Grape Juice, Holiness, and the Creation of a Christian Culture

By: Dale M. Coulter
Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

Welch's_logoThere is a constant debate about the impact of Christianity upon the United States.

If the question is whether the United States is a Christian nation, then the answer must be no. There is no established religion in the United States or, at least, there has not been since Congregationalism lost its status in Massachusetts in 1833.

If, however, the question concerns the cultivation of a Christian culture in the United States, then there is little doubt of its existence.

Moreover, as a feature of discipleship, Christians should teach their children how much of what we take for granted stems from the impact of Christianity upon the United States.

As one example, take Welch’s Grape Juice.

It is lost on most people today that Welch’s Grape Juice was developed by T. B. Welch in 1869. A Methodist minister from Vineland, NJ, Welch developed a formula that kept grape juice from fermenting in response to the growing demand for non-fermented wine as part of communion.

There were several streams that came together to impact Welch.

First, the temperance movement was beginning to take shape as a national movement in response to a number of issues.

Most people forget that the slave trade had been closely connected to the selling of rum from North America. New England ships involved in trading slaves were known as “Rum Vessels.”

Frederick Douglas

Frederick Douglas

Frederick Douglas, who was an ordained African Methodist Episcopal Zion lay minister (an exhorter), wed together temperance and abolition to the point of preaching a temperance tour around Ireland during the 1840s.

When he addressed the World’s Temperance Convention at Covent Garden, London in 1846, he reminded the delegates that there had been African American temperance societies in the U.S. for sometime even though they were not allowed to meet with white temperance societies and slavery still raged on. He went on to chastise those present for not supporting abolition more strongly.

On top of this, the proliferation of bars combined with few rights for women and children in the late nineteenth century meant that they bore the burden of alcoholism without much legal recourse.

It was in part because of the ongoing support for women and African Americans that the temperance movement came about in relation to the holiness movement. Holiness had always been a social movement, not just about making individual saints.

Second, the holiness movement began to take shape with the first national camp meeting at Vineland, NJ in 1867.

From that initial camp meeting the message of holiness spread north, south, and west until it engulfed parts of the United States. Many women were associated with holiness from Frances Willard, who became president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union to Amanda Berry Smith and Hannah Whitall Smith who became international evangelists for the cause of holiness.

Frances Willard

Frances Willard

Amanda Berry Smith

Amanda Berry Smith

Hannah Whitall Smith

Hannah Whitall Smith


Above these prominent women, however, looms Phoebe Palmer, a promoter and advocate of holiness through her Tuesday Meetings, editorship of The Guide to Holiness, and numerous books.

Phoebe Palmer

Phoebe Palmer

Oberlin Female Graduates 1855

Oberlin Female Graduates 1855

Long before the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York in 1848, Oberlin College was admitting women (1833), including African-American women. By 1860 over 300 women had graduated from Oberlin. Of course, Oberlin College was founded as an institution to promote holiness with Charles Finney as a professor of systematic theology and Asa Mahan its president.

T. B. Welch was part of this vast social movement and his creation of Welch’s Grape Juice is part of his contribution to it. It was not Republican in today’s terms nor was it Democratic; it was Christian and it transformed the landscape of the late nineteenth century through the creation of a Christian culture within the broader culture. So, the next time you have a glass of Welch’s, pause and remember there’s more to it than grape juice.

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Dale M. Coulter
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4 Responses to “Grape Juice, Holiness, and the Creation of a Christian Culture”

  1. Jeremy S. crenshaw says:

    Interesting! I know that this question is probably too simplistic, but do you think that temperance had more to do with slavery/equality than it did alcohol, or were they both seen as affecting holiness? Also, given how, at least in my view, alcohol morphed into one of the unpardonable sins in Pentecostal circles, do you see this as another issue of the “old pendulum swinging too far in the other direction”? I only ask these things because as a biblical studies scholar I have argued recently that Pentecostalism needs to return to biblical and historic Christianity. What I mean is that we claim that the Bible is “our final rule for faith and practice,” but this is not really the truth. We often hold to our own historic or pet beliefs over the evidence of Scripture, especially in the areas of “holiness” and eschatology. This is interesting to me because we have rejected the historic practices and beliefs of the church because we claimed that they held to tradition over Scripture. Over time, we seem to have created an even greater divide between us and the rest of the Christian world by suggesting that we are more holy than those who dare take a sip of alcohol or do not believe in a pre-trib. rapture. Honestly, I see these issues as important to our future because of the ramifications that a wrong-headed hermeneutic can have upon the Pentecostal world. In my generation there seems to be two distinct sides growing within Pentecostalism. One side is represented by these issues in the form of “fundamentalism.” These ultra-conservatives are largely ignorant of biblical study or prefer to justify their positions by either pointing to early Pentecostal practice or philosophy. The other side are the “liberals” who are doing everything that they can to turn Pentecostalism into the Episcopal Church USA. These people are generally more biblically or theologically educated but prefer to refer to modern cultural practice and philosophy to develop beliefs and practices. Ironically, the problem is the same in either direction – Scripture and historic church beliefs and practices are ignored in favor of cultural practice (either early 1900′s or modern) and philosophy.

    • Whew! A lot in your comment Jeremy.

      First, I would say that we need to understand how doctrines actually functioned on the ground in any historical period as best as we can. This will help us discover the narrative logic of the doctrine. One thing you need to remember is that many of these holiness folks were concerned with the social effects of alcohol consumption. Alcoholism could devastate communities and families, economically and socially. And, usually the people who are most against it tend to be those addicted to it or impacted by others who were addicted to it. Frederick Douglas was concerned about the impact of alcohol consumption on the black family in places like Philadelphia for example.

      Another issue was that the 19th century saw the rise of industrialization with mass marketing and mass production. Alcohol takes on a very different shape when it is produced and marketed on such a large scale. There is no analogue for this in the first century when it was produced locally on a small scale. We cannot ignore the other cultural factors that shape the consumption of alcohol as though people are not shaped by the cultures to which they belong.

      A third issue was the way in which alcohol sales could reinforce certain economic realities. The modern analogue would be whether one should buy from a particular company because of the practices of that company. Let’s say an entire wing of the movie industry was caught up in perpetuating sexual trafficking. Would you continue to go to movies with this knowledge regardless of the question of whether it was a personal sin to do so? We do have plenty of early Christians saying don’t go to the theater or to the gladitorial combats because of their impact on individuals.

      To my mind, then, the question is not simply whether scripture explicitly condemns a practice or not. Unfortunately, debates like the consumption of alcohol in this country by pentecostals and evangelicals tend to revolve around that point instead of making prudential judgments in light of scripture, informed by the tradition, and facing the contextual issues.

      With regard to the rest of the Christian world, one can try to foster agreement around the social function of alcohol even if disagreement remains as to whether consuming a few drinks is wrong or not. Let’s not forget that some of those in support of temperance like A. T. Pierson were Presbyterian and had grown up in traditions where alcohol was consumed regularly. It was because of the destructive social effects in emerging urban contexts like Detroit (where Pierson pastored) that caused him to stop drinking and become an ardent supporter of temperance.

      This is why paying attention to the historical tradition is critical. We are better positioned to make the kinds of prudential judgments necessary to live faithful Christian lives when we are informed by the decisions that past Christians made in light of their contextual challenges. And, we can appreciate why Christians in previous generations may have engaged in what seems like extreme behavior to us now.

      • Jeremy S. crenshaw says:

        Great response! I agree with your assessment; still it seems that we often too easily forget to “temper” our reactions to cultural/societal situations with Scripture and church history. For instance, it seems to me that the temperance movement would have not created the situation that I alluded to today or reaped the resulting backlash and rebellion of American society if its proponents would have instead focused upon good biblical teaching regarding freedom and moderation.

      • Yes, it clearly went too far when it pushed for prohibition laws. That was a failed social experiment.