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Vice Vs. Virtue, A Puritan Remembrancer

July 2024
3min read


The lithograph on the opposite page will, no doubt, make most of our readers smile; so will the other moral illustrations on the following pages. They make amusing decorations for the den or bar, interesting to study out for their wealth of detail. But how could hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps millions, so many of them our own forebears, have taken such things so literally and seriously? This question, of course, is one measure of the gulf that separates the generations, a gulf that has to do with faith and feeling, a gulf that the historian, with all his documents and quotations, can never fully bridge. We know what happened—that Calvinistic Puritanism, which had lost much of its force in the rationalist era of the American Revolution, underwent a revival in the nineteenth century, and that the Devil never had a rougher ride. We have the sermons, some of them; we can read the accounts of camp meetings, with their barkings, jerkings, weepings, and shoutings. We can see the converts, just like a pack of dogs after an opossum, rushing to “tree the devil,” but it is very hard, under this quasi comedy, to see how they felt inside. There is a glimpse of it here and there, however. In Freedom’s Ferment , Alice Felt Tyler describes an occasion at Andover, Massachusetts, when the principal of Phillips Academy dismissed classes, announcing: “There will now be a prayer meeting; those who wish to lie down in everlasting burning may go, the rest will stay.” Only two departed, and the rest heard a sermon on this text: “And ye shall see them sit down with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven and ye yourselves cast out.” Then one lad went to his room to meditate in his diary about the horror of watching one’s happy former companions in Heaven while one was oneself in Hell. “The punishment and tortures of condemned spirits will be increasing to all eternity,” he wrote. “How tremendous and overwhelming is the thought that the suffering of one soul will be greater than the united suffering of all in the universe for millions of ages!” A brush with Andover in those pre-Ivy League days, a few hours hearing out an angry New England sermon, an exposure to the revivalist who began his performance with the invocation, “Almighty and diabolical God”—and who would not be ready to buy from the lithograph seller? Hell was very real and very hot, and Old Scratch never more artful in his stratagems. No clouds of casuistry about “social” or “anti-social” behavior obscured the issues for plain people. Good was good, and evil, evil, and there was no laughter when Father (bought the lithograph and nailed it on the wall.

It did not at first occur to the Puritan clergy that Drink was a tool in the hands of the Prince of Darkness. They quaffed ardent spirits, especially rum, like everyone else, and many ministers were even paid in this liquid coin. But Methodism and revivalism began to change the public attitude as the nineteenth century began. We smile at zealots now, forgetting that the American male of that era, at farm or factory or on the frontier, could outdrink most modern tipplers. Particularly among the poorer classes and in the slums, drinking could end in disaster. Many a workman actually did drink away his wages, to the despair of a starving wife and family; the temperance crusaders were fighting no shadowy or unreal enemy. Women soon took up the struggle, forming prayer groups and collecting pledges for the Cold Water Army. In fact the long fight against the saloon was a kind of training period for the woman’s suffrage movement. Susan B. Anthony, for example, gave up teaching to battle the bottle and, as she said, “to speed the day when no young man who pollutes his lips with the drunkard’s cup shall presume to seek the favours of our precious daughters.” (She had no children, to be sure, but many of the ladies did.)

The temperance movement—and it was not always temperate in its conduct—seems in retrospect very closely allied with women: Miss Anthony; Elizabeth Cady Stanton; Frances Willard; “Lemonade Lucy” Hayes, the President’s wife who barred spirits from the White House. Not all of the women were as feverishly active as Carry Nation, heaving her neatly wrapped stones through the bottles, mirrors, and reclining nudes of what seems like a thousand saloons, but the lithographers invariably cast the ladies as the victims and saints of the crusade. The rather splendid example here is heavily freighted with symbolism; the artist who drew it in 1870, one Mrs. George D. Hyde, clearly hated to leave an empty space. Even more, she was obviously a feminist who took the line that men are a poor lot who must be threatened, cajoled, and dragged to righteousness at all hours of the day and night.

Like revivalism itself, the battle against the liquor traffic seems to have served some deep need for entertainment in a people who received precious little of that commodity. The theatre, of course, was thought sinful by all save the urban swells, but the temperance speaker was no mean substitute. This itinerant Demosthenes was often a reformed old soak himself, with a piteous tale to tell, and one orator was famous for the little child he planted in the audience. When he reached his peroration: “As for the rum seller, my friends, what name black enough shall we call him?” the soprano voice would shriek, “Devil! Devil!” and the crowd would sob its Amens.

The temperance crusade was set back, for a time, by the Civil War, but afterward it made great strides. Abolitionists turned to a new cause, and in the long run, another great war later, we got Prohibition. In good time, too, we got Repeal—a second chance for the rum seller but not for the lithographer, for nothing seems quite so easily resolved any more in his simple terms of vice and virtue.

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