Born in 1811, Hanks graduated from Amherst College and Andover Theological Seminary. In 1840 when the First Congregational church of Lowell was outgrowing its building a group split off to start a second: John Street Congregational Church.
The group of founders chose Hanks as their first pastor. He was young and dynamic, but he also let his sermons stray away from “pure religion” into social and political issues. And he could be downright caustic when the time called for it.
He quickly irritated the more conservative members of the church. They labelled the church “Texas,” according to Pastor George Johnson, who followed after Hanks. It was a reference to the discussions at the time of whether the Republic of Texas was to be allowed to join the union, as it had become a haven for slaveholding southerners and had especially liberal regulation of alcohol.
The critics sneered that the talk from the pulpit of the John Street Church was all about “rum and niggers,” Johnson reported.
A group of 20 churches convened a meeting to discuss whether Hanks should be dismissed, and the deacons of the churches agreed he should go. But the women of the new church disagreed. By a vote of 97 to 13, they supported Hanks and, thus, he stayed in the pulpit.
Ironically, Hanks was not nearly as radical as other anti-slavery advocates who joined with William Lloyd Garrison in demanding al slaves be immediately freed. Hanks leaned more toward the school that wanted to gradually and peacefully eliminate slavery.
Once Hanks pulpit was returned to him, he never looked back. For 12-and-a-half years he worked to end the two evils of slavery and alcohol. Hanks built what was at one time the largest Sunday school in Massachusetts, built a 700-person Cold Water Army of young people who had sworn off alcohol and published a song book for young people to sing promoting virtuous living.
Hanks’ reputation grew to national stature as he travelled on speaking tours. In October 1852, he gave up the pulpit and went to work as corresponding secretary for the Boston Seaman’s Friend Society.
This religious society existed to minister to sailors. Sailing was one of the few vocations where black men were treated with some degree of equality, since sailors were worldlier and tended to judge men by their skills. While Hanks continued giving anti-slavery speeches, he now turned more attention to the temperance movement. And if convincing sailors to give up drinking (and swearing) seems like a tough task, it was.
Still, Hanks persevered. The society began a campaign to outfit ships with a library of books for the betterment of the sailors. Collecting donations, Hanks and the society began sending books to sea so that sailors could read lessons to improve their lives.
Hanks’ favorite tool was the allegory – a story with a message embedded in it. And he wasn’t subtle. His books for sailors, Light on the Ocean and Sailor Boy were compiled from his short stories published in Sailor’s Magazine. They featured heroic fates for brave and sober sailors and ignominy for faithless drunkards.
But his most lasting work dealt with the evils of liquor in the fictitious Black Valley. It was a collection of tales of the Black Valley Railroad published in book form in 1871, two years after Hanks moved his home from Lowell to Cambridge. The railroad represented the road a man put himself on when he started drinking.
Each stop marked a further descent into alcoholism, starting with relatively harmless towns like Sippington, Medicineville and Tipplerton. The rail line proceeded through darker and more dangerous addresses: Brothelton, FIghtington, Prisonton and Robbers Den. Finally the train moved through Idiot Flats, Maniacville, Horrorland and ending in Destruction.
His book tells the misery of the people inhabiting the valley until they are introduced, against their instincts, to the benefits of water.
The Black Valley Road stories reached millions and were an effective recruitment tool for temperance associations looking to build their Cold Water Armies.
Hanks died in 1889 with the temperance movement still years away from implementing national prohibition.