The late 19th century was a time of religious revival and reform in the United States. One aspect of the religious reawakening was the abstinence movement, led mainly by women, that swept across the country and continued into the 1900s.

The late 19th century was a time of religious revival and reform in the United States. One aspect of the religious reawakening was the abstinence movement, led mainly by women, that swept across the country and continued into the 1900s.
Organizations like the Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union sprang up. Their anti-liquor campaigns gave rise to crusading figures like Carrie Nation.
While these groups opposed the consumption of alcoholic beverages mainly by targeting saloons and by trying to get laws passed against drinking, one strain of the temperance movement, called the Murphy Movement, concentrated on the drinkers. Named after its founder, Francis Murphy, who was a reformed drinker and a former saloonkeeper.
The movement asked people to sign a pledge not to drink. They were given blue ribbons to wear as a token of the pledge. The movement started in Pittsburgh in late 1876.
By mid-1877, it reached Missouri, but initial efforts to establish the movement were something short of a glowing success. A Jefferson City newspaper reported in August that the Murphy Movement men had “folded their tent” in Sedalia and moved to Warrensburg.
One of the first places in the state where the movement took hold was Linn in Osage County. The movement was organized there in late October and soon was going strong.
By the end of 1877 and beginning of 1878, the Murphy Movement was sweeping across the rest of the Ozarks. The Carthage Banner reported Jan. 10, 1878 that the movement had hit Carthage exactly a week earlier and that meetings had been held at the local Methodist church every night since, with each one better attended than the previous one, to the point the church could hardly hold everybody. The Rev. John Dunlap of Pittsburgh conducted the meetings.
On Jan. 17, a Mt. Vernon newspaper reported the Murphy Movement going strong there as well, with meetings every night and 135 people having taken the pledge.
Dunlap went to Springfield in late January and began a series of meetings at various churches, particularly the First Christian Church located just west of the square. More than 200 people signed the pledge the first night. By the end of February, more than 2,000 people had signed up.
Springfield saloonkeepers surveyed in February generally agreed that the Murphy Movement hurt business. One claimed the only customers he’d lost, however, were “those who are afraid to be seen coming from a saloon while the excitement is at its height.” He thought his loss of business was only temporary.
The saloon owners refused to condemn the movement. One even said he refused several times to sell liquor to young men who had come into his establishment wearing blue ribbons.
The movement quickly spread to other Greene County communities like Ash Grove, Cave Springs and Walnut Grove, as well as to towns throughout Southwest Missouri. One man who attended a mass meeting at the Springfield city hall in early March reported the movement was making excellent progress in his hometown of Pierce City, as well as in Neosho and Webb City.
Not everyone in Springfield completely endorsed the movement. The Murphy revival spurred a contentious debate at a city council meeting in mid-February over the subject of prohibition.
The movement failed to take hold everywhere throughout Missouri. For instance, at Hermann, county seat of Gasconade County and home to a large German population, it sweeping through neighboring towns was viewed as something of a joke. Several of Hermann’s saloonkeepers started sporting blue ribbons in jest as they continued serving a steady stream of customers.
After March 1878, the Murphy enthusiasm gradually waned in the Ozarks, but the temperance movement as a whole, of course, continued throughout the remainder of the 19th century and into the 20th, culminating in passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, the Prohibition Act of 1920. It’s probably safe to say that few, if any, temperance rallies later in the Ozarks surpassed the fervor of the Murphy Movement in 1877 and 1878.

Larry Wood is a freelance writer specializing in the history of Missouri and the Ozarks. Readers may contact him at larryewood@mail.com.