Tobacco and Opium*

Guest Writer Thomas DeWitt Talmage

“Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed” (Genesis 1:11).

The two firstborn of our earth were the grass-blade and the herb. They preceded the brute creation and the human family—the grass for the animal creation, the herb for human service. The cattle came and took possession of their inheritance, the grass-blade; man came and took possession of his inheritance, the herb. We have the herb for food in case of hunger, for narcotic in case of insomnia, for anodyne [sedative] in case of paroxysm [fit], for stimulant when the pulses flag under the weight of disease.

The caterer comes and takes the herb and presents it in all styles of delicacy. The physician comes and takes the herb and compounds it for physical recuperation. Millions of people come and take the herb for ruinous physical and intellectual delectation. The herb, which was divinely created, and for good purposes, has often been degraded for bad results. There is a useful and a baneful employment of the herbaceous kingdom.

There sprang up in Yucatan of this continent an herb that has bewitched the world. In the fifteenth century it crossed the Atlantic Ocean and captured Spain. Afterward it captured Portugal. Then the French embassadors took it to Paris, and it captured the French Empire. Then Walter Raleigh took it to London, and it captured Great Britain. Nicotiana, ascribed to that genus by the botanists, but we all know it is the exhilarating, elevating, emparadising, nerve-shattering, dyspepsia-breeding, health-destroying tobacco.

I shall not in my remarks be offensively personal, because you all use it, or nearly all! I know by experience how it soothes and roseates the world, and kindles sociality, and I also know some of its baleful results. I was its slave, and by the grace of God I have become its conqueror. Tens of thousands of people have been asking the question during the past two months, asking it with great pathos and great earnestness: “Does the use of tobacco cause cancer and other troubles?” I shall not answer the question in regard to any particular case, but shall deal with the subject in a more general way.

You say to me, “Did God not create tobacco?” Yes.

You say to me, “Is not God good?” Yes.

Well, then, you say, “If God is good, and He created tobacco, He must have created it for some good purpose.” Yes, your logic is complete.

But God created common sense at the same time, by which we are to know how to use a poison and how not to use it. God created tobacco just as He created henbane [nightshade], nux vomica [strychnine], copperas [ferrous sulfate], belladonna [deadly nightshade], and all other poisons, whether directly created by Himself or extracted by man.

That tobacco is a poison no man of common sense will deny. A case was reported where a little child lay on its mother’s lap, one drop fell from a pipe to the child’s lip, and the child went into convulsions and into death.

But you say, “Haven’t people lived on in complete use of it to old age?” Oh, yes; just as I have seen inebriates seventy years old.

In Boston, years ago, there was a meeting in which there were several centenarians, and they were giving their experience, and one centenarian said that he had lived over a hundred years, and that he ascribed it to the fact that he had refrained from the use of intoxicating liquors. Right after him another centenarian said he had lived over a hundred years, and he ascribed it to the fact that for the last fifty years he had hardly seen a sober moment. It is amazing how many outrages men may commit on their physical system and yet live on. In the case of the man of the jug he lived on because his body was pickled. In the case of the man of the pipe, he lived on because his body turned into smoked liver!

But is there no truth to be uttered in regard to this great evil? What is the advice to be given to the multitude of young people who hear me this day? What is the advice you are going to give to your children?


First of all, we must advise them to abstain from the use of tobacco because all the medical fraternity of the United States and Great Britain agree in ascribing to this habit terrific unhealth.§ The men whose lifetime work is the study of the science of health say so, and shall I set up my opinion against theirs? Dr Agnew, Dr Olcott, Dr Barnes, Dr Rush, Dr Mott, Dr Harvey, Dr Hosack—all the doctors, allopathic [prescribed], homeopathic [unprescribed], hydropathic [spa], eclectic [random sources], denounce the habit as a matter of unhealth.

A distinguished physician declared he considered the use of tobacco caused seventy different kinds of disease, and he says, “Of all the cases of cancer in the mouth that have come under my observation, almost in every case it has been ascribed to tobacco.”

The united testimony of all physicians is that tobacco depresses the nervous system, that it takes away 25 percent of the physical vigor of this generation, and that it goes on as the years multiply and, damaging this generation with accumulated curse, it strikes other centuries. And if it is so deleterious to the body, how much more destructive to the mind.

An eminent physician, who was the superintendent of the insane asylum at Northampton, Massachusetts, says, “Fully one-half the patients we get in our asylum have lost their intellect through the use of tobacco.”

If it is such a bad thing to injure the body, what a bad thing, what a worse thing it is to injure the mind. Any man of common sense knows that tobacco attacks the nervous system, and everybody knows that the nervous system attacks the mind.

Besides that, all reformers will tell you that the use of tobacco creates an unnatural thirst, and it is the cause of drunkenness in America today more than anything else. In all cases where you find men taking strong drink, you find they use tobacco. There are men who use tobacco who do not take strong drink, but all who use strong drink use tobacco. That shows beyond controversy there is an affinity between the two products.

There are reformers here today who will testify to you it is impossible for a man to reform from taking strong drink until he quits tobacco. In many of the cases where men have been reformed from strong drink and have gone back to their cups, they have testified that they first touched tobacco and then they surrendered to intoxicants.

I say in the presence of this assemblage today, in which there are many physicians—and they know that what I say is true on the subject—that the pathway to the drunkard’s grave and the drunkard’s hell is strewn thick with tobacco leaves. What has been the testimony on this subject? Is this a mere statement of a preacher whose business it is to talk morals, or is the testimony of the world just as emphatic?

What did Benjamin Franklin say? “I never saw a well man in the exercise of common sense who would say that tobacco did him any good.”

What did Thomas Jefferson say? Certainly he is good authority. He says in regard to the culture of tobacco, “It is a culture productive of infinite wretchedness.”

What did Horace Greeley say of tobacco? “It is a profane stench.”

What did Daniel Webster say of tobacco? “If those men must smoke, let them take the horse-shed!”

One reason why the habit goes on from destruction to destruction is that so many ministers of the gospel take it. They smoke themselves into bronchitis, and then the dear people have to send them to Europe to get them restored from exhausting worship services! They smoke until the nervous system is shattered. They smoke themselves to death.

I could mention the names of five distinguished clergymen who died of cancer of the mouth, and the doctor said, in every case, it was the result of tobacco. The tombstone of many a minister has been covered all over with handsome eulogy, when, if the true epitaph had been written, it would have said: “Here lies a man killed by too much cavendish [chewing tobacco]!”

They smoke until the world is blue, and their theology is blue, and everything is blue. How can a man stand in the pulpit and preach on the subject of temperance when he is indulging such a habit as that? I have seen a cuspadore [spit bucket] in a pulpit into which the “holy man” dropped his cud before he got up to read about “blessed are the pure in heart” (Matthew 5:8), about the rolling of sin as a sweet morsel under the tongue, and about the unclean animals in Leviticus (11:4) that chewed the cud.

About sixty-five years ago a student at Andover Theological Seminary graduated into the ministry. He had an eloquence and a magnetism that sent him to the front. Nothing could stand before him. But in a few months he was put in an insane asylum, and the physician said tobacco was the cause of the disaster. It was the custom in those days to give a portion of tobacco to every patient in the asylum.

Nearly twenty years passed along, and that man was walking the floor of his cell in the asylum, when his reason returned. He saw the situation, took the tobacco from his mouth, threw it against the iron gate of the place in which he was confined, and said, “What brought me here? What keeps me here? Tobacco! tobacco! God forgive me, God help me, and I will never use it again.” He was fully restored to reason, came forth, preached the gospel of Christ for some ten years, and then went into everlasting blessedness.

There are ministers now in this country who are dying by inches, and they do not know what is the matter with them. They are being killed by tobacco. They are despoiling their influence through tobacco. They are malodorous [stinking] with tobacco.

I could give one paragraph of history, and that would be my own experience. It took ten cigars to make one sermon, and I got very nervous, and I awakened one day to see what an outrage I was committing on my health by the use of tobacco.

I was about to change settlement, and a generous tobacconist of Philadelphia told me if I would come to Philadelphia and be his pastor, he would give me all the cigars I wanted for nothing all the rest of my life.

I halted. I said to myself, “If I smoke more than I ought to now in these war-times, and when my salary is small, what would I do if I had gratuitous and unlimited supply?”

Then and there, twenty-four years ago, I quit once and forever. It made a new man of me. Much of the time the world looked blue before that, because I was looking through tobacco smoke. Ever since the world has been full of sunshine; and though I have done as much work as anyone of my age, God has blessed me, it seems to me, with the best health a man ever had.

No minister can afford to smoke. Put in my hand all the money expended by Christian men in Brooklyn for tobacco, and I will support three orphanages as well and as grandly as the three great orphanages already established. Put into my hand the money spent by the Christians of America for tobacco, and I will clothe, shelter, and feed all the suffering poor of the continent. The American Church gives $1 million a year for the salvation of the heathen, and American Christians smoke $5 million worth of tobacco.

I stand here today in the presence of a vast multitude of young people who are forming their habits. Between ages 17 and 25 a great many young men assume the habit of using tobacco that they never get over. Let me say to all my young friends: you cannot afford to smoke, you cannot afford to chew. Either you take very good tobacco or you take very cheap tobacco. If it is cheap, I will tell you why it is cheap. It is made of burdock, lampblack, sawdust, colt’s-foot, plantain leaves, fuller’s earth, salt, alum, lime, and a little tobacco. You cannot afford to put such a mess as that in your mouth. But if you use expensive tobacco, do you not think it would be better for you to take that amount of money you are now expending for this herb, and will expend during the course of your life if you keep the habit up, and with it buy a splendid farm and make the afternoon and the evening of your life comfortable?

There are young men whose life is going out inch by inch from cigarettes. Now, do you not think it would be well for you to listen to the testimony of a merchant of New York, who said, “In early life I smoked six cigars a day at 6½¢ each. They averaged that. I thought to myself one day, I’ll just put aside all I consume in cigars and all I would consume if I keep on in the habit, and I’ll see what it will come to by compound interest.”

And he gives this tremendous statistic: “Last July completed thirty-nine years since, by the grace of God, I was emancipated from the filthy habit, and the saving amounted to the enormous sum of $29,102.03 by compound interest. We lived in the city, but the children, who had learned something of the enjoyment of country life from their annual visits to their grandparents, longed for a home among the green fields. I found a pleasant place in the country for sale. The cigar money came into requisition, and I found it amounted to a sufficient sum to purchase the place, and it is mine. Now, boys, you take your choice. Smoking without a home, or a home without smoking.” This is common sense as well as clean living.

I must say a word to my friends who smoke the best tobacco, and who could stop at any time. What is your Christian influence in this respect? What is your influence on young men? Do you not think it would be better for you to exercise a little self-denial! People wondered why George Briggs, Governor of Massachusetts, wore a cravat but no collar. “Oh,” they said, “it is an absurd eccentricity.”

This was the history of the cravat without any collar.

Many years before, Briggs had been talking with an inebriate, trying to persuade him to give up the habit of drinking and he said to the inebriate, “Your habit is entirely unnecessary.”

“Ah!” replied the inebriate, “we do a great many things that are not necessary. It isn’t necessary that you should have that collar.”

“Well,” said Briggs, “I’ll never wear a collar again if you will stop drinking.”

“Agreed,” said the other. They joined hands in a pledge that they kept for twenty years—kept until death. That is magnificent. That is gospel, practical gospel, worthy of George Briggs, worthy of you. Self-denial for others. Subtraction from our advantage that there may be an addition to somebody else’s advantage.

But what I have said has been chiefly appropriate for men. Now my subject widens and shall be appropriate for both genders.


In all ages of the world there has been a search for some herb or flower that would stimulate lethargy and compose grief. Among the ancient Greeks and Egyptians they found something they called nepenthe, and the Theban women knew how to compound it. If a person should chew a few of those leaves, his grief would be immediately whelmed with hilarity.

Nepenthe passed from the consideration of the world and became hashish, from the Indian hemp. It is manufactured from the flowers at the top. The workman with leather apparel walks through the field and the exudation [discharge] of the plants adheres to the leather garments. Then the man comes out and scrapes off this exudation; and it is mixed with aromatics and becomes an intoxicant that has brutalized whole nations. Its first effect is sight, spectacle glorious and grand beyond all description, but afterward it pulls down body, mind, and soul into anguish.

I knew one of the most brilliant men of our time. His appearance in a newspaper column, or a book, or a magazine was an enchantment. In the course of a half-hour he could produce more wit and more valuable information than any man I ever heard talk. But he chewed hashish. He first took it out of curiosity to see whether the power said to be attached really existed. He took it. He got under the power of it. He tried to break loose. He put his hand in the cockatrice’s den to see whether it would bite, and he found out to his own undoing.

His friends gathered around and tried to save him, but he could not be saved. The father, a minister of the gospel, prayed with him, counseled him, and out of a comparatively small salary employed the first medical advice of New York, Philadelphia, Edinburgh, Paris, London, and Berlin, for he was his only son. No help came.

First his body gave way in pangs and convulsions of suffering. Then his mind gave way, and he became a raving maniac. Then his soul went out blaspheming God into a starless eternity. He died at thirty years of age. Behold the work of accursed hashish.

But I must put my emphasis on the use of opium. It is made from the white poppy. It is not a new discovery. Three hundred years before Christ we read of it; but it was not until the seventh century that it took up its march of death, and, passing out of the curative and the medicinal, and through smoking and mastication it has become the curse of nations. In 1861 there were imported into this country 107,000 pounds of opium; in 1880, nineteen years later, 530,000 pounds of opium. In 1876 there were in this country 225,000 opium-consumers. Now, it is estimated there are in the United States today 600,000 victims of opium. It is appalling.

We do not know why some families do not get on. There is something mysterious about them. The opium habit is so stealthy, it is so deceitful, and it is so deathful, you can cure a hundred men of strong drink where you can cure one opium-eater.

I have knelt down in this very church by those who were elegant in apparel, and elegant in appearance, and from the depths of their souls and from the depths of my soul, we cried out for God’s rescue. Somehow it did not come. In many a household only the physician and pastor know it—the physician called in for physical relief, the pastor called in for spiritual relief, and they both fail. The physician confesses his defeat, the minister confesses his defeat, for somehow God does not seem to hear a prayer offered for an opium-eater.

God’s grace is infinite. I have been told there are cases of reformation. I never saw one. I say this not to wound the feelings of any who may feel this awful grip, but to utter a potent warning that you stand back from that gate of hell.

O man, O woman, tampering with this great evil, have you fallen back on this as a permanent resource because of some physical distress or mental anguish? Better stop. The ecstasies do not pay for the horrors! The paradise is followed too soon by the pandemonium.

Morphine, a blessing of God for the relief of sudden pang and of acute dementia, has been misappropriated. It was never intended for permanent use.

It is not merely the barbaric fanatics that are taken down by drugs. Did you ever read Thomas De Quincey‘s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821)? He says that during the first ten years the habit handed to him all the keys of paradise, but it would take something as mighty as De Quincey’s pen to describe the consequent horrors. There is nothing that I have ever read about the tortures of the damned that seemed more horrible than those De Quincey says he suffered.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge first conquered the world with his exquisite pen, and then was conquered by opium.

The most brilliant, the most eloquent lawyer of the 19th century went down under its power, and there is a vast multitude of men and women—but more women than men—who are going into the dungeon of that awful incarceration.

The worst thing about it is that it takes advantage of one’s weakness. De Quincey says, “I got to be an opium-eater on account of my rheumatism.” Coleridge says, “I got to be an opium-eater on account of my sleeplessness.” For what are you taking it? For God’s sake do not take it long! The wealthiest, the grandest families going down under its power—25,000 victims of opium in Chicago, 25,000 victims of opium in St Louis, and, according to that average, 75,000 victims of opium in New York and Brooklyn.

The clerk of a drug store says, “I can tell them when they come in. There is something about their complexion, something about their manner, something about the look of their eyes that shows they are victims.”

Some in the struggle to get away from it try chloral [chlorine + alcohol]. Whole tons of chloral manufactured in Germany every year. Baron Liebig says he knows one chemist in Germany who manufactures a half-ton of chloral every week. Beware of hydrate of chloral. It is coming on with mighty tread to curse these cities.

But I am chiefly under this head speaking of morphine. The devil of morphine is going to be in this country, in my opinion, mightier than the devil of alcohol. By the power of the Christian pulpit, by the power of the Christianized printing press, by the power of the Lord God Almighty, all these evils are going to be extirpated [destroyed]—all, all, and you have a work in regard to that, and I have a work. But what we do we had better do right away. The clock ticks now, and we hear it; after a while the clock will tick and we will not hear it.

I sat at a country fireside, and I saw the fire kindle, blaze, and go out. I sat long enough at that fireside to get a good many practical reflections, and I said, “That is like human life, that fire on the hearth.” We put on the kindling and the fire blazes up, out, and on, and the whole room is filled with the light, sparkle, flash, and crackle. Emblem of boyhood.

Now the fire intensifies. Now the flame reddens into coals. Now the heat is becoming more and more intense; and the more it is stirred, the redder is the coal. Now with one sweep of flame it cleaves the way, and all the hearth glows with the intensity. Emblem of full manhood.

Now the coals begin to whiten. Now the heat lessens. Now the flickering shadows die along the wall. Now the coals fall apart. Now the household hovers over the expiring embers. Now the last breath of smoke is lost in the chimney. The fire is out. Shovel up the white remains. Ashes! Ashes! Emblem of death.

Of all that Orient lands can vaunt
Of marvels with our own competing
The strangest is the hashish plant
And what will follow on its eating. ~John Greenleaf Whittier

Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit: Railroad cars on 11th Avenue (c 1900)
Featured for this series are photographs of old New York.

*Adapted from “Tobacco and Opium,” Thomas DeWitt Talmage [1832-1902], New Tabernacle Sermons Vol I (New York: George Munro, 1886). Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.

§ Isn’t it interesting that late-19th-century physicians, scientists, considered tobacco hazardous to a person’s health when mid-20th-century tobacco companies were advertising its health benefits? It was not till the mid-1960s that the US became the first nation in the world to require a health warning on cigarettes.


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