Every year, as the result of misusing alcoholic beverages, many Baptists die in accidents; batter their spouses and children; abandon their marriages and families; experience mental, emotional, and physical sickness; fail to report to their workplaces; lose their jobs; commit crimes; enter prisons; become alcoholics; and check in at rehab units.
Many other Baptists enjoy alcoholic beverages in their homes, in work-related settings, and at social events throughout their lives without ever experiencing negative consequences. Increasingly, Baptists hold weddings in churches and receptions in hotels and other places primarily in order to provide alcohol to wedding guests.
In 2006, Baptist approaches to drinking alcoholic beverages range from teetotalism (complete abstinence) to temperance (moderation) to alcoholism (addiction). These three patterns also exist in the Bible and in Baptist history.
Clearly, the Bible contains evidence of the acceptability of alcohol. Samples follow: Psalm 104:14-15; Ecclesiastes 9:7; Joel 3:18; Matthew 9:17; John 2:1-11; and 1 Timothy 5:23. The Bible also presents cautions against the misuse and, in some cases, the use of alcohol. Samples include: Leviticus 10:9; Proverbs 20:1; 23:29-33; Luke 1:15; Romans 14:21; and Ephesians 5:18.
Baptists in colonial America routinely drank alcoholic beverages and used real wine in the Lord’s Supper. As late as 1798, the South Elkhorn Baptist Church in Kentucky pledged 36 gallons of whiskey to help pay the salary of its pastor, John Shackleford. In 1801, even though the Mettapony (Virginia) Baptist Association urged Baptists not to use intoxicating beverages, it claimed that they were acceptable during the Lord’s Supper.
Toward the end of the 1700s and throughout the 1800s, warnings began to emerge in Baptist life regarding the potential dangers of alcohol. In 1788, the influential Philadelphia Baptist Association, “taking into consideration the ruinous effects of the great abuse of distilled liquors throughout this country,” discouraged their use, “except when used as medicine.”
In 1803, the Mt. Tabor Baptist Church in the Green River Baptist Association in Kentucky excluded a person from membership for drinking excessively; such exclusions and other forms of discipline were common among Baptists in frontier America.
In fact, in his dissertation on Baptist church discipline in five churches in Kentucky between 1781 and 1860, James E. Humphrey discovered that these churches dealt with 1,636 cases of moral offense against the churches. Of these cases, 821, or more than one-half, resulted in exclusion. The top offense dealt with—in 258 cases—was the abuse of alcohol.
The temperance movement of the early 1800s impacted Baptist life. For example, the American Baptist Magazine for 1829, published by the Board of Mangers of the Baptist General Convention, included three articles on temperance.
These articles claimed that “total abstinence is the only safe course” and that ministers of the gospel should lead the way in practicing such abstinence. One of the articles quoted from recent minutes of the Boston Baptist Association: “we recommend that the Churches as Temperance Societies, and their members as individuals, adopt such measures as shall secure universal and entire abstinence from inebriating liquors.”
In 1853, J. Newton Brown, editorial secretary for the American Baptist Publication Society, published his The Baptist Church Manual. It contained a suggested church covenant that included the words: “We also engage . . . to abstain from the sale and use of intoxicating drinks as a beverage.”
That covenant became the most widely used covenant among Baptists in America, particularly among Southern Baptists, Landmark Baptists, and many black Baptists. More recently, use of that covenant has declined partly because of its focus on intoxicating drinks.
In the 1900s, many factors loosened Baptists’ attitudes toward alcohol. These included urbanization, industrialization, and immigration; growing patterns of negative reactions to legalistically applied patterns of church discipline; rebellious developments of the 1960s coupled with the freedom themes of the 1970s; and the powerful marketing influence of the liquor industry, especially relating to sporting events.
Lessons for today: Baptists who drink and those who do not must respect one another’s right to choose. Baptists must respect the reality of Scripture and of their denominational heritage; both reflect diverse views. Baptists cannot sidestep the damage that misuse of alcohol can inflict on themselves and other people.
Personal note: I am a teetotaler. As a young child, I grew up in a home where my grandfather was an alcoholic—some of my worst childhood memories relate to his inebriated conditions, cursing, and verbal, emotional and physical abuse.
Further, on Nov. 25, 1961, 45 years ago, my mother was killed in a car accident when an intoxicated driver struck her car. I was 17 and driving the car in which she died. Victimized by others’ misuse of alcohol, it has taken me a long time to be able to write this article.
Charles W. Deweese is executive director of the Baptist History and Heritage Society in Brentwood, Tenn.