John B. Gough (1817-1886): The Temperance Orator as Revivalist

In 1842 John B. Gough took the pledge in Worcester, Massachusetts and began a career of lecturing against the evils of drink. He frequently drew upon his own experiences. One contemporary called him "the poet of the D.T.s." Over the more than forty years he campaigned against drinking, Gough gave upwards of 9,600 lectures to more than nine million people in America, Canada, and Great Britain. When he died in 1886, the New York Times wrote that he "was probably better known in this country and in Great Britain than any other public speaker." He achieved such renown because of his success in converting drinkers. Hundreds of thousands took the Pledge at the conclusion of one of his speeches. The parallel with the call from the revivalist to the converted to step forward and publically renounce their sins is apparent.

Here is a brief description of Gough in Ohio:

March 20, 1851
Washington, D.C.
Vol. V. No. 220 p. 47
The following is an excerpt from a letter written in CINCINNATI, March 12, 1851 to the Editor of The National Era:
Since my last letter, John B. Gough has been doing a great and good work in our city. A week ago, 2,600 persons had signed the pledge, and the interests keeps up without flagging. I cannot attempt a description of Mr. Gough's style or manner of speaking; language would fail to portray the effects he produces on his hearers, and any analysis of his lectures or the outbursts of natural, heart-stirring enthusiastic oratory, by which he enchains the feelings and convinces the minds of his auditors, would do him [an] injustice. Many of your Eastern readers have doubtless heard him, and will be gratified to hear of the deep impression he has made, and the wide fields of usefulness opening to him in the West. He was at Springfield, Clarke county, last week, where the whole population turned out en masse to hear him, and the larger part signed the pledge. He is now at Columbus, but will return to this city next week, when he is to address all the pupils of the Public Schools. There is room enough for his labors, as the increase of "coffee houses," (as they are called,) and drunkenness, and vice of every kind, more than keeps pace with the advances of population.
Yours, P.

Gough's career coincided with the rise of lecturing as a profession. In the 1840s all across the north and west Americans were organizing lyceums, voluntary associations that sponsored series of lectures. One joined the lyceum for a small fee, which entitled one to the use of the library — many public libraries grew out of lyceum collections, — and subscribed to a series of lectures. The lectures were open to the general public, but it was the lyceum membership who chose the topics and the speakers. Within a very short time a lecture circuit was in place. Popular speakers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Ward Beecher, and John Gough commanded handsome fees. As a result, Gough turned temperance reform into a lucrative profession. It was a business as well as a cause. Gough himself thought of it in these terms. In his account of his notorious fall from sobreity in New York City, he began by describing someone who represented himself as having worked in the same shop as Gough years before. Here is his version of their conversation: He then said, “you have got into a new business, the Temperance business; do you find it a good business?” “O yes,” I told him, “I find it a very good business.”

What Gough retailed was his life. Once he turned himself into a commodity, we might today say celebrity, Gough found himself in unchartered waters. There had always been famous people in America, but he was one of the very first to turn fame into a livelihood. His career survived a major and well-reported episode of drinking and sexual "debauchery." That it did, despite the vague explanation/apology Gough provided, suggests something about the new culture of celebrity emerging.

  • John B. Gough, "The Dangers of Moderate Drinking" — a good example of Gough's platform style.
  • "Distinctive Traits of John B. Gough," by Prof. Edwards A. Park, D.D. The New England Magazine Volume 5, Issue 25 (November 1886), pp. 3-7 — Park was an admirer and supporter of Gough.
  • Because Gough drew so heavily upon his own experiences with alcohol in his lectures, his autobiography provides a good introduction to the stories that held his audiences spellbound.
  • Gough fell off the wagon on several occasions, most notoriously in 1845 in New York City where he disappeared for a full week and was found in a brothel in the most notorious part of the city, the Five Points, by the editors of the sensation-mongering National Police Gazette. The linked page contains Gough's account and the Gazette story.