The Nature and Occasions of Intemperance Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“Intemperance is the sin of our land, and, with our boundless prosperity, is coming in upon us like a flood.”

Summary Overview

In the opening decades of the nineteenth century in the United States, the Second Great Awakening was a Protestant revival movement that saw an increase in agitation for conservative Christian moral and social reforms, one of which was the ban of alcoholic beverages. Believing alcohol to be the root of many social and moral problems, these early reformers would give rise to the prohibition movement later in the century and, ultimately, to the passing of the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1919, which made the production, sale, and consumption of alcohol illegal.

A prominent leader in the Second Great Awakening, Congregationalist minister Lyman Beecher was active in efforts to ban alcohol in the early nineteenth century. Drawing from his experience as a clergyman and a moral reformer, Beecher used his sermons to extol the virtues of temperance to those who came to hear him speak. For Beecher, the key to a happy, healthy, fulfilling life was religion, not alcohol.

Defining Moment

The tumultuous opening decades of the nineteenth century in America gave rise to the Second Great Awakening, a Protestant religious movement that emphasized salvation for all. Led in large part by Methodist and Baptist churches, the movement was known for its elaborate and well-attended religious revivals at which well-known preachers would give stirring sermons aimed at the conversion of souls. One of the target areas for the movement was the so-called burned-over district of present-day upstate New York. In the early years of the nineteenth century, this area was considered to be frontier land in need of religious renewal, and it was so popular a destination for revivals and camp meetings that opportunities for new religious converts were ultimately considered to have “burned” out.

The Second Great Awakening was also a period in which ardent Christians in America took up social causes such as abolition, women’s rights, and temperance. In a period of moral reform, it became abundantly clear to reformers that society’s ills were in large part due to the prevalence of alcohol consumption. Men in particular were the focus of this movement. Once part of a domestic economy in which men and women worked together in the home, men increasingly had to leave their families during the day for work as American industries grew. Reformers targeted these men, who they believed had turned away from the morality of the home and toward the corruption of secular, industrialized society. Those who advocated for temperance viewed alcohol, usually indulged in outside of the home, as a further division between men and their families.

The Reverend Lyman Beecher, a strong advocate for moral improvement, was among the temperance reformers. For Beecher, alcohol not only took men away from their families but also distracted them from God. Beecher believed that men mistook the sensations that they experienced under the influence of alcohol for those granted naturally by God; one of his primary concerns was that alcohol would push individuals farther away from salvation in the life to come.

Author Biography

Lyman Beecher was born on October 12, 1775, in New Haven, Connecticut. After his mother’s death when Beecher was just days old, his father, blacksmith David Beecher, sent him to be raised by his mother’s sister and her family in nearby Guilford, Connecticut. Beecher graduated from Yale University in 1797 and subsequently worked as a pastor in Long Island, New York; Litchfield, Connecticut; and Boston, Massachusetts, before taking a position as the president of Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1832. Beecher married Roxana Foote in 1799. After her death, he married Harriet Porter in 1817. Between them, Foote and Porter bore Beecher thirteen children, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, Catharine Beecher, and well-known Congregationalist minister Henry Ward Beecher. Lyman Beecher’s career-long desire for social reform undoubtedly had an impact on his equally famous and influential children. After his second wife’s death in 1835, Beecher married Lydia Beals Johnson, but he had no more children.

In the early nineteenth century, Beecher, newly graduated from college, applied his religious education to secular issues such as intemperance and slavery, which he considered to be immoral and corrupting forces in American society. As a revivalist during the Second Great Awakening, Beecher used his sermons and public role to support his causes while also speaking out against the Catholic and Unitarian churches, which he opposed. For Beecher and his religiously minded contemporaries, religious reform was the best way to remedy the moral turmoil in society. Although Beecher advocated an end to slavery, he believed that the best means to that end was not sudden, radical nationwide abolition but a gradual change, so that the nation would not experience too dramatic of a cultural shift. Beecher returned to the East Coast in the 1850s. He died in Brooklyn on January 10, 1863.

Document Analysis

Lyman Beecher’s “The Nature and Occasions of Intemperance” is the introductory sermon in a series of six sermons in which Beecher outlines the sins and individual and social repercussions of intemperance. Although Beecher was concerned about alcohol consumption in America from the perspective of a social activist, his claims about intemperance are largely rooted in morality and religion. His approach, therefore, is one that condemns alcohol for its negative impact on society while considering the long-term effects of intemperance on one’s soul. In the early nineteenth century in America, the divisions between church and state had been drawn with the disestablishment of state churches, but in reality, the nation was still very much fixed in Protestant Christian beliefs and practices. For Beecher to consider temperance from the perspective of an activist and clergyman would therefore have been not just socially permissible but widely accepted.

As the introductory statement for Beecher’s longer series of grievances about intemperance and its increasingly concerning effects on American society and life, this initial sermon in many ways merely sets the stage for the author’s much broader arguments about the signs and evils of intemperance and his proposed remedies for them. Beecher’s forceful language and vivid imagery would have been particularly interesting to audiences listening to his sermons before they were published. The image that Beecher presents of soldiers marching blindly to a certain death in battle is a good example of this. Although not all those in his audience would have been on the brink of alcoholism, many Americans were familiar with war imagery, as it had been just decades since the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. According to Beecher’s analogy, those individuals who chose to drink were likewise heedlessly entering into what would ultimately be a losing battle leading to death, despite the sad examples of those who had met a similar demise before them.

When Beecher composed this sermon and presented it in the 1820s, the idea of temperance was not a new one. From the time of the Revolution through the Civil War, social and religious reformers responded to crises in the nation by attempting to eliminate what they saw as the sins for which the country was being punished, particularly slavery and intemperance. These two “evils” were especially emphasized, as they were both considered to be the source of many other social and domestic problems. In the case of slavery, tensions existed between Christians who were in support of slavery and those who were against it. This raised questions about whether or not God intended for slavery to be part of American life and if Christian morality could possibly be used to support proslavery arguments. In the case of intemperance, reformers like Beecher connected excessive alcohol consumption to poor health, the breakdown of family units, violence, reduced productivity, and, ultimately, the risk of not being able to attain salvation upon one’s death. For these reformers, religion and social tensions were inextricably linked, and all of one’s actions in life translated to one’s state after death.

In his sermons on intemperance, Beecher is expressly dumbfounded by the public, and therefore obvious, trouble that intemperance causes. For Beecher, the problem is not just the impact of alcohol on the individual but the social influence that intemperance has on those who are in contact with the intemperate. It is most concerning to him that the destructive actions of “sottish” drinkers do not stop others from going down the same path to self- and social degradation. Beecher is concerned that despite the many social ills caused by intemperance, including selfishness, wastefulness, poverty, and illness, the consumption of alcohol continued to grow in America as the nineteenth century progressed.

For Beecher to note health issues surrounding the temperance cause is to put his observations into dialogue with the many wellness movements of the era. It was during these same decades that Sylvester Graham introduced the graham cracker, a food made with whole grains instead of bolted flour (a type of whole-wheat flour from which the majority of bran has been removed), along with a strict diet that eliminated meat and alcohol in order to purify one’s body and mind. Graham’s efforts would lead to continued dietary movements later in the century by Seventh-Day Adventists Ellen G. White and John Harvey Kellogg, both of whom advocated temperate, vegetarian diets for physical and spiritual well-being at their Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan. Beecher’s observations about intemperance in relation to the overall condition of the body are therefore very much in tune with the contemporary wellness movements of his day.

Although Beecher was concerned for the condition of the body due to intemperance, his fears were not merely about the impact of alcohol on one’s health. For Beecher, and other religious reformers like him, the body was a creation of God, to be “sustained by food and sleep,” not by alcohol or other artificial means. Beecher also warns against intemperance as a means for alleviating of pain or generating happiness. As a clergyman heavily steeped in Christian doctrine and practice, Beecher argues that the only true paths to peace and joy are those that lead to and are created by God, not the artificial ones shaped by drunkenness. According to Beecher, drink is not only an unnatural way to evoke emotions but also a sinful one. For a religious revivalist like Beecher, salvation was the ultimate goal of conversion experience, and a happy position in the life to come. Therefore, Beecher suggests that it is not just one’s temporal comfort that is at stake when one is intemperate but the condition of one’s very soul.

As Beecher reiterates throughout his sermons on the subject, the term intemperance in the nineteenth century came to encompass much more than simply excess in drink. Intemperance, for Beecher, extended beyond drinking too much alcohol to include excessive poor judgment, increased poverty due to men spending their earnings on alcohol rather than their responsibilities at home, and more and more instances of poor physical and mental health. In talking about intemperance in this way Beecher reiterates the negative effects of alcohol consumption on many aspects of American life.

The author, and later activists like those from the American Society for the Promotion of Temperance (1826) and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (1873), used this emphasis on the totality of social reform achieved through temperance as their platform into the early years of the twentieth century. It is important to note here that the initial reforms for alcohol consumption were at first aimed at abstinence, not the total exclusion of alcohol. However, as time went on, reformers increasingly argued for the complete elimination of alcohol consumption as a model for social reform.

According to these advocates for temperance, one’s awareness of alcohol consumption could be heightened simply by agreeing to abstain from using alcohol for anything other than medicinal purposes. “Ardent spirits” were dangerous because one did not start out drinking with the intention of becoming a regular drunkard. As an example, Beecher points to an “Indian” whom he notes as being occasionally intoxicated to the point of oblivion. While he certainly did not consider this to be acceptable, Beecher suggests that it would be far worse for one to consume alcohol in smaller amounts but constantly and daily, with equally destructive, though perhaps not as immediately noticeable, effects. This alludes not only to historical criticisms of colonists for introducing alcohol to American Indians but also to the implication that alcohol is in some ways a rather sneaky vice. Beecher suggests that it is only over time that one truly begins to notice the effects of regular alcohol consumption on one’s physical body and life, and by the time that awareness of the problem of intemperance sets in, it is too late for one to do much about it.

In summary, Lyman Beecher as clergyman, revivalist, and social activist argues in “The Nature and Occasions of Intemperance” that alcohol is dangerous because it mimics the natural state of man granted to him by God, and it is therefore not healthy either for one’s physical body or for one’s prospects of salvation. During the profoundly religious period of the Second Great Awakening, Beecher offered religion as the alternative to alcohol consumption for endowing one’s life with cheerfulness and providing comfort during difficult times. Beecher argues that those who are intemperate are neither useful nor productive—truly a problem in an increasingly industrialized and urbanized society. In order for a more productive and moral society to emerge, in which the family would come first, he believed, alcohol would ultimately need to be eliminated, as it was the source of many social ills. In order to appeal to his audience of what would presumably have been fellow believers Beecher anchors his argument in strong support of the use of one’s faith, not alcohol, to get through life in order that one’s soul might be saved upon death. These are all themes that continued to be played out by temperance reformers through the later decades of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, until the successful passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1919, which forbade the legal production, sale, and consumption of alcohol in the United States until its repeal in 1933.

Essential Themes

The temperance movement extended from the United States into Europe as the decades of the nineteenth century progressed. Lyman Beecher’s religious view of temperance was not unique. Many others, from Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Herbert Hoover, found intemperance to be one of the central social and moral problems in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America. This was a period in American history marked by great social and religious change; from the revivals of the Second Great Awakening to the rise of sects and new religions midcentury to the Gilded Age and subsequent Progressive Era and Social Gospel movement, Americans were looking for outlets for their awe and frustration in a country increasingly influenced by immigration, industrialization, urbanization, capitalism, advances in transportation, slavery, and the devastating effects of the Civil War and World War I.

Temperance, despite its widespread influence, was by no means embraced by all Americans. In particular, those who made and sold alcohol were not pleased by the limitations suggested by temperance reformers. While the passing of the Eighteenth Amendment in the early twentieth century curbed the open production and consumption of alcohol, it was illegally served to patrons in speakeasies, secret rooms in buildings all over the country. Such establishments were often associated with those involved in organized crime, which further supported Beecher’s theories that the consumption of alcohol was connected to many negative activities in American life.

  • Beecher, Lyman. Six Sermons on the Nature, Occasions, Signs, Evils, and Remedy of Intemperance. New York: Amer. Tract Soc., 1827. Print.
  • Beecher, Lyman, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. The American Woman’s Home; or, Principles of Domestic Science: Being a Guide to the Formation and Maintenance of Economical, Healthful, Beautiful, and Christian Homes. Boston: Brown, 1869. Print.
  • Clark, Norman H. Deliver Us from Evil: An Interpretation of American Prohibition. New York: Norton, 1976. Print.
  • Dorsey, Bruce. Reforming Men and Women: Gender in the Antebellum City. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2002. Print.
  • Henry, Stuart. Unvanquished Puritan: A Portrait of Lyman Beecher. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973. Print.
  • Williams, Susan. Food in the United States, 1820s–1890. Westport: Greenwood, 2006. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Bordin, Ruth. Frances Willard: A Biography. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1986. Print.
  • Hamm, Richard F. Shaping the Eighteenth Amendment: Temperance Reform, Legal Culture, and the Polity, 1880–1920. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1995. Print.
  • Mattingly, Carol. Well-Tempered Women: Nineteenth-Century Temperance Rhetoric. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2000. Print.
  • Wacker, Grant. Religion in Nineteenth Century America. New York: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.
  • Willard, Frances E. Women and Temperance; or, The Work and Workers of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Hartford: Park, 1883. Print.

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