Razing the Bar

On June 5, 1900, Carrie A. Nation walked into Dobson’s Saloon in Kiowa, Kansas with her hands full of rocks in obedience to a revelation from God. She announced to the sad sacks present: “Men, I have come to save you from a drunkard’s fate.” She then began smashing the bar’s stock and bottles with her rocks. She was a leader in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and she and her sisters were arrested over thirty times between 1900 and 1910. They went into bars in Wichita and Kansas City, singing hymns and carrying hatchets which they used to destroy the fixtures and the alcohol they found there. They were the forerunners to the prohibition era which existed in the United States between 1920 and 1933.

Feb_2008_carrynation When I attended BYU, the textbook we used for our mandatory health class taught us that the overall consumption of alcohol in the U.S. actually increased, rather than decreased, during the years 1920-1933, as a direct result of the dry laws. The statutes which were designed to curtail drunkenness by prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcohol brought about the opposite effect. There are some interesting implications.

We can probably agree that our laws should more or less be a reflection of our values, and that what a polity chooses to prohibit and what it chooses to tolerate is revealing. But we must also agree that a law can be counter-productive. Should we advocate laws against everything we find morally objectionable? It seems clear to me that we should not. Even though we may be strongly opposed to alcohol and tobacco, for example, it is clear that law is a poor tool for controlling them. The spectacular decline in smoking over the recent decades is almost completely attributable to social pressure, not stricter enforcement of no smoking laws. It seems clear, as well, that the decline in the number of abortions is not a result of any change in laws, but because of shifting attitudes among the citizenry.

A law which drives a practice underground, as prohibition did to drinking, can also be harmful because it masks the problem, while still allowing it to thrive. In the mid-nineties, a video rental store in Orem wanted to rent adult movies, but was denied a license on the basis of local pornography laws. The attorney for the store got his hands on the pay-per-view statistics from the cable TV company and local hotels and found that plenty of people in Utah valley were watching dirty movies, including at the Provo Marriott, which shows more blue movies than the national average for the chain. He was able to successfully demonstrate that the video store was not in violation of existing community standards.

Our religion often requires us to take a stand. When we do, it is wise to remember the Law of Unintended Consequences.  In our righteous zeal, we might do more harm than good.   

Bonus question: Does anybody know to what extent members of the Relief Society a hundred years ago felt a kinship with the goals and methods of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union?


  1. sister blah 2 says:

    Interesting point. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is, what are some ways for decreasing abortions via “social pressure”? (as you point out, this worked for smoking, and it doesn’t seem like legal landscape for abortion is likely to change dramatically any time soon) I think we can agree that big bloody placards and aggressive picketing/blockading of clinics do more to alienate than convert (witness how many people believe that Westboro Baptist Church’s actions are actually a boon to acceptance of gays). Bumper stickers are lame in the face of such an important and complex issue.

    I really liked the movie Juno because I think having a sassy/fun/cool role model of a teen who is pregnant and still attending school, and placing the child for adoption, is fantastic. I think it could normalize being pregnant and planning for adoption, and increase tolerance/reduce stigma. This reduces a HUGE social barrier to continuing a pregnancy.

    I’m not exactly in a position to create a movie, any ideas for what could be done on an individual/micro scale?

  2. Add Knocked Up to the pro-life argument.

  3. Mark,
    Very clever title.

    I’m certainly not an expert, but I’m always a little hesitant to make conclusions from some of this data. Sometimes the cause/effect does not seem to be that clearly established. Sometimes I wonder if the reporting itself is accurate. Did alcohol consumption really increase? Was it because of prohibition? With a little creativity, I think you can find a way to support almost any claim….

  4. I think that some church standards should not be turned into law because they are strictly matters of revelation and faith that cannot easily be justified from a secular standpoint. One good example is our prohibition on coffee and tea. (Some might put civil unions/same-sex marriage in this category . . .)

    Other church standards should probably not be turned into law for the reasons Mark Brown cites in the post. One common argument (and a reasonable one, in my opinion) is that if the government banned abortions, many women would be forced to seek less safe, less sterile abortion methods. Poor women would tend to place themselves at higher risk, while wealthy connected women could still have access to reputable backroom procedures. So better to keep abortions “safe, legal, and rare.”

    But that logic only goes so far. Suppose the government were to legalize marijuana, cocaine, and meth, and regulate their production and distribution. Would this increase or decrease the use of these substances? Some people (not me) would argue that we should put drug cartels out of business by legalizing drugs and making them safe and legal, with controlled distribution. But I’m opposed to that idea because I’m afraid it would increase drug use over time and make it an acceptable practice. And I don’t like the moral message it could send to my kids.

    So how do you distinguish between a worthy moral stand (like the war on drugs) and a doomed fight that may cause more harm than good (like prohibition)?

  5. Tobacco is decreasing based on legal interventions, at least as part of broader social resistance to the practice. excise taxes seem to work, banning indoor smoking increase the social cost of smoking, and the interventions against the corrupt tobacco companies are all legal and are quite powerful.

    Otherwise, I agree, it can be difficult to predict the outcomes of particular interventions.

    Mormons were big into temperance early on. not sure what was happening in the Utah period.

  6. Jim: You make a good point. For all we know, drinking might have increased even more that it did, had prohibition not been in place. My point is that it is possible to go about a good thing the wrong way, that’s all.

    Nevertheless, I remember my health teacher at BYU emphasizing the irony of the dry laws.

  7. Great post. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the church’s past positions on alcohol prohibition laws. I often wonder to what extent we should push our morals on others through our vote. I’m sure it’s a difficult decision for the GAs – should they encourage the removal of freedoms to “stand up for righteousness”, or should we accept that we live in a world where a more lenient law is superior, but with the side effect of implying that our morals are just not for everyone.

    And on that note, if I have to sit through another Elders quorum lesson admonishing me to take a stand against same-sex marriage, I’m going to go nuts. Just because I don’t think the government should be wasting our time with gay marriage amendments doesn’t mean that I think that homosexuality isn’t a sin, or that families aren’t important. It just means that I want my government spending money and time on other things more relevant to my current situation.

  8. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 4 “Some might put civil unions/same-sex marriage in this category…” You got that right. Please keep your hands off my Lipton and my family. I will gladly return the favor. Thank you.

    The tobacco issue is unique to a certain degree, because its use declined as public knowledge of its danger increased. These days nobody argues that smoking is harmless or even neutral. All these other issues are still mired in deep controversy.

  9. The Utah legislature banned the cigarette in 1921. According to Katie Blakesley’s master’s thesis, the Church coordinated this effort. The ban didn’t last long, but it’s been too long since I heard Katie talk about her thesis to remember what sort of life it had. I don’t think she’s ever done anything more with the project, which is too bad.

  10. Suppose the government were to legalize marijuana, cocaine, and meth, and regulate their production and distribution.

    Sorry…this is a HUGE pet peeve of mine…please don’t lump marijuana (a completely natural herb with next to no side effects and a large host of benefits that is currently used to treat a multitude of diseases and conditions) in with cocaine and meth. Coke and meth are extremely dangerous and habit forming drugs that can (often will) result in death and have no benefits whatsoever. (and yet tobacco and alcohol are legal…)
    (Sorry I know you probably don’t want to turn this into a legalizing cannabis thread…)

  11. The problem is the effective solutions are often counter-intuitive and direct responses are often counter-productive. If you don’t like something, smashing it may seem like an appropriate response (and it may well give you a temporary sense of satisfaction). Over time, however, you’re just as likely as not to find that you’ve made the situation functionally worse.

  12. These days nobody argues that smoking is harmless or even neutral.

    Maybe not in, say, California. But in Old Europe…

  13. Peter LLC,
    Does France count as Old Europe? Because their recent broad smoking ban is almost enough to convince me that France needs to be my next vacation destination. (Stupid exchange rate.)

  14. I’m surprised no one has mentioned the best part about this post–picture of granny w/ an ax!

  15. That woman looks a lot more evil than a can of beer.

  16. KWK, it’s not more evil than a can of beer. She just got bitter beer face.

  17. kwk: I double dog dare you to say that to her face!

  18. Mark IV: No thanks. Mel Gibson (and his hatchet) in The Patriot have nothing on this sister.

  19. “I teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves.”

    “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s.”

    Mosiah 26:11-12 draws a clear distinction between sin and crime – and the organizations that should regulate and punish each. There are lots of things I believe personally as part of my religious paradigm that I believe should not be addressed by any legislature.

    “If Momma ain’t happy, ain’t no one happy.”

  20. MikeInWeHo says:

    I can’t believe the people of this country actually amended the constitution in an attempt to force sobriety on the masses, and not even a century ago. Remarkable, when you stop and think about it.

    Was Carrie A. Nation that woman’s real name? Sounds like a drag queen name to me.

  21. Let’s not be too disparaging of those who thought to criminalize smoking and drinking. No doubt, if they were alive today they would shout a big fat “I told you so!”–and rightly so.

    I think the real questions ought to be: Have things improved since prohibition ended? Are there fewer deaths or lives made miserable because of alcohol/tobacco consumption? Are there fewer children raised by alcoholic parents? Are there fewer medical costs associated with such vices? Etc.

  22. Veritas–thank you for that comment on marijuana. I actually think marijuana is a great example of unintended consequences. I strongly think we should, at the very least, decrease the legal ramifications of use–there’s no way it deserves to be classified with cocaine and heroin. People claim marijuana is a gateway drug, but it’s only a gateway drug *after* someone gets caught using. If you’re never caught, chances are very, very good you’ll stop using by the time you’re in your mid to late 20’s. But if you get caught you are very likely to become addicted to more serious drugs because you consequently end up with a serious blot on your record and often wind up in jail with truly serious drug users.

    I read a biography of Emmeline B. Wells not too long ago. She was rather intimately involved with the suffrage movement in Utah and nationally. I seem to recall a lot of the women’s movement dovetailed with the suffrage movement, and it also seems like the national women’s parties weren’t too keen on their Mormon sisters in Utah. In fact, the inclusion of Wells and other Mormon delegates to one of the larger national organizations (and I can’t remember which–sorry) caused quite a rift that eventually split the organization in two. I can’t imagine the relationship thawed during the temperance movement.

  23. Jack–perhaps another good question is, are there more or fewer alcoholics, drunk drivers, and health costs associated with drinking in our country or in a country where drinking is less stigmatized and legal at an earlier age?

  24. Perry Shumway says:

    From Wikipedia:

    “Despite the efforts of Heber J. Grant and the LDS Church, a Utah convention helped ratify the 21st Amendment. While Utah can be considered the deciding 36th state to ratify the 21st Amendment and make it law, the day Utah passed the Amendment, both Pennsylvania and Ohio passed it as well.”

    (The 21st Amendment repealed the 18th, which began Prohibition.)

    And this, from John D. Rockefeller:

    “When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognized. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before.”

    It simply NEVER works effectively for government to unilaterally curtail individual choices. If someone’s actions directly affect me, like when someone smokes in a public place, then of course it’s right and proper for government to stop that person from infringing on my rights. But if someone else opts to ingest all the marijuana or meth or cocaine he wants to, within the walls of his own home, then I have no right to stop him, and if I have no right, neither does my government.

    # 4 above – The so-called “worthy moral stand” that is today’s war on drugs is as ludicrous as prohibition was in the last century. Tens of thousands of lives have been sacrificed, billions of dollars have been expended, untold jail space is wasted, and hundreds of thousands of police officers have devoted their careers to fighting this war, which to me makes Iraq seem relatively tiny by comparison.

    # 10 above – Your pet peeve is that people lump marijuana in with cocaine and other more serious drugs. My pet peeve is that we vigorously oppose outlawing some drugs – alcohol, caffeine, medical marijuana, etc. – while insisting that others should remain against the law. If I join marijuana with cocaine in my plea, it’s only because both are considered illegal and both are a part of the needless and wasteful and tragic war on drugs.

    If we were suddenly to decide that everyone should actually be free to exercise their God-given agency (including their right to take into their bodies whatever substances they choose), a number of things would quickly happen in our society. The supply of drugs would quickly exceed demand, dramatically lowering the street price and effectively removing any incentive for drug-related crime organizations to continue. Police officers by the tens and hundreds of thousands would suddenly find much more time to prosecute real crimes, rather than victimless ones, resulting in a plummet of crime levels overall. Billions of dollars spent on fighting the war on drugs could be used in other, better ways, and prison overcrowding would cease to be a problem.

    Would overall drug use go up under such a scenario? Possibly, though it’s far from certain. People who want drugs today can get them; when the government removes itself from moral protectionism, people come to realize that they have to make their own moral decisions, and most of them will rise to the occasion. As for the others – that is what churches exist for. And charitable organizations. And extended families. We’re locked into a mindset that if the government doesn’t step in and solve every social ill, no one will. Nothing could be more misguided.

    And for people who drive under the influence, or commit crimes while on drugs, etc., hey – throw the book at them. No problem. Not because they took drugs, but because they violated others’ rights. I simply have no right to insist that my neighbor refrain from taking certain things into his body; none whatsoever.

    The people who have been waging the war on drugs (which is of course a losing battle, needless to say) for decades now have good intentions, but their methods are ineffective. Prohibition should have been more of a lesson for us; we see exactly the same racketeering, torture, graft, and corruption surrounding the sale of illegal drugs today that we saw in Chicago in the 1930s with Al Capone et al. Enough is enough.

  25. 14-18 Don’t go knocking Carrie Nation, dudes. A hatchet and a Bible. A little jail time. That’s a woman!

  26. MikeInWeHo-Her real name was Carrie Nations and she legally changed it to “Carrie A. Nation” as a symbol of the significance of her temperance quest.

    It it interesting to note that while crime and perhaps drinking did go up during Prohibition (although I have statistics showing the opposite) the rate of death from cirrhosis of the liver significantly declined.

  27. Carry Amelia Moore Gloyd Nation. Both ‘Carrie’ and ‘Carry’ were used on various documents throughout her life. She seemed to favor the ‘y’ spelling and the use of her middle initial after she began her activism. I wouldn’t put it past her to have actually married Mr. Nation for the cause. God and Mr. Gloyd, an alcoholic, seem to have been her inspiration. There was a family history of mental instability that might have contributed a bit too.

  28. MikeInWeHo says:

    No offense to anyone here who admires her (and who wouldn’t with that pic?), but she sounds a bit nuts.

  29. I don?t know what the feelings in the Relief Society of the time were, but it appears that at least The Woman’s Exponent did not wish to opine on Carrie Nation’s methods, as this is the only brief mention of the incident I have seen:

    Miss Anthony entirely disapproves of Mrs. Nation’s smashing saloons; Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton entirely approves of it; and the opponents of equal suffrage are as much divided in opinion as the, anti-suffragists.
    The Woman’s Exponent 1901-03-15 vol. 29 no. 20-21

    Based on my understanding of the active role of the Relief Society in the temperance movement, it is no surprise that there are many favorable references made to the work of the Temperance Union in The Woman?s Exponent. A couple examples, including a hint at a more pacifist approach than that employed by Mrs. Nation (although published several years prior to her righteous rampage):

    Miss Frances E. Willard, the celebrated Lecturer and President of the Woman?s Christian Temperance Union in the United States, visited Salt Lake Lake City last week and delivered two of her brilliant and interesting lectures?. She is doing a mammoth work in the temperance cause?. God speed Miss Willard in her work for temperance and the ballot.
    The Woman’s Exponent 1883-08-15 vol. 12 no. 6

    The spirit of peace is that which should be sought, and not to stir up strife and discord, either in public or private. It is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong; and how essential it is to control the temper and the tongue; and more than this even to control the appetite. How much misery and suffering is produced by the use of alcohol. No tongue can tell the tale?. One cannot wonder that the noble women of the Temperance Union on their bended knees and with tears streaming from their eyes entreated the saloon keepers to close their doors that their husbands, brothers and sons might be saved from the demon strong drink. And may the time hasten on when popular opinion may be so much against these nefarious practices?.
    The Woman’s Exponent 1883-09-01 vol. 12 no. 7

  30. MikeinWeHo–Of course she’s nuts. That’s really part of what makes her so cool. I wouldn’t want her for a mission companion, but she’s fun to read about.

    “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” (Laurel Thatcher Urlich)

  31. Veritas- how can you, with a straight face, say that marijuana use leads to no side effects? Have you ever seen or associated with a pot-head who has been toking on the “herb” for a year or more? prolonged and regular use of marijuana leads to brain damage. Ask anyone who is a Neurologist- it makes thebrain age faster, and long term pot users develop memory problems,and paranoia.

  32. All right, I’ll admit Carrie was one scary broad, but what amazes me is she threw rocks in Kansas City bars and wasn’t shot. I mean, KC was one of the most dangerous cities in early 20th century history.

  33. One quote: “They denied me the vote, so I had to use rocks.”

  34. A brief article on Utah’s anti-cigarette law is available here.

    In June 1922, Heber J. Grant urged enforcement of the law by saying, “Many say it ought to be repealed because it is not obeyed; I say it ought to be enforced, not repealed.” He also urged his MIA audience not to vote for any political candidate who would not publicly state support for the law’s retention.

  35. Nation made a short visit to Utah in April 1903 and spoke in the Tabernacle between conference sessions. (Joseph F. Smith turned down her requests for time during the morning and afternoon sessions.) The Salt Lake Herald‘s coverage is available here (p. 1).

    The September 1911 Improvement Era also ran Nephi Anderson’s entertaining account of his September 1906 encounter with Nation on a train ride.

  36. Law is for the protection of the individual. Not for social engineering. If someone drinks, takes drugs, smokes, or has sex is not the business of the state, or other people, that is not the purpose of law. We need to read the Doctrine and Covenants, or Pres. Bensen.


  37. David,
    I’m not sure if I follow you. Do you believe that there should not be any laws about drug use?

    The problem arises when one person’s poor choices effect another innocent person. Perhaps a person should be free to harm him/herself, but when they harm someone else in the process, it’s another matter altogether. For example, we know now of the danger of second-hand smoke, and some laws have been enacted to protect people from inhaling someone else’s toxic waste. Would anyone argue that such laws are not needed?

  38. I think the situation with tobacco in America has been a great example of both tolerance and cooperation. It has been a slow process of turning the public opinion, and consequently, making reasonable laws based on good information. It wasn’t a ‘war on tobacco’ spearheaded by the government or by religion. It came about from concern for one’s own health and for other people’s comfort.
    I was just discussing this issue from a different point of view with my wife last night. We were applying different push-pull techniques to missionary work. She remembered being very put off after being asked to be baptised after a couple discussions with the missionaries. I recalled being uncomfortable with my mission policy of asking investigators to be baptised from the fist discussion on. I felt that it caused more barriers to friendship and trust than it opened doors. No one listens to information about religion, health, or moral stands unless the information is coming from a source that they feel cares for their welfare. That’s why throwing rocks at a bar and protesting abortion clinics makes people want to shoot you or put you in jail. I’ve think the church’s policy has rightly been towards tolerance first, followed by gentle persuasion.

  39. Sorry. I’ve think = I think.

  40. Justin,

    How about that! Carrie Nation in the tabernacle! Thank you for that link – I get the impression that Joseph F. Smith was not thrilled with her presence.

    And the opening paragraph is priceless: She stepped off the train and immediately swatted the cigar out of the mouth of a porter with a rolled up newspaper. It definitely give you a sense of the woman.

    Wes: Astute as always. Your wife must be pretty smart, too.

  41. Couple “you can’t legislate morality” together with “it isn’t illegal behaviour, so no one has a right to object”, and it’s all downhill from there.

  42. David (36),
    Although yours is certainly a popular idea about the purpose of law (in some circles, at least), it is not a foregone conclusion that law is solely for the protection of individuals. A compelling argument could be made that law is for the protection of society, of the sovereign, of the rich, of the poor, etc. Merely making the assertion, frankly, doesn’t make it so.

  43. Adam Greenwood says:

    Carrie Nation was too much of a character to dislike. She can bust up my bar anytime.

  44. Adam Greenwood says:

    Fabulous post title.

  45. As someone who believes in teh free-market,adn respects public-property, I cant in good conscience countenance Carry Nation’s actions.
    Though, I am surprised that in those days some vigilante type, or an alcohol-smuggling gangster didnt shoot her.

  46. kristine N.,

    Re: Your comment(#23)–that’s a good question. While stigma (or the lack thereof) may certainly play a part in shaping the purpose of drinking in a given culture, I think there are other variables that may complicate the question a bit. For instance, there may be quite a difference between the effects of alcohol consumption in Russia as compared with those of Italy–though both have far less stigma associated with drinking in their respective cultures than we do here in the U.S..