Women founded the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in 1874 in Hillsboro, Ohio with the initial purpose to promote abstinence from alcohol.

A large group of people gather together for a photo.
Members of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, on the steps of the World War Memorial next to the First Baptist Church, 1939 Credit: Indiana Historical Society View Source

Indianapolis  held  the  organization’s  convention  in  1879,  during  which  Frances Willard became its president.   In  this  role, she  led the organization to create a national movement.   Founders asserted that the only way to defeat the evils of drink, including abuse and neglect, was by outlawing alcohol entirely.  To do so, women relied on a combination of prayer, persuasion, witnessing, and propaganda.  WCTU members wore white badges to symbolize the purity of freedom from drink.

Indiana had known temperance movements before the WCTU existed.  The Indiana WCTU grew out of the Woman’s Temperance Crusade of 1873; the Indiana Central WCTU was formed in 1874. ZERELDA WALLACE , widow of a former governor of Indiana  and stepmother of  General LEW WALLACE   (author of  Ben-Hur), served as the first president (1874-1876) and for a second term (1877-1882).  Four subsequent presidents (through 1968) were from Indianapolis and multiple WCTU conventions were held in the capital city.

The first Indianapolis chapter of the WCTU, known as the Meridian Union, met at ROBERTS PARK METHODIST CHURCH.  Wallace urged women to fight for the right to vote.  She believed that women were the chief sufferers of the effects of alcohol abuse and insisted that liquor traffic would be halted only by means of the ballot.  Woman’s suffrage  thus became one of the issues identified with the WCTU  (See WOMEN’S  RIGHTS  AND  SUFFRAGE ).

For more than a century, the WCTU of Indiana sought to end liquor sales and, until women achieved the ballot in 1920, advocated for the right of women to vote.  Their activities attracted thousands of members to the WCTU and resulted in changes in Indiana’s liquor laws.  The organization reached its zenith with the passage of the 18th Amendment (Prohibition) in 1920.

The Indiana WCTU engaged in numerous social welfare activities; established homes for orphans and unwed mothers; and held contests for the best poems, stories, and slogans about temperance.  The Indianapolis WCTU held prayer meetings and published temperance pamphlets and newspapers.  WCTU leaders Luella McWhirter  and Mary Wheeler founded the Door of Hope (WHEELER MISSION MINISTRIES) in 1893.

The WCTU never lost sight of its original goal of complete abstinence from alcohol.  After World War II, it revived its religious element by encouraging Christian values as  well as temperance. The WCTU  remains  active throughout the United States, with over 70 chapters including 2 in Indiana.

Revised March 2021

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