Temperance movement  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

A temperance movement is a social movement urging reduced or prohibited use of alcoholic beverages. Temperance movements typically criticize excessive alcohol use, promote complete abstinence (teetotalism), or pressure the government to enact anti-alcohol legislation or complete prohibition of alcohol.



Temperance as a mass movement originated in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Before this, although there were diatribes published against drunkenness and excess, total abstinence from alcohol was very rarely advocated or practised. There was also a concentration on hard spirits rather than on total abstinence from alcohol and on moral reform rather than legal measures against alcohol.

The organised Temperance movement started in the American revolution in Connecticut, Virginia and New York State with farmers forming associations to ban whiskey distilling with the movement spreading to eight states, advocating temperance rather than abstinence taking positions on moral issues such as observance of the Sabbath.

The American Temperance Society was formed in 1826, within 12 years claiming more than 8,000 local groups and over 1,500,000 members. At roughly the same time temperance societies were founded in the UK, inspired by a Belfast professor of theology, and Presbyterian Church of Ireland Minister Rev. John Edgar, who poured his stock of whiskey out of his window in 1829, concentrated their fire on spirits rather than wine and beer.

The 1830s saw a particular growth with temperance movements starting in places such as New Zealand,). and Australia. The term Teetotal was coined in Preston, Lancashire in 1833, where the first temperance hotel and periodical was founded. The Catholic temperance movement started in 1838 when the Irish priest Theobald Mathew established the Teetotal Abstinence Society in 1838. Temperance Chartism in Britain saw the campaign against alcohol as a way of proving to the elites that working-class people were responsible enough to be granted the vote.

Growing radicalism and influence

During the Victorian period the temperance movement became more radical, advocating the legal prohibition of all alcohol, rather than calling for moderation or advocating moral suasion. It also was perceived to be tied in with both religious renewal and progressive politics, particularly female suffrage. There was also a focus on the working class with the Band of Hope was founded in Leeds in 1847, which aimed to save working class children from the perils of drink.

In this period there was local success at restricting or banning the sale of alcohol in many parts of the United States (with the Maine law being passed in 1851), New Zealand and the United Kingdom. However in the United States there was a setback for the Temperance movement as both sides relied on alcohol duty to finance the American Civil War and a number of states stopped prohibition, although this was reversed in the post war period in particular with the efforts of the fast expanding Anti-Saloon League focused on establishing dry states and dry counties.

Becoming a Mass Movement

The Temperance movement was a significant mass movement at this time and encouraged a general abstinence from drink. There was a general movement to build alternatives to replace the functions of public bars, so the Independent Order of Rechabites was formed as a friendly society that did not hold meetings in public bars and there was a movement to introduce temperance fountains across the United States so that people could have reliably safe drinking water rather than needing to go into a saloon as well as a variety of temperance halls and coffee palaces in order to replace bars. There were also a number of periodicals devoted to temperance. Temperance theatre, which had started in the 1820s, became an important part of the American cultural landscape at this time.

In 1864 the Salvation Army was founded in London with a heavy emphasis on both abstinence from alcohol and ministering to the working class, which led publicans to fund a Skeleton Army to disrupt their meetings. The Salvation Army quickly spread internationally, keeping its emphasis on abstinence.

Many of the most important prohibitionist groups, such as the avowedly prohibitionist United Kingdom Alliance, the US-based (but international) Woman's Christian Temperance Union, were started in this time. In 1898 the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association was formed as James Cullen, an Irish Catholic, and spread to other English speaking Catholic communities.

There was also a growth in less religious temperance groups linked to left wing movements such as the Scottish Prohibition Party which was founded in 1901 and went on to defeat Winston Churchill in Dundee in the 1922 general election.

Legislative success

The movement gained further traction in the First World War with sharp restrictions on the sale of alcohol in many combatant countries in order to preserve resources for war use. In the UK the Liberal government passed the Defence of the Realm Act when pub hours were licensed, beer was watered down and was subject to a penny a pint extra tax, and in 1916 a State Management Scheme meant that breweries and pubs in certain areas of Britain where armaments were made were nationalised.

At the end of the first world war there was the successful passage of the Eighteenth Amendment in the United States, introducing prohibition and the repeated near success of national prohibition in New Zealand. Australian states and New Zealand introduced restrictive early closing times for bars during and immediately after the first world war. In Canada in the 1920s imports of alcohol were cut off by provincial referendums. Norway introduced partial prohibition in 1917, which became full prohibition through a referendum in 1919 although this was overturned in 1926.


The temperance movement started to wane from this point as prohibition was criticised as unhealthily distorting drinking habits, encouraging criminals and discouraging economic activity. The legislative tide largely moved away from prohibition with the repeal of prohibition in the United States in the 1930s and the gradual relaxation of licencing laws throughout the mid and late twentieth century. In Australia early hotel closing times began were wound back in the 1950s and 1960s.

There was some success during this time in the third world as temperance in some communities (such as Gujarat and Sri Lanka) as being allied to anti-colonialism and in other countries as being tied to religious revival.

Present day

The temperance movement still exists in many parts of the world, although it is generally a less politically powerful force than it was in the early twentieth century. In youth culture temperance is an important part of the Straight Edge scene, which also stresses abstinence from drugs and vegetarianism.

Temperance movement by country

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