New wine, new wineskins
DO THIS in remembrance of me.” Jesus’ command to his disciples as they ate their last meal together has undergirded Christian worship and theology for more than two millennia. At the original Last Supper, Jesus and his disciples would have partaken of wine from a common cup and unleavened bread. How did portions of Protestantism arrive at the modern practice of receiving grape juice in individual cups and leavened bread?
The early Western church maintained the custom of wine and unleavened bread. The Eastern church soon began to use leavened bread, seeing the leaven as a symbol of new life in Christ. In the West, the unleavened bread became thinner and more stylized until it assumed the form of a thin wafer. By the high Middle Ages, amid growing concerns about reverence toward the bread and wine as Christ’s actual body and blood, the church ceased to offer laity the cup. The Protestant Reformation urged more frequent reception of Communion by the laity “in both kinds” (bread and wine), as well as emphasizing “real” bread. From the 16th until the 19th century, the majority of Protestants communed using wine from a common cup and leavened bread.
Leaders of the 18th-century “evangelical revival” in Britain and America, though concerned about the immoderate use of alcohol, did not see wine, cider, and beer as alcoholic in the same way as distilled spirits (such as gin and brandy). However, in the 19th century, temperance became “teetotalism” or “total abstinence,” moving all alcohol (wine included) into the list of forbidden beverages. Many began to question why a beverage considered dangerous to drink was still used on the Communion table.
Believing both in the authority of Scripture and the scientific proof of alcohol’s poisonous nature, Protestant theologians and exegetes tried to explain the Bible’s positive use of the word wine, not least Jesus’ command to his disciples to remember him by consuming it. Led by biblical commentator Frederic Lees, they theorized that several Hebrew and Greek words used to mean wine in the Bible actually referred to grape juice. Jesus had instituted the Eucharist with the unfermented “fruit of the vine,” whereas the ferment of intoxication represented “the leaven of the Pharisees,” symbolizing corruption and decay.
Motivated by these arguments, Protestant churchgoers and clergy sought a way to make unfermented grape juice. An American Methodist dentist, Thomas Bramwell Welch, and his son Charles were the first to succeed in this on a large scale. Charles Welch was a skilled marketer, and “Welch’s grape juice” became a popular beverage among total abstainers and the replacement for fermented wine on most American Protestant Communion tables (except in Lutheran and Episcopal churches).
Meanwhile, science was teaching new theories about the spread of disease through germs, sweeping late 19th-century America with a hygiene movement. The common cup came under fire. Methodist pastor R. W. Ryan, who owned an individual-cup-making company, led an argument for individual cups in the religious press. Debates raged, but by the early 20th century most Protestants adopted individual Communion cups—originally glass, and designed so as not to resemble whiskey shot glasses. Individual cubes of bread also became common.
In the 1960s and 1970s, liturgical reforms resulting from Vatican II spread from Catholic into Protestant churches, questioning both the grape juice and individual cup practices. Many mainline Protestants have returned to the use of a common cup—which may contain either wine or juice—and a single loaf of bread. Conversely, some marketers to evangelical churches have developed disposable individual Communion cups which contain both wafer and grape juice in separate hermetically sealed compartments. CH
By Jennifer Woodruff Tait
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #85 in 2005]
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