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One night in 1840, six men sat in a pub and decided to create an institution based on the radical idea that the best way to save somebody from alcoholism was to offer them regular support and guidance without denigrating their humanity or threatening them with the wrath of the all-mighty. It was a revolution in thinking about the humanistic treatment of addiction, and it was doomed from the start.

For many years, booze, religion, and humanity got along just fine with each other. Alcohol was central to all manner of religious rites, and its role in forging social bonds between strangers was recognized and duly honored in society. So it would have continued if not for our remarkable ingenuity in crafting drinks of ever-higher alcoholic content.

The watered-down wine that was central to the life of a Socrates became the gallon of beer that a 16th century English sailor received as his daily ration became the potent distilled grain spirits, Demon Gin and King Whisky, of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

As the potency of alcoholic beverages grew, so did the societal impact of drunkenness. The flamboyant lone town drunk morphed into a restless and desperate stratum of society of which any and all criminal behaviors might be expected.

The bottle, by George Cruikshank; ‘Fearful quarrels, and brutal violence’. Image via Wellcome Collection. Public Domain.

What was worse, from the Church’s point of view, drunkards didn’t go to services and so affected the financial prospects of Christianity. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church lamented in 1811:

We love our bodies more than our souls… It is among the foulest blots on the Christian name that, in so many instances, the confession is made of the heart being opened to receive the truth, whilst at the same time great reluctance is displayed in giving worldly substance.

Bottom line, contributions were down, and the increase in drunkenness was a powerful and visually immediate scapegoat. The Quakers, Presbyterians, and Methodists all contributed to the early temperance movement, and as Temperance became a respectable social cause, they were joined by the dignified power holders of society, forming elite clubs who met once a quarter to discuss what should be done about those people, the drunkards and distillers.

It was an often high-handed, self-deluded, and thoroughly arrogant approach to the problem that wrecked itself on the simple earnestness of our six men on that winter night. They were drinking buddies who had decided at long last to mend their ways.

More than that, they would form a society to help others beat their addiction to alcohol, not by compulsion through the law or the heaping of scorn, but by pledging total abstinence to each other and offering mutual aid and support during moments of weakness. They called themselves the Washingtonians, and they were, from the outset, a purely secular organization, actively shunning all hint of sectarian religion.

They recognized, in the words of Thomas F. Marshall, “[Some people] are so obdurate and obstinate in their prejudices in opposition to the church, that they would go down drunkards to the grave, rather than take the pledge [if the church were involved].”

The Washingtonians accepted anybody who needed help, and rotated their leadership every quarter to give everybody a sense of involvement in each other’s recovery. They had meetings several times a week instead of once a quarter, to give people a supportive place to go that wasn’t the tavern, and made personal testimony and group activities a part of the meetings.

From the funds they brought in, they provided shelter for homeless inebriates, and from their social connections, they arranged for jobs for those on the road of recovery. Their willingness to include people from all social strata, focus on mutual aid, sense of everyday community, and eagerness to share the leadership with the rank and file made the Washingtonians an astonishing and unique success in the increasingly crowded field of Temperance Societies.

Membership grew to the thousands within a year, with branches in New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. They founded a newspaper that argued for a persuasive approach to alleviating public drunkenness rather than the legalistic, prohibition-centered tack increasingly favored by the religious and high-society-controlled temperance organizations.

They were popular, egalitarian, and having a profound impact for the better on society. So, logically, they had to be stopped. The New York Herald stated the position of the religious establishment in 1842, lambasting the “free-thinkers” who founded the movement, “hoping by its means to teach men not to depend on religion for support in the observance of a moral law… thus striking at the very roots of the tree of life, for all must own that the beauty and perfection of the Gospel, as a rule for morality and virtue, is as superior to all the feeble enactments of man, as the Omnipotent is to the ‘very worms,’ who deny his existence.”

It was pointed out that the Washingtonians held meetings on Sundays, that they prevented polarizing sectarian speakers from addressing their groups, and that they actively disparaged the condescending efforts of their predecessors.

All of which was perfectly true, and which led even those preachers sympathetically inclined to the Washingtonians to wonder, with Reverend A.B. Chapin saying, “If [the Washingtonians] should succeed, would it not be a triumph of infidelity rather than religion?”

Through articles and sermons and the founding of well-funded competing societies, the Washingtonians quickly lost their influence, a process accelerated by their own lack of a rigid central command structure.

The new societies had strict rules for entry that denied the lower classes access, thereby attracting members of the middle class who were hungry for a higher status than the egalitarian Washingtonians could offer. Lawmakers and priests worked together to get laws on the books to compel sobriety in those excluded from the more fashionable temperance fraternities.

With the Washingtonians bankrupt and broken, the lower classes of alcoholic had nowhere to turn, shunned by status-conscious societies that might have offered them support, and branded criminals by a legal system that wanted to be done with them.

Abraham Lincoln saw the viciousness of this approach when he addressed the Washingtonians in 1842: “Assume to dictate to [the alcoholic’s] judgment, or to command his action, or to mark him as one to be shunned and despised, and he will retreat within himself, close all the avenues of his head and heart… such is man, and so must he be understood by those who would lead him, even to his own best interest.”

The road to the twisted experiment of American Prohibition led from the embers of the Washingtonians, a group torn apart by those who would rather see men not reformed at all if they did not have a hand in the reforming.

A victim of its own democratic spirit and understanding of human psychology, the Washingtonians were no match for the well-disciplined shock troops of organized religion and philanthropy.

By 1845, their members were either absorbed into other, more respectable fraternities if they were of good standing, or moldering in jail if they were not, and the principles of universal membership and mutual aid would not return until the foundation of Alcoholics Anonymous decades later, and then only with a massive theological underpinning quite contrary to the subtle humanism of those six founding fathers.

We’re finally finding our way back to the wisdom, though, of those mid-nineteenth-century men here in America. The state-sanctioned Christian monopoly of Alcoholics Anonymous (it is still common practice for judges to compel attendance regardless of the religious beliefs of the accused) is open to question, and the sliver of an idea, that plain and simple humanity, guided by the insights of neuroscience, is enough to aid the addicted, is making some public policy headway at last.

Looking to the example of the Washingtonians, a Renaissance in addiction support is very much at hand, not a shabby legacy for six ex-drunks from Baltimore.

Editor’s note: Today there are a number of secular alternatives to AA programs in the US. They are listed here. There are similar organizations in the UK.

Dale DeBakcsy (aka Count Dolby von Luckner) is the writer of the biweekly column Women In Science at Women You Should Know, and has been a regular contributor to The Freethinker, American Atheist Magazine, and The Humanist, and was the artist and writer behind the atheist webcomic The Vocate and the historical webcomic Frederick the Great: A Most Lamentable Comedy Breaching Space and Time.

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Veteran journalist and free speech activist Barry Duke was, for 24 years, editor of The Freethinker magazine, the second oldest continually active freethought publication in the world, established by G.W....