OK folks, here’s my review of (the first half of) my friend Jennifer Woodruff Tait’s University of Alabama Press book, The Poisoned Chalice: Eucharistic Grape Juice and Common-Sense Realism in Victorian Methodism (2011). Dr. Woodruff Tait is (I say it frequently) the best writer I know, hands-down. She has 18th-century clarity and 19th-century passion for her topic.
True confession: This blog tour has hit me at an extraordinarily busy time. I did read Jenn’s dissertation all the way through several years ago—and not just because she cited my dissertation several times in her first chapter. I was fascinated by the story she tells. I can say that this time around, I read 69 of her 129 pages, and I remembered why I appreciate her historical scholarship so much, and why I hope she will research and write again, to our edification.
Without further ado, then:
The Baconian common-sense realism that Dr. Woodruff Tait argues precipitated the Victorian Methodist move from wine to grape juice in the Eucharist was preeminently a scientific movement. It permeated all American thought, including American religious thought. It imprinted on every sphere of American life its pure, naïve trust in the ability of empirical reason to apprehend the world as it is and tell the truth not just about science but about matters of faith. And it worked itself into a powerful theological rationale for the switch from wine to grape juice in the American Methodist Church of the 19th century.
But you may be asking: “Why should I care about a story about a bunch of long-dead Methodists who got silly about wine and decided that only grape juice should be used in the Lord’s Supper?” This seems, at best, a limited topic, interesting only perhaps to Methodists, liturgical historians, or other such rare birds.
But in writing the Duke dissertation from which this book derived, Dr. Woodruff Tait found, as have generations of doctoral students before her, that when she pulled the string (or better, uncorked the bottle) of her particular and rather narrow topic, all the diverse, lavish, fascinating, complex aspects of a broader topical area (Victorian evangelical culture) came pouring out.
So in the spirit of the Baconian empiricist, which Dr. Woodruff Tait mirrors often in her own prose, I present a list of the many pure, obvious, common-sense facts which rise to the surface of her unusually penetrating analysis of this topic. And I insist, against the common-sense realist convictions of those temperance advocates and ministers and grape-juice producers who pioneered this transformation in the Methodist church, that in fact these are not obvious, common-sense facts that anyone could see from a cursory examination of the documents. Rather, these constitute a network of intricately interrelated cultural phenomena that together build up a much more nuanced portrayal of the transformation under discussion than any of the literature henceforth has managed to unearth.
So, this book is not just a book about wine and grape juice. It is also about:
—religion and science
—common-sense realist philosophy
—heredity and eugenics
—immigration and nativism
—exegesis (mostly of the tortured sort, as in the “two-wine theory”)
—Victorian dietary fads
—purity (in all senses of the word)
—advice manuals (especially woman-written, though sometimes man-edited, raising the question of their true authorship)
—Victorian medical science (in disarray, and unreliable to say the least!)
—the control of emotions
—shouting (drunken vs. pious. This is worth a quotation. Methodist temperance advocate Daniel Swinson insisted: “The sober believer might shout as loudly as the drunken reveler, but for a clearly differentiated set of reasons.”)
—imagination and romanticism
—movel reading, dancing, card playing, and theater (all bad)
—the kind of novels that were “poison”—like alcohol: “Works of fiction, romance, infidelity, war, piracy, and murder.” Yup. There go all present-day NYT bestsellers and most Hollywood movies!
—poise, propriety, and self-control
—lots and lots of temperance hymns—some of them surprisingly good, as poetry (and propaganda)
—innocent pleasures: in “the music, sports, gardening, and geology favored by advice manuals.”
—tortured interpretations of the Wedding at Cana and Jesus’ miracle there (what on earth could the temperance advocates do with the observation that most folks served the poorer wine later, when the guests were (it is obviously implied) drunk . . . if this was supposedly non-alcoholic wine?)
—the ideal worker (e.g. in a factory): thrift and sobriety
—temperance as social control; which leads to this brilliant observation: “Temperance authors cited countless statistics to prove that, not only were drunkards not contributing to the economy, but money spent on them had no discernible return. The precision of these statistics was important, signifying data scientifically obtained from inductive observation. They measured precisely how waste was created and by whom, indicting not only drunkards but moderate drinkers and the liquor business. This waste took away from national and individual wealth; it prevented money being invested at interest to create even more wealth over time; and it eliminated material goods that could have been used for food, clothing, wages, education, building construction, and above all, religious purposes. Alcohol was already in an illegitimate relationship to reality by its very nature, but it threatened all these legitimate moral acts as well.”
—economic impact of alcohol: “[Temperance writer Jonathan Crane] concluded that if America could free itself from all alcoholic waste, ‘the wealth of the nation would increase at twice the present rate.’”
—also (on the same point): “”The time and industry lost in the manufacture and sale of liquor, plus the time lost in drinking instead of working, was $440 million; the interest of the capital used to make liquor, $25 million; the interest on the capital used to run saloons, $36 million; the money paid out to the poor by private charity, $10 million; the fees paid to lawyers, judges, and police, $207 million; and ‘the losses by sea and on land,’ $50 million—for a grand total of 2.344 billion, more than the national debt.”
—the sad, sad, tale of the families of alcoholics: “in The Wines of the Bible, Charles Fowler pictured the human cost of alcohol to industry with a story that recalled such tales. When ‘a young man, gentle, cultured, with his nerves on the surface and his hear tin his hand and his soul in his eye’ began to drink, the effects showed morally and economically. His wife missed ‘the accustomed luxuries; ornaments cease to come in, the old ornaments by and by move out; the spoons are sold and one; the forks follow; one article after another vanishes; the Bible goes, the fence is broken down, the windows are broken out, the gate falls off, the sidewalk is torn up—it is shabby and wretched; then somebody else wants even this house, and the one in the alley is cheaper, and they move into the alley’ . . . with no furniture and no fire.”
More should follow in this review, and may some day. But for now, I need to return to the Acton University conference and the piles of grading. Again, kudos to Dr. Jennifer Woodruff Tait for a tour-de-force dissertation which has become an excellent book.
- The pellet with the poison’s in the flagon with the dragon! (gratefultothedead.wordpress.com)