The Presbyterian Cup from Wine to Welch’s

By Jared Nelson | May 19, 2023

In the first 1,800 years of the New Testament church, there was no shortage of debate over the elements of the Lord’s Supper. There have been debates over mixing water with the wine,[1] use of leaven in the bread,[2] and the denial of the cup to the laity.[3]

Yet, through all those debates, the contents of the cup primarily included fermented wine from grapes (even if Eastern and Western Christians were divided on whether that wine needed to be white or red). Wine was considered so essential to the work of Christian missionaries that some scholars attribute the global spread of wine over the past two millennia to the work of Christian missionaries who traveled to new lands with Bibles and grape vines. Missionaries frequently introduced the drinking of wine alongside Christianity in regions previously untouched by the gospel, inaugurating significant cultural change to local societies.[4]

The uninterrupted Christian tradition of wine in communion was challenged in 1869 when Thomas Bramwell Welch – a Methodist supporter of the Temperance movement – applied Louis Pasteur’s process of pasteurization to grape juice to halt fermentation, thereby founding Welch’s Grape Juice.[5]

Before Welch’s process, the only way to acquire unfermented grape juice was by drinking it immediately after squeezing the juice from the grape. This is due to the fact that the natural yeasts that grow on the grape immediately initiate the fermentation process of converting sugar to alcohol. Only this freshly squeezed juice could be considered “grape juice” while fermented juice is referred to as ‘wine’ in Scripture. The Hebrew word for wine comes from a root that means “effervesce” or to bubble, meaning that unfermented wine would be an oxymoron.[6]

Cup or Wine in the Standards?

This leads to a perplexing question in the history of Presbyterian polity. While the words “cup”[7] or “fruit of the vine”[8] are used Scripture, the Westminster Standards interpret that reference to be indicating “wine.”[9] This is not merely in one or two places but in the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), which includes both the Westminster Standards as adopted by the PCA and the Book of Church Order (BCO) the word “wine” is used in the following places:

  1. The BCO describes the element representing Christ’s blood as wine: “58-5: The table, on which the elements are placed, being decently covered, and furnished with bread and wine, and the communicants orderly and gravely sitting around it (or in their seats before it), the elders in a convenient place together, the minister should then set the elements apart by prayer and thanksgiving. The bread and wine being thus set apart by prayer and thanksgiving…”
  2. The Larger Catechism defines the Lord’s Supper as “bread and wine” in the answers to questions 168, 169,[10] and 170.
  3. The Shorter Catechism defines the Lord’s Supper as “bread and wine” in the answer to question 96.
  4. The Westminster Confession of Faith describes the elements as “bread and wine” in chapter 29, paragraphs 3, 6, and 7.

Thus, the question arises as to how so many churches began serving grape juice, particularly when the Standards specify “wine,” and also specify that ministers are forbidden from “the denial of the cup to the people” (WCF 29.4).

While many Reformed writers, especially recently,[11] make the scriptural case for wine, our question is specifically one of polity: how have Presbyterian Churches used grape juice without running afoul of the Westminster Standards and their respective Books of Church Order? Was the change in American Presbyterian polity merely a matter of disobedience?

While one may debate the question of whether the semantic range of the word “wine” includes that which is properly called “grape juice,” in our ecclesiastical context in the PCA, the question is not new. In fact, this is an old question that both the historic Northern Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) and the historic Southern Presbyterian Church (PCUS) have answered in similar ways.

Wine’s ‘Transubstantiation’ to Grape Juice in American Presbyterianism

In the Northern Presbyterian Church, Reverend J. Aspinwall Hodge (not to be confused with Princeton professors Charles Hodge or A.A. Hodge) compiled a summary of the development of Presbyterian practice up to the 1899 publication date of his book What Is Presbyterian Law? Therein, Hodge asks the question: “What kind of wine may be used?

Hodge answers with the following paragraph: “In answer to several overtures on communion wine, the Assembly answered, “that the control of this matter be left to the Sessions of the several churches, with the earnest recommendation that the purest wine attainable be used.” In 1881 the Assembly “recognized the right of each church Session to determine what is bread and what is wine.” In 1895 it decided that ” unfermented fruit of the vine fulfils every condition in the celebration of the sacrament” though the churches were urged not to introduce individual cups. That too however was challenged and in 1896 the number of cups to be used was left to the Session.[12]

Since the 1890s, the matter of what bread to use or what is considered “wine” has been left to individual church sessions to determine.

The Southern Presbyterian church (PCUS) went through a similar process as it specified in 1892 that the question of considering unfermented grape juice to be wine was left up to individual sessions. The next year, an effort to reverse this ruling was rebuffed. This was again reaffirmed after several attempts to reconsider this status in 1911, 1914 and 1916, as the General Assembly refused to get involved with questions of the use of unfermented grape juice in the Lord’s Supper.[13]

In both the North and the South, judicial activity seems to be lacking in the intervening years, demonstrating what supporters of the use of grape juice in communion may consider a grassroots approach, or what detractors may regard as an each does what is right in their own eyes approach in relation to the higher courts of the Church. For the sake of ecclesiastical unity, sacramental or liturgical diversity was allowed on this particular question.

Where Does this Leave Us?

Here the issue has rested for over a hundred years in the mainline Presbyterian denominations (i.e., the PCUSA and the PCUS up to and beyond their merger). Neither denomination settled the question, but rather left it open to the discretion of individual sessions. For the self-consciously confessional PCA’s part, this issue has not been addressed in the higher courts in her first 50 years. Such also seems to be the state of the documented history of the RPCES, which may have inherited Prohibitionist commitments and tendencies from the Bible Presbyterian Church (BPC), thus preferring grape juice to wine in most – if not all – of her churches.

The questions then remain unanswered regarding Scripture and the Standards. Is wine required by the approved example of Scriptural testimony? Should grape juice be considered “wine” for the purpose of conforming to the clear requirements of the Westminster Standards? Is the historical precedent of pre-1890s Christianity for wine more (or less) convincing than the post-1890s resolution to allow grape juice? Do we compromise or even empty some of the symbolism of the Lord’s Supper by taking away the “effervesce” of the element? These important questions and others now, after the innovation of Mr. Welch, must be placed before each session to decide in the PCA.

[1] “The West criticized the East for failing to mix water with the wine in the celebration of the Eucharist.” – Jarolsav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition,Vol. 2, p. 175.

[2] For its part, the East objected to the West’s insistence on azymes (unleavened bread) in the Supper as a Judaizing approach to the Lord’s Supper. See Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, Vol. 2, p. 177.

[3] In the time of the Reformation, the Reformers often condemned the denial of the cup to the laity by Latin priests during the Supper as denying the Command of Christ to “Drink of it, all of you” (Matthew 26:27). – Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, Vol. 4, p. 125.

[4] Iain Gately, Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol, p. 64.


[6] See Kenneth Gentry’s book God Gave Wine (p. 37) and examples of the use of words for grape juice in Numbers 6:3 and Genesis 40:11, wherein neither refers to the fresh “grape juice” as “wine.” It does not appear that wine (יַיִן – transliterated yayin) can in an interpretive gloss include non-alcoholic grape juice.

[7] In Mark 14:24-25, Luke 22:17-18, and Matthew 26:27-29

[8] Matthew 26:27-29

[9] Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians gives us sure evidence that the early church used alcoholic wine in the Lord’s Supper, since Paul had to admonish the Corinthians away from getting drunk on the wine: “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk” (1 Corinthians 11:20-21).

[10] Note that question 169 itself refers to “bread and wine.”

[11] See for instance: Robert Letham’s book: “The Lord’s Supper,” Michael Horton:

[12] J. Aspinwall Hodge, What is Presbyterian Law?, p. 92

[13] One can see the fragments of that history collected here:

Jared Nelson is a PCA Teaching Elder serving as Pastor of New Life Presbyterian Church in Hopewell Township, PA.