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What's in the communion cups? Well, if you're a Methodist, you can bet it's grape juice. Read on to find out why.
Donald Scott states that evangelicalism was not merely a religious movement, but also a social movement. By that he means religionists sought to address some of the issues shaking nineteenth-century life. Among these were urbanization, floods of immigrants, westward migration, industrialization, the rise of monopolies and powerful industrialists, social fluidity (changing one’s social class), the Civil War and Reconstruction, women’s suffrage, and human rights. In short, evangelicals were trying to reduce the instability created by the Industrial Revolution and improve life for themselves and others.
Scott writes: “Historians have usually looked to political parties, reform societies like temperance organizations, or fraternal associations like the Masons for the origins of this new associational order. In fact, evangelicals were its earliest and most energetic inventors. Indeed, as historian Donald Mathews has pointed out, the Second Great Awakening was an innovative and highly effective organizing process. Religious recruitment was intensely local, a species of grass-roots organizing designed to draw people into local congregations. But recruitment into a local Baptist, Methodist, or Universalist church also inducted people into a national organization and affiliational network that they could participate in wherever they moved. Moreover, adherence to a particular evangelical denomination also inducted them into the broader evangelical campaign.”
But one's own denomination or congregation was not the only place nineteenth-century evangelicals went to work. It was not unusual to find them serving alongside people from other denominations as well as those who were outside traditionally-defined Christian groups, such as transcendentalists, abolitionists, free-thinkers, and secularists.
So, for clarification, let’s turn again to Maggie’s experience. She is part of a local Methodist Episcopal congregation. She participates in camp meetings. She also is part of the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) denomination. Her membership in the MEC means Maggie would receive official periodicals and other written materials from them. Beyond that, she also might have affiliations with other organizations, within which one would find people from other denominations or no religious affiliation at all.
One small example of cross-denominational cooperation exists in the Saint Maggie series. We learn in The Dundee Cake, which takes place in 1852, that Maggie reads a national anti-slavery periodical called The National Era (a real magazine, by the way) and came into contact with the serialized version of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. (Side point: Harriet Beecher Stowe was the daughter of famous Congregationalist clergyman Lyman Beecher.) At this point, Maggie already is staunchly anti-slavery. This is also the year she hires Emily Johnson as her cook and soon invites Emily and her husband Nate into the household.
Saint Maggie begins in 1860. Here we find that Maggie now works with Emily and Nate Johnson as station masters on an Underground Railroad station. Emily and Nate are members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a different denomination from Maggie’s. The AME was founded in Philadelphia in 1787 by Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, and others in protest to the racist treatment they had received by white members of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church. Despite split between white and black Methodists in the previous century, Maggie, Emily, and Nate’s friendship has overridden their denominations' history. All of this indicates that Maggie’s experience in the Underground Railroad is both cross-denominational and interracial.
Historically there is evidence that evangelicals regularly participated in various social reform movements. Not only were they active in the anti-slavery movement, but they also fought for women’s rights, including the vote. They started schools, colleges, and universities for African American students. They also addressed social issues such as alcoholism, prostitution, poverty, education, and child welfare. Later in the century, people of faith rallied against child labor, and promoted on-the-job safety and fair treatment for factory employees. (Child labor laws, a 40-hour work week, and safety laws eventually were passed in the 20th century.)
But not everything nineteenth century evangelicals did was helpful or enlightened. For instance, originally the movement for temperance was understood to be a force aimed at encouraging people not to drink to inebriation. Evangelicals had noticed that excessive alcohol consumption, especially among men, could lead to spousal and child abuse, poor performance on the job (which then would result in being fired), and poverty. However, the extreme wing of the movement began pushing temperance people into the idea of teetotalism, or total abstinence from alcohol, and carried the day. This radical campaign on the part of evangelicals to banish alcohol consumption from the life of Americans led in 1919 to the ratification of the 18th Amendment, which prohibited the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol. However, Prohibition turned out to be a great legal and social disaster. And in 1933, a scant fourteen years later, the 21st Amendment passed, repealing Prohibition.
Vestiges of total abstinence still survives today. I am a United Methodist, When we observe the sacrament of communion, also known as the Lord's Supper, we use grape juice, rather than wine. (To be fair, some other Protestants do this too, notably Presbyterians and Baptists.) The non-alcohol innovation was made possible by Thomas Welch, a nineteenth-century New Jersey Methodist who developed a process to pasteurize grape juice. That’s right folks, a Methodist invented Welch’s Grape Juice. Today, however, we often explain our use of grape juice - as well as our prohibition against the consumption of alcohol on our property - as an act of solidarity with those who struggle with addiction. While this is an admirable sentiment, churches that permit the presence of alcohol on their grounds and wine in the sacrament, often will offer soft drinks and a cup with grape juice for the same reason. I strongly suspect that my denomination's "in solidarity with" statements regarding alcohol is a twenty-first century attempt to make lemonade out of an embarrassing Prohibition lemon.
In short, when Maggie and her friends try to change their town and their world for the better by taking stands supportive of the oppressed in their midst, much of the impetus comes from evangelical religious beliefs. Maggie, in particular, focuses on what she calls “the law of love.” In other words, her vow to love all unconditionally stemming from her love for God. And this is based in Jesus' statement that the two greatest commandments are to love God and love others. Maggie doesn’t always succeed at living this way but, wow, does she ever try! I strongly believe that her attitude was prevalent among many nineteenth-century evangelicals as well.
But somewhere in the middle of that same century things began to shift and the shifting eventually led to the emergence of twentieth and twenty-first century Evangelicals. We’ll take a look at that story on Monday.
Scott, Donald. “Evangelicalism as a Social Movement. Queens College, City University of New York. National Humanities Center. Downloaded 17 May 2019.
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