Quaker Universalist Conversations

“Does thee, Friend, care for a drink?”

By Rachel Stacy 


In contemplating things that people give up for Lent, my attention turned to the debate among Friends on alcohol consumption. I’ve had many conversations with Young Adult Friends on this topic and during my undergraduate course on Abrahamic Scriptures I was fortunate enough to dialogue with friends of different faiths:


A Protestant Christian perspective:


“For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” Luke 7.33-34


“And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying ‘Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drunk it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.’” Matthew 26.27-28


“But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap.” Luke 21.34


“nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” 1 Corinthians 6.10


           The use and importance of wine and other alcoholic beverages is vastly different in modern times than it was in biblical times. In many of the settings of the Bible, water and milk were unsafe to drink, and therefore wine, which did not have to be refrigerated, was the usual substitute. Today there are a wide range of beverage choices and wine is not, at least in American culture, need as a substitute for drinking water.


            For the most part, Christians cannot deny that Jesus drank wine, though Jesus did protest against the drinking of wine in excess. Some Christians believe that wine may be drank in moderation, and abstinence is not required of even those in leadership. Other Christians turn to the writings of the apostle Paul which do condemn drunkenness again and again, without much support of moderation.


There are other changes in the modern time that persuade Christian groups to avoid the consumption of alcohol. The present day existence of hard alcohol, and the high alcohol content wine changes the amount of alcohol needed to reach a state of drunkenness. Alcohol production used to be a family business, and few families were rich enough to allow the entire fermentation process to occur, so the alcohol content of Biblical wine was most likely very low. Conversely, the modern alcohol industry is an important influence in society. In the Bible, the drinking of wine was for the most part done in a family setting; modern advertising techniques did not exist to promoted large parties or drinking games.


A Muslim Perspective:


“And the fruits of the palms and the vines from which you obtain an intoxicant as well as wholesome food; surely in this is a sign for people who understand.” Sura 16.67


“They question you concerning wine and games of change. Say ‘In both are great sin and some uses for men. But the sin in them is greater than their usefulness.’” Sura 2.219


“O believers, do not approach prayer when you are intoxicated until you know what you are saying.” Sura 4.46


“O believers, wine, games of change, idols and divining arrows are a clear abomination and some of Satan’s work. So avoid it! Perhaps you will then prosper. Satan desires only to precipitate enmity and hatred among you, with wine and games of chance and to bar you from the remembrance of God and from prayer. Will you then not detest?” Sura 5.90-91


            In the Islamic tradition, before the reveling of the Qur’an there was no prohibition of alcohol consumption. The first of the above verses was revealed in Mecca. The other four were reveled in Medina. One story that is speculated is that over the period of time when these verses were revealed, friends of the Prophet experienced the evils of alcohol consumption. One friend, when praying intoxicated admitted miss-quoting the Qur’an. Another friend while intoxicated, for no reason at all, killed two camels that belonged to his neighbor.  Friends to the Prophet asked him to ask God for a statement clarifying the appropriate behavior towards alcohol. After these experiences the four verses concerning alcohol were reveled in Medina.


            Some communities of Muslims have asked whether it is permissible by the holy text to make use of wine and alcohol in cooking or for medical purposes. These questions are responded to by quoting the quote from Sura 2.219. The Qur’an acknowledges the usefulness of alcohol, but because there are more changes of sin in the use of alcohol than changes of usefulness, alcohol is condemned.


            All of the verses neglect to define wine, or mention other types of alcohol. Some scholars say that every intoxicating drink is wine. Other specify that wine is equivalent to a strong grape juice which is on the edge of fermentation. At the time the verses were reveled, the Qur’an used traditional Arabic words for some things, and used new legal terms for others. There are many different interpretations of what wine meant in these verses, and thus there is disunity among Muslims.


            In general, Muslims are known for their abstinence from all forms of alcohol, even the consumption of plant extracts used in baking. Many communities of young Muslims are moving away from this emphasis of abstinence, however, there are also individuals and communities who are determined to uphold the purity of their religious traditions.


A Quaker perspective:


“When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ This was the first of his signs, Jus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory.” John 2.9-11


“It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.” Romans 14.21


Quakers were the first Christian group in modern history to take a position against the consumption of alcohol (they started advocating the abstinence of liquor in the early 1750’s and then other forms of alcohol in the 1800s’). However, Friends were not always in favor of the abstinence of alcohol. Friends supported moderation of alcohol instead of abstinence before the 1750’s.


The move from moderation to abstinence was not justified by scriptural or spiritual means. Rather many communities of Friends found it difficult to support moderation in a worldly culture where according to Robert Levering in his pamphlet Friends and Alcohol (page 15) “Americans over the age of 15 averaged 7.1 gallons of pure alcohol a year (the daily equivalent of five shots of whiskey, or five glasses of wine, or five cans of beer).” Abstinence was supposed to help Friends led a spirit-led life, and remove the danger of alcohol addiction. In 1920, due to the advocating of many Quaker and Women’s rights groups, the Prohibition Amendment was passed. Thirteen years later, this amendment was repealed.


Today Friends are not united on the issue of alcohol. The Bible has been used to validate a wide range of life styles including the consumption of alcohol. While general non-Quaker society advocates for moderation, the capitalist market of the U.S. benefits greatly from excess consumption.


Even Friends of similar theology are not united on the issue of alcohol. For example some progressive Friends may see the consumption of alcohol as violence to the body and denounce the consumption of any harmful substance in accordance to their pacifist beliefs. Other progressive Friends see alcohol as a social activity, to abstain from it would alienate them from society, as well as from the people whom their witness as Friends would most benefit.


          My travels throughout the Middle East with various Christian, Muslim and Jewish groups have spurred many conversations concerning alcohol. My default while traveling is not to consume alcohol unless someone else in my group has already indulged. I have found that most Middle East Christian communities drink fairly heavily while North American Christian groups (missionaries or travel groups whom I have met and/or traveled with) do not drink alcohol at all. While I have always held a strict stance against things like gambling (an attributed this stance to my Quaker beliefs), my views concerning alcohol have always been much more flexible. My pondering of this topic today, with all of my readings about Christian and Muslim perspectives of alcohol consumption, has led me to the age-old question… “What canst thou say?”

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