The Origin of Communion Grape Juice

In our church, we celebrate two ordinances that are central to who we are as Christians – baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  In Matthew 26, Jesus instituted the meal as they were eating the Passover meal, saying that we should “Take, eat…” and “Drink of it, all of you…” as a way of remembering the sacrifice he would perform the next day.  Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox Christians make this an important part of their liturgy, or their worship, out of obedience to Christ’s command, remembering the ultimate sacrifice that paid our sin debt. It’s a simple command, and a simple thing to do, and throughout ecclesiastical history, believers have observed the Lord’s Supper.

A Simple Command…A Complex Practice

Yet, as simple a command as it it is, Christians have a placed upon this ordinance various practices and meanings as they gather to observe the sacrifice.  Some call the meal symbolic, while others view it as a means of grace.  Some are served in the pew, and others go to the altar to receive the elements from the pastor or priest. Some drink grape juice from a disposable cup, and some drink wine from a common cup. And, even the ordinance itself has different names – the Lord’s Supper, communion, or eucharist are names that all refer to the same event.

Though the differences of practicing the Lord’s Supper are many, one simple thing has always baffled me as a Southern Baptist…why do we use grape juice instead of wine?  Many churches use wine in their observance, and seem to do so without issue.  Yet, Southern Baptists hold fast to grape juice.

“Lips that touch liquor…”

In the 19th century, American society was beset by all sorts of problems – and alcoholic drink was blamed for everything immoral in society.  In America’s God, author Mark Noll describes the influence of Presbyterian minister and American Temperance Union co-founder Lyman Beecher (1775-1863) who preached a series of sermons on “the Nature, Occasions, Signs, Evils and Remedy of Intemperance.” (296)  Beecher blamed the use of alcohol for “the moral ruin it works in the soul.” (297)  He appealed, too, to civil policy when he blamed alcohol for the harm it did to “the health and physical energies of a nation”, “national intellect”, and “the military powers of a nation.”  Beecher was not alone in his campaign.  Revivalist Charles Finney and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union joined him in the fight against alcohol.  This battle hymn summed up their cause:

And where are the hands red with slaughter?
Behold them each day as you pass
The places where death and destruction
Are retailed at ten cents a glass.

In the 1881 Baptist Encyclopaedia (ed. William Cathcart), it is clear that Baptists were part of the movement to rid society of alcohol use and the subsequent ills associated with it.  It states,

The position of the Baptist denomination on the temperance reform is indicated by the repeated action of leading Associations declaring, in emphatic terms, their approval of total abstinence.  No Baptist church in the Northern States would receive or retain in its membership any one engaged in the manufacture or sale of the beverages, neither would it accept as a member the house-owner who rented his property for such purposes.  Let Christians live in the practice of total abstinence…and may God hasten the abolition of their manufacture and use throughout the whole earth.   

Practice What You Preach

Because of the efforts of the temperance societies, churches faced an issue.  How could they preach against the use of alcohol, yet serve wine in communion?  After all, every church – even the Baptists – used wine in the remembrance meal. There had to be a solution.

To avoid a fermented grape juice, the only solution was to press grapes prior to the Sunday of the Lord’s Supper and use the fresh juice in the service.  That, however, presented many issues.  One, it took many, many grapes to render enough juice for the church; two, grapes were not plentiful to everyone everywhere; and three, pressing the grapes for juice was labor-intensive. As a result, church members had to look elsewhere.

In 1869, Dr. Thomas Bramwell Welch followed the lead of Louis Pasteur, who, in 1864, discovered the process known as pasteurization.  Welch applied this process to grape juice to prevent fermentation and spoilage.  Welch’s son, Dr. Charles Welch, a Methodist layman, quit his practice of dentistry to  market the “sacramental wine” to churches.  Needless to say, in the age of the temperance movement, sales skyrocketed.

Since then, Baptists (and others), have used the non-alcoholic grape juice in the observance of the Lord’s Supper.  I suppose that’s one less thing to feel guilty about.

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