Author: Wigger, John
Date published: March 1, 2012
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The Poisoned Chalice tells the story of how temperance-minded Victorian Methodists confidently overturned centuries of tradition to switch from wine to grape juice at communion. Jennifer L. Woodruff Tait argues that these reformers were not behaving as "unscientific fundamentalists" (122), but as Victorians utilizing current scientific thinking and biblical exegesis. It was not until after the rise of fundamentalism in the 1920s that grape juice and individual communion cups became seen as "antiseptic compromises with middle-class culture" (123).
This is a relatively slim volume, but not because it lacks depth or rigor. Indeed, it is filled with wit and crisp analysis, written with an ease that renders in short form what otherwise might have been a long and tedious discussion. Almost one third of the book is taken up with endnotes, indicating the thoroughness of Woodruff Tait's research. This is a book deeply rooted in the primary and secondary sources of nineteenth-century Methodism and temperance reform.
The crux of Woodruff Tait's argument is that grape juice was part of a larger crusade for reform, firmly connected to common-sense realism. Alcohol was a poison that interfered with a person's ability to perceive the real world, the foundation of all knowledge. Grape juice "was pure, unstimulating, healthful, and wholesome," and drinking it aided "in the development of moral character" (3). When Methodist dentist Thomas Welch and his son Charles figured out how to mass-produce unfermented grape juice, beginning in the 1870s, it seemed like the perfect answer to the threat of alcohol.
In terms of biblical exegesis, temperance advocates adopted the two-wine theory. So, at the feast of Cana, Jesus turned the water "into luscious juice, food for the healthy and medicine to the sick," as one writer put it (34), and at the Last Supper it was juice in the cup. Temperance advocates of this period thought that they were employing the latest scientific thinking to harmonize their views of nature and the Bible. Juice was made by God, alcohol by man. They "hardly ever mentioned Darwin, or any conflict between Christianity and science," writes Woodruff Tait (89). Drinking was wrong because it clouded a person's ability to think clearly, whether in the realm of science or theology.
For reformers, drinking was only part of a larger crusade against worldly amusements that sapped a person's moral vigor, including "novel reading, dancing, card playing, and the theater" (44), which they replaced with "music, sports, gardening, and geology" (56). Reformers promoted their views in books such as Methodist bishop John Vincent's splendidly titled Better Not (1888) and Timothy Shay Arthur's Ten Nights in a Bar-Room (1854), later turned into a play that I have students in one of my classes perform every semester. Reformers marshaled a wealth of statistics, with one writer calculating that alcohol annually wasted a sum equal to the national debt ($2.344 billion), another that drink cost "between $2,884 and $3,787" per year for every man, woman, and child (66), and another that the production of alcohol annually wasted 50 million bushels of grain. Temperance advocates also connected alcohol to the dangers of Catholic immigration, as in Mrs. S. C. Hall's novel, Digging a Grave With a Wine-Glass (1871), a particular occupation of the Irish.
Over the past dozen years a number of scholars have written about how Methodism rose from almost nothing at the American Revolution to become the largest religious movement in America by the Civil War. Fewer have tackled the question of what happened to the movement from the Victorian period into the twentieth century. One tendency has been to read this period in the history of evangelicalism as simply a run-up to Fundamentalism. This orientation has allowed later critics "to picture the commitment to grape juice as a moment when American religion became completely captive to American culture, and thus not legitimate theology at all," writes Woodruff Tait (126). In the hands of Fundamentalists, grape juice became a symbol of harsh, joyless, right wing religion. But this, writes Woodruff Tait, "obscures what grape juice advocates actually thought they were doing" (126).
This is a splendid book, carefully crafted and beautifully written. Jennifer Woodruff Tait has used the story of Eucharistic grape juice as a case study of the transformation of Methodism between the Civil War and World War I. It offers a persuasive interpretation of how Methodists and evangelicals more broadly tried to keep pace with the shift from Victorianism to the progressive twentieth century. I'll drink to that.
University of Missouri