Fruit of the Vine or Cup of Devils?

Ever been to a Methodist (or other evangelical) church when Communion is celebrated and notice that rather than wine, grape juice is used? It may come as a surprise to some, but this practice and grape juice, namely the original kind, Welch’s Grape Juice, have a shared history tracing to the Temperance Movement and the problems it posed to the most common element in the Eucharist, wine.

As the website of the UMC’s June 28th, 2016 story Methodist History: Controversy, Communion, & Welch’s Grape Juice states,  “[i]n the 1800s, churches faced a dilemma. To combat the epidemic of alcoholism, the temperance movement advocated total abstinence from all alcohol. In celebration of the Lord’s Supper though, the church filled the communion chalice with wine.”

This “cup of devils,” as some called it, was viewed as being an obstacle to using the “fruit of the vine” in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper for those who believed that it was illicit or even sinful to drink alcohol. In 1864, the General Convention of The Methodist Episcopal Church approved a report calling for “the pure juice of the grape be used.” Although it may seem that it would naturally be the case, this was not the case at the time the report was issued. As the article noted, those opposed to wine in sacramental contexts and wished to substitute had many solutions:

Lack of refrigeration caused a problem because grape juice fermented without being refrigerated. To combat this, some local churches that engaged in the abstinence movement came up with creative alternatives:

Some creative communion stewards chose to make their own unfermented sacramental wine. One recipe called for adding a pound of hand-squashed raisin pulp—dried grapes—to a quart of boiling water. Later in the process, the “winemaker” was to add an egg white. Doesn’t that sound delicious?

Some churches substituted water for wine. Many in the temperance movement declared water the only proper drink. Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana (John 2:1-12) seemed to give the practice a biblical justification.

Many, though, continued to use wine until in 1869, when Dr. Thomas B. Welch became a communion steward at his local church and was determined to come up with a solution.

To read more, check out the rest of the story.

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3 comments

  1. This also hearkens to the older tradition of raisin wine in Christian churches where access to unspoiled regular wine was not dependable. (Perhaps may be a Christian echo of the eastern Ashkenazi Jewish substitution of poultry fat for olive oil for latkes….)

  2. As the son of a United Methodist pastor, I can well remember the regulation. During the week I could drink all the wine I wanted, but not on those occasional Sunday’s, when he celebrated the Eucharist. I hope the UMC, has gone beyond that and perhaps will now give the individual communicant an option.

    Earle

  3. From a chemical (not liturgical) standpoint, ‘unfermented’ grape juice contains a measurable amount of ethanol (around 200 mg/deciliter). Most fruit juices do contain ethanol, but at lower levels than grape juice.

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