Today is the 80th anniversary of the repeal of prohibition. Of course, the Temperance Movement in the 19th century led to Prohibition in the 20th. Here is a little-known story of some Christian men who got on the temperance bandwagon, and whose influence, sad to say, is still with us.
It was the Reverend Eliphalet Nott (1773—1866), a Presbyterian minister, who helped the temperance cause by providing what can only be described as a tortured interpretation of the Bible. He held that Scripture refers to two kinds of wine: fermented and unfermented. This was great encouragement to Dr. Thomas Welch, of Vineland, New Jersey, who was communion steward at Vineland Methodist Church. Welch, a devoted Temperance man, was determined to develop a communion beverage that, in his mind, would be worthy of the Lord’s table. He found the answer in pasteurization and became, as far as we know, the first man to apply that process to grape juice. His son, Dr. Charles E. Welch, turned the resulting unfermented beverage into a commercial success. The rest is history, both sacred and profane.
One odd twist to this story is that Vineland was part of a development that was to be devoted to cultivating grapes, but then had an ordinance forbidding the sale of alcoholic beverages. Apparently Dr. Welch was not the only person under the influence of the Temperance Movement.
Now, I take seriously the thoughts of departed saints. But when Christian brothers expostulate on a matter of Christian living, and miss the boat, I have reason to respond and clarify if I can. While these good men were no doubt hard pressed to guide their fellow believers during a period of real social change, and while the abuse of alcohol in their day was something they could not ignore, I do insist that the answer was not to accept the realities of the culture and embrace teetotalism. At the most, that should have been a temporary expedient. The real answer would have been to embrace a biblical approach to wine, raise their children in a household culture of moderation, and then go on to change the culture at large.
God has always instructed his people to drink wine as part of their worship. He gave wine as a gift of his creation, gladdening the heart of man. Our Lord Jesus Christ turned water into wine at a wedding feast, and it was the best wine in the house. Certainly, the experiences of Noah and Lot should teach us caution in our enjoyment of wine, and the plain warning of the apostle Paul (“be not drunk with wine”) should be obeyed to the letter. But the way to combat drunkenness is not to avoid wine, but to put it at the center of worship. As the Holy Spirit enables us to put to death that which is earthly in us, we are able to thank God for the fruit of the vine, fermented as God intended.
I do not suggest that this is easy. It is a work of the Lord Jesus Christ in his Church. But all of God’s good gifts can be abused. Our job before the Lord is not to hide them in a closet so no one can play with them; our job is to be taught by him to use them rightly and to his glory.
With that in mind, I hope the whimsical spirit of G. K. Chesterton’s poem will be a step in that direction.
WINE AND WATER by G. K. Chesterton
OLD Noah he had an ostrich farm and fowls on the largest scale,
He ate his egg with a ladle in an egg-cup big as a pail,
And the soup he took was Elephant Soup and the fish he took was Whale,
But they all were small to the cellar he took when he set out to sail,
And Noah he often said to his wife when he sat down to dine,
“I don’t care where the water goes if it doesn’t get into the wine.”
The cataract of the cliff of heaven fell blinding off the brink
As if it would wash the stars away as suds go down a sink,
The seven heavens came roaring down for the throats of hell to drink,
And Noah he cocked his eye and said, “It looks like rain, I think,
The water has drowned the Matterhorn as deep as a Mendip mine,
But I don’t care where the water goes if it doesn’t get into the wine.”
But Noah he sinned, and we have sinned; on tipsy feet we trod,
Till a great big black teetotaler was sent to us for a rod,
And you can’t get wine at a P.S.A., or chapel, or Eisteddfod,
For the Curse of Water has come again because of the wrath of God,
And water is on the Bishop’s board and the Higher Thinker’s shrine,
But I don’t care where the water goes if it doesn’t get into the wine.
Information on Rev. Eliphalet Nott, the Drs. Welch and their involvement in the temperance movement is found in Thomas Pinney’s fine book, A History of Wine in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).