Christians have had a decidedly love/hate relationship with alcohol. The infamous “drink” has been regarded by Christians at various times with awe, horror, religious devotion, fear, obsession, prohibition, addiction, and temperance. It has been one of the most divisive issues within modern American evangelicalism, creating rifts within churches, within families, within Christian institutions. As Mark Noll has noted,
Some evangelicals have made opinions on liquor more important for fellowship and cooperation than attitudes toward the person of Christ or the nature of salvation. This is particularly unfortunate since the Bible speaks clearly about Christ and salvation, but not about the question of total abstinence.
How did alcohol become the subject of such an emotionally charged cultural debate? Have Christians always been so divided about it? (Short answer: no.) Is it significant that followers of Christ were the first people to invent sophisticated wine- and beer-making techniques (in medieval monasteries), but also the people who led the charge to make alcohol illegal in America?
My new book Gray Matters has an entire chapter devoted to the fascinating history of Christians and alcohol, but for a brief overview of key points between the life of Christ and today’s world, see below timeline:
- 27–28 AD: Jesus performs his first miracle: turning 120- 180 gallons of water into wine at a wedding banquet in Cana (see John 2:1-11).
- 30–31 AD: Jesus says of wine, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:20).
- Second Century: St. Clement of Alexandria publishes Pedagogia, which included the first scholarly treatment of the subject of Christians and alcohol.
- Fifth Century: St. Brigid of Ireland reportedly changes her dirty bathwater into beer so that visiting clerics would have something to drink.
- Twelfth Century: Benedictine nun Hildegard von Bingen discovers hops in beer.
- 1620: Ship carrying John Winthrop to Massachusetts Bay Colony also carries more than 10,000 gallons of wine and three times as much beer as water.
- 1670: Hard cider a staple at ministerial ordinations in apple-rich New England
- 1673: Increase Mather publishes Wo to Drunkards, in which he says, “Drink is in itself a good creature of God, and to be received with thankfulness, but the abuse of drink is from Satan, the wine is from God, but the Drunkard is from the Devil.”
- 1736: The ill effects of gin in England lead Anglican clergyman Thomas Wilson to publish Distilled Spirituous Liquors the Bane of the Nation.
- 1759: Arthur Guinness opens his brewery in Dublin; eventually uses money from its success to fund Christian charities, hospitals, and Sunday School programs.
- 1770s–80s: Spanish Catholics plant first vineyards in California at missions up and down the coast.
- 1805: America’s first temperance sermon, “The Fatal Effects of Ardent Spirits” is delivered by Rev. Ebenezer Porter in Washington, CT.
- 1826: Revivalist pastor Lyman Beecher publishes Six Sermons on the Nature, Occasion, Signs, Evils, and Remedy of Intemperance, condemning liquor for “the moral ruin it works in the soul.”
- 1840: The Washingtonian Movement, one of America’s first anti-alcohol organizations, is formed.
- 1869: Methodist pastor Thomas Welch invents a method of pasteurizing grape juice so that it isn’t fermented. He persuades local churches to adopt this non-alcoholic “wine” for communion services, calling it “Dr. Welch’s Unfermented Wine.”
- 1873–74: “Mother” Eliza Thompson—a devout Methodist—leads “crusade” of women protesting American drinking establishments.
- 1874: The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) is formed.
- 1893: Ohio pastor Howard Hyde Russell establishes Anti-Saloon League, a nationwide pressure group aimed at ridding the country of alcohol.
- 1899: Carrie Nation attacks saloons with hatchets and sledgehammers and becomes an icon of female-led temperance movement.
- January 17, 1920: Eighteenth Amendment goes into effect in America; Billy Sunday holds symbolic funeral service for “John Barleycorn.”
- 1933: Twenty-first Amendment ends Prohibition.
- 1933–1949: “The Inklings” convenes Christian luminaries like C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and Charles Williams at the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford for beer-aided literary discussions.
- 1935: Christians “Bill W.” and “Dr. Bob” found Alcoholics Anonymous.
- 1980: Televangelist Jack Van Impe publishes Alcohol: The Beloved Enemy.
- 2000s: First “bar churches” begin popping up.
- 2003: Wheaton College changes rules to allow faculty, staff and graduate students to drink alcohol in private, when not around undergrads.
- 2009: Bestselling author Stephen Mansfield publishes, The Search for God and Guinness: A Biography of the Beer that Changed the World.
- August 9, 2011: In blog post, evangelical pastor/author John MacArthur chastises the “Young, Restless, Reformed” community for their reckless approach to alcohol.
The above is an excerpt from Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism & Liberty (Baker, 2013).
Posted in Uncategorized
Tagged alcohol, bar churches, christianity, Gray Matters, Guinness, history of drinking, Mark Noll, monks, prohibition, Puritans, Temperance
In an impressive display of solidarity, intelligence, and single-mindedness, a group of Evangelical leaders recently drafted “An Evangelical Manifesto” which attempts to “address the confusions and corruptions that have attended the term Evangelical” and “to clarify where we stand on issues that have caused consternation over Evangelicals in public life.” The document was officially announced and released in Washington D.C. on May 7.
It’s a breath of fresh air at a time when the term “Evangelical” is coming under assault both inside and outside the church. In contrast to many of the “emerging church” folks who are ready to abandon the much-maligned term, this group is holding fast to the E-word: “We boldly declare that, if we make clear what we mean by the term, we are unashamed to be Evangelical and Evangelicals” (notice the capitalization of Evangelical). On the other hand, the document strongly repudiates the hyper-politicized nature of contemporary Evangelicalism, hoping to expand the concept of “Evangelical” beyond the social issues (abortion, gay marriage) that have preoccupied it in recent years (at least in the perceptions of the media).
Among the 80+ signers of the document are Os Guiness, Richard Mouw, Kelly Monroe Kullberg, Mark Noll, Ron Sider, Miroslav Volf, and Duane Litfin (President of my alma mater, Wheaton College). Notably absent are several evangelical stalwarts like Gary Bauer, Tony Perkins, and James Dobson, who likely were not comfortable attaching their name to a document so critical of the evangelical right’s militant engagement in the culture wars.
I’m happy to sign my name to the document, and I did.
It’s a beautifully-written piece of prose, a comprehensive and timely articulation of how the Church can unite and thoughtfully proceed in this rapidly changing culture. It’s full of great ideas and great passages, so I urge you to read through the whole thing. Here are some of my favorite parts of the 19 page document:
- “Contrary to widespread misunderstanding today, we Evangelicals should be defined theologically, and not politically, socially, or culturally.” (4)
- “To be Evangelical, and to define our faith and our lives by the Good News of Jesus as taught in Scripture, is to submit our lives entirely to the lordship of Jesus and to the truths and the way of life that he requires of his followers, in order that they might become like him, live the way he taught, and believe as he believed.” (5)
- “The Evangelical message, “good news” by definition, is overwhelmingly positive, and always positive before it is negative. There is an enormous theological and cultural importance to “the power of No,” especially in a day when “Everything is permitted” and “It is forbidden to forbid.” Just as Jesus did, Evangelicals sometimes have to make strong judgments about what is false, unjust, and evil. But first and foremost we Evangelicals are for Someone and for something rather than against anyone or anything.” (8)
- “Evangelicalism should be distinguished from two opposite tendencies to which Protestantism has been prone: liberal revisionism and conservative fundamentalism.” (8)
- “To be Evangelical is earlier and more enduring than to be Protestant.” (10)
- “We confess that we Evangelicals have betrayed our beliefs by our behavior. All too often we have trumpeted the gospel of Jesus, but we have replaced biblical truths with therapeutic techniques, worship with entertainment, discipleship with growth in human potential, church growth with business entrepreneurialism, concern for the church and for the local congregation with expressions of the faith that are churchless and little better than a vapid spirituality, meeting real needs with pandering to felt needs, and mission principles with marketing precepts. In the process we have become known for commercial, diluted, and feel-good gospels of health, wealth, human potential, and religious happy talk, each of which is indistinguishable from the passing fashions of the surrounding world.” (11)
- “All too often we have disobeyed the great command to love the Lord our God with our hearts, souls, strength, and minds, and have fallen into an unbecoming anti-intellectualism that is a dire cultural handicap as well as a sin. In particular, some among us have betrayed the strong Christian tradition of a high view of science, epitomized in the very matrix of ideas that gave birth to modern science, and made themselves vulnerable to caricatures of the false hostility between science and faith. By doing so, we have unwittingly given comfort to the unbridled scientism and naturalism that are so rampant in our culture today.” (12)
- “We call for an expansion of our concern beyond single-issue politics, such as abortion and marriage, and a fuller recognition of the comprehensive causes and concerns of the Gospel, and of all the human issues that must be engaged in public life. Although we cannot back away from our biblically rooted commitment to the sanctity of every human life, including those unborn, nor can we deny the holiness of marriage as instituted by God between one man and one woman, we must follow the model of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, engaging the global giants of conflict, racism, corruption, poverty, pandemic diseases, illiteracy, ignorance, and spiritual emptiness, by promoting reconciliation, encouraging ethical servant leadership, assisting the poor, caring for the sick, and educating the next generation.” (13-14)
- “Called to an allegiance higher than party, ideology, and nationality, we Evangelicals see it our duty to engage with politics, but our equal duty never to be completely equated with any party, partisan ideology, economic system, or nationality. In our scales, spiritual, moral, and social power are as important as political power, what is right outweighs what is popular, just as principle outweighs party, truth matters more than team-playing, and conscience more than power and survival. The politicization of faith is never a sign of strength but of weakness.” (15)
- “Our commitment is to a civil public square — a vision of public life in which citizens of all faiths are free to enter and engage the public square on the basis of their faith, but within a framework of what is agreed to be just and free for other faiths too. Thus every right we assert for ourselves is at once a right we defend for others.” (17)
- “We utterly deplore the dangerous alliance between church and state, and the oppression that was its dark fruit. We Evangelicals trace our heritage, not to Constantine, but to the very different stance of Jesus of Nazareth. While some of us are pacifists and others are advocates of just war, we all believe that Jesus’ Good News of justice for the whole world was promoted, not by a conqueror’s power and sword, but by a suffering servant emptied of power and ready to die for the ends he came to achieve.” (18)