Family Temperance Pledge

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Family Temperance Pledge


By: Anonymous

Date: c. 1887

Source: Library of Congress. "An American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera." 2004. 〈"〉 (accessed June 27, 2006).

About the Author: The Library of Congress is the oldest federal cultural institution in the United States. The Library of Congress, through its American Memory project, maintains numerous collections of historical material stored in a variety of media, all of which are accessible to the public.


The formation of the American Temperance Society in 1826 was the first significant mass organizational effort by the various forces favoring either a restriction or an outright prohibition on the manufacture, consumption, and sale of alcohol in the United States. The temperance movement at that time had a strong moral and Christian outlook, as the connection was ceaselessly drawn by these advocates between excessive alcohol consumption and sin.

The Washingtonians, a temperance organization based in Washington, D.C., between 1840 and 1850, are a testament to the popular temperance trends of the time. The Washingtonians advocated a more individual and reflective approach to the temperance question; their philosophical views had many similarities to the modern Alcoholics Anonymous programs. The influence of the Washingtonians waned after 1850 as the broader notions of alcohol as a vice and a destroyer of Christian families was the ascendant temperance philosophy.

A number of very active temperance societies were formed in the 1850s, a development concurrent with the statutory prohibition of all alcohol in twelve American states by 1855. At the end of the Civil War in 1865, the temperance movement resumed its drive to rid America of alcohol. The zeal of the temperance forces was heightened by the formation of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in 1874. The WCTU professed a desire to work toward the elimination of alcohol with "a mother's love", an outlook that was reflected by the powerful grassroots nature of the efforts of the WCTU. From early in its history, the WCTU asserted significant influence in the political arena concerning the temperance question.

The Family Temperance Pledge was a device encouraged by the WCTU and other Christian temperance reformers; it is likely that hundreds of thousands of these documents were signed by individuals and families committing themselves to abstention from alcohol in the period between 1870 and the enactment of the Volstead Act, which created nation-wide Prohibition in 1919. The expression "to take the pledge" became a part of the American lexicon during this period.

The Family Temperance Pledge was intended not only to secure a promise by the taker of the pledge that they would abstain absolutely from the consumption of any alcoholic beverage; the pledge was also commonly linked to broader moral principles through a connection to the family Bible. The family Bible was often the most important possession in a Christian home, as in addition to its religious content and sacred words, the Bible was the record of all of the important dates and events in a family history. When the Family Temperance Pledge was inserted into a family Bible, it was presumed to be a promise made to God that the pledge would be honored.



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The Family Temperance Pledge as depicted here is significant in that it dates from 1887, a midway point between the 1874 founding of the powerful WCTU, a body that successfully waged a grassroots campaign for the elimination of alcohol across America, and 1893, the year in which the politically influential Anti-Saloon League was formed. The pledge was a most effective reinforcement of the temperance message in hundreds of thousands of American homes during this period.

The "taking of the pledge" was the reinforcement relied upon by temperance advocates to convert the words of a supporter into a concrete action. It was assumed by all parties involved in the temperance campaigns that a person who executed the pledge, often in the presence of family with the family Bible near at hand, would be subject to strong moral influence to maintain the pledge. The family Bible had an iconic status in all Christian households of the period.

The pledge was an approach consistent with the other means used by the WCTU, led by Frances Willard (1838–1898), to promote its cause. A common promotional tactic was the assembly of local WCTU members for a prayer, after which the group would then enter a saloon and forcefully request that the saloon be closed. This assertive but nonviolent technique was very popular throughout the entire temperance campaign as waged by the WCTU.

The Family Temperance Pledge depicted here is significant in the manner in which the moral issues related to both abstinence and alcohol consumption are portrayed. The taking of the pledge on one hand is connected to virtue, happiness, and obvious prosperity. Alcohol is portrayed on the opposite side of the document as the root cause of a dilapidated neighborhood and a sordid lifestyle; poverty and ruin are pictured as the inevitable result of drink. It is notable that the scenes illustrated on the pledge are consistent with American temperance in this period—there are two stark choices offered, with no shades of grey and no room for compromise or a middle ground.

Consistent with the concept of becoming a part of a movement or a common cause, the pledge taker also assumed the additional obligation to use his best efforts to either curtail or prevent the use of alcohol by others. The pledge taker was making a commitment to seek out other drinkers and assist them in undergoing a conversion to the temperance movement. This obligation parallels the approach taken by Christian evangelists in both the 1880s and in modern times—the temperance advocate was expected to be not only a believer, but also a missionary for the movement.

Although it has adopted a much lower public profile in recent history, the WCTU continues today as the oldest women's association in North America. The WCTU still advocates abstinence from the consumption of alcohol.

The Anti-Saloon League, directed by Wayne Wheeler (1869–1927), was another organization that grew from the broader temperance movement. It was able to become the most powerful political lobby in the United States due to the grassroots commitment of a large segment of the American population to the temperance cause, furthered through the proliferation of the Family Temperance Pledge.

In addition to the implementation of Prohibition through the passage of the Volstead Act in 1919 and the Eighteenth Amendment, after 1900 a number of prominent Americans, including John D. Rockefeller, William Randolph Hearst, and Henry Ford, made public their support for Prohibition, elevating a grassroots movement to one with the endorsement of a segment of the elite of American society.

The moral temperance crusade in 1880s America is unlikely to be successfully replicated today. While the American constitutional freedoms of expression and association permit temperance to be advanced as a modern national cause, the alcohol industry and its prominent place in the American economy have rendered alcohol manufacturing a sizable contributor to the tax revenues received by the federal and state governments.

The final significance of the Family Temperance Pledge is in its implicit characterization of alcohol abuse. Alcohol was regarded by the temperance followers as a personal vice and an example of immorality. This view is in contrast to the modern medically based definition of alcohol abuse as a disease that requires treatment and ongoing support for the alcoholic.



Mattingly, Carol. Well Tempered Women. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois Press, 1998.

Szymanski, Anne-Marie. Pathways to Prohibition: Radicals, Moderates and Social Movement Outcomes. Raleigh, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2003.

Web sites

George Mason University. "P.T. Barnum As a Temperance Speaker." 2006 〈〉 (accessed June 27, 2006).

State University of New York at Potsdam. "History of Anti-Alcohol Movements in the U.S." 2006 〈〉 (accessed June 27, 2006).

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Family Temperance Pledge

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