Changing Attitudes Towards Wine Within Christianity:

Introduction: The Protestant Reformation

Wine and Christianity are largely inseparable. Ever since its inception, Christianity has adopted wine into rites and sacraments, a hardly unexpected development given that viticulture was already central to the religious life of the Mediterranean in Roman times. As centuries went by, wine continued to play a major role in Christian practices, a role that was largely unchanged from the first days of the Christian faith. That is until the inception of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.

Here we explore the background of the Reformation and how it changed religious approaches to the use of wine within Christian worship.

The Reformation was effectively a movement across Western and Central Europe in the 16th century that sought to redress a wide range of perceived abuses within the Roman Catholic Church. It started in Germany in 1517 when a German theologian named Martin Luther began objecting to the sale of Indulgences by the Papacy in the region.

The movement soon exploded across Europe and began to encapsulate a whole slew of different issues, from the widespread corruption within the Roman Catholic Church to issues of scriptural interpretation. For instance, many Protestants (named after those who ‘protested’ against the established church) claimed that the decadent decoration of churches with gold objects and rich hangings was effectively idolatrous and had no basis in scripture. In the Book of Exodus, the Protestants noted that Moses had condemned the Israelites for such idolatry.

The Protestant Reformation

Wine, Bread, Grapes and Bible

The Reformation, Transubstantiation and Wine

The approach toward wine within the Christian churches of Europe was impacted on in a number of significant ways by the Protestant Reformation. Much of this related to the issue of transubstantiation, the idea that the bread and wine used to celebrate Mass were transformed into the actual body and blood of Jesus in imitation of the Last Supper. This had been a dogma of the Roman Catholic Church for time immemorial and, indeed, it was reaffirmed as such at the Council of Trent, a Roman Catholic council of theologians which met on numerous occasions at the town of Trent in northern Italy in the mid-16th century.

However, many Protestant theologians were not as accepting of the inviolability of transubstantiation. Some, such as Martin Luther and the Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli, argued that the bread and wine were purely symbolic and were not actually transformed into the body of Christ. This opened the door for the removal of wine from Protestant services.

However, in the short term, the result was actually the direct opposite. Luther, Jean Calvin at Geneva, the founder of Calvinism and Presbyterianism, and a good many other Protestant reformers argued that the Roman Catholic practice of the priest being the only one to drink the sacramental wine at Mass was not theologically sound. As such, they called for what is known as ‘Communion under both kinds’, whereby lay attendants at Mass would receive both the bread and wine as part of Communion, not just the bread as had become the standard practice within Roman Catholicism.

This belief quickly found its way into Protestant churches. For instance, the 30th Article of the 39 Articles which were promulgated for the Church of England in 1571 declared that “The Cup of the Lord is not to be denied to the lay-people: for both the parts of the Lord’s Sacrament, by Christ’s ordinance and commandment, ought to have ministered to all Christian men alike.”

Thus, in the short term, the Protestant Reformation actually led to an increase in the number of people drinking sacramental wine at Mass in places like Germany, the Swiss Cantons, the Low Countries, Denmark, England, and Scotland, in each of which Protestantism had become either the dominant or state religion by the 1560s.

Wine and the Spread of the Reformation

There were other ways in which wine was consequential to the Protestant Reformation. Surely one of the most striking aspects of the Protestant Reformation was that wine may have influenced the very spread of the Reformation itself in some parts of Europe. There was a broad mix of reasons why Protestantism took hold in some countries and regions and didn’t in others.

For instance, Protestant communities emerged in northern Italy and parts of Austria and Spain in the 1530s and 1540s, but were quickly suppressed by the state authorities who were determined to stop the reformed theologies emerging in their otherwise staunchly Roman Catholic countries.

In other places such as England and Scotland, the Reformation flourished after it took hold amongst a minority of the nobility and urban merchants. These then convinced the monarch to adopt the new faith and it spread slowly over the following decades until all, or most, were converted.

In some countries, however, the emerging religious divide ravaged whole populations. In France, the country became divided between regions where Roman Catholicism was zealously adhered to and others where French Protestants, known as the Huguenots, emerged in large numbers. Eventually, this led to a series of religious wars which ravaged France between the 1560s and 1590s.

A study published in 1993 highlighted the fact that in the Burgundy region famous for its wine growing, individuals working in the wine industry were conspicuously absent from lists of those who were persecuted for their Protestantism during the 16th century.

This suggests that French viticulturists, closely associated with church officials who purchased much of their product, were loyal to the traditional Roman Catholic Church. Conversely, this new religion, with its different approach to transubstantiation, offered an uncertain future for French wine-makers and so they rejected it. It’s an interesting thought that France may have, in part, retained its Roman Catholic identity as a result of the centrality of viticulture to the country.

Later Developments

We have seen that the Protestant Reformation initially led to an increase in the consumption of wine amongst churchgoers in countries like the Swiss cantons, parts of Germany, the Dutch Republic, England, and Scotland where various kinds of Protestantism (Lutheranism, Anglicanism, Calvinism, Presbyterianism, etc.) were adopted. This was owing to the belief that attendants at Mass should consume the sacramental wine and this should not be reserved exclusively for the priest.

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However, in the long-run, the impact had the opposite effect. Beginning in the late 16th century, and particularly into the 17th century, more austere forms of Protestantism began to develop. For instance, the Puritans in England and North America believed in the idea of depriving oneself of worldly pleasures.

In time, these movements began to argue that one should restrict the amount of alcohol which was drunk by Christians, as drunkenness was increasingly seen as immoral. These calls for temperance or even abstention from alcohol were aided by the growth in tea and coffee consumption in Europe as a result of the continent’s increasingly large trade with Asia and the Americas.

The upshot of all of this was that many new branches of Protestantism which emerged during the 17th and 18th centuries, notably the Baptists, Methodists, and Unitarians, began to substitute the sacramental wine used in celebrating the Mass with non-alcoholic grape juice.

Furthermore, the decentralized nature of Protestant congregations, where ministers and their congregants could effectively make up their own minds about how they should perform the Mass, gave them the required freedom to do this.

As a result, by the mid-18th century, Protestant churches and scions were beginning to abandon the use of wine altogether in practicing their faith. In some extreme cases, such as the Quakers, even the use of grape juice or any practice of the Eucharist as a sacrament ceased.

Thus, while the Protestant Reformation increased the amount of wine being consumed across Europe as part of the Mass in the short-term, in the long-term it led many Christian churches to abandon its use altogether.


Indulgences constituted one of the most significant factors in the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation in Europe. Indulgences were effectively certificates sold by the Roman Catholic Church to Christians which remitted or absolved people of their sins without having to undergo traditional Penance. The sale of indulgences increased dramatically in the late medieval period as the Papacy in Rome became more corrupt and sought to raise ever greater amounts of money for its building projects and wars on the Italian peninsula. Many church figures were critical of the practice and saw it as proof of the corruption of the Papacy.

A German reformer, Martin Luther, was one of these. It was the drastic increase in the sale of indulgences in his native Germany by Pope Leo X who wished to pay for the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome that led him to begin criticizing the Roman Catholic Church in 1517. This started the Protestant Reformation, which would eventually lead to drastic changes in how Christians used wine in their celebration of the Mass.

 The Quakers
The Quakers, who were known more formally as the Religious Society of Friends, were one of the most peculiar religious groups which emerged in Europe as a result of the Protestant Reformation. They arose in England in the mid-17th century, a time of major religious radicalism, under the leadership of George Fox. The Quakers effectively held that there was a universal priesthood of all believers in God.

However, there was very little structure to the church and no real Mass to speak of. They also did not believe in the sanctity of any of the sacraments, including the Eucharist. Consequently, the Quakers were one of the first movements which emerged out of Protestantism which effectively abandoned the use of wine at church altogether.

This development became even more integral to their religion over time as the Quakers became advocates of teetotalism in the 18th and 19th centuries. By that time, their numbers had grown greatly, partly also as a result of Pennsylvania being established as a major Quaker colony by William Penn in the late 17th century. Quakerism consequently grew to become a major Christian denomination in Britain and North America.


Further Reading:

  • Euan Cameron, The European Reformation (Second Edition, Oxford, 2013).
  • Mark P. Holt, ‘Wine, Community and Reformation in Sixteenth-Century Burgundy’, in Past & Present, No. 138 (February, 1993), pp. 58–93.
  • James F. McCue, ‘The Doctrine of Transubstantiation from Berengar to Trent: The Point at Issue’, in The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 61, No. 3 (July, 1968), pp. 385–430.
  • Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).

On this Day

11 October 1551 – On in this day in 1551 at the 13th Session of the Council of Trent in Northern Italy, the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church and their representatives affirmed the dogma of transubstantiation. Transubstantiation argues that during the celebration of the Mass, the bread and wine used to re-enact to Last Supper are indeed changed into the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ. This dogma, which had been a characteristic of the Roman Catholic Church throughout its history, is the foremost reason why wine has been so synonymous with Christianity for such a long time.

However, at the Council of Trent, the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church felt it was necessary to reaffirm this, as Protestant reformers who had emerged across Europe, particularly in Germany, Bohemia, Switzerland, the Low Countries, England, and Denmark since the late 1510s, had begun to question whether this was purely a symbolic representation of the body and blood of Christ or whether transubstantiation truly occurred. The dispute over this point of interpretation of the Bible constituted one of the major doctrinal divides between Roman Catholic and Protestants throughout the 16th century. Thus, wine was central to both the Protestant Reformation and the European Wars of Religion which, unfortunately, went on for the next century and a half.

28 July 1703 – On this day in 1703, John Wesley was born in Epworth in Lincolnshire, England. Wesley went on to become an English cleric within the Protestant Church of England. However, influenced by the Revivalist movement of the 18th century, he soon splintered from the Church of England and rose to become the most significant figure in the emergence of Methodism, which is named after the ‘methodical’ way in which Wesley and his fellow Methodists attempted to interpret Christian doctrine.

The Methodist Church became a major scion of Protestantism in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly in America. Methodism, alongside several other branches of reformed Christianity such as the Unitarians, soon began to change the manner in which Mass was celebrated, particularly by replacing wine with grape juice when celebrating the Mass. This practice, which stems ultimately from the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, has now become common in many Christian churches throughout the world.

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  1. Euan Cameron, The European Reformation (Second Edition, Oxford, 2013); Andrew Pettegree, The Early Reformation in Europe (Cambridge, 2007); Robert Stern, ‘Martin Luther’, in Edward Zalta (ed), The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (Stanford, 2020).
  2. For the text of the 13th Session of the Council of Trent, see [accessed 16/7/22]; James F. McCue, ‘The Doctrine of Transubstantiation from Berengar to Trent: The Point at Issue’, in The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 61, No. 3 (July, 1968), pp. 385–430.
  3. [accessed 18/7/22].
  4. Eucharist, wine in the’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).
  5. [accessed 19/7/22].
    Mark P. Holt, ‘Wine, Community and Reformation in Sixteenth-Century Burgundy’, in Past & Present, No. 138 (February, 1993), pp. 58–93.
  6. James R. Rohrer, ‘The Origins of the Temperance Movement’, in Journal of American Studies, Vol. 24, No. 2 (August, 1990), pp. 228–235; Anne E. C. McCants, ‘The Diffusion of Tea and Coffee Drinking in the Eighteenth Century’, in The Economic History Review, Vol. 61 (August, 2008), pp. 172–200.
  7. [accessed 18/7/22].
    J. M. Lenhart, ‘Luther and Tetzel’s Preaching of Indulgences, 1516–1518’, in Franciscan Studies, Vol. 18, No. 1 (March, 1958), pp. 82–88.
  8. Thomas D. Hamm, The Quakers in America (Columbia, 2003).
  9. For the text of the 13th Session of the Council of Trent, see [accessed 16/7/22]; James F. McCue, ‘The Doctrine of Transubstantiation from Berengar to Trent: The Point at Issue’, in The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 61, No. 3 (July, 1968), pp. 385–430.
  10. Ole E. Borgen, John Wesley on the Sacraments: A Theological Study (Grand Rapids, 1989); [accessed 19/7/22].
Categories: This Day in Wine History | ArticlesTags: By Published On: March 1, 2023Last Updated: February 29, 2024

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