The smoke had barely cleared from the horrible Aurora, Colorado theater shootings when the Capitol Hill-based United Methodist lobby office issued its perfunctory call for gun control.
Citing United Methodism’s official support for a “ban on all handguns,” the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society also took its own metaphorical shots at a favorite nemesis. “Equal to our sadness at this tragic loss of life is our disappointment at Congress’ inability to place public safety above the interests of the National Rifle Assn.,” declared the lobby officials. “Our society can no longer afford to allow the power of the gun lobby in its efforts to ensure ownership without responsibility to keep Congress mute on this pressing public-safety issue.”
Since at least 1972, the United Methodist Church, which then had over 10 million members, has backed the elimination of private handgun ownership, among other gun control measures. Having lost 3 million members in the U.S. since then, the denomination is finding that its political lobbying, which never reflected most of the membership, is now even less heeded.
But the denomination’s faith in laws to eliminate evil dates back a century to an era when Methodism was one of America’s most potent political forces. Daniel Okrent’s 2010 Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, upon which the 2011 PBS series on the history of Prohibition was based, largely credited Methodist and Baptist clergy for leading the successful campaign. Actually it was mostly Methodism, then America’s largest Protestant force, and whose hierarchy made it more conducive to waging a national struggle.
Gun control true believers insist eliminating private gun ownership would eliminate killing. Far more sweepingly, Prohibitionists of the early 20th century were confident that eliminating liquor would suppress family break-down, workplace accidents, indigence, gambling, prostitution, political corruption, and a host of other social ills.
Their concerns were not entirely misplaced. Alcohol consumption in the 19th century per capita was several times what it is today. In an era of far less wealth, when most lived near the edges, and before most women had jobs outside the home, a drunken husband could lose the family farm and plunge his large family instantly into poverty and the poor house.
Reducing alcohol consumption in America was a laudable goal. But realists, especially Christians who understood human frailty, should have realized that abolishing liquor was impossible. Nearly all the major Protestant churches supported Prohibition, which went into effect in 1920 after a lightning quick ratification. But the Methodists, with a theology that emphasized the possibility of personal spiritual perfection, were the most zealous.
Methodism had two large personalities who led their Prohibition crusade. The Rev. Clarence True Wilson, originally an Oregon pastor, created northern Methodism’s Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals, which he led across 20 years, and which is the predecessor to the current Methodist lobby. In the 1920s Wilson built the Methodist Building that is still so prominently across the street from the U.S. Capitol and U.S. Supreme Court. Wilson’s debating partner, agnostic lawyer Clarence Darrow, sniffed that the Methodist Building was the “Methodist Vatican” that allowed suspicious Methodist busybodies to sniff the breath of congressmen in route to the U.S. Capitol. It housed, he pronounced, the “most brutal, bigoted, ignorant bunch since the Spanish Inquisition.”
The other Prohibition giant was Bishop James Cannon of southern Methodism. He and Wilson together made national headlines from the teens through the 1930s and were the preeminent religio-political figures of their day. They routinely visited the White House, were appeased and denounced by congressmen, and streamed across the headlines of the New York Times and Washington Post. They both advocated an America that was “bone dry” and refused any compromise with “wet” Americans, which they tied to corrupt, urban political machines blocking America’s path to righteousness. They even resisted a Prohibition allowing the sale of wine and beer, which would have aligned brewers and vineyards with them against the producers of distilled spirits. Understanding themselves as a ‘militant Christian power in a war against alcohol,” they planned to labor until liquor was “banished from the face of the earth.” Unable to suppress alcohol successfully in America, the Methodist prohibitionists envisioned their cause going global. Public officials who resisted were “traitors to the nation,” according to Rev. Wilson.
In 1928, northern Methodism pledged: “We will not be stampeded; we will not retract; we will not cease to speak by tongue and pen and vote; we will not turn back; we have enlisted for the duration of the conflict, which will end only in the complete extermination of the beverage alcohol and traffic.” Bishop Cannon organized much of southern Methodism against Democratic “wet” presidential candidate Al Smith, who lost 6 former Confederate states, and the election, thanks partly to Methodism.
Despite the sweeping 1928 victory, Prohibition soon collapsed, as the Depression made governments even less prone to enforce, and the public even less willing to comply. Bishop Cannon refused to endorse President Herbert Hoover or FDR in 1932, and Rev. Wilson endorsed Socialist candidate Norman Thomas. After Prohibition’s quick repeal in1933, Wilson blamed a “blind populace stampeded by the wet press and the crooked politicians.” He suffered an emotional collapse, retired, and soon died.
Of Bishop Cannon, sardonic polemicist H. L. Mencken pronounced: “Six years ago he was the undisputed boss of the United States. Congress was his troop of Boy Scouts, and Presidents trembled and gobbled cloves whenever his name was mentioned.” Absent Prohibition, “his whole world is in collapse.” But Cannon was more resilient, and he moved forward, even in advanced age, to befriend Mencken, oppose the New Deal, denounce Nazism, and urge war against the Axis powers.
Methodism, rather than stepping back to reflect on its 30 year initially successful but ultimately failed Prohibition crusade, instead accelerated its political activism. The Methodism Building became the headquarters of America’s Religious Left in Washington, D.C., housing radicals of every cause especially from the 1960s onward. It still clung to an uncompromising perfectionism that insisted evil could be banished, and the New Jerusalem established, with the passage of just a few more laws.
Of course, presidents and congressmen no longer “tremble and gobble” before Methodism and its lobbyists, who are largely ignored. Banning handguns, even after 40 years of endorsement by Methodism, will never happen. But maybe other uncompromising idealists and utopians, who believe human nature can be transformed at the stroke of a pen, will heed the lessons of Methodism and Prohibition.
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