Clarence True Wilson was one of the most powerful advocates of Prohibition in the U.S. He ranked along with Wayne Wheeler and Bishop James Cannon, Jr., as a leading proponent. Yet he is less well-known than his more famous colleagues.
Wilson was born in Milton, Delaware on April 24, 1872. His father was the Rev. Dr. John A.B. Wilson, a Methodist minister. His mother was Mary Jefferson Wilson. Her family was believed to be related to Thomas Jefferson.
Young Clarence was the first child of the family. He was later joined by four brothers and one sister. His middle name, True, was from Charles K. True. True was a New England philosopher whose work Clarence’s father admired.
Clarence True Wilson followed his father’s vocation from an early age. At 15, he gave his first sermon. At 18 he was ordained a deacon. And at 19, he received his first pastorate.
Health problems led him to move to California at age 23. Ten years later he moved to Oregon. There, he served as minister of a church in Portland.
From 1906 to 1908, Wilson was president of the Oregon State Anti-Saloon League. He led the successful effort to pass a state local option law. Within two years, four-fifths of the state went dry.
In 1910, Wilson became general secretary of the Board of Temperance, Prohibition, and Public Morals. He continued in that role until retirement in 1936. The Board was the lobbying arm of the Methodist Episcopal Church. It was located in Washington, DC, close to legislators.
In 1923, the Board built a large building across the street from the capitol building. Wilson engaged in many debates with his friend, anti-Prohibitionist lawyer Clarence Darrow. But Darrow had unkind words for the Methodist Building. He sarcastically said it enabled busybodies to sniff the breath of congressmen in route to the U.S. Capitol. It housed, he said, the “most brutal, bigoted, ignorant bunch since the Spanish Inquisition.”
Yet it was Wilson who gave him some of his ammunition. Before Prohibition was approved, Wilson “sounded the alarm that German Jews had taken control of the liquor traffic.” After the Noble Experiment went into effect, he argued that bootleggers should be killed. He insisted that “The only good bootlegger is a dead bootlegger.”
Wilson considered Prohibition to be the “moral miracle of the twentieth century.” Any doubt of its success was “unpatriotic.” Opposition to it was a “war on prosperity.” Even the mildest opponent was a tool of the liquor interests. He often accused newspapers of being in the pay of the “wet propagandists.”
The religious and political activist suggested something shocking. It was that the government should poison alcoholic beverages. His logic was that only those who broke the law by drinking would be killed from the poison. There appeared to be no Christian love, forgiveness, or compassion in this church leader.
Prohibition a Religious Matter
Achieving Prohibition was seen as a religious matter. Therefore, many prohibitionists saw no harm in lobbying, manipulating, and even using illegal means to reach that goal. Wilson was an adherent of the “end justifies the means” theory. There was no wall separating church and state. This concerned many citizens.
By his words and actions, Wilson was ant-Semitic, anti-Catholic, and anti-immigrant. Yet Wilson was not alone in his hatred of Jews, Catholics, and immigrants. This was true of many Prohibition leaders. They included William H. Anderson, Purley Baker, Daisy Douglass Barr, Hiram Wesley Evans, Richmond Pearson Hobson, and Lillian Sedwick, Bizarre Beliefs
Wilson often expressed bizarre ideas. He accused the liquor industry of “importing” European immigrants to the United States. It was for the sole purpose of engaging in bootlegging. Actually, the U.S. had more than enough home-grown bootleggers.
Wilson also promoted the theory that Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, did not die in a burning barn in 1865. He insisted that Booth escaped and lived as a fugitive until 1903. Over a 50-year period he spent $12,000 pursuing this theory. He even wrote a book trying to prove it. The book was apparently printed by a vanity publisher.
As Repeal approached, Wilson endorsed Socialist Party candidate Norman Thomas. Wilson was bitter following Repeal. He blamed it on a “blind populace stampeded by the wet press and the crooked politicians.” He then had an emotional collapse. After retiring in 1936, he died three years later at age 66.
One of Wilson’s obituaries noted that preparations were being made for an enormous funeral. Many dignitaries and 2,000 attendees were expected. He is buried in Portland’s Rose City Cemetery.
Select Books by Clarence True Wilson.
“The Board” refers to the Methodist Board of Temperance, Prohibition, and Public Morals.
A Protest. Portand, OR: 1912.
Dry or Die. Topeka, KS: Temp Soc, 1913.
Cyclopedia of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals. (with others). NY: Meth Book, 1917.
Dry or Die. Topeka, KS: Temp Soc,1913.
John Wilkes Booth, Thirty-Eight Years a Fugitive. US: 1922?
Matthew Simpson: Patriot, Preacher, Prophet. NY: Meth Book,1929.
Should the 18th Amendment be Repealed? (with Clarence Darrow). Girard, KS: Haldeman, 1931.
That Flame of Living Fire. NY: Smith 1930.
The Allied Reforms (with others).Wash, DC: The Board, 1920?
The Bone-Dry Battle and the Trench Beyond. Wash, DC: The Board, 1918.
The Case for Prohibition. (with E.D. Picket). NY: Funk & Wagnalls, 1923.
The Things That Are to Be. Cleona, PA: Holzapfel, 1899.
The United States in Prophecy. Louisville, KY: Pentecost Pub.,192-?
To Whom It May Concern. Wash, D.C., The Board, 1923.
What Has Prohibition Done? Westerville, OH: Am Issue,1927.
Why Prohibition has Come to Stay. Wash, D.C: The Board, c 1925.
Books about Clarence True Wilson.
McNeil, R. Clarence Darrow’s Unlikely Friend: Clarence True Wilson. Portland, OR: Spirit, 2007.
McNeil, R. Valiant for Truth: Clarence True Wilson and Prohibition. Portland, OR: Oreg Concern about Addict Prob, 1992.
Other Resources on Clarence True Wilson.
Evans, C. Of Mummies and Methodism. Reverend Clarence True Wilson and the Legend of John Wilkes Booth. J South Relig, 2002 , 5.
Terrell, C. Wilson, Dry Crusader, Has a Queer Hobby. San Antonio Express, May 18, 1930, p. 61.