Following Up: “It Might Lead to Drinking”

There’s a hoary old joke about Baptists: “Why are they opposed to pre-marital sex? It might lead to dancing.” Reading issues of their denominational magazine from the first half of 1942, I can’t help but wonder if people at the time told a different version of the joke about the people of the Swedish Baptist General Conference: “Why are they worried about World War II? It might lead to drinking.”

Still in a British POW camp

Still in a British POW camp in Germany – Imperial War Museum

In a late July post, I noted that when the youth magazine of the Swedish Baptist General Conference finally addressed World War II — two months after it started — it warned that there was “a greater problem for us”: large numbers of women and girls being involved in the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. So I probably shouldn’t have been so surprised to see so much pro-temperance rhetoric as I began to review The Standard in the WWII era. For example:

• The first issue of 1942 featured no original reporting or commentary on the war, but did include a multi-page article on “The Nation’s Liquor Bill.” Then on January 10th, Bethel Institute president Henry Wingblade warned readers that “An army is no school of morals. It never was. There will be no end of debasing influences brought to bear on our boys in camp.” (See my earlier post on Swedish Baptist concern about the “moral welfare” of soldiers.)

• Wingblade’s brother A.J., the former Bethel Academy principal, penned a weekly “notes” column for the school where he still taught. In late February he mentioned that the campus would mark Temperance Sunday on March 8th: “Someone calls liquor our fourth enemy, aligning it with Germany, Italy, and Japan.”

• In the March 21 issue, the “Women’s Corner” column featured Mrs. Marshall Carlson of Chicago exhorted readers to write their legislators, Pres. Roosevelt, and his secretaries of war and the navy to urge them to revive the WWI-era regulations that restricted access to alcohol on and near military bases:

Our Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, stated recently that it would be unfair to deprive the soldier of the privileges enjoyed by civilians. Every soldier is denied the privilege of going to bed when he wants to; he gets up when the bugle blows, or else–, he eats what is set before him, he wears clothes issued to him, lives where he is told, goes in and out when given permission, and yet must not be denied the privilege of drinking what will distort his vision, dull his hearing, unsteady his nerves, delay his muscular reactions, generally lower his moral character and limit his usual activities.

• Six weeks later, Mrs. Marshall returned to Standard pages to claim an effort was underway to conceal research showing “That a large contributing cause for the Pearl Harbor disaster was the customary Saturday night drinking of intoxicants in Honolulu,” with “the liquor selling places controlled and operated by Japanese [including] not only several hundred smaller liquor shops, but a large portion of the most prosperous and influential clubs and hotel establishments.”

(A Baptist missionary named Charles A. Leonard, Sr. made a similar argument in the June 13 issue. He was even less guarded than Marshall in attributing blame: “We have learned from private sources that prior to the bombing, Japanese brought in unusually large quantities of liquors to sell our men…. Many, if not most of the dealers in intoxicants are Japanese. These want our men to drink. It brings them financial profit, but more, many of them are enemies of our country and are glad to see our men weakened by debauchery.”)

Standard editors J.O. Backlund and C. George Ericson joined the crusade with an Easter editorial concluding that it was likely that the nation would return to the “War Prohibition” of 1917-1918, “when even millions of wets had to concede its necessity because all possible food had to be conserved to feed millions of starving people in Europe, and to feed two million American soldiers sent abroad.” Backman and Ericson thundered:

It is a crime against humanity to turn hundreds of millions of bushels of wheat, corn, rye, sugar, etc., into making intoxicating liquors to demoralize the people when so many hundreds of millions of people are now starving to death in Europe and Asia and needing that food….

When we are trying to save on everything else, to win this war, why should we allow the selfish, greedy liquor manufacturers [to] make millions of dollars out of the blood of human beings not only in their own country but also by robbing hundreds of millions of people of food in foreign countries by so doing?

Just a few weeks later, when it seemed clear that the government would not in fact revive the prohibitionist regulations of WWI, the Standard‘s editors professed themselves unconvinced by the War Department’s arguments:

The answer has been that we should not deprive the boys of any joys that they might find in their drab and cheerless camp life. In other words, let them sin. Let the Decalgue [sic] be suspended for the duration.

Overwrought as such concerns may seem, the Swedish Baptists were hardly alone among American Protestants in holding them. The editors of The Standard applauded their Northern Baptist cousins for taking a strong stand against “liquor traffic in these critical days,” and quoted from the prohibitionist address by Colgate University president George Barton Cutten to that convention:

Babies in the home can be deprived of milk and sugar, but the distillers go blithely on their way, the favored children of Washington.

Isn’t it about time we become serious about this war? Do we want to win it, or do we want to forget about it in a national drunken debauch?

In his study of American churches during the war, Gerald Sittser quotes similar statements from Lutherans, Presbyterians (incensed by the “flood of liquor which has been loosed upon the land”), Methodists, the Disciples of Christ, and the Federal Council of Churches. He concludes:

These religious leaders were aware of the government’s policy of making religious service as appealing as possible, even if that meant luring them into the military—or keeping them there—by providing entertainment and other diversions offensive to traditional American values. Church leaders wanted to build morale, too, but not at the expense of morality. In their minds, an appeal to patriotism as a justification for immorality was pushing patriotism too far. (A Cautious Patriotism, p. 200)

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