Lowell H. Coate
The Anomalous Chairman
The Prohibition Party nearly its entire life has been led by Protestant Christian clergy and laymen. Only one non-Christian has ever attained a position of leadership in the Party; that was Lowell Coate, national chairman from l953 until 1955.
Coate was born near Dayton, Ohio in 1889 and was raised as a Quaker there and in New London, Indiana. He obtained an Arts Bachelor degree from Olivet Nazarene College in l9l7. He then taught sociology and education at Olivet Nazarene until 1920, later becoming first Dean of Marion College (founded in l920), and subsequently being Professor of Sociology at Pasadena College while simultaneously earning a PhD in sociology from The University of Southern California.
In 1929, Coate became an administrator in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He retired from there in 1953; his last position was that of attendance supervisor in the Child Welfare Division1.
Immediately upon retirement, Coate became Chairman of the Prohibition National Committee. After leaving that post, in 1955, he devoted his time to various pacifist and rationalist activities and to the adult education school which he founded, “Pacific International University.” He died, of heart failure, in Pasadena, in 1973.
Like many of us, Coate appears to have worked at a mundane job in order to support himself, while using his time away from work to do more significant things. His biography in The American Rationalist2 states that, in addition to being founder and president of Pacific International University, Coate was for 12 years president of the Foreign Policy Council of Los Angeles, was the first editor (in 1948) of Progressive World magazine, and helped found Progressive World Associates, United Secularists of America, and the Los Angeles Humanist Society. At various times, he edited The Humanist World, The Pacific Monthly, Peace Digest, The American Rationalist (l958-1960), and The Rationalist (Melbourne). He wrote for a freethought magazine called The Truth Seeker. “It can be said he was the promoter of many causes, generally causes for the public good.” 3
Coate’s religious upbringing is reflected in his choice of Olivet Nazarene College 4 for his undergraduate work. He contributed a chapter to William Jennings Bryan’s 1925 anti-evolution screed The Dawn of Humanity, and he wrote The Patriotism of Peace. His dissertation title is “A Study of the Relation of the Government to the Individual’s Conscience in The United States.” 5
It is ironic that Coate, who later in life became a staunch advocate of atheism and the darling of freethinkers, in 1925, at the beginning of his career, teamed up with Bryan in an attempt to discredit the Theory of Evolution.6 The juxtaposition of the old evangelist’s audience-teasing orations and the young professor’s earnest lecture makes a striking contrast. Bryan makes no effort to deal with the scientific facts, but resorts instead to word-smithing to sway his audiences, while Coate, clearly out beyond his intellectual depth, struggles to grasp rational objections to evolution. The book is a compilation of earlier invective against the Theory of Evolution by Bryan and others, to which is appended an original chapter by Coate. It was advertised as something for students and colleges to sell, to raise money.
Coate was “very much a pacifist,” said former associate Bolder Landry. I was introduced to Landry by current Truth Seeker publisher Bonnie Lange, and I spoke with him by telephone on 28 January 2001. Landry worked with Coate to organize Life Science International, and he considers himself to have been a good friend of Coate.
Landry said he didn’t know that Coate had had any involvement with the Prohibition Party until I wrote, asking him about it. In fact, none of the references I have seen, other than Prohibition Party publications, mention Coate’s association with our Party. It appears to have been a very incidental adjunct to his career.
Coate’s introduction in the April, 1953 issue of The National Prohibitionist7 states that he had been an officer of his campus chapter of the Intercollegiate Prohibition Association as an undergraduate, and that through the IPA had met national officers D. Leigh Colvin and Virgil Hinshaw He had been an Illinois delegate to the 1912 national convention (Atlantic City) and an Idaho delegate to the 1916 national convention (St. Paul). He had been appointed by national chairman Hinshaw to be executive secretary of the Colorado state party in 1913.
After graduating from college, however, Coate devoted most of his time to his career as an educator. He never ran for public office on the Prohibition ticket.8 Prohibition Party historian Roger Storms says, without elaboration, that Coate “was a long-time Party worker.” 9
Earl F. Dodge, at that time chairman of the Prohibition National Committee, remarked to me during a break in a National Temperance and Prohibition Council meeting on 1 March 1977 that Coate had been recommended to be PNC Chairman by California Party leaders Ethel Hubler and Fred Ross. Coate had acquired the job of Chairman, Dodge said, because “nobody else wanted it.”
The National Prohibitionist states that Coate will “… vigorously launch the new progressive program recently authorized by the National Committee in its official meting, March 27 & 28, in Chicago.” Coate may have been an opportunist who saw in the Prohibition Party a vehicle with which to advance his personal, pacifist agenda. The Prohibition Party at that time was isolationist in foreign policy, which Pacifists saw as a cousin to their own doctrine of non-intervention. The 1955 convention, with Coate in charge as Party chairman, attempted to nominate North Dakota senator William Langer as its candidate for president. Langer was an isolationist, a personal dry, and had introduced a bill in Congress to prohibit liquor advertising.
Storms details the 1955 convention at relatively great length, explaining that many of the pro-Langer delegates refused to sign a pledge supporting the eventual candidate (whoever that might turn out to be), and that the credentials committee thereupon refused to seat them. It appears that Langer was never formally proposed as a candidate. Instead, says Storms, the Coate faction held a rump session and nominated Langer themselves, under the banner of the “American Pioneers Party.”10
Coate then vanishes from the pages of Prohibition Party history.
What really happened in 1955, and what was Coate’s part in it? Historian Storms would have been only 16 at the time, and it is unlikely that he attended. He must have obtained his information later, from his close friend and associate Earl. F. Dodge.11 Dodge, however, was attending his first convention, at age 22, having been recruited into our Party earlier that year at a rally held by Mark Shaw. Did Dodge, a neophyte, misunderstand what actually transpired?
I serendipitously encountered Rev. E. Paul Weaver at a Brethren Church festival, in 1999, tending a table of pacifist literature. Weaver told me that he had been present at the Winona Lake convention, in 1955. At that time, he was lobbyist for the Indiana Council of Churches; he said that he knew most of the people at that convention. If anything similar to what Storms and Dodge describe had actually taken place, Weaver assured me, he would have heard about it.
Weaver remembered nothing of the sort. Yet, Langer was not nominated, and Coate disappeared from the record ….
What more can be known about Coate? At the time of his death, on Christmas Day in 1973, he was assistant editor of The Truth Seeker. A front-page obituary was published there, in the December issue. 12 The then-editor of The Truth Seeker, James Hervey Johnson, was given to hyperbole and exaggeration, but his remarks may be of interest:
Among other details not found elsewhere, Johnson states that Coate studied for the Methodist ministry and had occupied a pulpit for several years, before rejecting religion. His humanist group “Life Science International” published a periodical called Life Science. “He was listed for many years in Who’s Who and [was] well-known in educational circles.”
I searched the ca. 1950 Marquis national Who’s Who and the Who’s Who in California without finding him; Landry agrees that Coate was not of enough prominence to rate an entry in those. I also searched the ca. 1950 editions of Outstanding Educators, Who’s Who in American Education, Leaders in Education,” and Biographical Dictionary of American Educators, without finding him. He is not in the NY Times obituary index. I could not find an obituary in the LA Times, the San Diego Union, or the San Bernardino Sun. His humanist newsletter Life Science is not held by the Library of Congress.
Johnson wrote to me in March of 1977, saying that Coate “… was a liberal …. He was a very fine gentleman, and a 100% advocate for peace, and an absolute atheist which the Prohibition Party people did not like.”
The Prohibition Party has always been an amalgam of personal drys with widely divergent backgrounds. These philosophical differences were famously acknowledged by the comment in the 1896 platform: “… in order to accomplish [National Prohibition] we deem it but right to leave every Prohibitionist the freedom of his own convictions upon all other political questions ….”
Coate epitomized all three sources of disagreement: He was a pacifist, in an organization dominated by Baptists and Methodists (few of whom have been pacifists); he was an Anabaptist (the Brethren/Quaker/Mennonite drys conflicting theologically with the dominant Methodist/Baptist drys); and, he was a rationalist, in an organization composed mostly of religious people. The chairmanship of the Prohibition National Committee would have been a difficult post for him to fill, even had he been inclined to negotiate and compromise in the name of unity.
The Prohibition Party has succeeded in electing local officials, where everyone can agree on “good government,” and where broad policy objectives other than alcohol prohibition are less important. It has rarely succeeded on the state and national levels, where the internal differences about broad policy objectives cannot be ignored. All three dry constituencies, the pacifists, the fundamentalists, and the progressive reformers, are necessary in order to provide a large enough bloc of “dry” votes to win. Only candidates, and national chairmen, who have successfully blended these inherently antagonistic elements have been able to advance The Cause.13, 14, 15
Shortly before Roger Storms’ fatal accident, in 1980, he and I had discussed researching and publishing a biography of Coate, with emphasis on his Prohibition Party activities. I did most of the work presented above around 1980, while I was still on active duty with the US Marine Band and living in the Washington, DC area.
The project then languished at the back of the desk for some 20 years. The information I had was incomplete, and, without Roger’s help, I was unable to create a satisfying account of Coate’s role in the Prohibition Party.
The 1999 encounter with Rev. Weaver revived my interest, however. Shortly thereafter, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that The Truth Seeker yet survived, having been resurrected by new owners after the torching of its headquarters in 1981 and the death of James Hervey Johnson. The new management put me in touch with Bolder Landry.
These additional sources, while contributing little beyond what I already knew, seemed to confirm my general conclusions At the same time, the launching of the Partisan Prohibition Historical Society’s website www.prohibitionists.org and of the 21st century National Prohibitionist highlighted the need for a Prohibition-oriented biography of Coate.
I’d like to believe that Roger Storms is watching, somewhere, and that he approves of the publication of our project. Here’s to your memory, Roger, and thanks for your support!
Richard Swope at The Pennsylvania State University Library found Coate’s dissertation in the University of Southern California Library’s on-line catalog; the USC alumni office told me they had no record of Coate having been a student there, and for a time I had doubted that he really had a USC doctorate. Glennis Garnes at Coyle Free Library, David Ross at the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists, and Benjamin Heller at the Michigan Historical Collections also provided material aid in locating essential references.
1 – Hain, Eva S. (1982) – personal communication; Hain was Director of the Public Information Unit, Los AngelesUnifiedSchool District.
2 – Scholl, Eldon (1958) – Introducing Our New Editor: American Rationalist 3(4):3-4.
3 – Runyon, G.V. (1974) – Obituary: NZ Rationalist & Humanist, June/July, p.11
4 – Now called “Olivet Nazarene University,” at Bourbonnaise, Illinois. Scholl (1958) and Runyon (1974) both incorrectly identify this as Olivet College, at Olivet, Michigan. The Registrar’s Office at Olivet Nazarene vouched for Coate’s 1917 graduation date, whereas Olivet has no record of him.
5 – Coate also studied, briefly, at Taylor University, Upland, Indiana. Coincidentally, this school presented an honorary doctorate to our 1904 presidential candidate, Silas Swallow.
6 – Also ironically, my librarian had to send to Tennessee, venue of the 1925 anti-evolution Scopes Trial in which Bryan was a principal, in order to borrow a copy of Bryan’s anti-evolution book.
7 - National Prohibitionist 20(10):1, April, 1953.
8 – Richard Winger’s catalog of Prohibition Party candidates makes no reference to Coate during the years in which he supposedly was “a long-time Party worker.” (Winger’s catalog is being posted on the website www.prohibitionists.org.)
9 – Storms, R.C. (1972) – Partisan Prophets, p.57
10 – ibid., p.58
11 – Storms’ widow, Margaret Storms Shickley, is still alive; she does not reply to mail or return telephone calls. Dodge, also, is still alive, but, because of a dispute over his management of the Prohibition Party office, he will no longer communicate with me.
Dodge blames Coate for speeding the decline of the Prohibition Party organization. Coate was the last Progressive leader of the Prohibition Party, and while the Party already was fractured before Coate’s ascendancy, says Dodge, his disruption of the 1955 convention resulted in the final Progressive/Conservative split and in the departure of the liberal wing.
12 – The Truth Seeker 100(12):1-2.
13 – Of course, other dry organizations have faced the same problem of unstable coalition, also. Notable illustrations are the conflict within the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union between Mary Hunt’s “Scientific Temperance Instruction” and Frances Willard’s evangelical emotionalism, and the debate within Alcoholics Anonymous over religious conversion versus rational persuasion.
14 – A few individual Catholics have been active in the Prohibition Party, but as a demographic group, Catholics are not part of our constituency.
15 – Some Christian-derivative religious groups, such as the Mormons and the Christian Scientists, are doctrinally dry. Again, while occasional individuals from these religions have been active in the Party, doctrinal conflicts between these and the dominant Protestant Christians have so far prevented these bodies, as demographic entities, being welcomed into the dry coalition.
To this list of traditional Christian constituencies must now be added Muslims, who are an increasingly important bloc of American voters and who, because they are doctrinally dry, are potentially Prohibition voters. In order to win them over, however, it will be necessary among other things to abandon the “God and the Bible” terminology of conservative Christians and, instead, use religiously neutral terms such as “The Creator” and “Scripture.” It remains to be seen if Prohibitionists are pragmatic enough to adopt this symbolic change.