How Evangelicals (Fundamentalists and Pentecostals) Lost Their Way on Alcohol

January 12, 2011
By Thomas S. Kidd

In the book Fire From Heaven: Life in an English Town in the Seventeenth Century, the late Yale historian David Underdown tells a story of how the Puritans of Dorchester adopted an unusual tactic to assist the town's poor: they opened a brewery. As in many English towns of the 17th century, problems of overcrowding led many residents and their children to the edge of destitution. But the Puritans' vision of salvation was holistic: the godly would demonstrate their souls' transformation by God in good works. They would not allow their fellow families to go hungry while they had the means to do something about it. So they opened the brewhouse, using proceeds from beer sales to bring poor children to school, instruct them in the faith and in useful vocations, and give them clothes and food. The brewhouse was a wonderful success, and significantly helped to alleviate the problem of poverty in Dorchester.

We have lived much of our life as a believer walking under the notion that God hates alcohol of every kind.  We have lived under the notion that many bible believing Churches use no alcohol in Holy Communion lest if one day a reformed alcoholic comes to church and partakes of wine in communion and suddenly fall away into drunkenness again. We have lived under the imagined doctrines that when the bible says while it was one part wine to seven parts water, for water purification only.  We have lived under the teaching that wine and all alcohol is of the devil, that as fermented is spoiled and corrupted as is all alcohol.

The Lord some time ago began to speak that it is virtually only in the US and US exported bible believing denominations, churches, and ministries that this doctrine is taught. This we were left to ponder for more than a year.  The Lord then returned and asked how is it that the wine of marriage is to bring joyfulness and mirth? How is it that Jesus Christ sat and ate and drank alcohol with harlots, drunkards, and publicans so much so that he was spoken of as a winebibber a drunk and lush Himself?  How is it that this same Jesus in His first miracle made water into wine, hundreds of quarts by measurement, and then when the man over the wedding feast tasted it he asked why have you saved the best wine, wine of such good quality for last? Speaking of that once the drinkers at the wedding have drunk enough wine, they can no longer discern how watered down, cheap or of poor taste what they drink thereafter? 

It was after the understanding that all I had been taught here was the doctrines and traditions of men, that began in the 1800’s with the temperance movement and was quickly codified in Evangelical and Fundamentalist doctrine.  So that once more we are faced with the fact that God said what He meant and meant what He said, and that all the departure from God’s word on wine and alcohol has done is to demonize these beverages, to demonize its makers and distributers, and to demonize all those that partake thereof even in modest amounts.  The effect that the church could not sit at the table where Christ sat and partook, and so could not speak to those at that table as well.  Further the church stripped away the wine the joy and mirth at marriage, they stripped away that that young couple in the wedding of Cana received a gift of Christ of the remainder of wine which we estimate to have been about a Hin of wine, a quart of wine every night for a full year – during the year that the husband and wife were to dwell as one, not work, and not go to war but to love each other, do things together and have lots of joyous invigorating sex with wine so as to create a deep bond that was to last to death do us part.

All of which are foreign ideas and notions to Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, Pentecostals, and Charismatics of this day as they all sing from the same piece of music that was written in the 1800’s.

We judge the fruit of this doctrine to be evil fruit, on a number of levels as stated above.  We further see the evil fruit of pride, self righteousness, and being holier than thou (A scripture verse) that has driven a deep wedge and source of resentment among the poor lost.  We also see the poor and evil fruit this doctrine has caused in marriage which is self evident by all the fornication and adultery being committed by Christians young and old. By Christians that have been married with no deep bond created.  And even by the high number of fornicators and adulterers in the ministry who now live off the support of adulterers and fornicators which stand before God as polygamists when they unrighteously divorce and remarry. And when they unrighteously do not have proper sex so as to overflow the desires and hungers of themselves and their partner, much less to unrighteously divorce and cause their partner to become an adulterer when they remarry – however in this case the NT is clear that this sin falls not upon the head of the one forced into such a position but rather, the unrighteous husband or wife that forsook their partner.  We are specifically speaking here of what was written in 1 Corinthians 7.  

We will toss into the mix here of those that are polygamists in Africa and Asia that come to Jesus Christ and are made to toss out in the street all of their wives, and let them live in utter poverty. Many of these women who are then out casts in those societies end up selling their bodies to get bread for themselves and their children.  Where comes the commandment of God to do such and evil thing? And whereby does so great a sin and evil make one righteous before God both of the convert and the missionary? Rather we find in Leviticus the commandment for one or more wives that they be fed clothed and receive of their husband sexual duties.  And again in the book of 1 Corinthians we read what God hath joined (Sexually) let no man put it asunder. No man their being either parents, relatives or those in church ministry.

The doctrines and traditions of men are but to kill rob and spoil.  And we see this evil fruit in missionary work when it breaks up not only marriages have the husband cast off these extra wives, but of their children as well.

Fast forward to 2011. Much has changed in some conservative Christians' view of alcohol. Far from being a tool of charity, or even a sign of God's favor, as it was to David in Psalm 104 (God brought forth "wine that maketh glad the heart of man"), many see alcohol as evil, in and of itself. Not a drop is to pass the lips of a believer.

As old-fashioned as this argument may sound to outsiders, Southern Baptists are at one another's throats about it yet again. (Readers should note that I am a Baptist.) Shortly after Christmas, when the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina proposed to "study" whether alcohol consumption could be permissible for church leaders, anti-alcohol Baptists erupted with indignation, insisting that teetotalerism is an essential Baptist distinctive. Indeed, the Southern Baptist Convention in 2006 made "total opposition to the manufacturing, advertising, distributing, and consuming of alcoholic beverages" the official policy of the denomination.

Obviously the Puritans of Dorchester did not believe that Christians could not take a drink; no Puritans believed that, contrary to our stereotype of them as history's great killjoys. When did American Christians adopt a stance not just against drunkenness (which is clearly prohibited in scripture), but against drinking per se? The notion of total abstinence from alcohol emerged in the early 19th century, in the midst of new reform movements associated with the Second Great Awakening.

Teetotalism responded to a serious evil, alcohol abuse, which was more prevalent in antebellum America than it is today. Historians estimate that Americans probably drank about five gallons of alcohol per capita per year in those days, more than double today's rate. This was partly because alcoholic beverages were often safer and more nourishing than other options, such as unreliable water supplies. But the high demand also reflected a tendency among many Americans—men, in particular—to overindulge. Drunkenness and alcoholism produced its typical fruits, including domestic violence and poverty.

The temperance movement reacted to a real social and medical problem. We should not dismiss it as a product of Victorian prudishness. But then a focus on reducing alcohol abuse morphed into the conviction that it was a sin for any person to take a drink, period. This was a simpler approach, but it is not biblical.

Whatever teetotalers may say, they cannot get around the fact that Jesus turned water into wine, and that Paul told Timothy in 1 Timothy 5:23 to stop drinking water alone, but to use wine to help his stomach ailments. (Teetotalers will respond that these beverages had very low alcohol content, an assertion not revealed in scripture, either.) A strict ban on alcohol for all Christians is a position of recent vintage (pun intended), with almost no precedent in church history before the 1800s.

Of course, nothing would prevent any Christian, as a matter of conscience, from voluntarily abstaining. There are good reasons to do this: a history of alcoholism in one's family, a wish to maintain one's reputation before others who might object to drinking, or a simple distaste for alcoholic drinks. I have a number of Christian friends who abstain for one or more of these reasons.

But imposing abstinence from alcohol as a non-negotiable behavioral standard for all Christians is a moral requirement unknown to scripture. It also causes unnecessary fights among conservative Christians. Evangelicals—and Baptists more than anyone—will no doubt continue to squabble about these kinds of non-essential issues. And to the extent that they do, they will communicate that the Christian faith is mainly good for fostering pickiness and backbiting. Their churches will also go on losing members. Personally, I'd rather throw in my lot with the loving, charitable, and beer-peddling Puritans of Dorchester.


Thomas S. Kidd teaches history and is a Senior Fellow at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion, and is the author of God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution (Basic Books, 2010). Follow his writings via Facebook.