How Mississippi Baptists came to oppose alcohol in the early 1800s
Copyright by Robert C. Rogers and the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board.
Baptists have not always been as adamantly opposed to alcohol as they are today; rather, their view developed over several decades in the early 1800s. This can be illustrated in the story of how Mississippi Baptists gradually took a stronger stand against liquor during the decades from the 1820s through the 1850s. In 1820, Providence Baptist Church in what is now Forrest County discussed the question, “Is it lawful, according to scripture, for a member of a church to retail spiritous liquors?” The church could not agree on a position in regard to the matter. This attitude would begin to change in the 1820s, however. In 1826, the influential Congregationalist pastor Lyman Beecher began a series of sermons against the dangers of drunkenness and urged the necessity of abstinence from the alcohol. He called on Christians to sign pledges to abstain from alcohol, igniting the temperance movement in America. The question came before the Mississippi Baptist Association in 1827, and it was stated that it “considers drunkenness one of the most injurious and worst vices in the community.” In 1830, the Pearl River Baptist Association admonished any churches hosting their meetings, “provide no ardent spirits for the association when she may hereafter meet, as we do not want it.” In 1831, Pearl River Association thanked the host church for obeying their request, and in 1832, the association humbly prayed “the public, that they will not come up to our Association with their beer, Cider, Cakes, and Mellons, as they greatly disturb the congregation.” Likewise in 1832, Mississippi Association resolved, “That this Association do discountenance all traffic in spirituous liquors, beer, cider, or bread, within such a distance of our meetings as in any wise disturb our peace and worship; and we do, therefore, earnestly request all persons to refrain from the same.”1
It had always been common for Baptists to discipline members for drunkenness, but as the temperance movement grew in America, Mississippi Baptists moved gradually from a policy of tolerating mild use of alcohol, toward a policy of complete abstinence from alcohol. A Committee on Temperance made an enthusiastic report in 1838 of “the steady progress of the Temperance Reformation in different parts of Mississippi and Louisiana; prejudices and opposition are fasting melting away.” In 1839, D. B. Crawford gave a report to the Mississippi Baptist Convention on temperance which stated, “That notwithstanding, a few years since, the greater portion of our beloved and fast growing state, was under the influence of the habitual use of that liquid fire, which in its nature is so well calculated to ruin the fortunes, the lives and the souls of men, and spread devastation and ruin over the whole of our land; yet we rejoice to learn, that the cause of temperance is steadily advancing in the different parts of our State… We do therefore most earnestly and affectionately recommend to the members of our churches… to carry on and advance the great cause of temperance: 1. By abstaining entirely from the habitual use of all intoxicating liquors. 2. By using all the influence they may have, to unite others in this good work of advancing the noble enterprise contemplated by the friends of temperance.” Local churches consistently disciplined members for drunkenness, but they were slower to oppose the sale or use of alcohol. For example, in May 1844, “a query was proposed” at Providence Baptist Church in Forrest County on the issue of distributing alcohol. After discussion, the church took a vote on its opposition to “members of this church retailing or trafficking in Spirituous Liquors.” It is significant that in the handwritten church minutes, the clerk wrote that the motion “unanimously carried in opposition,” but then crossed out the word “unanimously.” In January 1845, Providence Church voted that “the voice of the church be taken to reconsider” the matter of liquor. The motion passed, but then tabled the issue, and did not come back up. In March of that year, a member acknowledged his “excessive use of arden[t] spirits” and his acknowledgement was accepted, and he was “exonerated.”2
. In 1846, the Mississippi Baptist Association’s leadership was opposed to alcohol, but was still attempting to prohibit the use of alcohol at its own meetings. The Association passed a resolution saying, “We respectfully request the brethren and friends who may entertain this body at its future meetings, to refrain from presenting ardent spirits in their accommodations.” By the 1850s, the State Convention was calling not only for abstinence, but for legal action, as well. In 1853, the Convention adopted the report of the “Temperance” Committee that said, “The time has arrived when the only true policy for the advocates of Temperance to pursue, is… to secure the enactment by the Legislature of a law, utterly prohibiting the sale of ardent spirits in any quantities whatsoever.” They endorsed the enactment of the “The Maine Liquor Law” in Mississippi. Two years before, in 1851, Maine had become the first State to pass a prohibition of alcohol. Thus during the antebellum period Mississippi Baptists gradually came to favor abstinence and prohibition of alcohol.3
1 Aaron Menikoff, Politics and Piety: Baptist Social Reform in America, 1770-1860 (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014), 162-163; T.C. Schilling, Abstract History of the Mississippi Baptist Association for One Hundred Years From its Preliminary Organization in 1806 to the Centennial Session in 1906 (New Orleans, 1908), 50; Minutes, Pearl River Baptist Association, 1830, 1831, 1832.
2 Minutes, Mississippi Baptist Convention, 1838, 1839; Minutes, Providence Baptist Church, Forrest County, Mississippi, May 11, 1844, January 11, 1845, March 8, 1845.
3 T. M. Bond, A Republication of the Minutes of the Mississippi Baptist Association (New Orleans: Hinton & Co., 1849), 250; Minutes, Mississippi Baptist Convention, 1853, 26; “The Unintended Consequences of Prohibition: Introduction,” Washington State University, accessed online 17 April 2022 at http://digitalexhibits.wsulibs.wsu.edu/exhibits/show/prohibition-in-the-u-s/introduction.