Turning Wine into Water

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.

12 Replies to “Turning Wine into Water”

  1. Reading D&C 27’s suggestion that any food or drink can symbolize the body and blood of Christ through the lens of the sacrament as a meal/feast/celebration indicates that this text might be the basis for a more expansive vision of the sacrament meal that what it had become in Christian communities. In other words, we could literally have a feast (e.g. munch-n-mingle) as a sacramental meal and not break any policy or commandment.

  2. “on what basis does modern LDS practice substitute water in its place?”

    This is not without (partial) precedent in ancient times. The second century father Justin (Martyr), when describing what we would refer to as Sacrament Meeting, speaks of “wine mixed with water” twice as what was presented to the congregation. Obviously the early Christians did not consider this watering down – pun intended – the symbolism of the sacramental ordinance.

  3. Some of my ancestors were called on a mission to Southern Utah to try and establish a winery to provide for the Sacrament, but they weren’t able to grow the grapes well enough to make it work.

    My understanding is that the switch to water for the Sacrament was a response to the difficulty in obtaining wine in pioneer Utah. By the time it became practical to import wine reliably, the Word of Wisdom was being interpreted more strictly and the tradition of water for the Sacrament was firmly established.

  4. Alexander notes that it was in the first decade of the 20th century (1906 if I remember correctly) that the FP stopped using wine in the temple for the weekly service. I think wards were generally earlier than that. In Kirtland there were a lot more ritual presentations similar to the love feasts in other traditions, with eating and drinking until full. There was some effort to increase portion sizes in Utah a couple of times, but I don’t think they were very broad, and didn’t stick. The communal cup went away with hygiene movements in the early twentieth century as well.

  5. Thanks for the background Curtis and J.!

    larryco, I looked it up. That is an interesting passage, but I’m not sure it is precedent for what we do. It got me thinking. I wonder if the water and wine mixture was meant to remember the blood and water from Jesus’ side in John 19:34. Justin is in the Johannine tradition and that ritual may come from there. Anyway, very interesting. Thanks!

  6. My gg grandfather John Conrad Neagle was a sucessful wine grower in Tocquerville, Utah. I have seen the house he lived in which had a large basement to store his wine. His wine growing operation is mentioned in Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdom.

    Arrington in a article in BYU studies suggested that one of ther reasons the saints were encourgaged to grow wine was that too much money was leaving Utah to pay for out of state wine. His article was entitiled “An economic interpretation of the word of wisdom” This was a kind of ironic reference to Beards book on an econmic interpretation of the constitution.

    It appears that my gg grandatheres wine was of pretty good quality but was undercut in price from wine from California.

    The best analysis of how we got the modern interpretation of the word of wisdom is the chapter on this subject in Thomas Alexander’s Mormonism in transition.

  7. In response to larryco, mixing water with wine was standard practice all the way back to whatever time is/times are depicted in Homeric texts. The vessel used at symposia to serve wine was called a “krater,” a word coming from a verb meaning “to mix,” as wine mixed with water was what was served. It was the duty of the symposiarch to make sure that the level of dilution matched the progressing drunkenness of the guests to keep the party going as long as possible. Undiluted wine was undignified and only for lushes. Justin, a Greek with a Greek education before his conversion, would presumably have been quite familiar with the centuries-long Greek practice of mixing, making his statements less an announcement of ritual innovation than simple descriptions of standard practice.

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