Several years ago a Christian group was on a tour of the Holy Lands and some sites in Asia Minor. In the Turkish city of Selçuk, near the ruins of ancient Ephesus they wanted to celebrate Holy Communion on a Sunday morning. They asked their guide to procure some grape juice for this purpose. The guide was confused but shortly returned with a bottle of local red wine. They explained that they did not imbibe alcohol in any fashion and desired a non-alcoholic grape juice for communion. Still confused the guide went forth to find unfermented grape juice. He returned empty-handed explaining that no such thing exists in the region. They ended up serving orange juice with communion.
The use of unfermented grape juice by some congregations is a modern convention that was borne of the temperance movement of the 19th century. Grapes naturally have the requisite yeast present on the skins at the time the grapes are picked and crushing them initiates the fermentation process that leads to the conversion of some of the sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide. Refrigeration can impede this process and pasteurization can prevent it, but neither was available during Jesus’ time. In just a few days grape juice becomes wine and there was nothing the ancients could do to prevent it.
We know that Jesus consumed wine (Mark 14:23–25; Matthew 26:27–29; Luke 22:17–18). He even produced wine: When the alcohol supply dwindled at the wedding in Cana, a youthful Jesus turned six jars of water—holding 20 to 30 gallons each—into wine (John 2:1–11).
For centuries, Christians have commemorated the Last Supper by drinking wine during Holy Communion. The Catholic Church has always used wine during Eucharistic celebrations, as did all Protestant denominations until just over a century ago. Martin Luther along with John Calvin agreed that wine should be used in the celebration of the Eucharist.
Why then do several Protestant denominations in America, including Methodists and Southern Baptists insist on using only non-alcoholic drink in their communion service?
Louis Pasteur’s research, ironically financed in part by the European wine industry that sought a way to eliminate bacteria that spoiled wine turning it into vinegar, resulted in the process we call pasteurization. By heating wine to 140 degrees for 25 minutes bacteria (and yeast) can be destroyed preventing both spoiling and fermentation.
A Massachusetts dentist named Dr. Thomas Bramwell Welch took note of Pasteur’s discoveries. Welch, a pious Methodist communion steward, was becoming increasingly troubled that many of his fellow congregants would not stop with just one drink at communion on Sundays. He set out to produce a preservable nonalcoholic grape juice (the origins of Welch’s Grape Juice). The American temperance movement was gaining in popularity following the Civil War and Welch was a member of the The American Temperance Society, formed in 1826. Gradually, religious communities began serving what they called “unfermented sacramental wine” at Sunday communions.
This is the state of affairs in many Christian churches today, including the Baptist church that I attend. My pastor is not dogmatic about his beliefs, but as a life-long Southern Baptist I doubt we’ll be using a nice little Pinot Noir in our Eucharistic services anytime soon.
Mr. Ellis has often alluded to his past abuse of alcohol and I am a recovering alcoholic, so I am not advocating heavy use of alcohol by anyone, especially Christians. The Bible warns us often of the sin of drunkenness (Ephesians 5:18; 1 Corinthians 6:12: Leviticus 10:9; Numbers 6:3; Deuteronomy 29:6; Judges 13:4, 7, 14; Proverbs 20:1; 31:4; Isaiah 5:11, 22; 24:9; 28:7; 29:9; 56:12) but the use of both wine and beer in moderation is frequently praised in both the Hebrew Bible (Isaiah 24:9; Proverbs 31:6; Ecclesiastes 10:19) and the New Testament (1 Timothy 5:23).
Sin is very often the misuse or abuse of God’s gifts. This is true of alcohol, as it is for sex (fornication, adultery, sodomy), food (gluttony), leisure (sloth) and material comforts (greed).