Girl  Evangelists

Gin and jazz became tokens of the 1920s. The girls frequently spoke against the evils of drinking. No girl evangelist, dependent on her revivalist Protestant and fundamentalist audience, could take any other position. But why did the girl evangelists even need to deplore alcohol or denounce drinking? Had not the golden age of girl evangelists started at the beginning of the Prohibition Era? Was drink—now outlawed across the nation—really a problem worthy of comment?

What Prohibition hoped to achieve and what it spawned were quite different things. The Eighteenth Amendment, which legislated Prohibition, was ratified by Congress in 1919, to come into effect on January 17, 1920. Later in 1919, the Volsted Act was passed, to regulate more specifically the permitted alcohol content of drinks—only one-half of a percent. America became dry—in law and theory, at least, in 1920. But Prohibition largely failed, as laws were flouted, authorities bribed, and gangsters (and future political families) happy to twist the new reality into a golden opportunity. Speakeasies (illegal drinking establishments) and blind-pigs (a lower-class establishment with the same service) catered to the needs of the thirsty. These were really the “roaring twenties,” and girl evangelists could still call their audience to choose between Jesus and gin. 

The roots of Prohibition go back before the Civil War, largely within Protestant reform movements driven by a vision of a better world, where social evils and injustices, such as slavery and drunkenness, would be eliminated. After the Civil War, a more intense focus was placed on alcohol. This was not unrelated to other reform drives, such as the abolition of slavery. The most powerful force in the prohibition movement came from women, particularly those associated with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Other effective groups were the Anti-Saloon League and the Prohibition Party.

Various matters brought things to a head. A wide range of groups, often without much common interest other than a concern about the dangers posed by alcohol, banded together on this one issue. Industrialists were concerned about the impact of drunkenness on production, Protestants (and the KKK) were concerned about immigrants—increasingly from non-English countries and Catholics countries—who did not hold the same “puritan” views regarding drinking. Women generally were concerned about the abuses (physical, emotional, and financial) suffered by wives and children of drunkards. The final lift given to the prohibition cause stemmed from America’s entry into World War I in 1917. Since many of the American brewers were of German descent, an anti-German sentiment could be maneuvered into an anti-alcohol sentiment.

for further reading:

Many books and specials have recently been released on the subject of Prohibition, including Ken Burns 2011 PBS series Prohibition.

Barry Hawkins, Jesus and Gin: Evangelicalism, the Roaring Twenties and Today's Culture Wars (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2010).

Daniel Okrent, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (New York: Scribner, 2011).

Edward Behr, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (New York: Arcade, 1996).


Al Capone (1899–1947)
The most famous and feared name associated with the age of Prohibition was Al Capone, the leader of the largest Chicago gang in the 1920s. Although involved in a long list of criminal activities, it was for tax evasion that Capone was imprisoned for the long term, in 1931.