Clergymen’s No-License Committee Records, 1896-1918

Administrative Information

Historical Sketch

Related Collections


Scope and Content Note

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Series Description and Folder Listing

1/2 document box
.2 cubic feet
Processor: Christopher J. Lenney
Date: October 2006

Acquisition: The Records of the Clergymen’s No-License Committee were received by the Cambridge Historical Society on 20 November 1929. The collection was the gift of the Reverend Richard Wright, its last secretary.

Access: There are no restrictions to items in this collection.

Permission to Publish: Requests for permission to publish from the collection should be made to the Executive Director.

Copyright: The Cambridge Historical Society does not hold copyright on the materials in the collection.

Historical Sketch:

The Clergymen’s No-License Committee was organized on October 15, 1896 by the Reverend Theodore F. Wright, its first secretary, acting at the behest of the Reverend D. W. Beach, the Reverend F. G. Peabody, and other clergy of the city. The term “No-license” in the title refers to the right of municipalities under the Massachusetts Local Option law (1881) to authorize or prohibit the granting of licenses for the sale of liquor within their borders by popular ballot. The Committee was formed after ten successive no-license victories in Cambridge and appears to have been an outgrowth of an earlier, less formal Ministers’ Committee.

The year 1886 marked the great turning point in the no-license cause in Cambridge. For five years from 1881 to 1885 the no-license initiative was presented annually to Cambridge voters and was repeatedly rejected by varying margins. In 1886 no-license won by 566 votes. This unexpected victory has in part been ascribed to popular outcry over two alcohol-related homicides in the city, and to growing public resentment that Cambridge was fast becoming the “rum hole” for Somerville, which had voted the saloon out earlier. Even ardent no-license supporters felt that the 1886 victory would be short-lived. However, the no-license cause proved to be a powerful force in Cambridge politics, and the city remained “dry” by annual vote of the electorate for thirty-three straight years.

This remarkable run of success, unparalleled for a city of its size, has been ascribed to the fact that Cambridge did not make “the mistake made in so many communities—that of settling back comfortably after a first No-license victory, with the feeling that the contest is over.” Equally significant was the fact that “No political, social or religious differences were allowed to separate No-license workers.” “Catholic priests and Protestant clergymen sat on the same platform and addressed the same audiences.” So the formation of the clergymen’s committee ten years after the first prohibition victory was not anticlimactic, but rather part of an ongoing campaign to consolidate earlier gains achieved through interdenominational cooperation.

Cambridge churches of various denominations had become involved in the prohibitionist campaign as early as 1882. By 1886, nineteen congregations actively participated in union services on the Sunday prior to the election. For years thereafter, the ringing of church bells celebrated “dry” victories on election night. However, despite serious overtures, it was not until 1887—the year after the first no-license victory— that Protestant and Catholic clergy sufficiently overcame their feelings of mistrust to unite publicly on the issue. (Both groups did work separately to promote the measure within their respective churches.) In 1887 the first Call to Ministers was issued, inviting all Cambridge clergymen to join together to secure renewal of the No-license victory in the city election. At the inaugural meeting Father Thomas Scully and Father John F. Mundy joined forces with their Protestant colleagues, and brought the Catholic churches of Cambridge to the forefront of the cause. How formally this so-called Ministers’ Committee was organized is not known. According to the Reverend David Beach, in the early years of the committee (for which no records survive), Dr. Andrew P. Peabody presided, with a Catholic clergyman as secretary. After Peabody’s death in 1893, Father Scully presided, with a Protestant clergyman as secretary.

Mention is made in the first entries (1896) in the Clergymen’s No-license records to this preexisting “Ministers’ Committee.” Whether this earlier group differed in any significant respect from the newly formalized one is not clear: it may simply be that Reverend Theodore F. Wright was a more careful record-keeper than his predecessors, and established a precedent for his successors. It seems probable that the term “Clergymen’s” in the new title was consciously adopted so as to include Catholic priests. Catholic clergy assumed a very visible role in this newly constituted group. Reverend Thomas Scully, chaplain of the “Fighting Ninth” in the Civil War, longtime rector of Saint Mary’s of the Annunciation in Cambridgeport, and a pillar of the local Catholic community, was elected the first chairman of the committee. His role was deemed by his contemporaries to have been critical to the success of no-license movement in Cambridge. The interfaith cooperation which the no-license movement fostered was considered to be a significant achievement in itself at a time when Catholic and Protestant relations were often tense.

These records conclude in 1918, the thirty-third and last year of unbroken no-license victories in Cambridge. No formal motion to disband seems to have been entertained; it may be that the imminence of national prohibition overshadowed the need for local action. With supreme irony, the city voted to go “wet” in 1919, in what was regarded at the time as a protest vote by no-license moderates against the strictures of the Eighteenth Amendment, ratified earlier that year. National prohibition took effect soon after on January 29, 1920, so the municipal vote may have been of no effect. (George H. Hanford states in “For the Entertainment of Strangers” that Cambridge was a “dry” city for forty-seven years, 1886-1933.)

An informed reading of these records requires familiarity with the clergy and churches of Cambridge in the decades immediately before and after 1900. No definitive membership list was noted in processing the records. However, the names of clergy, their home churches, and their denominational affiliations were published annually in the business section of the Cambridge City Directories for the period.

Preservation of the committee’s records is due to the faithful stewardship of its last secretary, Reverend Richard Wright, who mailed them back to a colleague in Cambridge in 1929, a decade after the group had dissolved. (Wright was then living in Hartford, Conn.) This was a fortunate gesture. For while the no-license movement in Massachusetts had commanded very broad-based support in the decades immediately before and after 1900 (20 cities and 261 towns in the state were dry in 1909), it fell into disarray with Prohibition and its aftermath. Apart from pamphlets and other published materials, the Records of the Clergymen’s No-License Committee are the only archival materials documenting aspects of this grassroots movement known to survive.

Related Collections:

The Ledgers of the East Cambridge Temperance Union are held by the Cambridge Historical Society, Cambridge, Mass.

The Papers of David Gordon Lyon, 1861, 1872-1935, are held by the Harvard University Archives. Lyon was Hollis Professor of Divinity at the Harvard Divinity School (1882-1910). His papers contain one item, possibly a lecture or a pamphlet, identified simply as No-License, 1887.

An almost complete run of the Frozen Truth is held by Widener Library, Harvard University. The Cambridge Gridiron has been microfilmed (1914-1916) by the Massachusetts Newspaper Program at the Boston Public Library.


Citizens’ No-License Committee. Ten No-license Years in Cambridge: a Jubilee Volume Published by the Citizens’ Committee. Cambridge, Mass.: University Press, 1898.

Citizens’ No-license Committee. Twenty-five Years of No License: Addresses Delivered on the Occasion of the Celebration of the Twenty-fifth Consecutive Year of No License in Cambridge.
Cambridge, Mass. : Citizens’ No License Committee of Cambridge, [1912].

Foxcroft, Frank, No-License in Cambridge. Proceedings of the Cambridge Historical Society, 13: 9-16, 1918.

Hanford, George H., “For the Entertainment of Strangers”: the Inns & Pubs of Cambridge, Cambridge, Mass. : Cambridge Historical Society, 1997.

Robert, Charles. The Working of Local Option in the Cities: the Policy of No-license in the State of Massachusetts, U.S.A. [2d. ed], Manchester, UK: United Kingdom Alliance, 1907.

“Say Voters Favor Liquor: December Elections Called Protest Constitutional Prohibition,” New York Times, 29 December 1919, p. 2.

Woodruff, Clinton Rogers. “Municipal Review, 1908-1909,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 15, No. 4 (Jan., 1910), pp. 502-535.

Scope and Content Note:

The Records of the Clergymen’s No-License Committee document the pastoral and political activities of the city’s religious leaders in furthering the prohibitionist cause in Cambridge from 1896 to 1918. The work of the committee is a noteworthy early example of interfaith cooperation in the city, as well as of efforts of religious leaders to influence the ballot box on a social issue. The tact, mutual respect, and political shrewdness displayed by the members of committee in their dealings is a subtle but important element of these records.

The records were kept chronologically by successive committee secretaries in a single handwritten volume, with related items pasted in or loosely interleaved. The book is unpaginated, but the records run to about 90 written pages. Materials include minutes; correspondence; notices of committee meetings; lists of “union” (combined church) meetings; lists of Cambridge factories where temperance rallies were held; copies of printed programs, newspaper appeals, newsclippings of election results, ward-by-ward tallies, and items of temperance interest.

The loose material interleaved within the record book was found to be filed in almost perfect chronological order. All loose items were removed and arranged chronologically in a separate folder. Penciled dates were supplied for any undated loose material based on position within the book. In a few cases the presumed chronological order was restored.

Among the printed materials in the collection are five issues of progressive and temperance newspapers from the 1914-1915 period. Filed chronologically in folder 2 are two issues of the Frozen Truth, a prohibitionist newssheet founded to deliver “the cold truth” about the saloon evil to every Cambridge household. Filed separately due to poor condition (folders 4-6) are two issues of the [Cambridge] Gridiron and one of the Cambridge Standard. These newspapers are exceedingly fragile and access has been restricted. The Cambridge Standard appears to be a rare and short-lived newspaper and is not listed in the usual bibliographic sources.

Library of Congress Subject Headings:

  • Temperance—History.
  • Temperance —Massachusetts —Cambridge —Societies, etc.
  • Liquor laws —Massachusetts.
  • Prohibition —Massachusetts—Cambridge —History
  • Cambridge (Mass.) — Social life and customs.

Clergymen’s No-License Committee

[table colwidth=”5%|5%|90%”]

||Series I. Records (1896-1918)

1|1|Record Book

1|2|Loose Material Removed From Record Book

1|3|Meeting Notices

1|4|The Gridiron, 13 March 1915 (Restricted)

1|5|The Cambridge Standard, 22 December 1915 (Restricted)

1|6|The Cambridge Gridiron, 24 December 1915 (Restricted)