How Grape Juice Was “Invented” to Make the Lord’s Supper Holier

Do you like Welch’s grape juice? Did you know grape juice was “invented” by a devout Christian so church-goers could take the Lord’s Supper without touching a drop of alcohol?

A New York doctor named Thomas Welch (that’s right, the founder of Welch’s Grape Juice) was a devoted Methodist and prohibitionist. Welch was the first to apply the newly developed process of pasteurization to grape juice, so his pro-prohibition church could practice what it preached when it took communion. For the first 20 years of the company’s existence, their only customers were churches.

Jesus, of course, instituted the communion memorial during the “Last Supper” in the Upper Room, as He and His apostles celebrated the Passover meal. Although the Old Testament never specified that wine be part of the Passover observance, wine had become an integral part of the celebration long before the time of Christ. Jesus used the unleavened bread and wine there on the table to institute the Church’s holy feast. For almost all of the many centuries of church history since then, wine was used as part of the communion (Eucharist) observance. However, that all changed in the 1800s, as a result of the temperance movement that swept through the United States and around the world.

In 1862, French scientist Louis Pasteur developed pasteurization, a process to kill harmful organisms in milk. In 1869, Welch applied the pasteurization process to grape juice, discovering that it was thereby possible to prevent juice from fermenting. His product was originally called “Dr. Welch’s Unfermented Wine.” Thus the processed juice industry was born.

What was Welch’s motivation? In addition to being a doctor and dentist, Welch was a Methodist minister and a staunch prohibitionist. Welch lived in the day of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (est. 1873) and Carrie Nation, the six-foot-tall, hatchet-wielding minister’s wife who launched her crusade against saloons in the 1890s. Welch’s son, Charles Welch, said his father “invented” grape juice “out of a passion to serve God by helping his church to give its communion as the fruit of the vine instead of the cup of devils.” In other words, Welch’s grape juice made holy communion holier.

Churches were slow to give up centuries of tradition and, as at least some saw it, the instructions of the Lord Himself, by switching from wine to grape juice. In 1892, Charles Welch changed the name of the beverage to “Welch’s Grape Juice” and began promoting the drink to the general public. He made great use of advertising, including a popular magazine ad featuring a young woman saying, “The lips that touch Welch’s are all that touch mine.”

William Jennings Bryan, a famous fundamentalist preacher and politician, was Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson. Bryan drew further attention to Welch’s juice when he served it instead of fermented wine at a diplomatic function. Prohibition became the law of the land via the 18th Amendment in 1919, and by then, Welch’s juice was already a huge success.

Today many, perhaps most, Protestant churches continue to use grape juice rather than wine in their communion services. However, it has only been with the rise of fundamentalism in the 20th century that the choice between juice and wine has been turned into a full-blown doctrinal debate. Some fundamentalist churches go so far as to argue that even Jesus actually used grape juice instead of fermented wine. Other fundamentalists take the exact opposite view, contending that it is an affront to Christ and communion to substitute juice for the wine Jesus commanded that we drink. It’s a strange world.

As for me, I’m content that Jesus referred to the drink that fateful evening as “the fruit of the vine” (Luke 22:18), and think either grape juice or wine will do.

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To read more, see Welch’s own website, and this official Methodist site.
Here’s a well-reasoned argument for the continued use of fermented wine by a (very fundamentalist) Baptist church.

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