Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Methodism and Tobacco

The United Methodist Church is one of 30 denominations
who comprise Faith United. Jim Winkler, General Secretay
of the UMC Board of Church and Society, has served
as Faith United's chair.
John B. Buescher has written an account entitled "In the Habit: A History of Catholicism and Tobacco" about Catholic attutudes toward the use of tobacco.

Years ago I knew a monk (he was a wonderful person) who used snuff. He said he used it because smoking was not allowed during mass but snuff was. He sometimes attended masses that lasted for hours. Using snuff during long services is what got him in the habit of using it all of the time.

It is interesting to note that, since the discovery of tobacco, a significant number of  popes used snuff, perhapes for the same reason as my old monk friend did.

It is also fascinating --and curious-- that at some points in history (parts of the 1700s) smoking was actually allowed during services at St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome!

Reading Buescher's essay, it occured to me that someone should write an objective history of Methodism and tobacco. If it has been done, I am not aware of it.

My knowledge of Methodism's relationship to tobacco is scattered and random.

One of John Wesley's rules for his class meetings was: "To use no needless self-indulgence, such as taking snuff or tobacco, unless prescribed by a Physician."

I don't know how widely the rule was enforced within British Methodism but it was not always the norm for American expressions of Methodism.


William Otterbein smoked a pipe. Otterbein was one of the founders of the United Brethren in Christ Church (which merged with the Evangelical Church to become the Evangelical United Brethren Church, which merged with the Methodist Church to become the United Methodist Church).

It was apparently common for people, including clergy, within the United Brethren Church to smoke. I don't know whether this was limited to certain eras or regions but I do know it was common at some point in time in parts of Pennsylvania.

During the years I worked on the staff of the United Methodist Church in central Pennsylvania, where the United Brethren Church had been particularly strong, I came across a written history of a United Brethren campmeeting.

One of the issues in the history of the campmeeting had to do with the sale of cigars. The issue was not whether cigars should be sold or smoked on campmeeting grounds. The issue was whether cigars should be sold on Sundays. The concern was not the use of tobacco but doing business on the Sabbath.

Some pastors argued for Sunday sales because, they claimed, they did not make enough money to buy a two-day supply of cigars on Saturday. I have no idea where they got the extra money to buy cigars between Saturday and Sunday.


I have mentioned before the debate reported in Homer Caulkin's history of Foundry Church about chewing tobacco. In 1831 the Baltimore Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, meeting at Foundry, passed a resolution outlawing the spitting of chewing tobacco "on the floors and in the Pulpit of our Church." Pastors in the pulpit were apparently among those using chewing tobacco and spitting it, otherwise why would spitting have been specifically prohibited in the pulpit?


The New York Times published a stinging editorial on June 3, 1880, objecting to a decision by the annual conference requiring candidates for Methodist ministry to pledge not to use tobacco. Since the vote was 125 to 83, I assune this was just the New York Annual Conference, but don't really know. Those already ordained were not required to give up the use of tobacco, just candidates for future ordination. The New York Times found this double standard offensive: "If the Methodist ministers really believe the use of tobacco is wrong, they should set the standard of abandoning it."

One of the claims made in the editorial is: "From time immemorial the Methodist minister has been permitted to use tobacco to his heart's content." Wesley's prohibition against the use of tobacco in class meetings suggests the New York Times may have been wrong about this.


One of the ways the Duke family, who were avid Methodists, made their fortune was the sale of tobacco.  Washington Duke (1820 - 1906) owned a tobacco farm near Durham, N.C., and began a tobacco business. His son James Buchanan Duke (1856 - 1925) got a license to operate the first automated cigarette making machine. He became head of the American Tobacco Company (later determined to be a monoploy by the U.S. Supreme Court) which he build into a very major multinational corporation.

The Duke family established the Duke Endowment which funded (and still funds) United Methodist-related Duke University and many Methodist institution in the Carolinas. Perhaps because of this, smoking seemed to be more acceptable among Methodists in North and South Carolina, at least until recently.

I remember meeting a United Methodist pastor 25 years ago who had transferred from New Jersey to North Carolina because he smoked and he felt North Carolina Methodists were more accepting of this than New Jersey Methodists.

It should be noted that Duke University now includes a department called the Duke Center for Smoking Cessation. Jed Rose, the director of the center, says: "I think it is highly appropriate that Duke, which is connected so strongly to a tobacco family, is a center for helping to eliminate the enormous damage caused by cigarette smoking,"


In 2008, General Conference, passed the statement: “In light of the overwhelming evidence that tobacco smoking and the use of smokeless tobacco are hazardous to the health of persons of all ages, we recommend total abstinence from the use of tobacco” (¶162M).


These are just a few scattered references to Methodism and tobacco I've come across over the years. Perhaps Erik Alsgaard who wrote a study entitled "Tobacco: Do No Harm" for Faithlinks knows more.

I'd be curious to know when and where during Methodism's history in America, the use of tobacco was more acceptable and when it was more likely to be prohibited. The scattered data I am aware of seems a bit unclear but I suspect our policies and practices have not always been as anti-tobacco as we tend now to represent them as having been.

1 comment:

  1. I really only have anecdotes as well. Greg Dell, a Northern Illinois Conference pastor of same fame (or infamy, depending on your POV) got his M.Div. at Duke in the early 1970's. He remembers free samples of cigarettes being available then. This was odd to someone from NIC. I also remember my field supervisor from my field ed placement telling a story about her Elder interview with the NIC. They really grilled her. Following the interview, one of the men on the committee said to her-"All they asked in MY interview (30 years or so previous) was whether I smoked or drank."