Temperance Beliefs & Temperance Teachings

Temperance beliefs were fundamental to the temperance movement. They guided its teachings and actions.

Mary Hunt of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) had pushed for state laws requiring anti-alcohol teaching in all schools in the US. She also had her legions of WCTU members monitoring schools to ensure compliance. But most important, this temperance leader wanted to dictate the content of those temperance teachings. But what exactly were these temperance beliefs?

I. Temperance Beliefs

A. Total Abstinence

Ms. Hunt was particularly disturbed that some of the texts being used were “not safe in that they did not preach total abstinence.”1 She described her long search for acceptable texts as an “almost superhuman effort to secure absolute scientific accuracy, not modified in favor of occasional or moderate use of alcohol.”2  But she was highly effective.

temperance beliefs
Mary Hunt

In 1886, she convinced Congress to require the use of a WCTU- approved text in Washington, D.C., and the territories.

Then Hunt wrote to publishers with a checklist for selecting textbooks. These would comply with the temperance instruction laws. Books should stress, she said, that a little drink creates an uncontrollable craving for more. They would show the “appalling effects of drinking habits upon the citizenship of the nation.” And they omit the fact that doctors used alcohol for medicinal purposes.3

Mary Hunt was very specific in her de facto demands. Temperance should not be relegated to an appendix. It should “be the chief and not the subordinate topic” in texts. WCTU members barraged publishers with petitions signed by school board officials and educators. So seven major publishers submitted their textbooks to her for her endorsement. In 1891 she presented the WCTU convention with a list of twenty-five approved books.4 

B. Spontaneous Combustion

Obviously, the scientific ideas promoted by temperance writers were clearly open to question. For example, before the Civil War (1861-1865) it had taught the idea of spontaneous combustion of habitual drunkards. According to a temperance writer, “these cases of the death of drunkards by internal fires, kindled often spontaneously in the fumes of alcohol, that escape through the pores of the skin – have become so numerous and so incontrovertible, that I presume no person of information will now be found to call the reality of their existence into question.5 (Extra commas in original.)

With the headline “Fire! Fire! Blood on Fire!,” the Pennsylvania Temperance Recorder reported about a doctor. He had touched a match to blood from a “common drunkard.” Then he saw it bum for thirty seconds with a blue flame.6 A schoolbook for children told the story of a man who was so full of alcohol that he exploded while attempting to light his pipe.7

In spite of scientific refutation the idea had not died out as late as 1879.8 In that year a temperance writer described what he said he saw during a post mortem of a drunkard. It was done by two doctors “After removing the top of the skull, for the purpose of examining the condition of the brain, they tested it for alcohol, by holding a lighted match near it. And immediately the brain took fire, and burned with a blue flame, like an alcohol lamp.”9 (Extra commas in original.) Presumably the deceased’s blood alcohol content far exceeded 0.08%!

C. Alcohol Exists Only in Decaying Vegetable Matter

Temperance advocates promoted the false idea that alcohol is not found in living organisms. They said it was only in decaying vegetable matter undergoing fermentation. Thus, they described it as resulting from death and decay.

They asked, “Shall we turn away with loathing and disgust from the vulture gorging itself with carrion all quivering with putrescence. And then drink [wine] sparkling … by reason of a like work of decomposition going on within?”10

(Not only is alcohol found in living organisms, but every living human naturally produces alcohol 24/7. Learn more Our Body Naturally Produces Alcohol.)

D. Alcohol is Disgusting

Temperance writers also skillfully used language to manipulate thought and emotion. For example, alcohol is formed from sugar by yeast. The by-product of this process can technically be described as an excrement. The same is true of our breath. It carries the by-product or excrement of carbon dioxide created by our bodies. It’s also excrement.

But we usually think of excrement as feces or urine. Therefore, temperance writers intentionally created disgust and loathing by describing alcohol as “the excretion of a fungus.” Even the word fungus rather than yeast was chosen because it sounds unpleasant. So temperance writers and speakers could assert gleefully that fungi in grape juice “gorge themselves and leave their liquid excrement. That is what alcohol is. Now sing of your ruby wine!”11

Sometimes temperance writers seem to have simply created “facts” out of thin air to make alcohol appear disgusting. One wrote that the famous nutty flavor of madeira was caused by dissolving a bag of roaches in it.12 The much less colorful reality is that the flavor is caused by oxidation of the wine.13

E. Alcohol is Poison

The American Cyclopaedia of 1857 explained that alcohol is poison.

temperance beliefs“The demand for prohibition, according to its advocates, logically rests on the assumption that alcohol is essentially a poison. Precisely as arsenic, opium, and nicotine are poisons. That the difference between wine and brandy, beer and gin, a liquor containing five percent, and one containing fifty percent of alcohol, a glass of ale and a pint of rum, is one of degree merely, not of kind, at least so far as poison is concerned.”

The explanation continued.

“They also argue that alcohol is a product of vegetable decay. Hence, it is necessarily hurtful. That there can be no temperate use of it as a beverage any more than there can be temperate theft, adultery, or murder. That, if much strong drink does great harm, a little weak alcohol drink must do some harm. And that there can be no temperate use of such beverages but their total disuse.”14 

F. Any Drinking is Alcohol Abuse

Temperance materials made no distinction between drinking and alcohol abuse. They were portrayed as one and the same. A typical poster presented the virtue and blessings of the abstainer on one side. And the sin and misery of the drinker (synonymous with the drunk) on the other. An important organ for the dissemination of temperance educational thought was the Temperance Educational Quarterly (TEQ).

The TEQ described how temperance should be taught in schools. Some articles gave scripts for teachers and pupils to use on Frances E. Willard day. Others printed pledges for children to sing in meetings modeled on revivalist principles.

Many told horror stories about drunkards. They offered quotations from writers on the evils of liquor. The magazine featured prize essays by pupils on alcohol, smoking, and other evils. It gave detailed lesson plans. This pedagogy, like the textbooks approved by the WCTU, was one of moral absolutism. There was always a tempting world of vice.

Children learned “Thirty Scientific Facts” like these to recite.

    • Alcohol ruins the character.
    • Alcohol prevents men from obtaining good jobs.
    • Nearly all business houses refuse to employ drinkers because they can not be trusted.
    • They are careless, dull and irresponsible.15

G. Moderation is Dangerous

The approved textbooks were written to frightening children into avoiding all contact with alcohol. How many children suffered anxiety as they watched their parents enjoy a glass of wine with dinner? But temperance supporters strongly opposed moderation.

Kobler16 pointed this out.

“Nowhere in all this gallimaufry of misguidance aimed at children, or in any of the prohibition literature and talk addressed to adults, did there linger the ghost of a suggestion that perhaps one might drink moderately without damage to oneself or to others. “The very word ‘moderation’ inflamed the WCTU and the Prohibition Party. It was “the shoddy life-belt, which promotes safety, but only tempts into danger, and fails in the hour of need . . the fruitful fountain from which the flood of intemperance is fed.  Most men become drunkards by trying to drink moderately and failing.”

A rare few could conceivably drink in moderation at no risk to themselves. Yet they shouldn’t drink because they set a bad example for the weaker majority of people.

temperance beliefsThus, approved textbooks asserted that “To attempt to drink fermented liquors moderately has led to the hopeless ruin of untold thousands.” And also that “It is the nature of alcohol to make drunkards.”17

H. Alcohol Causes Inheritable Disorders

They said “any quantity of alcohol was toxic and when consumed regularly produced inheritable disorders into the third generation.”18 One such textbook asserted as “scientific” this idea.

“[S]ometimes one is sick or suffers very much because of wrong things that his parents or grand-parents did. Over in the poor-house is a man who does not know as much as most children four years old. That’s because he is the child of drinking parents whose poisoned life blood tainted his own. Many men and women are insane because they inherit disordered bodies and minds, caused by the drinking habits of their parents. The descendants of “moderate drinkers” differ in this way as well as those of the drunkard. This is called the law of heredity, one of God’s laws. And just like earthly laws, it helps right living and punishes those who disobey.”19    

I. Alcohol Leads to Degeneracy

Another approved textbook asserted that “One of the most destructive agents man has brought into use is alcohol.” It explained why.

“It has often been observed that children of intemperate parents frequently fail to develop into manhood or womanhood. They may not be deformed, but their growth is arrested, and they remain small in body and infantile in character.  Such are examples of a species of degeneracy, and are evidences of the visiting of the sins of the fathers upon the children. This may extend even into the third and fourth generations.20 

We can only guess what may have passed for science at the American Temperance University. It was in the dry town of Harrisman, TN.23

J. Alcohol Causes an Inheritable Desire for Alcohol

A temperance pamphlet, summing up allegedly accepted findings, stated this. “[T]he offspring of parents both of whom drink are invariably either insane, tuberculous or alcoholic.” It cited cases of “small children with an hereditary yen for alcohol. It was so strong that the mere sight of a bottle shaped like a whiskey flask brought them whining for a nip.”21

Some temperance writers even implied that merely inhaling alcohol vapors might lead to defective offspring. And it would do so through their descendants for at least three generations.22 Others expressed great concern for “racial welfare.”24 Some called for “a hygiene of the life germs, race hygiene, eugenics, and [the] art of breeding.25 Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini would later promote these and related beliefs.26

K. Alcohol Causes Serious Physical Problems

All approved textbooks described alcohol as the cause of numerous physical problems and resulting death.

Very often in chronic, though perhaps moderate drinkers, the arteries, instead of being strong, elastic tubes, like new rubber hoses, become hardened and unyielding, and are liable to give way.

[Among drinkers] in some cases the liver reaches an enormous weight, fifteen, and even twenty to twenty-five, pounds being not uncommon.

Alcohol sometimes causes the coats of the blood vessels to grow thin. They are then liable at any time to cause death by bursting…. Worse than all, when alcohol is constantly used, it may slowly change the muscles of the heart into fat. Such a heart cannot be so strong as if it were all muscle. It is sometimes so soft that a finger could easily be pushed through its walls. You can think what would happen if it is made to work a little harder than usual. It is liable to stretch and stop beating and this would cause sudden death.

There is one form of disease, called alcoholic consumption, which is caused by alcohol. The drinker looks well, till suddenly comes a “dropped stitch,” or a pain in the side. Then follows difficulty of breathing and vomiting of blood, then a rapid passage to the grave.27


The WCTU’s Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction promoted these as scientific medical facts.

    • The majority of beer drinkers die from dropsy. [Tissue swelling, now called edema.]
    • When it [alcohol] passes down the throat it bums off the skin leaving it bare and burning.
    • It causes the heart to beat many unnecessary times and after the first dose the heart is in  danger of giving out so that it needs something to keep it up and, therefore, the person to  whom the heart belongs has to take drink after drink to keep his heart going.
    • It [alcohol] turns the blood to water.
    • [Referring to invalids], a man who never drinks liquor will get well, where a drinking man would surely die.28
     Still More Physical Problems

A temperance leader explained the effects of alcohol on the body.

Dyspepsia, jaundice, emaciation, corpulence, dropsy, ulcers, rheumatism, gout, tremors, palpitation, hysteria, epilepsy, palsy, lethargy, apoplexy, melancholy, madness, delirium- tremens, and premature old age. These compose but a small part of the catalogue of diseases produced by ardent spirit. Indeed, there is scarcely a morbid affliction to which the human body is liable, that has not, in some way or another, been produced by it. There is not a disease but it has aggravated, nor a predisposition to disease which it has not called into action. 

And although its effects are in some degree modified by age and temperament, by habit and occupation, by climate and season of the year, and even by the intoxicating agent itself. Yet, the general and ultimate consequences are the same.29 

The fate of the habitually intoxicated person’s fate was inevitable. It’s “everywhere the same. Its succession of horrible excesses constituted a form of suicide. All the more terrible because death was preceded by excruciating mental and physical torture. Fortunate was the victim who sank into an untimely grave before he had been bereft of reason, or deprived of his physical powers”30 At least, according to temperance beliefs, this is what happens.

L. Alcohol Causes Psychological Problems

Consistent with temperance beliefs, the textbooks approved by the WCTU also implicated psychological problems as well.

“Many people are made crazy by the use of alcoholic liquors. In some asylums where these people are kept, it has been found that nearly one half of the crazy people were made crazy from this cause. Not all of these were drinkers themselves. It often happens that the children of those who drink have weak minds or become crazy as they grow older.

temperance beliefs“A noted murderer confessed that never, but once, did he feel any remorse. Then he was about to kill a babe, and the little creature looked up into his face and smiled. “But,” he said, ‘I drank a large glass of brandy, and then I didn’t care.'”31

These were all temperance beliefs.

II. Temperance Tactics

People increasingly venerated science as the end of the 19th century approached. Because of this, research on the effects of alcohol flourished. As a result, the temperance societies set out to diffuse the results of medical research through pamphlet and pulpit.

But they were careful to diffuse only that scientific data which was in line with their beliefs. The research which supported God’s ban against drink was good. The research which found for the moderate use of alcohol was faulty, biased, bought, or downright evil.

The drys perfected techniques for misrepresenting scientific experiments. For quoting out of context. For making final dogmas out of interim reports. And for creating literary water bottles out of laboratory test tubes.32 

temperance beliefsAnother tactic was to use misleading demonstrations for their captive students. Suggested classroom demonstrations included putting part of a calfs brain in an empty jar. The teacher would then pour alcohol into the container. As a result, the color of the  brain would  turn from pink to gray. Then the teacher would falsely tell students that a drink of alcohol would do the same to their brains.33

Or the teacher could crack an egg could into a jar of pure alcohol. Then the curdled mess would falsely be described as similar to the effect of alcohol on their stomach’s lining.34

WCTU-approved Textbooks

The WCTU promoted compulsory temperance education. It so to create “trained haters of alcohol to pour a whole Niagara of ballots upon the saloon.”35 To this end it required that textbooks that it approved “teach that alcohol is a dangerous and seductive poison. That fermentation turns beer and wine and cider from a food into poison. That a little liquor creates by its nature the appetite for more. And that degradation and crime result from alcohol.”36

At least one-fourth of each book had to consist of temperance beliefs. Publishers had difficulty selling textbooks that were not approved by the WCTU. “The cornerstone of the educational campaign was the absolute insistence that alcohol in any form and in any amount was a poison to the human system.”37

Clearly, many of the statements in approved texts were, at best, misleading. Indeed, they were designed to frighten young readers.

    • The nature of alcohol is that of a poison.
    • Any substance capable, when absorbed into the blood, of injuring health or destroying life, is a POISON. Remember this – ALCOHOL IS A POISON.
    • A cat or dog can be killed by having it to drink a small quantity of alcohol. A boy once  drank whiskey from a flask he had found, and died within a few hours.
    • Any drink that contains alcohol is not a food to make one strong. But is a poison to hurt, and at last to kill.
    • Alcohol is a colorless liquid poison. Its presence makes what was before a good fruit juice a poisonous liquid.
    • [Alcohol] changes a food to a poison . . . alcohol and all spirituous liquors are poisonous.38

III. Summary of Temperance Beliefs

Temperance beliefs were extreme. The “facts” it promoted were ideological rather than scientific. As a result, activists selectively presented any research findings or opinions with which they agreed. They ignored, distorted, or misrepresented the rest.

Consequently, Mary Hunt’s Scientific Temperance Instruction was unscientific abstinence indoctrination.

But would experts agree with this assessment? Perhaps they would. Discover more at Scientific Temperance Instruction Evaluated.

IV. Resources


Footnotes: Temperance Beliefs

    1. Tyack, D., and James, T. Moral majorities and the school curriculum. Teach Coll Rec, 86, p. 517.
    2. Bader, R. Prohibition in Kansas, p. 99.
    3. Tyack, D. Law & the Shaping of Public Education: 1785-1954, p. 160. Great for temperance beliefs.
    4. Tyack and James, pp. 517- 518.
    5. Krout, J. The Origins of Prohibition, p. 232.
    6. _____, p. 2.
    7. Smith, M. The Boston Speaker, p. 32.
    8. E. M. J. (Presumably E.M. Jellinek). Classics of the alcohol literature. Q J Stud Alco, 2, p. 805.
    9. Asbury, H. The Great Illusion, p. 44.
    10. Furnas, J. The Life and Times of the Late Demon Rum, p. 195.
    11. _____, p. 196.
    12. Krout, p. 164.
    13. Baldy, M. The University Wine Course, p. 396.
    14. Ploetz, A. The Influence of Alcohol upon the Race.
    15. Ripley, G., and Dana, C. The New American Cyclopaedia, p. 48. Good for temperance beliefs.
    16. Tyack and James, p. 518.
    17. Kobler, J. Ardent Spirits.
    18. Billings, J, et al. Physiological Aspects of the Liquor Problem, 1903, pp. 30-31. Excellent coverage of temperance beliefs.
    19. Kobler, p. 140.
    20. Furnas, pp. 193-194.
    21. Sheehan, N. The WCTU and educational strategies on the Canadian prairie. Hist Ed Q, 24, p. 104.
    22. Furnas, p. 194.

    23. Ploetz, p. 29.
    24. Furnas, p. 325.
    25. Gruber, M. Race Welfare. Stehler, B. The Alcohol Question in the Light of Social Ethics. Ploetz, pp. 14-15.
    26. Gruber, p. 9.
    27. Morgan, P. Industrialization, urbanization, and the attack on Italian drinking culture. Contemp Drug Prob, 15, 607-626..
    28. Billings, pp. 32-33.
    29. Kobler, p. 143)
    30. Sewall, T. The Effects of Intemperance, pp. 11-12. Ouoted by Krout, p. 229.
    31. Krout, p. 229.
    32. Billings, pp. 32-33.
    33. Sinclair, A. Prohibition, pp. 38-39.
    34. Kobler, p. 140.
    35. Sinclair, p. 39.
    36. ______, pp. 43-44.
    37. ______, p.44.
    38. Bader, p. 99.
    39. Billings, pp. 30-31.


    • You know much more about temperance beliefs than most people!