LIGUORIAN, Vol. 59: 45-47, July, 1971
THE DRINKING PROBLEM AND THE CHURCHES
by Louise Parnell
With the recent death of William Griffith Wilson, a former Wall Street securities analyst, came the disclosure that he was one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous. Claiming 475,000 members, distributed in 15,000 groups in 89 countries, the A.A. had achieved a good record of success.
The joint efforts of Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith, an Akron, Ohio, surgeon and alcoholic and William Griffith Wilson, established, in 1935, a movement that has gained global significance.
With the achievement of the two men in full focus, one might ask: What has been the contribution of the various religions and churches toward solving the very real drinking problem?
Judaism has been called an “affirmative” religion. It believes that God, in his creation of the world, made it a good world. Wine, as part of creation, is good in itself. But the abuse of drunkenness was sternly denounced in Judaism. One reads in Proverbs 20:1:
“Wine is a luxurious thing, and drunkenness riotous: whosoever is delighted therewith shall not be wise.”
The questions are asked in Proverbs 23:29:
“Who hath woe? Who falls into pits?”
The reply is given:
“Surely, they that pass their time in wine, and study to drink off their cups. Look not upon the wine when it is yellow, when the color thereof shineth in the glass. It goeth in pleasantly. But in the end, it will bite like a snake, and will spread abroad poison like a basilisk.”
In Judaism, there were two groups who abstained completely. These were the Nazarites and the Rechabites.
Early Christianity, with its roots in Judaism, espoused the Jewish attitude toward alcohol. St. Augustine relates that when the heathens hesitated to become Christians because they feared they would be forced to renounce drinking on their pagan feast days, they were assured they would be permitted to drink on the days set aside to commemorate the martyrs.
St. Augustine himself, although he referred to wine as “a gift of God,” did his utmost to discontinue excessive drinking in his diocese in Northern Africa.
The Middle Ages saw the continuation of the same views toward alcohol. Monasticism came into prominence as a protest against the corruption of secular and even ecclesiastical society. The monks adhered to a rigorous schedule, with mortification of the flesh by fasting and abstinence. Wine, however, was permitted in their diet.
It is recalled that the Benedictines and the Carthusians even became famous for the wines produced from their vineyards, and they were permitted at table on festive occasions. Nevertheless, preachers continued to thunder against the abuse of alcohol. Wilful drunkenness was always regarded as a serious sin.
The Protestant Reformation at first brought about no change in attitude toward alcohol. Martin Luther himself did not hesitate to drink, but never to the point he could be called a drunkard. It is recorded that when he was burdened with work, he would fast for days without food and drink.
In the 16th century, the code of the Anabaptist sect was more demanding than Lutheranism, since it excluded from membership all who were unworthy in their moral habits. Moderation in food and drink was a requisite. Excesses of no kind were permitted.
The Methodist strict attitude toward alcohol stems from this code, as does that of the Quakers. In its extreme form, this attitude forbids the drinking of alcohol in any shape or form. Calvinism, on the other hand, demanded strict discipline, although wine was permitted in moderation.
Crusade Gets Under Way
It was the Methodists and the Quakers who took initial steps toward a formal temperance movement with the Calvinists joining in later. They were motivated by the sociological aspects of excessive drinking rather than by pious aspirations. With drink responsible for the ruin of families, it was felt something drastic had to be done.
Interestingly, religious forces combined with the medical in the temperance movement. It was Benjamin Rush, a Quaker doctor living in Philadelphia, who inaugurated the American movement.
Pointing to the horrible things occasioned by excessive drinking, the reformers felt they had to strike at the root. They banned hard liquor altogether. Beer and ale were at first permitted, but when people refused to take them in moderation, these also were forbidden.
In New England, the Congregationalists, in 1810, joined the movement, and in 1827, the Presbyterians joined the Temperance Crusade, advocating total abstinence. The Baptists were temperance advocates from the beginning. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was a strong religious force in this struggle.
Although the larger denominations, Catholic, Lutheran and Episcopalian, did not condemn alcohol in itself, each did not hesitate to encourage a policy of total abstinence. Pope Leo XIII praised the total abstainers in a special message. Thousands of Catholics rallied to the cause of temperance and their impact upon the movement was notable.
Apostle of Abstinence
In 1838, Father Theobald Mathew, in Ireland, began his memorable work against alcohol. According to his biographers, “a respectable Protestant,” a member of the Society of Friends, inspired him in this labor of love.
In little more than a year, his endeavors gained momentum. So great did his fame become, that his speeches on the evils of drink drew huge crowds all over Ireland. Receving over 200,000 pledges of abstinence from drink, his influence was colossal.
“He said to them that when casting off the yoke of intemperance, they should also abandon every other vice, such as rioting, faction, fighting, private combinations, illegal taking of firearms, serving threatening notices, and so on. He exhorted them to forget religious animosities, to live in peace with all, to observe the laws of God and man, and to respect the powers that be, not from fear but for conscience’s sake. He spoke with great ease and fluency, and his addresses were remarkable for their variety and appropriateness.”
Father Mathew visited the United States in 1849, where his fame had preceded him. People flocked to hear him, happy to be guided by his principles. The groups he established here became the foundation for the Roman Catholic Total Abstinence Union of some years later.
His fight against drinking spanned a period of 10 years.
It is believed Father Mathew was instrumental in shaping the thinking of Bishop John Ireland. It was to Bishop Ireland that Pope Leo XIII, in 1887, wrote in praise of temperance.
James Cardinal Gibbons, a strong believer in the crusade, also was influenced by the work of Father Mathew.
With the years, has the problem of drinking lessened?
It remains one of major global proportion. Though the various churches have done their utmost to discourage the use of alcohol, its excessive use remains the scourge of mankind, surpassed only by modern man’s use of narcotics.
True, one can find no set rule for temperance in the Bible. Only the guiding lines are there. However, it is the individual with the will to abstain who will be influenced by these, even as it is the individual with the will to abstain who will make his membership in the A.A. a fruitful and rewarding experience.