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Methodist Communion and Welch’s Grape Juice

This last Sunday morning at Church, we took communion and the pastor explained they are offering cups with grape juice or wine, depending on your preference. He then gave a quick mention of how Welch’s Grape Juice got started with the United Methodist Church way back in 1800’s. I’m always fascinated by these little business stories, so when I got home, I Googled this and found some interesting information.

In 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. Substituting grape juice seems an obvious solution today, but in the 1800s, that was no easy task. Raw grape juice stored at room temperature—home refrigerators were not available until 1913—naturally ferments into wine. This caused a problem for congregations not wanting to use anything containing alcohol.

One solution was to squeeze grapes during the week and serve the juice before it fermented, but grapes were not readily available to every church. “Lots of churches just didn’t have communion when grapes were out of season,” reports Roger Scull, a church historian at First United Methodist Church of Vineland. 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. Most churches, however, simply continued to use wine. Not only did it solve the storage problem, it resolved another issue. Many believed the biblical mandate called for the use of wine and viewed the sacrament as an exception to temperance. Others claimed the wine used at the Last Supper must have been unfermented—not a widely held understanding today—and insisted on receiving the same. This sometimes heated debate continued for decades.

Dr. Thomas B. Welch, a dentist by professional trade, became a communion steward at Vineland (New Jersey) Methodist Episcopal Church and vowed to provide his congregation with unfermented sacramental wine. Always interested in science, Welch wondered if Louis Pasteur’s breakthrough techniques could be applied grape juice. He experimented to find a way to keep the juice from fermenting. In 1869, he perfected a juice pasteurization process in his kitchen and began selling “Dr. Welch’s Unfermented Wine” to churches preferring an alcohol-free substitute for Communion.

Charles offered free samples of the sacramental wine substitute to churches. He later published temperance magazines that advocated alcohol-free Communion. He also advertised the product with lines like, “If your druggist hasn’t the kind that was used in Galilee containing not one particle of alcohol, write us for prices”

By the 1890s,” one author reports, “annual conferences of the Methodist Episcopal Church began including ads for Welch’s grape juice in their published journals” At this point, many other denominations were also beginning to use Welch’s Grape Juice during their communion services.

Charles Welch soon grew his new company beyond the church. He marketed grape juice as a health tonic, touting its medicinal uses. One advertisement recommended Welch’s for typhoid fever, pneumonia, and “all forms of chronic diseases except Diabetes Mellitus.” When Charles offered samples at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, the popularity of Welch’s Grape Juice grew even more. Before long, it was advertised as “the national drink.”

Charles Welch summed up his life’s work in this statement: “Unfermented grape juice was born in 1869 out of a passion to serve God by helping the Church to give its communion ‘the fruit of the vine,’ instead of the “cup of devils.”

Today, Welch’s is a multinational corporation offering a number of grape and other fruit products. It all started, however, with a communion steward in a Methodist Episcopal church who wanted a suitable, unfermented wine for Communion.

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