You are probably familiar with Welch’s Grape Juice, but you may not know it has ties to the history of The United Methodist Church. In the 1800s, churches faced a dilemma. To combat the epidemic of alcoholism, the temperance movement advocated total abstinence from all alcohol. In celebration of the Lord’s Supper though, the church filled the communion chalice with wine. Substituting grape juice seems an obvious solution. For us today, it is such common practice, we don’t know any different. In the 1800s, raw grape juice was stored at room temperature. Home refrigerators were not available until 1913, and the juice fermented into wine. This caused a problem for congregations not wanting to use anything containing alcohol. One solution was to squeeze grapes during the week and serve the juice before it fermented, but grapes were not readily available to every church. Some creative communion stewards chose to make their own unfermented sacramental wine. One recipe called for adding a pound of hand-squashed raisin pulp—dried grapes—to a quart of boiling water. Later in the process, the “winemaker” was to add an egg white. Doesn’t that sound delicious? Some churches substituted water for wine. Many in the temperance movement declared water the only proper drink. Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana (John 2:1-12) seemed to give the practice a biblical justification. Many believed the biblical mandate called for the use of wine and viewed the sacrament as an exception to temperance. Others claimed the wine used at the Last Supper must have been unfermented—not a widely held understanding today—and insisted on receiving the same. In 1864, the General Conference of The Methodist Episcopal Church entered the conversation when they approved a report from the Temperance Committee that recommended “the pure juice of the grape be used in the celebration of the Lord's Supper.” Four years later, Dr. Thomas B. Welch became a communion steward at Vineland (New Jersey) Methodist Episcopal Church and vowed to provide his congregation with an unfermented sacramental wine. He was staunch and advocated not to have anything to do with alcohol. Before moving to Vineland, Welch had served as a Wesleyan Methodist preacher. Throat problems that sometimes made it difficult for him to speak curtailed that ministry. In the newly established community, advertised as having a “healthful climate,” he opened a dental practice. Welch wondered if Louis Pasteur’s breakthrough techniques could be applied grape juice and he experimented to find a way to keep juice from fermenting. In 1869, he perfected a juice pasteurization process in his kitchen and began selling “Dr. Welch’s Unfermented Wine” to churches preferring an alcohol-free substitute for Communion.
The temperance movement and their concern over using fermented wine for communion, was gaining momentum. By 1876, members of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) were refusing to receive the sacrament in churches using wine. The WCTU, organized in 1873, consisted largely of women from the Methodist Episcopal Church. The 1880 General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church approved two changes to the Book of Discipline that may have been influenced by the work of the WCTU and the growing popularity of Welch’s Grape Juice. Charles Welch summed up his dad and his life’s work in his will: Unfermented grape juice was born in 1869 out of a passion to serve God by helping His Church to give its communion “the fruit of the vine,” instead of the “cup of devils.” Today, Welch’s offers several grape and other fruit products. It all started, however, with a communion steward in a Methodist Episcopal church who wanted a suitable, unfermented wine for Communion.