Throughout the first 1,800 years of church history, Christians consumed alcoholic beverages as a common part of everyday life and nearly always used wine (that is, fermented grape juice) in their central rite — the Eucharist or Lord's Supper. They held that both the Bible and Christian tradition taught that alcohol is a gift from God that makes life more joyous and that overindulgence, which leads to drunkenness, is a sin. In the mid 1800s, some Protestant Christians moved from this historic position of allowing moderate use of alcohol (sometimes called moderationism) to either deciding that not imbibing was wisest in the present circumstances (abstentionism) or prohibiting all ordinary consumption of alcohol because it was believed to be a sin (prohibitionism). Today, all three of these positions exist in Christianity, but the historic position remains the most common worldwide.
Alcoholic beverages appear repeatedly in the Bible, both in actual usage and in poetic expression, and on the whole, the Bible is ambivalent toward them, considering them both a blessing from God that brings merriment and a potential danger that can be unwisely and sinfully abused. Since nearly all Christians base their views of alcohol, in whole or in part, on their understanding of what the Bible says about it, the Bible is the single most important source on the subject, followed by Christian tradition.
The biblical languages have several words for alcoholic beverages, and though prohibitionists and some abstentionists (see "Current views" below) dissent, there is a broad consensus that the words did ordinarily refer to intoxicating drinks.
The commonness and centrality of wine in daily life in biblical times is apparent from its many positive and negative metaphorical uses throughout the Bible. Positively, wine is used as a symbol of abundance and physical blessing, for example. Negatively, wine is personified as a mocker and beer a brawler, and drinking a cup of strong wine to the dregs and getting drunk are sometimes presented as a symbol of God's judgment and wrath.
The Bible also speaks of wine in general terms as a bringer and concomitant of joy, particularly in the context of nourishment and feasting. Wine was commonly drunk at meals, and the Old Testament prescribed it for use in sacrificial rituals and festal celebrations. The Gospels record that Jesus himself miraculously made copious amounts of wine at the wedding feast at Cana, and when he instituted the ritual of the Eucharist at the Last Supper during a Passover celebration, he says that the wine is a "New Covenant in [his] blood, though Christians have differed on the implications of this statement (see Eucharistic theologies contrasted). Alcohol was also used for medicinal purposed in biblical times, and it appears in that context in several passages – as an oral anesthetic, a topical cleanser and soother, and a digestive aid.
Kings and priests in the Old Testament were forbidden to partake of wine at various times, and certain optional vows excluded as part of their ascetic regimen not only wine, but also vinegar, grapes, and raisins (unlike John the Baptist, Jesus evidently did not take such a vow during the three years of ministry depicted in the gospels). St. Paul further instructs Christians regarding their duty toward immature Christians: "It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall.
Virtually all Christian denominations hold that the Bible condemns ordinary drunkenness in many passages, and Easton's Bible Dictionary says, "The sin of drunkenness ... must have been not uncommon in the olden times, for it is mentioned either metaphorically or literally more than seventy times in the Bible." Additionally, the consequences of the drunkenness of Noah and Lot "were intended to serve as examples of the dangers and repulsiveness of intemperance, and St. Paul later chides the Corinthians for becoming drunk on wine served at their attempted celebrations of the Eucharist. In short, for nearly all Christians, drunkenness "is not merely a disgusting personal habit and social vice, but a sin which bars the gates of Heaven, desecrates the body, which is now in a special sense the dwelling-place of the Holy Spirit, and stains the mystical body of Christ, the Church."
The harvest time brought much joy and play, as "[m]en, women and children took to the vineyard, often accompanied by the sound of music and song, from late August to September to bring in the grapes." Some grapes were eaten immediately, while others were turned into raisins. Most of them, however, were put into the wine press where the men and boys trampled them, often to music.
The fermentation process started within six to twelve hours after pressing, and the must was usually left in the collection vat for a few days to allow the initial, "tumultuous" stage of fermentation to pass. The wine makers soon transferred it either into large earthenware jars, which were then sealed, or, if the wine were to be transported elsewhere, into wineskins (that is, partially tanned goat-skins, sewn up where the legs and tail had protruded but leaving the opening at the neck). After six weeks, fermentation was complete, and the wine was filtered into larger containers and either sold for consumption or stored in a cellar or cistern, lasting for three to four years. Even after a year of aging, the vintage was still called "new wine," and more aged wines were preferred.
Spices and scents were often added to wine in order to hide "defects" that arose from storage that was often not sufficient to prevent all spoiling. One might expect about 10% of any given cellar of wine to have been ruined completely, but vinegar was also created intentionally for dipping bread among other uses.
The Feast of Booths was a prescribed holiday that immediately followed the harvest and pressing of the grapes.
As the Jews returned from the Babylonian exile (starting in 537 BC) and the events of the Old Testament draw to a close, wine was "a common beverage for all classes and ages, including the very young; an important source of nourishment; a prominent part in the festivities of the people; a widely appreciated medicine; an essential provision for any fortress; and an important commodity," and it served as "a necessary element in the life of the Hebrews." Wine was also used ritualistically to close the Sabbath and to celebrate weddings, and circumcisions, and Passover.
Although some abstentionists argue that wine in the Bible was almost always cut with water greatly decreasing its potency for inebriation, there is general agreement that, while Old Testament wine was sometimes mixed with various spices to enhance its flavor and stimulating properties, it was not usually diluted with water, and wine mixed with water is used as an Old Testament metaphor for corruption. Among the Greeks, however, the cutting of wine with water was a common practice used to reduce potency and improve taste. By the time of the writing of 2 Maccabees (first or second century BC), the Greeks had conquered Palestine under Alexander the Great, and the Hellenistic custom had apparently found acceptance with the Jews and was carried into Jewish rituals in New Testament times.
Under the rule of Rome, which had conquered Palestine under Pompey (see Iudaea Province), the average adult male who was a citizen drank an estimated liter (about a quarter of a gallon, or a modern-day bottle and a half) of wine per day, though beer was more common in some parts of the world.
Clement of Alexandria (died circa 215) wrote in a chapter about drinking that he admires those who adopt an austere life and abstain from wine, and he suggests the young abstain from wine so as not to inflame their "wild impulses." But he says taking a little wine as medicine or for pleasure after the day's work is acceptable for those who are "moored by reason and time" such that they aren't tempted by drunkenness, and he encourages mixing water in with the wine to inhibit inebriation. He also says wine is an appropriate symbol of Jesus' blood.
Cyprian (died 258) rejects as "contrary to evangelical and apostolical discipline" the practice of some Gnostics, who used water instead of wine in the Eucharist. While still rejecting drunkenness, on the content of the cup he says, "The Holy Spirit also ... makes mention of the Lord’s cup, and says, 'Thy inebriating cup, how excellent it is!' [quoting a variation of Ps 23:5 (in the Hebrew numbering)] Now the cup which inebriates is assuredly mingled with wine, for water cannot inebriate anybody.
Basil the Great (died 379) likewise repudiated the views of some dualistic heretics who abhorred marriage, rejected wine, and called God's creation "polluted and who substituted water for wine in the Eucharist.
John Chrysostom (died 407) in a homily on 1 Timothy 5:23 stresses moderation and adds that the biblical passage in question is useful for refuting heretics and immature Christians who say there should be no wine. He emphasizes the goodness of God's creation and adjures: "Let there be no drunkenness; for wine is the work of God, but drunkenness is the work of the devil. Wine makes not drunkenness; but intemperance produces it. Do not accuse that which is the workmanship of God, but accuse the madness of a fellow mortal.
The virtue of temperance passed from Greek philosophy into Christian ethics and became one of the four cardinal virtues under St. Ambrose and St. Augustine. Drunkenness, on the other hand, is considered a manifestation of gluttony, one of the seven deadly sins as compiled by Gregory the Great in the 6th century.
The decline of the Roman Empire brought with it a significant drop in the production and consumption of wine in western and central Europe, but the Eastern and Western Church (particularly the Byzantines) preserved the practices of viticulture and winemaking.
The medieval monks were renowned as the finest creators of beer and wine, were allotted about five liters of beer per day, and were allowed to drink beer (but not wine) during fasts. Benedict of Nursia (died c. 547), who formulated the monastic rules governing the Benedictines, seems to prefer that monks should do without wine as a daily staple, but he indicates that the monks of his day found such a regulation too burdensome. Thus he offers the concession of a quarter liter (or perhaps, a half liter) of wine per day as sufficient for nourishment, with allowance for more in special circumstances and for none as a punishment for repeated tardiness. Even so, he believes that abstinence is the best path for those who are gifted by God to restrain the bodily appetites.
Thomas Aquinas (died 1274), a Dominican monk and the "Doctor Angelicus" of the Catholic Church, says that moderation in wine is sufficient for salvation but that perfection in wisdom requires abstinence. With regard to the Eucharist, he says that wine must be used and that must, unlike juice from unripe grapes, qualifies as wine because its sweetness will naturally turn it into wine, though freshly pressed must is forbidden.
Moderation among monks was not universal, however, and in 1319 Bernardo Tolomei founded the Olivetan Order, initially following a much more ascetic Rule than Benedict's. The Olivetans uprooted all their vineyards, destroyed their wine-presses, and were "fanatical total abstainers," but the rule was soon relaxed.
Because the Catholic Church requires properly fermented wine in the Eucharist — with a modern exception for alcoholic or allergic priests — wherever Catholicism spread, the missionaries also brought grapevines so they could make wine and celebrate the Mass. The Catholic Church continues to celebrate a number of early and medieval saints related to alcohol — for instance, St. Adrian, patron saint of beer; St. Amand, patron saint of brewers, barkeepers, and wine merchants; St. Martin, the so-called patron saint of wine; St. Vincent, patron saint of vintners. The Orthodox celebrate St. Tryphon as the guardian saint of vines and vineyard workers.
Wesley's Articles of Religion, adopted by the Methodist Episcopal Church in America in 1784, assume in Articles XVIII that wine is to be used in the Lord's supper and in Article XIX that it should given to all the people, not ministers only as in the contemporary Catholic practice. Coke and Asbury comment on the latter article saying, "St. Paul does not complain of [the lay Corinthians'] drinking the wine at the Lord's supper ... but of their both eating and drinking most intemperately" (emphasis in original). Likewise, the listed duties for Methodist preachers indicate that they should choose water as their common drink and use wine only in medicinal or sacramental contexts, with Coke and Asbury commenting that frequent fasting and abstinence are "highly necessary for the divine life.
Initially the vast majority of the temperance movement had opposed only distilled alcohol, which they saw as making drunkenness inexpensive and easy, and espoused moderation and temperance in the use of other alcoholic beverages. Fueled in part by the Second Great Awakening, which emphasized personal holiness and sometimes perfectionism, the temperance message changed to the outright elimination of alcohol. Consequently alcohol itself became an evil in the eyes of many (but not all) abstainers and so had to be expunged from Christian practice — especially from the holy rite of the Lord's Supper. Such a position was made more practical by Methodist Thomas Bramwell Welch's 1869 invention of a pasteurization process to stop the fermentation that grape juice naturally undergoes. Welch's church elders initially considered substituting juice for wine in the Lord's Supper to be an "unacceptable innovation," but Welch's Unfermented Wine eventually took hold in much of American Protestantism.
From 1838 to 1845 Father Mathew, the Irish apostle of temperance, administered an abstinence pledge to some three to four million of his countrymen, though his efforts had little permanent effect there, and then starting in 1849 to more than 500,000 Americans, chiefly his fellow Irish Catholics, who formed local temperance societies but whose influence was limited. In 1872 the Catholic Total Abstinence Union of America united these societies and by 1913 reached some 90,000 members including the juvenile, women's, and priestly contingents. The Union pursued a platform of "moral suasion" rather than legislative prohibition and received two papal commendations. In 1878 Pope Leo XIII praised the Union's determination to abolish drunkenness and "all incentive to it," and in 1906 Pope Pius X lauded its efforts in "persuading men to practise one of the principal Christian virtues — temperance. By the time the 18th Amendment was up for consideration, however, Archbishop Messmer of Milwaukee denounced the prohibition movement as being founded on an "absolutely false principle" and as trying to undermine the Church's "most sacred mystery," the Eucharist, and he forbade pastors in his archdiocese from assisting the movement but suggested they preach on moderation. In the end, Catholicism was largely unaffected in doctrine and practice by the movements to eliminate alcohol from church life, and it retained its emphasis on the virtue of temperance in all things.
Similarly, while the Lutheran and Anglican churches felt some pressure, they did not alter their moderationist position. Even the English denominational temperance societies refused to make abstention a requirement for membership, and their position remained moderationist in character. It was Protestantism from which the Temperance movement drew its greatest strength. Many Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and other Protestants signed on to the prohibitionist platform. "The moderate use of intoxicants as a beverage," said an 1881 assembly of the United Presbyterian Church of North America is "the source of all these evils.
The legislative and social effects resulting from the temperance movement peaked in the early twentieth century and began to decline afterward. The effects on church practice were primarily a phenomenon in American Protestantism and to a lesser extent in the British Isles, the Nordic countries, and a few other places. The practice of the Protestant churches were slower to revert, and some bodies, though now rejecting their formerly prohibitionist platform, still retain vestiges of it such as using only grape juice in the Lord's supper.
Moderationism argues that, according to the biblical and traditional witness, (1) alcohol is a good gift of God that is rightly used in the Eucharist and for making the heart merry, and (2) while its dangers are real, it may be used wisely and moderately rather than being shunned or prohibited because of potential abuse. Moderationism holds that temperance (that is, moderation or self-control) in all of one's behavior, not abstinence, is the biblical norm.
On the first point, moderationists reflect the Hebrew mindset that all creation is good. Going further, Calvin says that "it is lawful to use wine not only in cases of necessity, but also thereby to make us merry, and in his Genevan Catechism, he answers that wine is appropriate in the Lord's Supper because "by wine the hearts of men are gladdened, their strength recruited, and the whole man strengthened, so by the blood of our Lord the same benefits are received by our souls.
On the second point, Martin Luther employs a reductio ad absurdum to counter the idea that abuse should be met with disuse: "[W]e must not ... reject [or] condemn anything because it is abused.... [W]ine and women bring many a man to misery and make a fool of him (Ecclus. ; ); so [we would need to] kill all the women and pour out all the wine. In dealing with drunkenness at the love feast in Corinth, St. Paul does not require total abstinence from drink but love for one another that would express itself in moderate, selfless behavior. However, moderationists approve of voluntary abstinence in several cases, such as for a person one who finds it too difficult to drink in moderation and for the benefit of the "weaker brother," who would err because of a stronger Christian exercising his or her liberty to drink.
While all moderationists approve of using (fermented) wine in the Eucharist in principle (Catholics, the Orthodox, Anglicans and some Lutherans require it), because of prohibitionist heritage and a sensitivity to those who wish to abstain from alcohol, many offer either grape juice or both wine and juice at their celebrations of the Lord's Supper. Some Christians mix some water with the wine following ancient tradition, and some attach a mystical significance to this practice.
Abstentionists believe that although alcohol consumption is not inherently sinful or necessarily avoided in all circumstances, it is generally not the wisest or most prudent choice. While most abstentionists don't require abstinence from alcohol for membership in their churches, they do often require it for leadership positions.
Some reasons commonly given for voluntary abstention are:
Additionally, abstentionists argue that while drinking may have been more acceptable in ancient times (for instance, using wine to purify polluted drinking water), modern circumstances have changed the nature of a Christian's responsibility in this area. First, some abstentionists argue that wine in biblical times was weaker and diluted with water such that drunkenness was less common, though few non-abstentionists accept this claim as accurate. Also, the invention of more efficient distillation techniques has led to more potent and cheaper alcohol, which in turn has lessened the economic barrier to drinking to excess compared to biblical times. Second, some of the consequences of drunkenness have been amplified by changing circumstances such as the availability of automobiles and the hazards of driving under the influence.
Abstentionists also reject the position of moderationists that in many circumstances Christians should feel free to drink for pleasure because abstentionists see alcohol as inherently too dangerous and not "a necessity for life or good living," with some even going so far as to say, "Moderation is the cause of the liquor problem."
Prohibitionists such as Stephen Reynolds and Jack Van Impe hold that the Bible forbids partaking of alcohol altogether, with some arguing that the alleged medicinal use of wine in 1 Timothy 5:23 is a reference to unfermented grape juice. They argue that the words for alcoholic beverages in the Bible can also refer to non-alcoholic versions such as unfermented grape juice, and for this reason the context must determine which meaning is required. In passages where the beverages are viewed negatively, prohibitionists understand them to mean the alcoholic drinks, and where they are viewed positively, they understand them to mean non-alcoholic drinks. Prohibitionists also accuse most Bible translators of exhibiting a bias in favor of alcohol that obscures the meaning of the original texts.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the largest body of the Latter Day Saint movement, also teaches that "God has spoken against the use of ... [a]lcohol. They base this teaching on the Word of Wisdom, a section in Doctrine and Covenants which is part of the Mormon canon, that recommends against the ordinary use of alcohol, though it makes an exception for the use of wine in the sacrament, a similar rite to the Eucharist. However, the church now uses water instead of wine in the sacrament, and since 1851, the Word of Wisdom's advice for wise living has been considered "a binding commandment on all Church members."