Review: A Most Stirring and Significant Episode
H. Paul Thompson, Jr. A Most Stirring and Significant Episode: Religion and the Rise and Fall of Prohibition in Black Atlanta, 1865-1887. 338 pp. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0-87580-458-3.
H. Paul Thompson breaks new ground with A Most Stirring and Significant Episode. This excellent work offers a book-length study of African Americans in the nineteenth-century temperance movement, and is also a welcome contribution to the growing field of literature about temperance and prohibition in the southern United States. Focusing on the freedpeople of Atlanta, Thompson takes seriously the role that religion played in this community’s reform efforts.
A Most Stirring and Significant Episode is organized in two parts, the first of which is concerned with northern evangelical missionaries and their motivations for and means of spreading their temperance message to Black Atlanta. The second part is a detailed community study of Black Atlanta’s response to, and ownership of, that message, with special attention given to Atlanta’s 1885 and 1887 elections in which prohibition was enacted and then reversed. Two useful appendices, forty pages of endnotes, and a thorough index complete the volume.
Thompson positions his work alongside that of other scholars who have been examining temperance through the lens of religion, citing Robert Abzug and Douglas Carlson among others. Thompson argues “temperance’s connection to revivalism was more than rhetorical, it was functional.” He elaborates that “the language of temperance flowed directly from Northern pro-revival theology, and the reform became an inalienable tenet of the antebellum evangelical worldview that infused Northerners’ work among the freed people” (6). He sees temperance activity as a result of religious conviction, rather than solely class-based or nativist anxieties and concerns with social control. Likewise, Thompson finds Black Atlanta’s temperance crusaders were not mere pawns of northern reformers, but were acting out of a deeply held evangelical faith.
Thompson’s exploration of drinking patterns is particularly insightful. In Chapter 2, Thompson asks: “was there an alcohol ‘problem’ in Black Atlanta?” (50). He begins to answer this question with an analysis of the convict lease system, in which incarcerated black men literally built the New South. In 1873, twenty percent of Atlanta’s all-white police force was charged with being drunk on duty. Thompson describes a July 30, 1883 incident in which an inebriated white police officer shot and killed a pregnant African-American woman. He follows up with numerous reports of habitually drunk administrators in the convict lease system. These stories, Thompson concludes, “suggest that the freed people’s biggest problem with alcohol was its abuse by law enforcement officers” (57).
Thompson’s discussion of syncretic African-American cosmology is also particularly suggestive. He demonstrates that African concepts of hierarchy and reciprocity, and notions of community and the nature of evil influenced African-American temperance discourse. Tellingly, he argues, “Temperance reports … reflected the traditional African emphasis on the relationship between an individual’s actions and communal well-being” (131). Thus, Black Atlanta saw intemperance as an existential threat to the community.
As Thompson clearly demonstrates, religion occupied a significant space in the constellation of ideas that fed temperance and prohibition in Black Atlanta. Scholars of temperance, alcohol, prohibition, African American history, political history, the urban south, and southern religion will very much enjoy A Most Stirring and Significant Episode. It serves as a suitable compliment to recent books on this subject, such as, Joe L. Coker’s Liquor in the Land of the Lost Cause: Southern White Evangelicals and the Prohibition Movement (2007), and Jennifer L. Woodruff Tait’s The Poisoned Chalice: Eucharistic Grape Juice and Common-Sense Realism in Victorian Methodism (2011). Many will find in it a model for pursuing similar community studies of African-American temperance activities in other locales.