“A ‘Middle Passage’ of Slavery and Darkness”: Lyman Beecher’s Six Sermons on Intemperance

Lyman Beecher

Lyman Beecher (1775–1863) was a Presbyterian minister and seminary president, and was “one of the most prominent and powerful evangelical Protestant religious leaders” in his day (J. Earl Thompson, “Lyman Beecher’s Long Road to Conservative Abolitionism,” Church History 42.1 (1973), 90). In the early 19th century, evangelicals were increasingly active in a multitude of reform movements, and Beecher was one of the most active. Among other issues, Beecher was particularly concerned about the sin of intemperance. 

Beecher first engaged intemperance formally in 1812 when he chaired a committee on temperance for the Connecticut General Association of Congregational Churches. His work reached the national stage, however, in 1826 with the publication of Six Sermons on the Nature, Occasions, Signs, Evils, and Remedy of Intemperance, published by the American Tract Society. Beecher had preached this series of sermons after visiting a parishioner and finding him drunk (see Lyman Beecher, Autobiography, Correspondence, Etc., of Lyman Beecher, D.D., vol. II (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1866), 34–38). The Sermons would be widely printed, distributed, reprinted, and even translated, going through twenty printings from 1827 to 1838 (Mark Noll, America’s God, 526).

A Foundational Document

Beecher, Six Sermons

The sermons are widely recognized as foundational to the temperance movement that was developing in the 1820s:

  • “Perhaps no man in America has done more to mould public opinion on the temperance question than Lyman Beecher… Dr. Beecher’s celebrated ‘Six Sermons on Intemperance,’ delivered in 1826 and published in book form in 1827, mark a most important epoch in the temperance movement. Reprinted abroad and eagerly read by many thousands, they did more than any other agency to create a distinct and practical temperance sentiment and were recognized as the standard authority on the temperance question for many years” (The Cyclopaedia of Temperance and Prohibition (1891), 43, 44).
  • “Reprinted during the next decade by almost every temperance or organization of consequence, the sermons were as widely read and exerted as great an influence as any other contribution.” (John Allen Krout, The Origins of Prohibition (1925), 105–6.)
  • “In the fall of 1825 Beecher preached six thunderous sermons on temperance; these were published the following year and had a tremendous influence, both at the time and over the decades.” (Ronald G. Walters, American Reformers, 1815-1860 (1978), 126.
  • “In 1825, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s father, Lyman Beecher, gave a series of six sermons which helped to launch the temperance movement” (Cynthia Hamilton, “Dred’: Intemperate Slavery,” Journal of American Studies 34.2 (2000): 257)
  • “the social organization of the temperance movement begins in earnest in the 1820s in Boston, with the American Temperance Society (ATS) and its cofounder, the abolitionist Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher.” Beecher’s Six Sermons were a “foundational document of the temperance movement” (Mark Lawrence Schrad, Smashing the Liquor Machine: A Global History of Prohibition (2021), 313).
  • Ken Burns documentary “Prohibition” (2011) opens with a dramatization of Lyman Beecher and the Six Sermons (“Introduction to Nation of Drunkards“).

Slavery and Intemperance

There is much to digest and analyze in the Six Sermons, but I wish to highlight one issue in particular: Beecher’s rhetorical use of American slavery to argue against intemperance. This particular feature has been noted by Charles Cole, Cynthia Hamilton, and Mark Schatz:

  • “Noteworthy in Beecher’s work is the connection he made between the evils of intemperance and slavery. The sale of ardent spirits, he believed, was just as vicious as the slave trade and the fight for the abolition of the enslavement to drink just as noble as the plea for the cause of the Negro. Both were enormities that had to be eradicated.” (Charles C. Cole, Jr., The Social Ideas of the Northern Evangelists 1826-1860 (1966), 118–19).
  • “Beecher used the slave trade as a moral yardstick for the evils of intemperance.” (Hamilton, “Intemperate Slavery,” 257).
  • “Like many abolitionist activists, Beecher reasoned that drunkenness was actually a greater threat than slavery: one-tenth of the American population were subjugated to the slave-master, while all of humanity was vulnerable to being enslaved to the liquor trader. The slave-master went home after sundown, they reasoned, while liquor’s grasp knew no rest” (Schatz, Smashing the Liquor Machine, 315).

Beecher uses the issue of slavery rhetorically in several different ways in the sermons, both implicitly and explicitly. He implicitly ranks the sins of slavery and intemperance, he describes intemperance using the imagery of slavery, and he compares intemperance and slavery and the efforts to eradicate them.

Ranking

The first “reference” to slavery is not a reference at all, but rather an implicit ranking of two issues:

“Intemperance is the sin of our land, and, with our boundless prosperity is coming in upon us like a flood; and if anything shall defeat the hopes of the world, which hang upon our experiment of civil liberty, it is that river of fire which is rolling through the land, destroying the vital air, and extending around an atmosphere of death.”

Six Sermons, 7–8.

Alcohol was indeed a big problem in the 19th century: “By the 1820s, the typical adult white American male consumed nearly a half pint of whiskey a day. This is about three times the present consumption rate” (W. J. Rorabaugh, Prohibition: A Very Short Introduction (2020), 9).

However, the issue of slavery was continuing to grow as well. The population of enslaved people in the United States increased over 30% (from 1.5 million to over 2 million) between 1820 and 1830 (see J. David Hacker, “From ‘20. and Odd’ to 10 Million: The Growth of the Slave Population in the United States,” Slavery & Abolition 41.4 (2020), 13).

Yet, comparing the two issues, Beecher asserted that intemperance, rather than slavery, was “the sin of our land.”

Describing

In the next reference to slavery, Beecher describes intemperance in terms of slavery:

“many a wretched man has shaken his chains and cried out in the anguish of his spirit, Oh, that accursed resort of social drinking: there my hands were bound and my feet put in fetters ; there I went a freeman, and became a slave—a temperate man, and became a drunkard.”

Six Sermons, 19.

For Beecher, intemperance was a form of slavery, and this may be why he felt so comfortable comparing the two issues throughout the sermons.

Comparing

In addition to ranking and describing, Beecher includes many comparisons between slavery and intemperance, their evils, and their remedies:

“WHAT THEN IS THIS UNIVERSAL, NATURAL, AND NATIONAL REMEDY FOR INTEMPERANCE? IT IS THE BANISHMENT OF ARDENT SPIRITS FROM THE LIST OF LAWFUL ARTICLES OF COMMERCE, BY A CORRECT AND EFFICIENT PUBLIC SENTIMENT; SUCH AS HAS TURNED SLAVERY OUT OF HALF OF OUR LAND, AND WILL YET EXPEL IT FROM THE WORLD” (63). [note: this is the only passage in the sermons printed in all-caps].

“This however cannot be done effectually so long as the traffic in ardent spirits is regarded as lawful, and is patronized by men of reputation and moral worth in every part of the land. Like slavery, it must be regarded as sinful, impolitic, and dishonorable. That no measures will avail short of rendering ardent spirits a contraband of trade, is nearly self-evident” (64–65).

“It is admitted that the trade employs and sustains many families, and that in many instances the profits are appropriated to useful purposes. But this is no more than might have been said of the slave-trade” (67).

In a striking passage, Beecher elaborates at length on the similarities—in his mind—between American slavery, including the middle passage, and intemperance:

“We execrate the cruelties of the slave-trade—the husband torn from the bosom of his wife—the son from his father—brothers and sisters separated for ever— whole families in a moment ruined! But are there no similar enormities to be witnessed in the United States? None indeed perpetrated by the bayonet, but many, very many perpetrated by intemperance” (70).

“We have heard of the horrors of the middle passage, the transportation of slaves, the chains, the darkness, the stench, the mortality, and living madness of woe, and it is dreadful. But bring together the victims of intemperance, and crowd them into one vast lazar-house, and sights of woe quite as appalling would meet your eyes. 

Yes, in this nation there is a “middle passage” of slavery and darkness and chains and disease and death. But it is a middle passage, not from Africa to America, but from time to eternity, and not of slaves whom death will release from suffering, but of those whose sufferings at death do but just begin. Could all the sighs of these captives be wafted on one breeze, it would be loud as thunder. Could all their tears be assembled, they would be like the sea” (71).

Beecher also believed that the same remedies that he thought were adequately addressing slavery would also work to address intemperance:

“And what has been done justifies the expectation that all. which yet remains to be done will be accomplished. The abolition of the slave-trade, an event now almost accomplished, was once regarded as a chimera of benevolent dreaming. But the band of Christian heroes who consecrated their lives to the work, may some of them survive to behold it achieved. This greatest of evils upon earth, this stigma of human nature, wide-spread, deep-rooted, and intrenched by interest and state policy, is passing away before the unbending requisitions of enlightened public opinion” (84).

“Men who are mighty to consume strong drink, are unfit members of that kingdom which consisteth not in “meat and drink,” but in “ righteousness and peace.” The time, we trust, is not distant, when the use of ardent spirits will be proscribed by a vote of all the churches in our land, and when the commerce in that article shall, equally with the slave-trade, be regarded as inconsistent with a credible profession of Christianity. All this, I have no doubt, can be accomplished with far less trouble than is now constantly occasioned by the maintenance or the neglect of discipline, in respect to cases of intemperance” (90).

Analysis

Beecher’s rhetorical use of slavery reveals a few things about his views of American slavery. Though he was personally opposed to slavery, and believed it to be a sin, he was quite optimistic that the institution would inevitably decline and disappear from American culture. In his 1826 Sermons, Beecher felt that slavery was well on its way to being “expelled from the world,” that it was “an event now almost accomplished.” Unfortunately, slavery and the Southern “Slave Power” would grow and increase for 40 more years, and would only be expelled violently through a bloody civil war.

Because he thought slavery was well on its way out, he did not feel the same sense of urgency in addressing it as he felt about intemperance, a fact noted by abolitionists:

“From the abolitionists’ perspective Beecher’s notion of the corporate guilt of slavery and his appeal to mild reforming methods were merely verbal camouflage concealing his deficient sense of moral urgency about and his lack of empathy for the plight of the slaves.”

Thompson, “Beecher’s Long Road,” 93.

Beecher himself demonstrated his “lukewarm” position on the issue of slavery when controversy erupted at Lane Seminary where he was president, and he joined other faculty and trustees in shutting down the student abolition society there (see ““Social Intercourse Irrespective of Color”: Lyman Beecher and the Lane Seminary “Rebellion” of 1834“).

Thirty years later, the American Tract Society (which had published Beecher’s sermons in 1826) itself came under severe criticism over the issue of slavery (see “‘Fraternal’ to Whom? White Evangelicalism’s Centuries-long Problem with Race”). In the midst of that controversy, in 1857, William Jay published a lengthy letter criticizing the American Tract Society’s willingness to publish tracts on the sins of “all who sell or drink intoxicating liquors,—who read novels, play cards, attend horse-races, join in the dance, go to the theatre, and either smoke or chew tobacco,” even though many evangelical Christians disagreed on those things, yet refused to publish a word on slavery (William Jay, A letter to the committee chosen by the American Tract Society : to inquire into the proceedings of its executive committee, in relation to slavery (1857), 5). . Beecher’s Six Sermons was one of those publications they had published on liquor.

By contrast, one of Beecher’s students at Lane Seminary, Theodore Dwight Weld, inverted the priority and urgency of the two issues:

“As Weld put it to Tappan in late 1835, the abolition cause “not only overshadows all others, but it involves all others and absorbs them into itself. . . . revivals, moral Reform etc., etc., will remain stationary until the Temple is cleansed.”

Weld to Tappan, Nov. 17, 1835, in Bames and Dumond, Weld-Grimké Letters, I, 244; in James Brewer Stewart, Holy Warriors: The Abolitionists and American Slavery, 45.

J. Earl Thompson compares up Beecher’s activity on slavery and intemperance and sums it up thus:

“During his career he gave barely a respectable amount of time and attention to the slavery question, and it can hardly be placed at the top of his list of favorite reforms— a position that was occupied probably by Sabbatarianism and the temperance movement for him and the many other evangelical reformers who reached the apex of their dynamism and influence in the 1820s.”

Thompson, “Beecher’s Long Road,” 108–09.

The larger movements of abolitionism and temperance reform are quite illustrative and fascinating to compare, with many overlapping figures (including Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and others), and overlapping concerns. Lyman Beecher’s Six Sermons offer a vivid illustration of the way one prominent white evangelical viewed these social ills and the rhetorical use he made of one in combatting another.

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