Two weeks ago, after reading my explainer on the potential schism within the United Methodist Church, I was asked why Methodists use grape juice rather than wine at Communion. After all, Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding at Cana, and it’s assumed that he was using wine during the Passover (Last Supper) which has become the basis for the eucharistic tradition. So why do Methodists have a problem with wine? The answer is made up of many different threads: history, social justice, entrepreneurship, and the unique Methodist creativity that ties all the threads together.
A little bit of history
It’s helpful to remember that John Wesley had no intention of starting a church; he was an Anglican priest until the day he died, and he never disavowed his ties to it. He was intentional about starting a movement, but because the movement wasn’t initially a denomination, the rules were not of the sacramental nature. For the most part, Methodism was a movement dedicated to disciplined, methodical, outward piety while constantly seeking inner holiness…in Methodist terms, the process of going on to perfection. Wesley may not have considered himself a founder of a church, but he was not reticent about sharing his opinions and preaching on a wide range of subjects. On the subject of drink, he was not opposed to wine as part of the sacrament; he did, however, take issue with hard liquor. Liquor to Wesley was part of a path that led away from holiness and piety; its use could lead to the abuse of body and soul.
Neither may we gain by hurting our neighbour in his body. Therefore we may not sell anything which tends to impair health. Such is, eminently, all that liquid fire, commonly called drams or spirituous liquors. It is true, these may have a place in medicine; they may be of use in some bodily disorders; although there would rarely be occasion for them were it not for the unskillfulness of the practitioner. Therefore, such as prepare and sell them only for this end may keep their conscience clear. But who are they Who prepare and sell them only for this end Do you know ten such distillers in England Then excuse these. But all who sell them in the common way, to any that will buy, are poisoners general. The Use of Money
As Methodist societies came to be organized in England, Ireland, and the colonies of North America, Wesley did find if useful to lay out general rules for the organization, behavior, and achievement of faithfulness. The societies were expected to abide by these General Rules and follow the methods outlined. Included in the rules was this statement:
It is therefore expected of all who continue therein that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation,
First: By doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced, such as:
The taking of the name of God in vain.
The profaning the day of the Lord, either by doing ordinary work therein or by buying or selling.
Drunkenness: buying or selling spirituous liquors, or drinking them, unless in cases of extreme necessity.
Slaveholding; buying or selling slaves.
Fighting, quarreling, brawling, brother going to law with brother; returning evil for evil, or railing for railing; the using many words in buying or selling. The General Rules
And a little more history with a dash of social justice
The societies grew and organized along ecclesiastical, church-like lines, but the American Revolution and the subsequent break with England (and thus the Church of England) left Wesley and the societies in a difficult position. The Bishop of London refused to appoint bishops to serve in the new United States, which by the tradition of apostolic succession, left U.S. societies without pastors and without sacraments. The societies could exist without pastors, but the desire to link Methodist societies with the Anglican church had grown even as it was thwarted. The societies had finally reached the conclusion that they needed to become the church; over the years, the reluctant Wesley was persuaded that saving souls was the only goal that mattered. If the Church of England would not provide a bishop or pastors, the merits of apostolic succession had to be reevaluated. Over time, Wesley had come to believe that a priest could perform ordination; he took the monumental step of ordaining Thomas Coke as the “superintendent” of U.S. Methodists. In turn, at the Christmas Conference of Methodists in 1784, Coke ordained Francis Asbury as another superintendent of the Methodist Episcopal Church. By 1787, Coke and Asbury were referred to as bishops rather than superintendents, and the break with the Church of England was complete.
The General Rules that Wesley had sketched out in 1743 became one of the foundational documents of the new church, and with it, the emphasis on practical piety (“true faith cannot exist without works”). One of the leading social issues of the early 1800s was rampant alcohol abuse. Americans were drinking… a lot.
By 1830, alcohol consumption reached its peak at a truly outlandish 7 gallons of ethanol a year per capita. Via Okrent:
“Staggering” is the appropriate word for the consequences of this sort of drinking. In modern terms, those seven gallons are the equivalent of 1.7 bottles of a standard 80-proof liquor per person, per week—nearly 90 bottles a year for every adult in the nation, even with abstainers (and there were millions of them) factored in. Once again figuring per capita, multiply the amount Americans drink today by three and you’ll have an idea of what much of the nineteenth century was like.
…So, how much do Americans drink now, in the modern world? Well, the best figure for the current American alcohol consumption rate seems to be roughly 2.42 gallons of ethanol per year, per capita—still a healthy figure, but nearly three times less per capita than in 1830. The 1800s: When Americans Drank Whiskey Like it was Water
Methodists organized methodically and provided leadership and financial support to temperance movements across the country. (The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union [WCTU], which formed in the 1870s, was for Frances Willard, one of the founders and president from 1879 to 1898, a natural extension of her Methodist beliefs.) The Methodists had a problem though. The temperance movement called for total abstinence, but when Methodists celebrated Communion, the chalice was filled with wine. It was an untenable situation for temperance supporters, but not all Methodists were temperance supporters. The debate continued for decades: abstinence on one hand, with others arguing that if Jesus had used wine, it had the imprimatur of a Biblical mandate and was a valid, even holy, exception to abstinence. At the 1864 General conference, a recommendation was made:
In 1864, the General Conference of The Methodist Episcopal Church entered the conversation when they approved a report from the Temperance Committee that recommended “the pure juice of the grape be used in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.” Methodist History…
A Methodist entrepreneur gets busy
The General Conference recommendation was one thing, but the reality was quite another. And the reality was that grape juice at room temperature ferments (refrigeration wasn’t available until the early 1900s and only widely available wll after that). A scientifically-inclined Methodist communion steward in New Jersey decided to tackle the problem. He had read about Louis Pasteur’s process and started to experiment to see if it could be adapted for grape juice. In 1869, he succeeded, and Dr. Thomas Welch began marketing “Dr. Welch’s Unfermented Wine” to churches. His breakthrough didn’t catch on, and by 1873, Dr. Welch was no longer producing his unfermented wine. For one thing, the 1864 General Conference recommendation was just that: a recommendation. Without the force of a requirement, many churches were reluctant to break with tradition. Secondly, a major marketing push was required, and Dr. Welch was a devoted Methodist but not a marketing genius. His son, Charles, however, was. In 1875, Charles convinced his father to try again, and this time Charles handled the marketing. He distributed free samples to churches; when the WCTU formed, members refused to receive a Communion cup of wine but would accept a cup with grape juice. At the 1880 General Conference, the church took steps that went beyond a mere recommendation, and language was added to the Discipline: “Let none but the pure, unfermented juice of the grape be used in administering the Lord’s Supper, whenever practicable.” (Methodist History…)
Welch’s Grape Juice grew well beyond the church and even grew so popular that at the turn of the century, it advertised itself, with some legitimacy, as the “national drink.” But to Thomas Welch, it was and always would be the drink that saved Methodists from the partaking of the “cup of devils.”
This will be my last Tuesday post for the foreseeable future. One day at work has convinced me that this is the correct decision, although I will revisit it once I’ve settled into my new job. I will be around this evening and will try to be around most other evenings too. The good news is that I should be getting home from work by about 4:15pm Eastern every day; the bad news is that to achieve that, I will be starting work at 7:30am. I’m not sure just how much “evening” I’ll see with that early start time. Thanks you all for the support and encouragement you’ve provided since January 2017. You all kept me reading. You all kept me writing. You all kept me seeking. Thank you.