Utah Prohibition: Battle Between State and Religion

Article and images by KRISSI KARREN

More than one hundred years ago, anti-alcohol movements spread across the United States. On January 16, 1920, the prohibition of alcohol was enforced by the 18th amendment to the United States Constitution, which made the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating liquors officially illegal throughout America. (Fisher, Prohibition)

Salt Lake City, Utah, is the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormons follow “The Word of Wisdom,” a health law that stipulates that certain substances, including alcoholic drinks, are harmful.

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The still at Sugar House Distillery, where small batches of vodka, rum, malt whisky and bourbon whiskey are produced.

In the 1840s, Mormon pioneers settled in Utah, thus creating a long lineage of conservative culture. Mormon leaders have not only guided their religion, but also Utah politics. This article focuses on Utah’s stance on alcohol production and consumption between the time of Prohibition to 2017. By studying the political conditions in Utah we can gain insight about the effect of church over state and what led to ratification of the 21st amendment, and how Utah currently regulates alcohol consumption.

According to Bruce Dyer in his thesis, “A Study of the Forces Leading to the Adoption of Prohibition in Utah in 1917,” Senator Reed Smoot was an influential man in both the LDS religion and in politics. During the early 1900s, Senator Smoot controlled Intermountain Republican, a newspaper published in Salt Lake City. During the spring of 1908, the Intermountain Republican devoted considerable space on the front page to open political discussion. According to Dyer, each morning in large black letters the newspaper asked, “Shall Utah have Prohibition?” Within the box were the opinions of those who either favored statewide prohibition or were against it. Intermountain Republican and other journals were stressing the prohibition issue.

Also according to Dyer’s thesis, The Salt Lake Tribune carried the majority of the anti-prohibition articles appearing in local press. In 1908, an unidentified Tribune writer reported that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints owned Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institute, which was one of the most extensive liquor dealers in the state. (Dyer, 11) In addition, The Salt Lake Tribune addressed the fact that one of the religion’s greatest leaders, Brigham Young, was empowered to grant licenses to persons to manufacture liquor, which brings up the issue of business over beliefs. (Dyer, 12) According to a speech made by Richard Lyman on October 3, 1930, the most important pressure against Prohibition came from businessmen whose interests included liquor manufacture or sales.  

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Sugar House Distillery uses American oak whisky barrels that have been charred. This and the wood add flavor to the liquor.

Anti-alcohol movements were created to show that alcoholic drink in any form was dangerous and destructive. Alcohol was blamed for social problems such as unemployment, poverty, business failure, slums, insanity, crime and violence. Prohibitionists were utopian moralists because they believed that eliminating the legal manufacture and sale of alcoholic drink would solve the major social and economic problems of the American society. (Fisher, Economic) From the late 1800s to the early 1900s, Utah politicians came face to face with moral implications while deciding what was best for Utah and ultimately the American people, but first relied on the Mormon community for support.

According to a story published in the Deseret News on June 11, 1910, “although increasing scientific evidence on the adverse effects of alcohol helped the movement, moral rather than scientific considerations seem to have sustained it.”

Heber J. Grant, seventh president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, made an address in 1916 at an officers meeting of the Mutual Improvement Association. He said, “I believe that Utah should have been the first state in the Union to have adopted state prohibition, because the Lord has given to us a prohibition law….”

According to author Del Vance in his book, Beer in the Beehive, A History of Brewing in Utah, in 1929 Albert Becker was elected to the Utah House of Representatives. He was the first and last local brewery owner to hold a high position in Utah’s state government and lobbied hard for repeal of Prohibition. (194) It was becoming apparent to the government that prohibition did little to stop alcohol in Utah. Federal agents seized more than 400 distilleries, 25,000 gallons of spirits, 8,000 gallons of malt liquors, and 13,000 gallons of wine. (216) Chaos rose with underground sales and consumption of alcohol. Rather than decreasing crime rates, there was an increase, which put into perspective the viability of alcohol prohibition.

From 1920 to 1933 there was homebrewing, bootlegging, a declining economy and political propaganda on the restriction of alcohol, until the 21st Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed. On December 5, 1933, the state of Utah became the thirty-sixth state to ratify the amendment, which made the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating liquors legal. However, with the events of history in mind, alcohol consumption would not go back to how it was before the prohibition.

The Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, known as the DABC, was created in 1935, two years after the ratification of the 21st Amendment, which gave individual states the right to choose their own system of controlling and distributing alcoholic beverages. The Utah legislature believes that the state should control sales to promote responsible drinking and holds the intent to reasonably satisfy the public demand and protect the public interest, including the rights of citizens who do not wish to be involved with alcoholic beverages. The legislature also required that the department be operated as a public business using reasonable management principles and practices.

I experienced the effect of Utah’s government on alcohol regulation firsthand while touring Sugar House Distillery with owner James Fowler. Sugar House Distillery is located on 2212 S. West Temple in the Sugar House neighborhood of Salt Lake City. This distillery received federal approval for spirits distilling in September 2013, and Utah approval in January 2014. It now produces vodka, rum, malt whisky, and bourbon whiskey. James Fowler first showed me the “Zion Curtain” that he has to pull down over the alcohol he has for sale in the front room as well as the curtain that is over the window on the door that separates the front room from the distillery. This is a legislative provision required of restaurants and other establishments to keep children from seeing alcohol. Fowler said he is required to keep detailed records about his distillery that are examined by the DABC’s compliance department. In addition, he said 68 percent of his sales go toward taxes, thus making an income difficult in this industry. Despite challenges posed by legislation in Utah, he chose to launch his business here rather than Texas or Nevada. Ultimately, he said, “Utah has outstanding resources for fresh local ingredients and there is something special about the extra persistence required to locally produce alcohol in Utah.”  

To conclude, we can see that Mormon beliefs impacted the prohibition of alcohol in the 1900s. But because of crime rates, a declining economy and the fight of the opposition, the 18th Amendment eventually became unsuccessful.

The Utah State Legislation continually changes alcohol regulations. For example, in March 2017, Governor Gary Herbert signed a bill giving Utah the strictest drunken driving law in the nation. (Scribner) Herbert also signed into law HB 442, a 144-page document that made “numerous changes to how restaurants, dining clubs and off-premise beer retailers will operate.” (Lake) As the Tribune editorialized on April 26, 2017: “[E]very year the Legislature takes a step forward — like loosening the ridiculous Zion Curtain requirements … — it takes two steps back.”

Krissi Karren is a junior at The University of Utah and is majoring in mass communication. She is pursuing a career in the field of visual communication and is interested in writing about psychology and health of the human body, while residing in San Diego, California. Karren also wants to learn more about power Vinyasa yoga.

SOURCES

Irving Fisher, Economic Benefits of Prohibition (Westerville, Ohio: American Issue Press, 1926).

Irving Fisher, Prohibition at its Worst (New York: Alcohol Information Committee, 1927).

Heber J. Grant, “Prohibition,” address delivered June 9, 1916, to the Mutual Improvement Association. Reprinted in The Young Woman’s Journal xxvii (1916): 402-405. http://bit.ly/2phc8AN

Lyman, Richard R. “Prohibition, Not State Control.” Address in the Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, October 3, 1930. 

Merrill, Joseph F. “Alcohol, Citizenship and the Church.” KSL Radio Station, September 13, 1931. Speech.

“Prohibition: history of the movement in Salt Lake City,” Deseret News, June 11, 1910.

Scribner, Herb. “2017 changes to liquor laws join other significant state actions,” Deseret News, March 11, 2017.  

Dyer, Bruce T. “A Study of the Forces Leading to the Adoption of Prohibition in Utah in 1917.” Master’s Thesis, Brigham Young University, 1958.

Karren, Krissi. interview with James Fowler, April 3, 2017. 

Lake, Catherine Parrish. “2017 Changes to Utah Liquor Laws.” Stoel Rives LLP Alcohol Beverage Blog. http://bit.ly/2qgJYal

“Utah liquor laws fly past peculiar and into weird.” The Salt Lake Tribune, April 26, 2017. http://bit.ly/2pvZNsY

Vance, Dell. Beer in the Beehive: A History of Brewing in Utah. Salt Lake City, Utah: Dream Garden Press, 2006.

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