The Points Interview — H. Paul Thompson, Jr.

Editor’s Note:  H. Paul Thompson’s book, A Most Stirring and Significant Episode: Religion and the Rise and Fall of Prohibition in Black Atlanta, 1865-1887 (Northern Illinois University Press, 2012),  is due out this month.  Thompson positions his study as part of a recent reawakening of scholarly interest in the importance of religion as a freestanding source of 19th c. temperance and prohibition ideas and initiatives.  “This neo-religious school,” Thompson suggests, “includes, among others, James Rohrer, Robert Abzug, Douglas Carlson, and Michael P. Young.  They argue that temperance reformers’ biblical and religious discourse, worldview, and organizations must be understood on their own terms, and not as a cover for sublimated class, status, or political anxieties, or as ruses for cynical attempts at cultural dominance.”  Points warmly welcomes Paul to our forum! 

1. Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

I’m not exactly sure what bartenders understand because I am one of the few (maybe the only?) historians of temperance who actually does not drink!  That said, my work places a lot of emphasis on the religious and ideological basis for the nineteenth-century temperance movement.  Ironically, much of that foundation had changed in key ways by the time national prohibition commenced.  Here’s my best effort.   In a nutshell, my bartender should be thankful for all of the central, eastern, and southern European immigrants who flooded this nation at the turn of the twentieth-century — and their descendants — because they permanently transformed the reigning paradigms of U.S. culture.  He owes every patron whose name ends with a “ski” a great big “Thank You!” for helping to overturn America’s nineteenth-century evangelical Protestant-dominated worldview and for facilitating a decline in the influence of evangelical organizations and their leaders. America’s move away from historic republican ideology and discourse furthered this departure from past ideas too.  (But I wouldn’t bring this up unless I knew the bartender were working his way through a graduate history program.)  The split between conservative and liberal Protestantism in the early twentieth century, caused by the rise of modernism, also went a long way toward undermining the institutional, theological, and ideological forces that had undergirded the anti-alcohol movement for a century.  Of course I suppose he could also thank Al Capone, FDR, and the groups that fought to overturn the 18th Amendment as well.

2. What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

There are several reasons drug and alcohol historians will find my work interesting. My interest and training in the history of American theology, as well as in African American history, makes my work interdisciplinary unlike virtually any other book on this subject.  Probably the most original element of my book is the attention given to the role of theology and worldview in the rise of temperance discourse and the temperance movement.  I don’t believe any other historian has dissected the evangelical revival theology implicit in the early stages of the movement.  In addition, my speculations about the ways this theology intersected with African Americans’ African-informed worldview, thus helping spread temperance arguments and discourse, will likely interest many drug and alcohol historians.  I also argued that some of the most effective “temperance” organizations of the nineteenth century were not seen as temperance organizations, per se, but instead as what I termed evangelical reform nexus organizations — such as the American Tract Society, American Baptist Home Mission Society, and the American Missionary Association.  My study of these groups shows exactly how their efforts at indoctrinating a freed people were simply the last phase in their long history of temperance work with other populations.  I also devote more time to the relatively obscure National Temperance Society and Publication House than anyone else has to date, except maybe John Rumbarger, although I offer a take very different from his on this group. 

3. Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

I think I am most intrigued with the intersections I discovered between evangelical revival theology and the African American worldview.  I’m also intrigued by how this intersection facilitated the spread of temperance arguments and discourse across nineteenth-century boundaries of time, race, and region — when in other ways these boundaries seemed largely insurmountable or impenetrable. 

4. Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

All politics is local, right?  I would like to see other historians drill down into the history of the rash of 1880s prohibition votes in some of the other southern communities that held such votes, both urban and rural.  Janette Thomas Greenwood (Charlotte), and Gregg Cantrell and James Ivy (Texas) have come the closest to what I’m looking for, but their works still lack the history of how blacks in the communities they studied came to embrace temperance in the period between emancipation and the 1880s plebiscites.  It would be particularly interesting to study the evolution of temperance sentiment in black communities lacking a strong presence of northern evangelical reform nexus organizations.  Could meaningful black temperance sentiment exist in the absence of such organizations?  My work suggests the answer is no, but that conclusion needs to be tested in other communities.  My work also presumes that the expressions and efforts of southern whites regarding prohibition held relatively little sway with the freed people and 1880s black voters in comparison with the impact of the long term efforts of northerners.  This also needs to be tested elsewhere.  On the flip side, I wonder if any black community with strong northern evangelical influence ever opposed prohibition in the local option elections of the 1880s? I also wonder how postbellum temperance sentiment fared in black communities with a history of independent antebellum institutions, such as Charleston, Savannah, or Richmond?  How did those institutions interact with the cresting of prohibition sentiment in the 1880s?  There are clearly plenty of good questions left to be researched. 

5. BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?

Well, since I can’t have Ossie Davis; I enjoyed Mike Rowe’s recent “How Booze Built America.”  Why not have Rowe for the narration of my first three chapters and James Earl Jones for the last four?  Are there plans for an audio version?

3 thoughts on “The Points Interview — H. Paul Thompson, Jr.”

  1. Am looking forward to my friend Paul’s book. It both explores neglected sources and revives a neglected interpretative framework. He forces American historians (and historians of all English-speaking and Scandinavian countries) to rethink their account of temperance. Although I have done a little work re African Americans (see my forthcoming article in Ethnic and Racial Studies), I am mostly a British and comparative historian, I doubt that there is a universal explanation for temperance and other anti-alcohol movements in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. If one includes top down campaigns, attacks on alcohol include Mexican revolutionaries and Tsarist and Communist governments in Russia. A Protestant interpretation of temperance must deal with the fact that the most successful (briefly) temperance campaigns in the nineteenth century were led by priests in Ireland and Quebec and that at the beginning of the twentieth century the largest per capita teetotal society was in Ireland, the Pioneers of the Sacred Heart. A few years ago I wrote an article on Gandhi and prohibition. His campaign integrated religious and nationalist themes. Historians of drink and sobriety should not forget Muslims and high caste Hindus. Anti-alcohol attitudes can be religious without being evangelical. Back to Paul: I like his attention toward religious organizations that were not simply and exclusively temperance societies. This reminds me to point out what may be obvious. We should look at efforts to promote so-called moderate drinking. Although definitions of moderate drinking and motives for it vary by time and place, I think that an ethical strand is part of the fabric of explanation.

  2. Thank you for your comments David. First of all, let me clarify, my book is not due out TILL DECEMBER, not this month. What my book probably does not attempt to answer is the definition of a “successful temperance campaign.” Is it widespread adoption of teetotalism? Or is it acceptance of legal prohibition? I suppose that technically a successful temperance movement, per se, would be defined as widespread acceptance of teetotalism. But I think late 19th century reformers would have defined success as individuals adopting teetotalism AND voting for prohibiton when given the chance. I’m not sure if that is your definition though, as I’m not familiar with movements outside the U.S. It would seem to me that temperance or prohibition could have been persuasive to different populations in different geo-political and cultural contexts for qualitatively different reasons. As all will see when my book comes out, I am not trying to make a universal argument for the movement’s rise and success. I wonder if such could really be persuasively made.

  3. I meant no disrespect for Paul’s book. Certainly evangelical Protestantism is the key to understanding the American temperance movement in the late 1800s. This is my argument in a little book that I did for my hometown (Oxford, Ohio) as a case study of the Women’s Temperance Crusade. In my post I awkwardly babbled about some things on my mind not closely related to Paul’s book and interview. No doubt I expressed myself clumsily in making the argument that the further you get away from late nineteenth-century USA, geographically or chronologically, the more complicated explanation becomes for anti-alcohol sentiment. I also raised, albeit vaguely, the question what did anti-alcohol sentiment mean. In addition to personal teetotalism and state prohibition, there were other options including laws that restricted personal consumption (e.g., Sweden) and changes in how drinkers defined and restricted their personal drinking. My research re England in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century has influenced me. One detail to share: the head of the major prohibitionist society lacked enthusiasm for Sunday closing. If he had a choice, he said he would opt for Saturday closing as more drink was sold that day. Finally, my apology to my friend Paul Thompson for using his interview to talk about other things.

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