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“Not Rum but Righteousness”: Billy Sunday Attacks Booze

Urban as well as rural Americans flocked to fundamentalist and evangelical churches in the 1920s. Preaching tradition and timeless value, American evangelicals adopted innovative techniques for spreading their message. Billy Sunday, the most famous preacher of the early 20th century, began his career as a professional baseball player. He emphasized a rugged, swaggering, masculine Christianity spoken in plain, slangy English. Widely regarded as the model for novelist Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry, he combined the modern and the traditional in attacks on liquor, like this excerpt from one of Sunday’s sermons. Sunday denounced the government’s attempt to regulate and tax liquor as immoral. In his famously forceful and slangy style, he insisted that America needed God, not liquor.

Listen to Audio:

Billy Sunday: I don’t give a hoot for the regulation of the sale of liquor. If we must have booze, well let’s sell it in a saloon where it belongs. That’s where it belongs. Government regulation of booze has always been worse than when it was in the sale of private hands. For when it was in the sale of private hands, it kept it in the saloon where it belongs. What difference does it make whether a man guzzles beer standing at a bar or sitting down at a table, who sold to a preacher, or a high school girl, has the same effect as when it’s sold to an automobile thief or a horse thief. Congress has passed a law putting two dollars of tax on whiskey, and they expect to realize 300 million dollars. That means that the American people have got to buy and drink 150 million gallons a year. They have put five dollars of federal tax on beer. That means the people have got to buy and drink 32 million barrels of beer a year. It doesn’t take a lawyer to figure out that if you do that you keep that much money out of legitimate channels you create, you spend that much less for food and clothes and boots and shoes and education and automobiles. Oh, America didn’t need repeal, she needed repentance! She didn’t need wrong, she needed righteousness! We don’t need Jags, we need Jesus! We don’t need more grog, we need more God!

Source: Courtesy of the Michigan State University, G. Robert Vincent Voice Library.

See Also:"Shall the Fundamentalists Win?": Defending Liberal Protestantism in the 1920s
"Shall We Gather at the River?": Aimee Semple McPherson on Prohibition