Luther Benson, an Imperfect Reformer

In the 18th century, as America was moving toward its emergence as a nation, the problems associated with uncontrolled drinking became apparent.

Dr. Benjamin Rush, a delegate to the Continental Congress, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Surgeon General of the Continental Army, was an early advocate for the concept of viewing alcoholism as a disease rather than a sign of immorality.

By the time the 19th century came around, others picked up the gauntlet, as well, and the efforts of many of them became known as the temperance movement. We'll write about the temperance movement in another blog post, so I won't deal with that in a large way here.

Today, we're going to view the life of one noted temperance reformer, Luther Benson.

Luther wa
s born in 1844, in Rushville, Rush County, Indiana. Both the city and the county were named for Dr. Benjamin Rush, but I'm sure that was coincidental.

He began drinking at an early age. He had his first drink at the age of six, and drank until he was drunk. After that, he would rummage through outbuildings in search of alcohol that others may have hidden away. In his book, he wrote, "I never could taste liquor without getting drunk."

During his time, recovery from alcoholism came about in one of two ways. It was either a battle of personal will, one that was waged against a demon located either inside of the alcoholic or inside the bottle, or it was an act of submission to God.

Luther's struggle, at time, included attempts at both of these, and quite often they were failures.

Writing of his first drink, at the age of six, Luther recalls the magic effect that the liquor had on his body, mind, and emotions. His appetite for more was instantaneous and insatiable, he writes.

Early on, he developed a high tolerance for alcohol, which led to periods of lost memory, which later became known as alcoholic blackouts.

When sober, Luther was ambitious, and excelled in school, but he was later expelled for drunkenness. Nevertheless, he kept trying, and was eventually licensed to practice law.

Yet, everything he attained while sober was lost while drunk.

He tried very hard to find a cure for his raging alcoholism, including self-cures and religion, and he had periods of success.

A friend recruited him as a temperance lecturer and, while he no doubt sought to find purpose in his life through these efforts, he was not the only one to use the temperance pulpit as a self-cure.

Luther Benson proved to be a gifted lecturer. Intelligent and eloquent, he traveled the country persuading alcoholics to sign the pledge of temperance, and no doubt played a role in the recovery of several people.

However, he was unable to win his own battle with alcoholism. In response, he threw himself into his work, hoping that this would eventually take the place of alcohol in his life. He later wrote, "I learned too late that this was the worst thing I could have done. I was all the time expending the very strength I so much needed for the restoration of my shattered system."

Like many others, Luther couldn't live with alcohol or without it. Drinking in moderation was impossible for him. He was, he wrote, "either perfectly sober or perfectly drunk -- nothing in between."

He often drank before, after, and between temperance lectures, and the hypocrisy fed his own self-hatred.

For years, he balanced temperance lectures with drinking sprees. After working to save alcoholics in one city, he would slip off to another for an extended binge.

He knew that it was wrong, and hated himself for it. Eventually, others noticed as well, leading to a ruined reputation and the loss of many of his most loyal friends.

He attempted suicide and, from his quarters at the Indiana Asylum for the Insane, he wrote, "Every effort of my life has been a failure." Of his drinking, he wrote, "At the dawn of my life, ay, in its very beginning, there came to me a bitter, deadly, unmerciful enemy, accompanied in those days by song and laughter - an enemy that was swift in getting me in his power, and who, when I was once securely his victim, turned all laughter into wailing, and all songs into sobbing, and pressed to my bloated lips his poisonous chalice which I have ever found full of stinging adders of hell and death."

Published in 1885, and entitled Fifteen Years in Hell, Luther Benson's autobiography ends with his continued search for a power in the universe that can give him hope, and with a request for readers to pray for his future.

Luther Benson died in Rushville, his hometown, on June 21, 1898. He was 53 years old.

  • Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America, by William L. White
  • Fifteen Years in Hell: An Autobiography, by Luther Benson


  • While I prefer to place a positive note on recovery, it is important to recognize the possibility of failure, even among those who, some may think, have progressed beyond the danger of relapse. While it may not have to be, recovery is a continued struggle for many.
  • While it is our practice to avoid the use of labels, when writing of historical figures, it seems appropriate to use the terms that were in use in their time.