Sound, Ont., in 1874. The WCTU
white ribbons symbolized loyalty to
God, country and humanity.
Today, many are surprised to
discover the WCTU didn’t die out
with the end of Prohibition.
It still exists, and its history and
current work around the world
were on full display in Ottawa last
August as delegates arrived from
two dozen countries for the 40th
triennial world convention.
The movement, although much
smaller than in its heyday in the
early 1900s, continues to propel its
message through chapters in 40
countries around the world, educating people on the dangers of
addiction, fighting to change laws
to protect women from violence
and abuse, and running programs
to alleviate the social havoc
wrought by drugs, alcohol and
other addictive substances.
In fact, it still has official NGO
status at the United Nations.
And according to Rick Hiemstra,
director of research and media relations for The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, the WCTU’s goals
have never been more relevant.
“Addictions still cripple many
lives, and governments are moving
to normalize and legalize marijuana
in Canada,” he told the Ottawa
convention. “Women and children
are still trapped in prostitution and
enslaved by human trafficking.
Newly pervasive addictions like Internet pornography create a climate
for all kinds of exploitation while
breaking up families and crippling
people’s abilities to form them.”
A HISTORY OF CHRISTIAN
At 133 years old, today the World
WCTU is one of the oldest continuing women’s organizations in the
world. Its history is a gold mine of
inspiring Christian service.
In her keynote address at the
recent Ottawa convention, World
President Margaret Ostenstad of
Norway drew inspiration from the
worldwide organization’s founder
In 1883 Willard told the 10th
annual WCTU convention in Detroit she had seen the devastation
of opium abuse after a visit to
opium dens in San Francisco. This
increased her awareness of the
problems of opium abuse across the
Pacific. She told the convention she
was in touch with missionaries to
the Orient, who told her of temperance movements overseas. She
shared a vision of creating a Worldwide WCTU.
Her vision came alive in 1891
when the WWCTU held its first
world convention in Boston.
The recent Ottawa convention
also heard current field reports
from as far afield as the Solomon
Islands, where the WWCTU takes
aim at kava, a nonalcoholic beverage that causes liver damage.
In Papua New Guinea, a land of
8 million people and 800 languages,
the WCTU fights against the chewing of betel nuts which causes brain
damage, mouth and throat cancer.
In Tuvalu, which has the highest
rate of tobacco smoking in the
world, the WCTU has mounted a
campaign against the extremely
high level of violence against
women, largely alcohol related.
Ostenstad praises the work of
Korean missionaries “walking over
the mountains of Nepal, preaching
the gospel and bringing the temperance message.
“God wants everyone to treat
their body as the temple of the Holy
Spirit,” Ostenstad says. She goes on
to point out that 100 million people
around the world do not have ac-
cess to safe drinking water, and in
some places mothers give alcohol
to their children because the water
is not safe to drink.
The relationship between alcohol abuse and gender-based violence also deeply concerns her.
The resources enabling the work
in remote Pacific Island nations, in
African countries such as Zimbabwe
and Sierra Leone, in Guatemala and
Argentina, often come from WCTUs
in wealthier nations such as Canada,
the United States, Norway, Finland,
South Korea and Australia.
The problems in poorer countries echo the challenges the movement faced in its beginnings in
North America, when there was no
government safety net, and alcohol
abuse left families destitute.
In fact, the stereotype of anti-al-cohol crusaders trying to force their
puritanical morals on others is entirely misguided – from the beginning it has always been the social
devastation of alcohol abuse that
prompted Christian women to act.
The first Women’s Crusades
began in Fredonia, New York in
1873 and quickly spread as far as
Ohio. Women marched on local
taverns, singing hymns, reading
Scripture passages and praying to
stop the sale of alcohol.
Within three months the marchers persuaded 250 towns and villages to ban alcohol. The movement
expanded to 31 U.S. states and territories. It organized officially the
next year, establishing the National
Women’s Christian Temperance
Union in Cleveland, Ohio, which
soon became the first WCTU.
Letitia Youmans came from
Canada to attend the next convention in Cincinnati, Ohio, and organized the Canadian WCTU.
In 1876 British women formed
their own WCTU, which then
spread as far as Australia and New
… from the beginning it has always
been the social devastation of alcohol
abuse that prompted Christian
women to act.