance campaigning in the 1800s can’t fail to make an impression. In particular, never did the cause against drink have a more ardent or articulate spokesman than T. De Witt Talmage (1832-1902).
One doesn’t have to agree with the postulates of the movement to understand the good faith of many of its avatars. The human travails which moved them were often very real and it is bootless to deny them.
The roots of teetotalism were complex: society was shifting from a rural to an urban base; medicine increasingly viewed alcohol as having no place in the dispensary; the womens’ suffrage movement often saw gender equality and the alcohol ban as complementary; and there was a growing consensus in many Protestant churches that alcohol was incompatible with faith-based living.
T. De Witt Talmage was a star performer in the ranks of clergy who fulminated against drinking.
This interesting personality, as his writings reveal, was a highly intelligent and committed man of the cloth, from a deeply religious family in New Jersey of the Reformed Dutch church. His ancestry was Dutch and English, of plain stock as he proudly averred, but influential in early American history. He was well-educated and studied law before completing his D.D.
Talmage supported women’s rights, and spoke up for minorities in society at a time when social Darwinism was starting its malign rise or older pathologies were still full of power. He defended in particular the Jewish people from the growing persecutions in Russia, and foresaw the catastrophe Germany would visit upon the Jews. He was a supporter of renewing the ties of Jews to Palestine on biblical grounds and to palliate this risk.
Thus, Talmage was not the kind of Temperance man who was anti-Catholic or anti-Jewish. (Indeed he was remarked in his day for reaching out to both these faiths). He was a deeper thinker than that, whose rejection of drinking was based on its social toll and the damage he perceived it caused to family piety and solidarity.
The animus was life-long and probably inherited from his parents. Talmage was active in Brooklyn, NY where two churches were built as a platform for his ministrations and oratorical skills. He attracted thousands to his sermons. He had a rhythmic, ringing way of preaching and was something of a showman on stage.
One of his tricks was to race from one end of the stage to another and leap in the air. Just as the adoring crowd thought he would vault into their ranks, he would crash down at the edge of the stage and cry out to youth to abjure alcohol and lead a straight life.
(One wonders if the showmanship of rock and roll didn’t come one way or another from the church).
This source contains what must be one of Talmage’s best speeches against drink where he riffs on the word crooked. It’s all crooked he says, not just moonshine liquor which doesn’t pay taxes, but all alcohol, crooked beer, crooked cognac, crooked wine, it puts man on a crooked path and leads him to certain ruin.
One needn’t share the views of Talmage on alcohol to be impressed by his commitment and energy. At a minimum, he is a reminder that alcohol has a dark side.
The solution of the Temperance crowd – a total ban – led ultimately to problems worse than they were designed to solve: organized bootlegging, associated criminalities, encouraging a disrespect for law.
Still, there can be no doubt Talmage’s heart was in the right place. We accept alcohol today on the view it can be used responsibly, but it is still salutary to read him. A lot of what he said was true and it’s a reminder to treat alcohol with respect.
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