Eliza Sugg’s Use of Poetry for the Temperance Cause

While Eliza Suggs and Emma Ray both were African-American women at the turn of the 20th century their narratives are very different. Ray focuses on her urban ministry with her husband and her involvement in the Colored Women’s Christian Temperance Union. While her faith does play a very large role in her autobiography, you don’t see the strong ties to preaching and speaking at revivals that Eliza notes in her narratives. What seemed to come easily to Eliza (speaking up at revival meetings and testifying) did not come easily to Ray. Yet, the place where their narratives intertwine the most is with their temperance narratives. Both of their narratives illustrate a larger trend in the Free Methodist denomination at the time – involvement in the temperance cause. The denominational magazine, The Free Methodist, published a regular temperance column in the 1880s and several other Free Methodist women were noted as being leaders of their local Christian Women Temperance Union (CWTU) like Ray was.

The involvement of Free Methodist Women in the temperance movement illustrates, to me, that women in the denomination were very socially active. In the narratives and editorials I’ve examined by 19th century Free Methodist women who are pursuing ordination large social issues related to women’s place in society are almost always used as illustrations to support their ordination. It is therefore no surprise that these women would also be involved in larger social issues such as the temperance cause.

While Suggs doesn’t give any personal stories about her beliefs on temperance she intertwines poetry with narrative in her autobiography. The last portion of her book is a series of original poetry she has written. One poem in particular illustrates her views on alcohol and its effects on the family.

The Drunkard’s Wife

by Eliza Suggs.
Here sits a dear old lady
In her rustic chair,
Sunbeams gently falling
On her snow-white hair.
There is a sad, sad story,
Written on her face
Sorrow and woe, long, long ago,
Have left the sad lines you trace.
She had a drunken husband!
After all these years,
Golden hair is silver now,
Dim those eyes with tears.
She had a drunken husband
Waiting him to reform.
He went away one bitter cold day
He now fills a drunkard’s grave.


Far, far away McDonald
Went in revelry.
“Stay, I pray you husband,
Do not go away.
That is the road to ruin,
That is the road to sin.
Says the word of God, in Heaven above,
No drunkard shall enter in.
“Just one glass, McDonald,”
Said his comrades dear.
“Just this once to please us
A social glass of beer.”
“Just this once to please you
I take my first glass now.
I’ll take no more, dear wife, I’m sure,
I make to you this vow.”
That was his first step downward;
On and on he went.
Powerful grew the habit
Downward he was bent,–
Drank ’till he raved in madness,
Then came the fatal day
With a curse and stare and clutching his hair,
His soul then passed away.

When the sad tidings reached her
She fell, they thought her dead,
Then there came a doctor,
“A broken heart,” he said.
That’s why she’s sad and lonely,
Waiting for him in vain;
He went away one bitter cold day,

And never returned again. (p. 93-94)

Eliza’s poem illustrates what Emma Ray’s narrative tells. Ray’s husband drank them in to poverty for years before converting to Christianity. After his conversion experience they both worked to eliminate alcoholism among the poor and African-American communities in the Seattle inner city and the suburban Kansas City area. Ray continually illustrates through stories the effects of drug and alcohol abuse to poor women and men. Eliza’s autobiography is much more personal in tone, but through her use of poetry to illustrate social problems of the day she also is drawing attention to the temperance movement and the passion of Free Methodist women to that cause.

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