Throughout the 1830s, Marion, Alabama was a frontier town. Located in Perry County in west central Alabama, the crude settlement was on the northern edge of the state’s fertile agricultural crescent. During the decade before the founding of Howard College, the town was poor, sparsely settled, disease-ridden, and isolated from the east’s civilizing influences of religion, education, and law. The only social outlet for the masses was drinking and fighting. “It looked to me,” one early settler noted, “as if the devil had a clean bill of sale to all this country.”
No matter the hour, drunks staggered along the dusty streets, causing disorder and provoking violent encounters. Feeding the violence was the availability of cheap corn liquor and other intoxicating spirits bought at one of the eleven establishments licensed to sell such rotgut. Billy Price owned Marion’s most popular saloon, “Dum Vivimus, Vivimus,” which translated from Latin as “while we live, let us live it up.” Here gathered the “originators of all mischief perpetuated in Marion,” a resident later wrote, especially a thrill-seeking gang of idle young men that locals referred to as “the boys.” These high school- and college-age boys, with no education and little hope of escaping the drudgery of frontier life, embraced a literal interpretation of Price’s motto and endeavored to “live it up” and raise hell at every possible occasion.
Often, they loitered in the streets of Marion during the day and made mischief on unsuspecting locals. By night, they drank and fought. When a traveling circus stopped in Marion in 1835, the boys went to see the caravan of wild animals and then retired for an evening of reverie at Price’s saloon. When one of the boys announced that he was “drunk as a badger,” the others asked, “just how drunk can a badger get?” To settle the matter scientifically, Samuel A. Townes noted a few years later, the boys sought out the circus owner (“the varmint man”) and a thirsty badger to invite “down to the droggery to be made drunk.” When the proprietor refused to cooperate, the “boys” stormed the circus, overturning wagons and opening cages in search of a badger. Once they located the animal, and let loose bears, lions, tigers, elephants, monkeys and “various other rarities,” the victorious army returned to Price’s place and proceeded to make the badger drunk. “The poor animal was completely intoxicated,” Townes wrote, “and, to the amazement of his drunken companions, only behaved like themselves or any other drunken beast.”
When flush times came to Marion in the 1830s, the town was a peculiar mingling of frontier intemperance and emerging cotton idealism. As planters learned how to successfully grow cotton on a mass scale in the black sticky soil in southern Perry County, land sales skyrocketed and Marion grew wealthy and more civilized. Tensions, however, remained high, as those poor folks with a frontier outlook, resented the boosterism and moralism of the entrepreneur classes who looked to tame the wilderness and fashion an enlightened society similar to the settled areas to the east—a place where citizens followed the rule of law and embraced the civilizing influences of education and religion. Many church leaders and laymen alike hoped to instill an enlightened form of southern puritanism upon the revelers of frontier hedonism.
Throughout the previous decade, Marion’s most visible religious community was Siloam Baptist Church, which struggled for relevancy against the tide of debauchery. By the 1830s, however, revival fires swept the Alabama wilderness and brought vast cultural changes. Characterized by emotional preaching, modified Calvinistic notions of free-will and salvation, and a call to pious living, the revivalist spirit led to an unprecedented growth in church memberships, more money in the offering plates, and increased status for preacher and churchgoers. In 1832, the Marion Presbyterian Church organized and built a small frame house of worship. The next year, the Siloam congregation moved from its rustic meeting house to a new $600 frame building. As wealth and status increased, the church built a larger $7,000 building in 1837 that Samuel Townes described as one of the “most elegant and tastefully houses of worship in the state.” In contrast, the Methodists struggled to maintain even a small presence in Marion, reporting just thirty-two members in 1841. Perhaps this was an indication that most of the town’s Protestant Christians favored some form of Calvinistic thought of the Baptists and Presbyterians over the anti-Calvinistic Armenian beliefs of the Methodists.
In particular, the revivalist spirit compelled many missions- and education-minded Baptists in small towns like Marion to focus their attention towards evangelism in the Alabama wilderness and along the frontiers abroad. Several years later, the Baptists in Marion recognized that education was a way to “go ye therefore, and teach all nations. . . .” This group of evangelical reformers also acknowledged that they had a bountiful mission field in Marion, where salvation, virtue, and education would be the essential trilogy to bring a measure of social control over the host of drunkards and unruly boys. It was into this environment, that Marion’s Baptists founded Howard College as a way to bring moral education and temperance instruction to the wild young men of the Alabama frontier.
Adapted from: the Marion Standard, 1909; W. Stuart Harris, “Rowdyism, Public Drunkenness, and Bloody Encounters in Early Perry County,” Alabama Review (January 1980): 15-24; Samuel A. Townes, History of Marion, Sketches of Life, etc, in Perry County, Alabama.