Taking the Pledge: A Secret History of Teetotalling In Newfoundland and Labrador

Surprising as it might seem, social life in the province did not always revolve around alcohol. In pre-Confederation times, the role of religious groups dominated, and these often placed teetotalling – non-drinking – at the centre of public life.

Is Newfoundland and Labrador predominantly a drinking culture?

The popular images distilled from sources like the province’s tourism ads would lead visitors to believe so. Just last month, statistics trumpeted both in local and national papers announced that St. John’s had more drinking establishments per capita than any other city in Canada, with 3.7 bars per 10,000 citizens. George Street represents the highest concentration of bars on any street in the country.

From drinking songs to festivals, raising a pint or downing a glass of rum feels like part of the Newfoundland and Labrador identity that people place a certain amount of pride in. Sarah Smellie, writing about those statistics this month for the CBC online called those numbers a “reason to celebrate.” In the same article, Joelle Lomond of the George Street Association added further assent, saying, “I think it’s good news.”

Drew Brown, a Newfoundland writer who frequently publishes articles for Vice online, complied a sort of travel guide about the province in February 2015. Writing for a national and international audience, Brown insists in the article that the residents of this province are on the “A-list” of world drinkers. In a turn of pure hyperbole, Brown also says of the widespread drinking that occurs here: “A half-case is what you serve children and the elderly.”

Surprising as it might seem, social life in the province did not always revolve around alcohol. In pre-Confederation times, the role of religious groups dominated, and these often placed teetotalling – non-drinking – at the centre of public life.

Surprising as it might seem, social life in the province did not always revolve around alcohol. In pre-Confederation times, the role of religious groups dominated, and these often placed teetotalling – non-drinking – at the centre of public life.

For the Catholic teetotaller, there was The Total Abstinence Society. Phillip Tocque, writing in 1878, says there were 22,000 teetotallers, mostly Catholic, on the island in 1844, with numbers growing from there. “In the early 20th century, the Society became renowned for its literary and musical events, and remained one of the most active and influential fraternal societies in St. John’s until Confederation,” according to Heritage Newfoundland and Labrador.

For a sense of the scale of the temperance movement in years just before Confederation, there is the old CBC building, that Art Deco wonder on Duckworth Street, which began its life as The Hall of the Total Abstinence and Benefit Society in the 1930s.

Methodism, founded by John Wesley in the 18th century, also made inroads with temperance in Newfoundland and Labrador in the 19th century. The widespread influence of Methodism in the province is still found in place names like Wesleyville and in MUN’s Coglan College, named after the prominent Methodist preacher Laurence Coglan who founded the first Methodist chapel in Canada in Conception Bay. By the mid to late 19th century, there were over 10,000 registered Methodist teetotallers on the rolls.

Bruce Kearley is a Reverend at the Topsail United Church and a scholar of Newfoundland and Labrador religious history.When Methodist churches became part of the United Church in 1925, remnants of the Methodist influence remained, including documents related to the temperance movement. Of these itererant Methodist preachers, Kearley says, “They came to the shores of Newfoundland through lay preachers initially, and the saving of souls was a priority.”

His Church contains Charters for two Methodist temperance groups that existed there.

“They were an organization that was called The Independent Order of Good Templars. This particular organization did indeed have membership here in Topsail,” says Kearley. These documents are dated from 1886 and 1905. Significant for the times, both men and women were welcome in the Templars.

By the 1930s, any talk of teetotalling in the Methodist monthly paper had all but ceased. Kearley’s research has focused on Oliver Jackson, a Methodist who was an editor of the local Methodist, and later United Church, newspaper The Monthly Greeting from 1912 through to the 1930s. “In the writings I read about him, and the stuff that was advertised in The Monthly Greeting, there was no real talk of a temperance movement at that time.”

Likewise, the Catholic temperance movement began its decline until it was finally disbanded in 1993.

Demographics show, aside from the greying of Newfoundland and Labrador society, that attendance at church for most Christian denominations is on the decline. However, some evangelical Christian groups, as well as non-Christian denominations, including Muslims and Buddhists, still have non-drinking as tenets of their belief.

The days of wide-spread temperance may be over, but as immigrants from other faith groups join the province, should we recognize that not every Newfoundlander or Labradorian drinks? Pam Frampton, just this past July, wrote a column in The Telegram about the ‘myth-busting’ needed around the outdated clichés that others outside the province have about us — and that we ourselves perpetuate. Recognizing that our famed drinking culture is a relatively recent invention – a product of Confederation – may be part of unwinding the myths about this place.

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