AS I FLIPPED the pages of Timothy L. Smith’s classic, Revivalism and Social Reform: American Protestantism on the Eve of the Civil War, a question came to mind: Why did 19th-century evangelicals bundle social concerns, such as slavery and suffrage, with issues that seemed more prudish, such as temperance?
According to historian Ken Burns, by the year 1830 American men consumed seven gallons of alcohol per year, three times more than they consume today. In an era when white women had few legal rights, the scourge of alcohol-related domestic violence gave rise to an evangelical-led grassroots movement that called for temperance and prohibition. It wasn’t a “prudish” venture at all, but rather a progressive reform movement aimed at protecting women from violence and abuse.
The same evangelical women and male allies who pushed for temperance also stepped forward on the front lines of the fights for abolition and women’s suffrage. They had witnessed the fruit of William Wilberforce and the Clapham Group’s fight to end the transatlantic slave trade through England’s 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. That monumental victory led the U.S. Congress to pass a similar act the same year. This should have led to abolition, but instead led to the explosion of the U.S. chattel slave economy, a result of the rise of the cotton gin, the establishment of the second Middle Passage from the upper South to the Deep South, and the entrenchment of the barbaric practice of “breeding” free labor. Though the government had outlawed the importation of slaves from Africa, it did not abolish its slave-based economy, but rather expanded it.