In a rather strange opening miracle, the author of the Gospel of John depicts Jesus as working a familiar Dionysian miracle of turning water into wine. Mormons have undone this entirely, turning wine into water. The modern sacrament prayers go so far as to change the wording of the revealed prayers, substituting “water” for “wine.” This wasn’t always so.
In the early days of the Church, LDS followers drank wine from a common cup. The founding church order given in April 1830, revised in 1833 and again in 1835 declares that wine should be used (D&C 20). Around the end of 1832 and beginning of 1833, wine is again referenced as the drink that is used in the sacrament.
Within six months of the church’s founding, Joseph Smith received a rather remarkable revelation (D&C 27) suggesting that any food or drink would do. I suspect that there is something unprecedented in this, and even rather shocking to suggest that something other than wine could be substituted. It would be like saying one could eat celery instead of bread! Yet, rather than forbidding wine, that Lord commands that they should only drink the wine that they themselves had made. The revelation specifically warns against purchasing wine “from your enemies.” Presumably early Mormons feared poison or other kinds of malicious behavior. And presumably wine purchased from someone other than one’s enemies is not forbidden as well. While the revelation permits the use of something other than wine, wine also seems to be the preferred substance.
Of course, it is the Word of Wisdom which more specifically forbids wine. Yet, the Word of Wisdom explicitly permits wine for use in the sacrament: “That inasmuch as any man drinketh wine or strong drink among you, behold it is not good, neither meet in the sight of your Father, only in assembling yourselves together to offer up your sacraments before him” (D&C 89:5).
So, if the use of wine for the sacrament is both expressly enjoined in ancient and modern scripture, and expressly permitted for the sacrament in the Word of Wisdom, on what basis does modern LDS practice substitute water in its place? Presumably we would not want to give wine to alcoholics or children, but this is a problem that every other church in the world has found a solution to.
Part of the argument for using wine comes not only from the precedent of the ritual itself in every dispensation in which it has been revealed, but also from the symbolism of wine. The last supper was a feast, but the modern LDS sacrament practice represents more of a prison diet than a great meal. In the same revelation authorizing the use of other liquids as the rare exception, the Lord makes a promise that, “the hour cometh that I will drink of the fruit of the vine with you on the earth, and with Moroni.” This eschatological feast envisioned here, a wine drinking party with the Lord and Moroni, hardly represents any hesitation toward wine. This motif of an eschatological dinner party that repeats the last symposium is found throughout the scriptures (eg. Mt 26:29 and parallels). This meal is done in remembrance of the Lord, but also in anticipation of the Lord.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not really all that put out by drinking water (I’ve personally never tasted wine). And with the amount of water I’ve spilled on my lap over the years from those tiny cups, I am thankful that it is not wine. Rather, I am interested in the history of when wine stopped being used entirely by LDS congregations (I’m sure some of our LDS historians know, and my guess is that it is well into the 20th c.). And I am also interested in understanding the symbolism of the sacrament meal as a sumptuous feast, not a meager diet, as a time of rejoicing in a symbolically shared meal in which God and his people are, for a moment at least, united.