Alcohol (1958)

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Almost as old in the history of humanity as the use of intoxicating or alcoholic drinks is the attempt by intelligent rulers and leaders to promote or require temperance if not prohibition. In addition to religious teaching against drinking, political and moral reasons have been advanced for the restriction or entire prohibition of the manufacture and use of intoxicants. In medieval Europe the manufacture of wine and beer, the chief fermented liquors, was not sufficiently widespread to permit much intemperance. After the 13th century, however, the increase of wealth led to a heavier consumption of hard liquors (whiskey, brandy, gin, etc.) and a corresponding increase in the evil effects of the use of alcohol.

The Reformation Period

The 16th century was an age of excessive drinking, particularly in Germany. Prof. Fritz Blanke in his Reformation und Alkoholismus, which is an unusually thorough and valuable study on this question, says that the 16th century was one of drinking and gluttony. ("Das 16. Jahrhundert ist das Sauf- und Fressjahrhundert, wenigstens in deutschen Landen.") All the leading reformers complained about the excessive drinking, and Sebastian Franck's (1499-1542) booklet (tr.) Concerning the horrible vice of drunkenness paints a terrible picture of the evil. Both Luther and Franck viewed drunkenness as a sign of the last times, and Franck concluded that only the Judgment Day could cleanse the Kingdom of Christ of this and similar evils. Blanke believes that the coming of the Reformation actually increased drunkenness, and Luther himself complained that the people had misunderstood his teaching of Christian liberty. Various attempts were made by the leaders of church and state to improve conditions, but all failed. Blanke suggests that the only real hope was total abstinence, but no one at that time advocated such a course except Sebastian Franck, the lone prophet on the extreme left, and possibly the Anabaptists.

Probably the very first (and one of the very few) writings against the use of alcoholic liquors was that of 1525 by Ludwig Haetzer (ca. 1500-1529), an Anabaptist of somewhat uncertain character, entitled Von dem Evangelischen Zechen und von der Christenred aus heiliger geschrifft 1525 dem Konstanzer Bürger Achatius Froembd gewidmet, published at Augsburg, whither Haetzer came after his expulsion from Zürich on 21 January, and where he laid the foundations for what later became an Anabaptist congregation there. Neff's article on Haetzer (ML 1, 226-7) analyzes the content of that part of the booklet which deals with "Zechen" (drinking liquor) as follows: "He speaks at length of how one must enter through much tribulation into the Kingdom of God. It is one of the tricks of Satan to praise drinking and carousing (Zechen und Saufen) as Gospel freedom. They call it 'evangelical drinking' as though it befits the 'evangelicals' to drink. Accordingly he is the most 'evangelical' who carouses and carries on the worst. They say, you can't force young people into narrow confines, you must let water run freely or it will burst out somewhere and do damage. But what does the Gospel say? The first Christians came together to worship God and not to drink. Christ and not Bacchus brought them together. The joy of the Christian is joy in the Holy Ghost. Haetzer continues to expound in detail the seriously Christian, truly evangelical manner of life as taught by the Holy Scriptures. But how shall the evangelical congregations deal with drinkers? They shall excommunicate them as such who are of no value to the church of God, but rather harm."

The Anabaptists and Alcohol

The earliest Anabaptist confession, The Seven Articles of Schleitheim (1527), forbade in Article 4 the patronage of drinking places. Capito, the reformer of Strasbourg, states in a contemporary letter that the Anabaptists had undertaken to refrain, among other things, from drinking ("zu meiden das üppige Spielen, Saufen, Fressen, Ehebrechen, Kriegen, Totschlagen"). Bullinger, Zwingli's successor in Zürich, in his 1560 work against the Anabaptists (Von der Wiedertaufferen Ursprung) states that they drank only unfermented sweet cider (Süssmost) and water. Anabaptists were often identified as such because they refused in the inns to drink alcoholic liquors to the health of other guests, whereupon they were arrested and executed. An illustration of this is Michael Seifensieder, a preacher of the Hutterites, who with two associates was arrested on 8 January 1536 in an inn in Vienna for the above reason, having been discovered by his refusal to drink, and was finally burned at the stake on 31 March 1536. The Hutterite Peter Riedemann's Confession of Faith, written in 1540, says "concerning innkeepers," "neither do we allow any of our number to be a public innkeeper, serving either wine or beer, since this goeth with all that is unchaste, ungodly and decadent, and drunkards and good-for-nothing fellows get there together to carry out their headstrong wills. . . . It is nearly impossible for an innkeeper to keep himself from sin"; and "concerning standing drinks" (standing--setting up), "it is the cause of evil and transgression of the commandments of God .... for thereby is the man moved and lured on to drink when he otherwise would not do so. Therefore it is against nature and is sin and evil. . . . Therefore the standing of drinks is evil at the root no matter how it is done. It is an invention of the devil to catch men, drawing them into his net, making them cleave to him and forsake God and leading them into all sins. Therefore, one should flee from it as from the face of a serpent" (1950 English edition, pages 127-29). It may well be assumed that the Swiss Brethren and other Anabaptists followed a similar standard. Menno Simons' writings contain many statements against the use of alcoholic drinks. This does not prove that the early Anabaptists required total abstinence, but does indicate a very sensitive conscience on the question of alcoholic drinks. There is abundant evidence on the other hand that the Hutterite Bruderhofs grew hops and grapes, and manufactured wine and beer, at least for delivery to their feudal overlords. That the modern Hutterites in North America make and drink their own wine would suggest that they drank wine also in their early history.

It appears that the Anabaptists as a whole were not quite so strict in regard to alcohol as some of the Swiss Brethren and Hutterites. While the writings of Menno Simons, Dirk Philips, and others contain many admonitions to a sober life with warnings against drunkenness based upon such passages as 1 Thessalonians 5:5-8, they did not call for total abstinence. In the Martyrs' Mirror one of the martyrs is reported as drinking a glass of wine. The noted elder Leenaert Bouwens was certainly not a teetotaler, and there is no evidence that the Mennonites of Holland in the 17th and 18th centuries were objectors to alcohol. On the contrary, there were many brewers and especially distillers of brandy among them. However, topers (droncken-drinckers) were subject to excommunication.

One of the chief reasons given by the reformers and others against total abstinence was the fear of promoting the idea of works-salvation or legalism, with the thought that by abstinence one could gain merit with God. The Anabaptists had no such fear. They were not afraid to advocate strict ethics and a high standard of Christian living in discipleship even though they were often accused of legalism and moralism on many points. As Blanke points out, the idea of total abstinence as a cure for the drink evil was promoted in the 16th to the 18th centuries by the Free Church movements, not by the state churches. In the 17th century, it was George Fox and the Quakers in England and the Inspirationists in France, Holland, and Germany who advocated complete abstinence from alcoholic liquors. In the 18th century it was John Wesley and the Methodists. In fact even in the 19th century the temperance and abstinence movements were largely the work of Free Church leaders in America and in Europe, but particularly in America.

Meanwhile during this period the Mennonites in Europe lost something of their earlier strictness in the matter, and some seem to have inclined to the drinking customs of their environment. In fact in some areas Mennonites took the lead in the manufacture and dispensing of liquor.

Mennonite Brewers and Distillers

"Old Overholt" whiskey bottle label

The immigrants from Germany, France, and Switzerland to the United States and Canada from 1683 to 1873 had no scruples against moderate drinking and numbers of them brought with them experience and skills in the distilling of alcoholic liquor. Whiskey distilling, and occasionally brewing, on a small scale was fairly common among the settlers in the pioneer communities of colonial and later days, particularly in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Samuel Bechtel, a Mennonite settler of pre-Revolutionary days (before 1776) near Hagerstown, Maryland, who personally built a Mennonite church on his property, built a self-contained unit including a flour mill, blacksmith shop, and distillery. Abraham Overholt, who was during his whole lifetime (d. 1870) an active member of the Scottdale, Pennsylvania, Mennonite congregation and served at different times as a trustee there, and whose brother was a minister and bishop, established at Broadford near by in 1810 a distillery which has developed into a major industry, in the 1950s a part of the Schenley Distilleries Corporation, which sold a whiskey labeled "Old Overholt" with a picture of Abraham on the label. (Incidentally, none of Abraham's children became Mennonites, and a grandson was Henry Clay Frick, the steel magnate, worth $100 million at his death.) A rye wiskey with the "Old Overholt" name was still available in 1999.

Leisy beer label

Isaac, August, and Henry Leisy, all Mennonites and brothers from Friedelsheim, Palatinate, Germany, who came to the United States in 1852, founded the Leisy brewery in Keokuk, Iowa, in 1862. In 1872 the family purchased the brewery of Fred Haltnorth in Cleveland and transferred operations to that city. In 1935 after the repeal of prohibition, the Leisy Brewing Company was reorganized and Herbert F. Leisy, grandson of Isaac Leisy, became and in 1955 was still its president. The family had not been Mennonite for several generations.

Temperance in Europe

Movements for temperance and abstinence did not rise among the Mennonites at any place in Europe (except when they were brought in from the outside) and most European Mennonites did not and do not to this day sympathize with or take part in such movements, with some notable exceptions such as the late Elder Michael Horsch of Ingolstadt, Bavaria, and certain French elders as Pierre Sommer, Joseph Muller, and Pierre Widmer. The leading temperance movement of Europe, the Blue Cross Society (Blaues Kreuz), a Christian organization for the rescuing of alcoholics through religious renewal and a pledge of total abstinence, grew out of a Swiss temperance society organized in Geneva in 1877, which rapidly became an international movement of considerable strength, reaching Germany in 1885. It requires total abstinence of its members, but does not condemn the moderate use of alcoholic liquors by others, seeking rather to enlist all in an organized movement to rescue alcoholics and promote temperance. Among the French Mennonites there has been more activity in the total abstinence and Blue Cross movements than anywhere else among Mennonites in Europe. Pierre Sommer, editor of the Mennonite paper Christ Seul (1907-1941), published many articles advocating abstinence, trying vigorously to promote among the French Mennonites a stronger position on the renunciation of alcoholic beverages and influencing many young people. Joseph Muller, Elder of the Toul Mennonite Church, was a strong leader of the Blue Cross Society in the region of Nancy-Toul, with a high reputation among the French Protestants and others. On his farm "Bois-le-Comte" near Toul, he received many drunkards, many of whom he led to a real conversion, through Christian love, and into the practice of total abstinence. The Toul Mennonite Church has been very greatly influenced by the personality and the work of Joseph Muller, and a number of the members of this church have taken the position of complete abstinence. Muller was a member of the national board of the French Blue Cross Society. Pierre Widmer, a later editor of Christ Seul, son-in-law of Pierre Sommer, was a promoter of the movement for total abstinence and a member of the French Blue Cross Society. As a public school teacher he continued to promote the cause through Christ Seul, as his predecessor had. In Holland a Mennonite group to promote total abstinence was formed in 1924 as a section of the Gemeentedag movement under the name Arbeidsgroep voor Geheelonthouding. Also some Dutch Mennonite ministers, especially H. C. Barthel, were permanent members of the Dutch association for total abstinence.

In Russia there were by 1819 several Mennonite brewers in the Chortitza colony and moderate drinking was fairly common in all the Mennonite settlements in Russia, there being drinking houses in a number of the Mennonite villages. However, as early as 1830 the Kleine Gemeinde, a small strict schismatic group, protested vigorously against the use of alcoholic beverages and tobacco. By the middle of the century, a temperance society was founded in the village of Gnadenfeld, which promoted abstinence and whose members signed a lifetime pledge of total abstinence and distributed tracts promoting their ideas. The founders of the Mennonite Brethren Church were vigorous champions of abstinence, and always had prohibition of beverages with a high alcoholic content as one of their principles, although they did not forbid moderate drinking of wine and beer. By 1870 most Russian Mennonites had developed a conscience against drinking hard liquors, although the Mennonite General Conference never adopted any resolution on this question paralleling the Mennonite Brethren.

Temperance in North America

Meanwhile in the United States and Canada a general temperance movement was developing, beginning in the first decade of the 19th century and rising to a powerful reform movement, carried in general by the Protestant churches, particularly Methodists and Baptists. The first organized temperance society appeared in 1808, the stronger American Temperance Union in 1833, the powerful Woman's Christian Temperance Union in 1874, and the well-organized Anti-Saloon League in 1895. This movement was supported early by the Sunday schools, and when temperance Sundays and temperance lessons were introduced into the International Uniform Lessons in 1881, developing in 1892 into regular quarterly temperance lessons, a powerful impetus was given to the rapidly developing temperance and total abstinence cause. Mennonites gradually came under the influence of this movement, although at first, whether in the older Pennsylvania settlements and their daughter settlements, or in the Russian Mennonite settlements of 1874 following in Canada, there was opposition to members becoming active participants in temperance organizations and temperance agitation. The resolutions of the Ontario Mennonite Conference in 1842, and the Western District (General Conference) of 1879 illustrate this. However, in the 19th century apparently no Mennonite conferences dared to go further in binding legislation than to forbid members to hold licenses to sell liquor or to go into saloons to drink (see Indiana Mennonite Conference 1875-79, 1884, 1893, Southwestern Pennsylvania Conference 1888, Lancaster Conference of this and earlier years). Gradually by the end of the century resolutions began to appear condemning the "liquor traffic." It is clear that the American temperance and total abstinence movement was beginning to take root in the Mennonite mind as a generation was reared on Sunday-school temperance lessons, and as the vigorous agitation of the Anti-Saloon League and the great temperance unions began to take effect. Kansas, where many Mennonites from Russia settled, was one of the strongest states in prohibition sentiment, with a state-wide complete prohibition law from 1881 to 1950. Oklahoma was also been under a complete prohibition law from its admission to statehood in 1908. By the early 20th century most Mennonites had become total abstainers, even to the extent of using unfermented grape juice instead of wine for the communion service. Notable exceptions were such groups as the Old Order Amish and those communities where there were more recent immigrants, especially from Alsace. The Old Order Amish were never much affected by the temperance movement. Some of the newer Mennonite immigrants from Russia (1873 ff.) were vigorous champions of total abstinence. An outstanding example was the prominent Cornelius Jansen family. The town of Jansen, Nebraska, founded by this family, had a provision in its charter that no saloons could ever be established within its limits. Jacob Y. Shantz, a prominent lay leader of Kitchener (then Berlin), Ontario, was an active temperance worker as early as 1860. P. S. Hartman (1849-1934), a layman near Harrisonburg, Virginia, was similarly active. J. S. Hartzler, a minister in Elkhart County, Indiana, 1882 ff., did his part. Bishop John Smith (d. 1906) was an early advocate of temperance among the Amish Mennonites of Central Illinois.

In the United States the temperance and prohibition movements grew to be very powerful in the first quarter of the 20th century, with widespread adoption of local option laws permitting local communities to vote out the sale of liquor, state-wide prohibition laws, and finally national prohibition effected through the 18th amendment passed in 1919 and effective in 1920, which was the law of the land until its repeal in 1933. Most Mennonites actively supported this movement and took part in local option elections against the liquor traffic. Numbers of Mennonites voted in local and national elections for the prohibition party which was organized as a national party in 1869 and was still in existence in the 1950s. The traditional opposition of some Mennonites to participation in politics caused some to withhold their vote even in local option elections. In other areas, however, even the most conservative leaders publicly urged their members to go to the polls to vote on the liquor issue. The disillusionment accompanying the breakdown of national prohibition has broken somewhat the spell of the belief that such evils as the drink evil can be cured by legislation and has had repercussions in the attitude of Mennonites toward voting on any issue. It became clear that it is impossible by legislation to enforce high ethical standards upon a population if the majority do not believe in such standards. The realization of this fact has probably promoted a greater withdrawal from politics in general among Mennonites. Meanwhile the pattern of total abstinence has become thoroughly established among American Mennonites of all branches, most of whom today would not knowingly tolerate among their membership the drinking of alcoholic beverages.

The entrance into Europe after 1945 of several hundred American Mennonites, whether as relief workers or visitors, all of them abstaining altogether from the drinking of alcoholic beverages including even light wines and beer, has emphasized the difference between American Mennonites and the European Mennonites, who on the whole have continued their tolerance of moderate drinking and many of whom frequently set on their tables, particularly for festive occasions, alcoholic beverages such as wine or cider or who furnish such beverages to their farmhands as a part of the daily maintenance. It is evident that the descendants of the European Mennonites who came to America have been Americanized also in respect to the alcoholic beverage question. Although America in general, since the breakdown of prohibition, has increased its drinking, particularly of hard liquors, the American Mennonites as a whole are firmly set in their opposition to alcoholic drinking in any form.

Whether the coming of the Russian Mennonites to America 1873-1880, with their general and growing conscience against drinking, was an appreciable factor in the promotion of temperance among the earlier immigrants, as claimed by Harley J. Stuckey in his 1947 master's thesis ("Cultural interaction among the Mennonites since 1870," Northwestern University, unprinted), is an open question. Although there is probably some truth to this claim, the indigenous American temperance movement was certainly a more powerful factor. It is possible that John F. Funk (1835-1930), the editor and publisher of the Herald of Truth (the church paper of the [old] Mennonites and Amish Mennonites, founded in 1864), was himself influenced by the Russian Mennonite attitude and in turn aroused to more vigorous advocacy of the temperance cause in his paper. Certain it is that in the years of the publication of this paper before the coming of the Russian Mennonites nothing was said against either drinking or smoking, and that after 1881 articles of this type appeared regularly. All the church schools established by the Mennonites of all branches, either high school or college, had rules prohibiting the use of strong drink by their students.

In the large Swiss Mennonite community around Berne, Indiana, the temperance movement early took root. One of the primary figures was John Christian Rohrer, who had come there in 1885 from Bern, Switzerland, where he had been a charter member of the Blue Cross Society, said to be the first person known to sign a German total abstinence pledge. In 1886 he succeeded in organizing a German temperance society at Berne, all of whose charter members were Mennonites, and which was joined soon after by the pastor of the church, S. F. Sprunger, although the majority of the church members were opposed to it. There were four saloons in the small village of Berne at that time, patronized in part by Mennonites, and the society quietly worked and successfully changed public sentiment in the community in favor of temperance and against saloons. A determined campaign to eliminate the saloons from the city by legal methods was begun in 1902, led by Fred Rohrer, son of the founder of the temperance society. The exciting story of this struggle, which included such outrages as four assaults upon Rohrer's person and a dynamiting of his home, but was finally crowned with success, is told in the book Saloon fight at Berne, Indiana. The Temperance Society at Berne published in 1901 a 16-page booklet by J. G. Ewert of Hillsboro, Kan,, Die Bibel und Enthaltsamkeit, which was reprinted in an enlarged and revised edition in 1903 with a total issue of 10,000 copies. -- Harold S. Bender

See also Alcohol Among the Mennonites of Northeast Germany; Alcohol Among the Mennonites of Northwest Germany

Addendum (1990)

The Mennonite position on alcohol use has eased since the 1950s, particularly among more acculturated Mennonite groups. In 1972 only 50% of the members in the Mennonite Church, General Conference Mennonite Church, Mennonite Brethren Church, Evangelical Mennonite Church and Brethren in Christ Church said that moderate use of alcoholic beverages was "always wrong." This dropped to 43 percent in 1989. -- Samuel J. Steiner


Blanke, Fritz. "Reformation und Alcoholismus," Zwingliana (1949): 75-89.

Braght, Thieleman J. van. Het Bloedigh Tooneel of Martelaers Spiegel der Doopsgesinde of Weereloose Christenen, Die om 't getuygenis van Jesus haren Salighmaker geleden hebben ende gedood zijn van Christi tijd of tot desen tijd toe. Den Tweeden Druk. Amsterdam: Hieronymus Sweerts, 1685: Part II, 347, 480.

Braght, Thieleman J. van. The Bloody Theatre or Martyrs' Mirror of the Defenseless Christians Who Baptized Only upon Confession of Faith and Who Suffered and Died for the Testimony of Jesus Their Saviour . . . to the Year A.D. 1660. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1951: 706, 822. Available online at:

Kauffman, J. Howard and Leland Harder, eds. Anabaptists Four Centuries Later: a Profile of Five Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Denominations. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1975: 124 ff.

Kauffman, J. Howard and Leo Driedger. . Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1991: 193.

Saloon fight at Berne, Indiana. Berne, 1913.

Additional Information

Schleitheim Confession of Faith (1527)

Author(s) Harold S Bender
Samuel J. Steiner
Date Published 1958

Cite This Article

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Bender, Harold S and Samuel J. Steiner. "Alcohol (1958)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1958. Web. 21 Apr 2024.

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Bender, Harold S and Samuel J. Steiner. (1958). Alcohol (1958). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 21 April 2024, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 36-40. All rights reserved.

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