If the entire church used wine in the observance of the Lord’s Supper for 1,800 years without any controversy or disagreement, what caused the change that is so prevalent in American churches today (Much of this section is taken from my “Protestant Transubstantiation,” IIIM Magazine Online 3, no. 4 (January 22-28, 2001))? The historical origin of the modern American evangelical practice of substituting grape juice for wine can be traced directly to the nineteenth-century temperance movement (Cf. Horton, “At Least Weekly,” 168. For a concise summary of the movement, see Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, rev. ed. (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1975), 2:1269-70.). This movement, which arose in reaction to the widespread abuse of alcohol, ultimately came to the conclusion that the solution to abuse is not right use, but nonuse. Proponents of “temperance” ultimately concluded that any use of alcohol was evil.
While the movement talked about temperance, its ultimate goal was the prohibition of the manufacture and sale of all alcoholic beverages. The American Temperance Society was organized in 1826, and by the 1850’s thirteen states had outlawed the sale of alcohol. Significantly, many of the leaders and members of the movement were Christian clergy and laity. Of course, the idea that alcohol is inherently evil had an impact on the practice of the Lord’s Supper in American churches. The logic of the movement was widely used to reinterpret Scripture. If the use of alcohol is sinful, and if Jesus never sinned, then Jesus could not have used an alcoholic beverage such as wine in the Lord’s Supper. He must have used some other beverage, and it was argued that grape juice is also the “fruit of the vine.” Gradually, churches that had adopted the temperance gospel changed the elements of the sacrament and substituted grape juice for wine.
The history of the temperance movement and Prohibition is fascinating, but it is beyond the scope of this work to trace it in any detail. Suffice it to say that the temperance movement was a moral, political, and cultural failure. The movement failed culturally because it shared one of the flawed presuppositions of Christian liberalism. It placed the responsibility for sin in an external object rather than in the human heart. Getting rid of alcohol did not and could not get rid of sin and evil in the heart of man. The movement failed morally because it allowed itself to be deceived into setting up a higher standard of righteousness than the word of God. By prohibiting what God allowed, the movement fell into self-righteous legalism. The movement’s only lasting “success” is found in those churches that used its logic as the basis for replacing wine with grape juice in the Lord’s Supper.