The Heroine of the Temperance Cause

Isabella Alden was a great campaigner for the temperance movement. She had seen for herself the consequences of an unregulated alcohol industry. Alcoholic drinks in her time were often far more potent than commercial beer, wine and distilled liquor we’re used to today, making them much more addictive. Sometimes alcoholic beverages were laced with other substances, like cocaine; and alcohol was openly marketed to children.

This short video by documentary film maker Ken Burns describes the influence of  liquor on America at the turn of the Twentieth Century.


Isabella’s dear friend Theodosia Toll Foster (whose nom de plume was Faye Huntington) was another tireless worker for the cause of temperance. Many of her novels were written for publication by the National Temperance Society and described the impact of alcoholism on the lives of individuals and communities.

Cover_John Remington MartyrAnd in her own books, Isabella often wove stories around the impact alcoholism had on families. She and her sister Marcia Livingston co-authored the novel, John Remington, Martyr, which chronicled one man’s efforts to fight the power of the alcohol industry and its hold on society.

Isabella, Theodosia and Marcia, as well as Marcia’s daughter, Grace Livingston Hill, were active members of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. The W.C.T.U. began in 1874 as a “crusade” of 208 dedicated temperance workers.

The Baptist Church in Fredonia, NY. Here on December 15, 1873 208 crusaders met and organized the Women's Christian Temperance Union
The Baptist Church in Fredonia, NY. Here on December 15, 1873 208 crusaders met and organized the Women’s Christian Temperance Union

When Frances Willard was named the W.C.T.U.’s president in 1879, she inherited an organization comprised of several autonomous chapters with no unified action plan to achieve the group’s goal of reforming the distribution and sale of alcohol in America.

Up to that point, the organization was known for it crusades—bands of women visiting local saloons to pray and ask saloonkeepers to close their doors and stop selling spirits. For the most part, they were seen as teetotaling moral zealots.

An 1874 illustration of crusaders
An 1874 illustration of crusaders


Frances Willard had a different vision for the organization. By profession she was a teacher. She was educated, dynamic, and persuasive; she used those talents to redefine the W.C.T.U. Knowing that America’s high rate of alcoholism was directly related to crime, sexual assault, poverty, and domestic violence, she redirected the organization to focus on social reform and political activism.

Frances Willard in an undated photo
Frances Willard in an undated photo


She formed alliances with politicians, instilled a sense of sisterhood in W.C.T.U. members, and cultivated powerful and influential allies.

W.C.T.U. card from about 1912
W.C.T.U. card from about 1912


Lewis Miller, co-founder of Chautauqua Institution and a multi-millionaire industrialist, was a staunch supporter of the W.C.T.U.; his wife Mary was one of the first members of the Ohio W.C.T.U., a well-organized and militant branch of the organization.

Mina Miller at about age 19
Mina Miller at about age 19

Their daughter Mina recalled how her mother, with other “dauntless women” visited saloons and pleaded with the male proprietors to close their doors. They were often subjected to insults and even had buckets of water thrown on them.

After Mina Miller married Thomas Edison, the great American inventor, she used her influence as “Mrs. Edison” to further the W.C.T.U.’s programs.

And what programs they were! W.C.T.U. members developed and taught temperance lessons to children in Sunday schools and visited drunkards in prison. They lobbied for free public kindergartens and prison reform. By 1889 W.C.T.U. chapters were operating nurseries, Sunday schools, homeless shelters, and homes for fallen women. Members supported labor reform, suffrage, disarmament, and the eight-hour work day.

The W.C.T.U. Marching Song
The W.C.T.U. Marching Song


Isabella often wrote about the activities of the W.C.T.U. in her books. Most striking was her novel One Commonplace Day. In that story, a group of people come together on their own to help one family overcome the effects of alcoholism; and they employ many of the  W.C.T.U. methods to do so.

W.C.T.U. headquarters building at Chautauqua Institution, New York
W.C.T.U. headquarters building at Chautauqua Institution, New York


Isabella and Frances Willard often lectured together, speaking before different chapters of the Sunday School Assembly and at regional Chautauqua locations.

Statue of Frances Willard in the United States Capital, Washington D.C.
Statue of Frances Willard in the United States Capital, Washington D.C.

By the time Frances Willard passed away in 1898 the W.C.T.U. was an acknowledged political and social force in the United States. Under her leadership the organization united women from varied backgrounds, educated them and empowered them to form one of the strongest and most influential women’s organizations in American history.

In 1905 a statue of Frances Willard was erected in National Statuary Hall at the United States Capital in Washington D.C. Her statue was the first honoring a woman to be chosen for the National Statuary Hall Collection.

Would you like to learn more about Frances Willard and the W.C.T.U.? Click here to visit the organization’s website.

Click on this link to read more about the statue of Frances Willard in Statuary Hall at the United States Capital.

Grace Livingston Hill wrote a short biography of Frances Willard’s early years. Click here to read her 1909 article.

You can watch the full 90-minute Ken Burns documentary “A Nation of Drunkards” here:

Taking the Pledge

Cover_Interrupted resized

Claire Benedict, the main character in Interrupted, is a woman who is dedicated to making a difference in people’s lives. She regularly prays for friends and acquaintances; and when she meets someone new, she immediately begins looking for opportunities to help that person.

That’s certainly the case with Harry Matthews. As soon as Claire meets him, she realizes Harry may have a problem with alcohol.

Alcohol drunk men

Later in the book, Harry finds himself indebted to Claire and tells her that if he can ever do anything for her, she has only to ask and it will be done.


There was a flush on Claire’s cheeks as she replied, holding forward a little book at the same time.

She could think of scarcely anything else, so easily done, that would give her greater pleasure than to have him write his name on her pledge book; she had an ambition to fill every blank. There was room for five hundred signers, and she and her sister at home were trying to see which could get their pledge-book filled first. Would he give her his name?

And so, to his amazement and dismay, was Harry Matthews brought face to face with a total abstinence pledge. What an apparently simple request to make! How almost impossible it seemed to him to comply with it!

He made no attempt to take the little book, but stood in embarrassment before it.

Page from Pledge Book 2
Click on the image to enlarge

“Isn’t there anything else?” he said, at last, trying to laugh. “I hadn’t an idea that you would ask anything of this sort. I can’t sign it, Miss Benedict; I can’t really, though I would like to please you.”

“What is in the way, Mr. Matthews? Have you promised your mother not to sign it?”

The flush on his cheek mounted to his forehead, but still he tried to laugh and speak gaily.

“Hardly! My mother’s petitions do not lie in that direction. But I really am principled against signing pledges. I don’t believe in a fellow making a coward of himself and hanging his manhood on a piece of paper.”

This was foolish. Would it do to let the young fellow know that she knew it was?

“Then you do not believe in bonds, or mortgages, or receipts, or promises to pay, of any sort—not even bank-notes!”

He laughed again.

“That is business,” he said.

“Well,” briskly, “this is business. I will be very business-like. What do you want me to do, give you a receipt? Come, I want your name to help fill my book, and I am making as earnest a business as I know how, of securing names.”

“Miss Benedict, I am not in the least afraid of becoming a drunkard.”

Alcohol Choice

“Mr. Matthews, that has nothing whatever to do with the business in hand. What I want is your name on my total abstinence pledge. If you do not intend to be a drinker, you can certainly have no objection to gratifying me in this way.”

“Ah, but I have! The promise trammels me unnecessarily and foolishly. I am often thrown among people with whom it is pleasant to take a sip of wine, and it does no harm to anybody.”

“How can you be sure of that? There are drunkards in the world, Mr. Matthews; is it your belief that they started out with the deliberate intention of becoming such, or even with the fear that they might? Or were they led along step by step?”

“Oh, I know all that; but I assure you I am very careful with whom I drink liquor. There are people who seem unable to take a very little habitually; they must either let it alone, or drink to excess. Such people ought to let it alone, and to sign a pledge to do so. I never drink with any such; and I never drink, anyway, save with men much older than I, who ought to set me the example instead of looking to me, and who are either masters of themselves, or too far gone to be influenced by anything that I might do.”

Was there ever such idiotic reasoning!

WCTU 1907

When Isabella Alden wrote Interrupted in 1885, there was a strong temperance movement sweeping across America. Driving that wave was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), which worked tirelessly toward the elimination of alcohol “with a mother’s love.”

The WCTU and other Christian temperance organizations used temperance pledges as a device to secure individuals’ promises to abstain from the consumption of alcohol.



Alchol Temperance Pledge Card
Click on the card to enlarge

The WCTU and organizations like them distributed pledge books and pledge cards liberally. Click on each of the pledge cards to see a larger image.

Alcohol WCTU pledge card 1917    Alcohol WCTU pledge card

Alcohol WCTU& pledge card 1887    Pledge Album

Family pledge documents were also distributed so entire families could take the pledge together, with family members often serving as witnesses to each others’ signatures.

Alcohol Temperance Pledge

Once signed, the pledges were often kept in family Bibles at a time in America when the family Bible was the most important possession in the home.

Family Pledge
Click on the image to enlarge

The temperance pledge was an effective tool for the WCTU because it tied abstinence to virtue, morality, and, most importantly, a pledge before God.