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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Alcohol in Brandon, Mississippi: A Case Study in Baptist Life

On August 20, 2013, the citizens of Brandon, Mississippi voted on the issue of alcohol in their city.[1] The ballot measure empowers the Board of Aldermen of the city to regulate the sale, transportation, and storage of alcoholic beverages within Brandon.

Brandon is a holdout in the alcohol debate in its county. Neighboring cities Pearl and Flowood have recently passed similar referenda and have experienced economic growth through restaurants and bars. Brandon is something of a peculiarity in the county in this respect, though; the city has a much more church-centered society and has resisted “progress” in the name of a moral high ground.

I blame the Baptists.

A cursory survey of the churches in the Brandon area found 39 that self-identify as Baptist.[2] Many of these are affiliated with the Mississippi Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention. The strong Baptist presence in the city has made the issue a bright line of moral position - you’re either for drunkenness or you’re “againit.”

In the lead-up to the vote several pastors in Brandon spoke out against the issue. The most-quoted voices were those of Baptist pastors.[3] One Southern Baptist Church[4] even displayed signs against the measure encouraging citizens to vote against DUIs. Such is how the issue has been framed in the city: the pro position cites economic development and the revenue that would come from the sale of alcohol; the con side warns of drunk drivers and the dangers of social drinking.

This is the latest verse in a very, very old Baptist song.

Bill Leonard has traced the relationship between Baptists and alcohol through the centuries and notes, “the debate over the use of alcohol is a fascinating configuration of issues related to Baptist biblicism, hermeneutics, spirituality, classism and moral imperatives.”[5] Baptists, according to Leonard, have historically been in favor of the consumption of alcohol, some going so far as to make their own. He writes, “the early Baptists in England and America followed prevailing Protestant sentiments that permitted the use of "spirits" in moderation and in keeping with the common cultural practices of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.”[6] During the Second Great Awakening (1795-1837) many Baptists in the United States took up the cause of the prohibition movement to combat what was perceived to be a creeping “barbarism” among citizens of the western frontier.[7]

Baptists went on to champion the cause of prohibition through the revivals they hosted across the country. Again, Leonard comments:
Nineteenth-century revivals and temperance crusades represented an early "ecumenical movement" that brought together a variety of Protestant groups in cooperative efforts to evangelize and "Christianize" individuals and society alike. Revivals called persons to a direct and transforming experience of God's grace through Jesus Christ. Temperance crusades called the converted to live out their faith by rejecting the physical and spiritual pollution of the body, a temple of the Holy Spirit. Evangelical revivalists made abstinence a sign of true conversion, insisting that alcohol inhibited the work of the Spirit in the life of the believer. Since alcohol was proven to be a dangerous drug and since the effects of its usage varied with individuals, abstinence was the best response. For many Baptists and other Christians, abstinence became a requirement for Christian discipleship.[8]
Abstinence became a plank in the Baptist platform of social and ecclesial life. Many Baptist churches that had formerly prohibited public drunkenness in their congregational by-laws edited those documents to reflect the more strenuous requirement of total alcohol abstinence.[9]

The Southern Baptist Convention was birthed shortly after the era of the Second Great Awakening and soon adopted statements that echoed the prevailing Baptist prohibitionist sentiment of the day. SBC resolutions related to alcohol included language like “do most solemnly protest against its [alcohol] manufacture and sale, and pledge our influence in the exercise of our rights as citizens of this free country, socially, morally, religiously and in all other proper ways, to work for its speedy overthrow, and to this end we invoke the aid and blessing of Almighty God” (1886); “we are unalterably opposed to the sale of intoxicating liquor, as a beverage, either under high or low license” (1890); “reaffirm our truceless (sic) opposition to the liquor traffic in any and all forms and our sympathy with every righteous measure looking to its annihilation” (1898); “The greatest enemy of the cause of Christ which we as a Convention in part represent is the legalized liquor traffic…” (1907); ask a pledge of total abstinence from intoxicating liquors during their [politicians’] official life on the part of all candidates whose oath of office calls for their support of the constitution of the United States” (1923).[10]

Richard Land, formerly of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, summarized the Convention’s position saying, “Southern Baptists' understanding of the issue has been exceedingly unambiguous…Southern Baptists meeting in session have called their brothers and sisters to live "an exemplary Christian lifestyle of abstinence from beverage alcohol and all other harmful drugs" (1984); to recognize alcohol as "America's number one drug problem" (1982); to "reaffirm our historic position as opposing alcohol as a beverage" (1978); to view "personal abstinence" as the "Christian way" (1957); to express their "unceasing opposition to the manufacture, sale and use of alcoholic beverages" (1955); to realize alcohol is a "habit-forming and destructive poison" (1940) and the "chief source of vice, crime, poverty and degradation" (1936); and to "reassert our truceless and uncompromising hostility to the manufacture, sale, importation and transportation of alcoholic beverages" (1896).”[11]

Both Land and Leonard mention that although there is a strong historical trend among Southern Baptists against the consumption of alcohol, a growing minority of church members do consume liquor, wine, or beer either in public or in private.[12] Younger adult Baptists, even Southern Baptists, are moving in a liberalizing direction on the issue. These young adults (and older adults, for sure) are living into the complicated relationship that our theology, polity, and hermeneutics have with one another as Baptists.

It would be easy to settle the issue if the Bible spoke unambiguously about the consumption of alcohol.[13] Those who advocate total abstinence do so with support of various interpretations of the “Spirit-filled” life and passages concerning drunkenness. Those who support moderation or even ignore the issue altogether certainly have the majority of Christian history and tradition on their side, as well as an equal number of Biblical citations concerning the consumption of alcohol presented in a positive context.

The issues involved in the Baptists versus alcohol debate were writ large in the Brandon election. Baptists in the city staked out their predictable territory and lobbied for the defeat of the measure.

It seems that the vote came down to “progress” on the one side and something like Christian faithfulness on the other. The issue was presented in such a way by pastors that it seemed one could not be a Christian (at least a Baptist) and vote yes.[14]

By wrapping the issue up in terms of DUIs, alcohol addiction, and other social ills the Baptists of Brandon revealed their own implicit support of Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel.[15] Because the argument has been moved for so long from theological and ecclesial language Baptists have not noticed that by even taking a position on the issue they are taking a position on the government’s ability to regulate morality. I hold no misconception that the Baptists in Brandon would endorse the social programs that were developed from Rauschenbusch’s work. I do think, though, that an examination of the historical tradition of Baptists’ fight against alcohol just might nudge some believers from their staunch conservatism.

In the end, the measure passed by a margin of almost 3:1. That’s a landslide in political terms. Was the momentum of progress that compelling to voters? Were the Baptist pastors of the city lacking in their persuasive speeches? No. The vote in Brandon demonstrated what has been true about Baptists all along: we are not a settled people on social issues like the consumption of alcohol regardless of the number of resolutions ratified at an annual gathering. Leonard concludes his article, “as Baptists experience the larger Christian culture, nationally and globally, through ecclesial, corporate or familial contacts, they may realize that the moderate use of alcohol is practiced by many conservative believers without being a litmus test of personal morality or orthodox theology.”[16]

There is room in our Baptist life to truly be the Priests we say we are and to demonstrate spiritual maturity on issues like alcohol and economic development. Few things in the life of the Christian disciple are as black-and-white as political campaigns make them out to be, especially when we are disciples in a tradition with no ecclesial authority to tell us which way to vote.

The teetotalers have a point, and they have sound biblical, historical, and cultural support for their position.[17] The “social progressives” who passed the issue have a point, too. They are worried about the morality of keeping people out of poverty and developing their community for the good of all. Certainly some will exploit the issue and abuse the sale and consumption of alcohol. This is exactly why the issue isn’t settled in Baptist life - we cannot reduce issues of such social import to binary choices between righteousness and apostasy.

[2] This number comes from a search for “Baptist Churches” on
[4] Crossview Baptist Church
[5] Leonard, Bill, “”They Have No Wine:” Wet/Dry Baptists and the Alcohol Issues.” Creswell Theological Review 5 no 2 (Spring 2008), 3.
[6] Ibid, 5.
[7] Ibid, 9.
[8] Ibid, 10.
[9] William Brackney notes, “So pervasive was the temperance movement among Baptists of the period [late 19th and early 20th century] that literally hundreds of documents could be chosen to illustrate its character and flavor.” Brackney, William, Baptist in Life and Thought: 1600-1980. Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1983, 3, 49, cited in Leonard.
[10] All of these resolutions and many more are easily accessed at I could have listed many, many more; this sample serves to demonstrate how early and how strong the SBC’s position on alcohol was established.
[11] Land, Richard, “The Christian and Alcohol.” Criswell Theological Review, 5 no. 2 (Spring 2008), 20.
[12] Leonard, quoting Robert C. Fuller, says, “Writing in 1996, he [Fuller] reported that a recent study "showed that 48 percent of Southern Baptists drink alcoholic beverages despite strong pressure from the pulpit and denominational authorities."” Leonard, 10. Also Land: “Over the last two decades, attitudes toward alcohol use among some Southern Baptists have moderated, however. The greatest evidence of the recent shift in attitudes occurred at the 2006 annual Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Greensboro, North Carolina. At that meeting, the Resolutions Committee brought a resolution that called on churches to reaffirm their historical attitude toward alcohol consumption…That resolution produced more discussion and dissent than any other resolution presented at the meeting. Some messengers were so convinced of their freedom to consume alcoholic beverages that they took to the floor of the convention and urged the body not to adopt the resolution. In the end, according to press reports more than four-fifths approved the resolution, but a small, vocal group voted against it.” Land, 20.
[13] Land believes that the Scriptures do just that. Interestingly enough, his Biblical literalism on other issues falls second to his interpretive and eisegetical intentions for the meaning of the text. See Land, “The Christian and Alcohol.”
[15] Leonard, 11-12.
[16] Leonard, 17.
[17] Leonard suggests that there may be movement away from prohibition among Baptists. He writes, “Third, the abstinence emphasis is so strong and so deep in certain Baptist traditions, often because of personal or family problems with excessive alcohol, that many will never entertain another option. Yet the fact that the issue has even arisen (and that this journal requested this article) illustrates that there is renewed dialogue on the matter, and that even some conservative Baptists are reassessing temperance arguments, often in light of biblical exegesis. Whether this represents a new justification of an old historical taboo or a recovery of older biblical hermeneutics remains to be seen.” Leonard, 17. 

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