Jesus, Wine and the Temperance Movement


Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works.—Ecclesiastes 9:7 (KJV)


Here’s a good lesson in political correctness gone wrong.

From the early-1880s until the 1920s there was a concerted effort by religious denominations worldwide to outlaw the production and consumption of alcoholic beverages. As manifested in the Temperance Movement, this position maintained that drunkenness was damaging to health and family life and therefore sinful. Historical figures like Carrie Nation attacked saloons with a hatchet breaking bottles and barrels. She described herself as a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus, barking at what He doesn’t like.  She believed that she and the Temperance Movement were divinely inspired.


As the movement gathered momentum it needed to reinterpret certain acts of Jesus described in the New Testament,  particularly these two:  the miracle at the Marriage at Cana, when the Savior changed water into wine and the wine He drank at the Last Supper. The nation’s press publicized the debate about this editing.  For example, an 1893 editorial in the Asheville Daily Citizen [NC] (page 1, top column 4) challenged the contention by a prominent local minister who contended that Christ made grape juice, not wine, at the Marriage of Cana and drank grape juice, not wine, at the Last Supper.

Both sides hurled biblical scriptures at one another to support their positions. The Citizen editor asserted “[that] Christ drank wine; that He made good, honest wine at the wedding of Cana, and not grape juice [is a logical fact]. A counter-argument was Proverbs 23:31-33 “wine…drunkenness…brings the sting of a serpent, like the fangs of a viper spreading poison into your soul.” In Luke 7:33-34 Jesus is actually described as a “glutton and a winebibber [drunkard].”


Into the fray entered Thomas B. Welch who in 1843, at the age of 19, was ordained a Wesleyan Methodist minister. By the age of 26, he lost his voice and was thus unable to preach. Forced to change his occupation he became a medical doctor—later changing to dentistry.

By 1867, Dr. Welch and his wife Lucy and seven children moved to Vineland, New Jersey. A true believer, he championed the temperance movement and organized an anti-alcohol league in Vineland. The league forced the closure of numerous saloons and stores which sold alcoholic beverages.  At about the same time he developed Welch’s Grape Juice® by mimicking with grapes what Louis Pasteur had done with milk. Until that time grape juice naturally fermented with age, so Welch’s innovation was truly revolutionary. An incident at Welch’s home prompted the innovation. A visitor to the home after Sunday services (according to Eileen Bennet, a writer for The Press of Atlantic City) “partook of communion wine at church services but didn’t stop with just the religious imbibing.” The religious friend became rowdy and “upset Dr. Welch.” Hence, he developed Welch’s Grape Juice®.


Welch promoted his grape juice as “non-alcoholic wine” for communion services at local churches. The business thrived and within a short time the juice was promoted by physicians in their practice, was sold in soda fountains and served at social gatherings.  In 1913 U. S. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan a devout temperance movement apostle served Welch’s Grape Juice® at a diplomatic dinner instead of the traditional wine. The nation’s newspapers and cartoonists ridiculed the diplomatic endeavor calling it “Grape Juice Democracy.” A 1913 New York Sun article (page 42, bottom of column 5) related the development of a “Bryan Cocktail” which consisted of a glass of grape juice “frapped with a Maraschino cherry at the bottom.” The 1913 California State Fair set up a concession which served only grape juice according to an article in the San Francisco Call (page 11, midway down column 5).

Despite the ridicule, the movement continued and by 1919 the Eighteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution was ratified which outlawed the manufacture, production and distribution of drinkable alcohol. The corresponding statute provided for an exemption for sacramental wine which the Catholic Church fully embraced.  However, the nationwide enforcement of Prohibition was unsuccessful and led to an increase in organized crime, bootlegging and speakeasies.

By 1933 the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed with the adoption of the Twenty-first Amendment—the only amendment to our constitution ever repealed.
One can’t help but wonder how Dr. Welch would think today if he were to find out that his unfermented communal wine is a popular mixer.

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