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Juicy Communion


Did you ever find yourself wondering, when you are in a church communion service: Why grape juice and not wine?  Why all the little cups?

Yeah, this post is hardly revolutionary or inspirational.  But, since the questions do come up from time to time, a little lesson in recent (by church history standards) events will answer our two questions.


First, before the nineteenth century the Lord's Supper was always observed with (fermented) wine held in a goblet (often called a chalice).  But, by the mid-twentieth century, most American Protestants are using grade juice and small individual cups.

The two changes in how the Lord's Supper will be celebrated by Protestants were independent and, at the same time, related.

The Temperance Movement began in the late eighteenth century and grew to become a powerful force among Protestants by the middle of the nineteenth century.  Although when it began, the movement's call was for moderation ("temperance") in the use of alcohol, soon a growing number of people called for pledges of Total Abstinence. In England in the early nineteenth century, the word "total" was sometimes abbreviated with just the letter "T." Although this practice never caught on the US, we do hear it reflected in the phrase, "Total with a capital T!"  Either way, it became common to describe those going beyond the call for moderation in favor of complete abstinence to be called "Tee-Totalers."

For traditions that only celebrated Communion once a year, it would be quite possible to schedule the "Sacramental Season" for a date when fresh grapes would be available.  As such, the transition to grape juice was already well under way in some groups before the Civil War. For groups that celebrated the Eucharist more often, on many Sundays fermented wine remained the only option.

Three events that all happened either during or shortly after the Civil War will change this.

First, by 1863 the work of Louis Pasteur that had been carried out in Strasbourg began to be known among American scientists and the newest generation of physicians being educated.  Although many applications of Pasteur's work were primarily medical, a great deal of his research was on sterilization and the process of fermentation.

Second, I will need to introduce you to an American entrepreneur, Dr. Thomas Welch.  Welch was a dentist and a committed Methodist.  The Methodists were one of the leading voices in the Temperance Movement.  After the civil war, Welch had moved to Vineland, New Jersey.  In 1869, using the techniques discovered by Pasteur, he began to market "Dr. Welch's Unfermented Wine."  It is no surprise that nearby Methodist churches were among his first customers.  At any time of the year, now, Communion could be non-alcoholic.

With savy advertising, much of it targeted to those sharing his own Temperance commitments, Thomas Welch saw the sales of his "unfermented wine" become nationwide in less than a decade.  By 1900, it would be safe to say, thousands of American congregations of various traditions were using grade juice exclusively for the Lord's Supper.

In the wave of fervor the Temperance Movement garnered, some Bible teachers and preachers concoted elaborate arguments and explanations that would support the assertion Jesus never made or drank anything with alcohol.  With due respect to their lofty intentions, these never really make it to the level of serious proposals.

Now, on to the question of the cups.  Pasteur is once again the key.  After the war, his discoveries about germs and disease became increasingly known within the general population.  Newspaper stories, along with word-of-mouth, meant that by 1890 there was hardly a family that didn't regularly hear the word "germs" as a part of daily life.

Growing up alongside new way of thinking about what made something clean was, a dramatic increase in the use of chewing tobacco by men.  Much of this was probably rooted in habits developed by bored soldiers during the civil war.  Now, keeping this explanation as tasteful as I can, imagine those moments when mothers looked down at the cup in church and steadfastly refused to have anyone in their family take a sip of that tobacco-stained and germ infested juice being passed around in that cup.

And so, voila!  Multiple cups will arise at virtually the same time as the use of bottled grape juice.  Although, conservative magazine such as The Christian Standard will continue to carry Communion Wine advertisements until after World War I, Thomas Welch had long since carried the day among many Protestants (excluding, of course, Angelicans and Lutherans).

That leaves some unanswered questions: Is grape juice an allowable replacement for wine?  Does the use of multiple cups violate God's will, since only a single cup is passed in the upper room?  But, these are issues for another post at some other time.

2 comments:

Nathan Lawson said...

I find it ironic that a movement that has insisted that baptism must match the form of the New Testament hasn't applied the same rubric to the only other sacrament. A similar argument to what we use to defend grape juice communion and multiple cups could be used to defend sprinkle baptism. If form is important to the sacrament of baptism, why not communion?

Tom Lawson said...

It is ironic. At least one "restorationist" tradition, the Plymouth Brethren, have recently struggled with the issue in ironic reverse. The older more conservative members insisting it must remain wine, while some younger less conservatives are advocating for grape juice.

The situation is highly colored by the stark distinction that appears in English between "juice" and "wine." In reality, no such distinction exists in the Greek. New wine is simply one of several varieties or styles of wine. They would not have called it anything other than "oinos," however. The "wine-ness" of wine was in its grape-ness, not its level of alcohol.

That said, unfermented would a very fragile liquid with a very short shelf-life.