Changing Wine into Grape Juice: Thomas and Charles Welch and the Transition to Unfermented Fruit

by Daniel Benedict

Most United Methodists are aware that one of our practices is the use of unfermented juice of the grape for Holy Communion. While some other Protestant bodies share this practice, the possibility of the practice goes back to the late 19th century and a Methodist dentist named Thomas Bramwell Welch. (See www.welchs.com/company/company_history.html.) Apparently Welch had scruples about the use of wine and had heard of Louis Pasteur's process of pasteurization of milk. Welch was successful in applying the process to grape juice, and he began to use it in his church, where he was a Communion steward.

His son, Dr. Charles Welch, was an enterprising Methodist layman (a dentist, like his father) from southern New Jersey. He marketed the pasteurized grape juice to temperance-minded evangelical Protestants as authentic biblical "wine." As word spread and as the temperance movement grew among evangelical Protestant churches, Welch left dentistry and produced Welch's Grape Juice commercially.

The impact of the temperance movement and the availability of the "unfermented juice of the grape" can traced in the Book of Discipline and actions of the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Church of the United Brethren.

Methodist Episcopal Church

  • The 1864 General Conference on temperance "recommends that in all cases the pure juice of the grape be used in the celebration of the Lord's Supper."
  • The 1872 General Conference reaffirms its recommendation of 1864.
  • The 1876 permissive rubric based on 1864 recommendation is added at the head of Ritual for Holy Communion.
  • In 1880, the General Conference added a semi-mandatory rubric "let none but the pure juice of the grape be used in administering the Lord's Supper, whenever practicable."
  • In 1916, the General Conference adopted a mandatory rubric (i.e., "whenever practicable" was deleted).
  • The 1964 Book of Worship rubric is emphatic: "The pure, unfermented juice of the grape shall be used." Note that the current ritual texts and rubrics in our Hymnal and Book of Worship do not explicitly define what form of the fruit of the grape shall be used. The United Methodist Book of Worship does recognize that .. .
    • the historic and ecumenical practice has been the use of wine
    • the use of the unfermented grape juice by The United Methodist Church and its predecessors is an expression of pastoral concern for recovering alcoholics, enables the participation of children and youth, and supports the church's witness of abstinence. (See the 1964 Book of Worship, page 28.)
Church of the United Brethren in Christ

  • The 1881 General Conference adds the recommendation to the local church steward's job to provide elements for the Lord's Supper — "and we earnestly recommend the use of unfermented wine."
  • The 1885 General Conference adds a semi-mandatory recommendation to the disciplinary job description of local church stewards to provide elements for the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, "always securing, if at all possible, unfermented wine."
  • In 1889, the General Conference adopts a mandatory rubric — "always securing unfermented wine."

The MEC, South, apparently never adopted a recommendation or rubric regarding wine in Communion. (Note: The writer of this article has not researched the practice and history of The Methodist Protestant or Evangelical Association/Church on this matter.)

For Additional Information on the Use of Grape Juice in Communion

Betty O'Brien, "The Lord's Supper, Fruit of the Vine or Cup of Devils," Methodist History 31/4 (July 1993) 203-223 and the companion piece, Betty O'Brien "The Lord's Supper: Traditional Cup or Innovative Cups of individuality," Methodist History 32/2 (January 1994) 79-98.

See also William Chazanof''s interesting history of the Welch Corporation — Welch's Grape Juice: From Corporation to Cooperative (Syracuse University Press, 1977).

The General Board of Discipleship is grateful to Dr. Kenneth E. Rowe, Methodist Librarian and Professor of Church History at Drew University, for the historical research and bibliographical information in this article.

Daniel Benedict is the director of worship resources for the General Board of Discipleship (P.O. Box 340003, Nashville TN 37203-0003; toll-free telephone: 877-899-2780, ext 7072; e-mail: dbenedict@gbod.org).

Categories: Holy Communion, Holy Communion - Articles and Papers

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