Mennonites and alcohol: Fascinating sociological dynamics

I suppose it was about 25 years ago that a close friend of mine, at the time a Mennonite pastor in the Midwest, stirred up a hornet’s nest by writing a letter to the editor of the Gospel Herald, the weekly denominational magazine. Signed “name withheld,” this letter raised the possibility that maybe Mennonites should rethink their knee-jerk rejection of alcohol (I have to confess that I am going totally by memory here; I don’t recall anything specific about my friend’s argument).

For weeks, it seems, the Herald was filled with letters to the editor ripping into my friend for suggesting the worst of possible heresies. And I am pretty certain that no one wrote a letter defending his points (I certainly didn’t). To suggest that Mennonites should accept the validity of drinking alcoholic beverages simply was outrageous.

Now I knew back then that quite a few Mennonites did indeed drink, but they couldn’t do so publicly it seems (like the old joke—what’s the difference between a Mennonite and a Lutheran? the Lutheran will say hi to you in the liquor store).

Over these past 25 years surely the number of Mennonites who do drink and who accept drinking as acceptable surely has increased pretty significantly. And, maybe as a sign of changing times, the current denominational magazine—now called The Mennonite—recently carried an article about a Mennonite family that has started a vineyard producing fine wine.

Well, maybe things haven’t changed so much after all. This article has also unleashed a firestorm of angry letters of condemnation. And once again, as near as I have noticed, not one letter has been published defending either the family for their vineyard or the magazine for running the article.

This is interesting. Because in fact I do imagine drinking habits among Mennonites have changed a great deal over the past generation. It’s not surprising that some people would be upset about those changes and would raise their voices in protest. But what is surprising, perhaps, is that still no one will raise their voices in defense of the changes.

If it’s okay now to drink (in moderation, of course) and the numbers of drinkers have increased significantly, why does it seem that no one is willing to defend this change? I have to confess that I don’t know the answer to this question. I’ve been a member of the Mennonite church now for nearly 30 years, been a pastor for most of those years, have lived in Mennonite communities in all four US time zones, have come to the point where I have thought I understood Mennonites pretty well. But I don’t understand this dynamic about alcohol.

Let me give an example. Kathleen and I joined the Eastern Mennonite University faculty in 1996. We had come to the point in our lives where we enjoyed a beer or a glass of wine on occasion. However, we noted that EMU “Community Lifestyle Commitment” (CLC) explicitly required faculty to abstain altogether from alcoholic beverages. We really wanted to be at EMU, so we signed the statement (with heavy hearts) and agreed to ourselves that we would follow it.

And so we did for our first several months. We made good friends with another couple just starting at EMU who shared our perspective on this issue (that is, they also with heavy hearts had agreed to be teetotallers). Then one night, the four of us went out to eat together, chafing together that we couldn’t have beer or wine with our dinner. Then on our way out of the restaurant, we walked by an EMU colleague sitting there with a class of beer!

When we got in the car, I said, did you see Dave in there drinking a beer? Yes, our friends said, and you know what, we were at a party last night with an EMU administrator who told us all that drinking actually is fine as she downed several beers. What the hell? The final straw came shortly afterwards when I learned from some friends who were not affiliated with EMU that they had gone out to eat with EMU’s president and wife—who had ordered a bottle of wine for them all to share! So I went out the next day to buy a six-pack.

It turned out that just about all of the EMU faculty and staff that we became friends with also partook on occasion. But still, the CLC stated this was not allowed. Rather than talk it out though, a couple of years later the EMU administration quietly reworded the CLC to (I’m going here off the top of my head without looking it up) say no “misuse,” not no “use.”

Well, it is a relief to not have to feel like one is breaking the rules when one orders a Jefferson Reserve Stout with one’s dinner. But how strange. Based on the letters to The Mennonite about the Mennonite vintners (who coincidentally live here in Harrisonburg), this is still a pretty big deal. But it can’t be discussed. It can’t be defended. Doesn’t that seem a bit unhealthy?

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24 thoughts on “Mennonites and alcohol: Fascinating sociological dynamics

  1. Once I was in a conversation with my in-laws that led to looking up “alcohol” in the Mennonite Encyclopedia. Very interesting material in there, including stuff about the Mennonite distilling tradition in Europe (Prussia?), where I believe “Mennonite” was once slang for “tavern.” As in, “I’m going to go see the Mennonite tonight.” I’m a bit fuzzy on the details, but the impression I’ve retained is that the 20th century relationship between Mennos and alcohol is shaped more by the history of prohibition than by Anabaptism.

    1. It is interesting how our churches tend to take a specific cultural moment (prohibition, a style of dress, a certain understanding of marriage, etc.) and absolutize it and link it with an eternal word from God.

      Here’s a link to the Mennonite Encyclopedia article: Alcohol

      This is the 1990 addendum to that article: “The Mennonite position on alcohol use has eased since the 1950s, particularly among more acculturated Mennonite groups. In 1972 only 50% of the members in the Mennonite Church, General Conference Mennonite Church, Mennonite Brethren Church, Evangelical Mennonite Church and Brethren in Christ Church said that moderate use of alcoholic beverages was “always wrong.” This dropped to 43 percent in 1989.”

    2. Years ago, while researching the history of some Kansas Mennonites, I was browsing through some 1874 issues of a Newton paper. One of the charges leveled against the arriving “Russians” by non-Mennonite Newtonians was that they too freely enjoyed their whiskey. Of course, these were hardly sympathetic reporters.

  2. Ben, that is awesome. Clearly, someone needs to open a bar in the Burg aptly named ‘The Mennonite’.

    Did someone say “happy hour hymn sing”?

    1. Taverns and singing have long been associated. It seems that Taverns and Mennonites were made for each other. In these hard financial times, multiple use facilities would likely be a great boon to the fragile bottom lines of many Mennonite churches. Yet houses of worship, used typically in mornings and brew houses, used typically later in the day, have rarely shared their premises. I think it is time!

      1. Well, I am very well acquainted with a little Mennonite Church in London, England that met for many years in the upstairs of a pub. They had to be out by noon because the pub opened then. During my time with them they had moved to the hall of a church and met at 3 pm. But most Sundays after church was over a number of the attendees would head to the local pub to discuss the sermon, politics and life.

  3. I think one of the concerns is that Mennonites have traditionally held that salvation and community were interwoven. In that fabric, there lies a responsibility for the well-being of the brethren. When we advocate for something that others consider to be sin, we risk causing them to sin. Why would we tell people that we dance, drink, smoke etc even though we may find it not sinful? because in doing so, we protect the conscience of the weaker brother. Never should we let the exercise of our freedom in Christ cause others to sin or stumble because it would be better to have a millstone. . . .

  4. This whole conversation in the “Mennonite” and here are intersting. I too signed the CLC when I attended EMU and even though I lived off campus was faithful too it. I think that is an interesting topic on it’s own. Are standards of conduct important in our communities, or are they hurtful? It would be interesting to do a generational study of this over the past say 100 years.

    I too enjoy an alcoholic beverage from time to time. I don’t believe I am sinning. I don’t believe alcohol is evil. However, I have several relatives that are alcoholics and I chose not to glorify or even speak of alcohol use, much less drink in their presence. Because my actions effect other people. One interesting anecdote from my church experience is that we attended a Mennonite church for a while that had a grade school child who was allergic to peanuts and a few other foods that caused severe reactions. We as a congregation were asked not to bring any foods to potlucks that contained any kind of nut. No one wrote a letter defending their right to eat nuts and share their nut containing desserts and casaroles with others in the congregation. They just didn’t bring them for the concern of one boy out of 200 people. That is a beautiful example of community! But I really like nuts!

    Living in a community is a sacrifice. We are all required to count the costs and remember, it isn’t just about me.

  5. For a variety of reasons, I was doing some research on alcohol and Mennonites, and this was one site that came up. One interesting thing I discovered was that the reason why so many Mennonites in Prussia were involved in making and selling beverage alcohol was that the trade guilds refused to admit any Mennonite apprentices or to certify a Mennonite as a journeyman or master. So there were few avenues of making a living left. When the trade guilds opened up to Mennonites, many Mennonites left brewing, distilling, and selling beer, wine, and strong liquor. Not all, however!

    I am a retired Anglican pastor attending a Christian Reformed Church, so my own background is not Mennonite, although my mother-in-law’s family was Mennonite, and I have known many Mennonites over the years, especially when I lived in Harrisonburg and did volunteer work through Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship at James Madison University. My daughter and her husband met at Lancaster Bible College and became Mennonites while there, and currently live in Lancaster Co. With this background, I have been thinking a lot about Mennonite values and how they relate to the larger Christian community.
    How to be in the world but not of it is one of the major questions for anyone who loves, trusts, and seeks to obey the Lord Jesus. On one side, there is the possibility of legalism, with its great burdens and temptations to pride and dispair. On the other side is the possibility of libertinism, which has more dangers, for if one is not thoughtful about obedience to Scriptural commands, then one probably is without faith – perhaps an assent to the truth of the Gospel, but not a commitment to it or reliance upon it.

    I believe the Bible does not condemn the use of alcohol in and of itself, but rather the thoughtless or intemporate use. I enjoy the ocassional glass of wine or a nice cold beer – but I seldom drink. There is the question of luring the weaker brother (who in this case is, I believe, the one who sees nothing wrong with getting drunk, not the person who thinks any use of alcohol is a sin) into sin. There is also the question of participating in an industry that supplies the drug of choice to millions of addicts. I read once, years ago, that 90% of a liquor store’s business comes from 10% of its customers. That statistic should give one pause.

    We do not want legalism. We don’t want libertinism. We do not want public conformity to a statement that has private action that does not conform, for that is hypocrisy.

    As I have pondered the question of holy living over the years, I have come to think that there is no system that we can “set and forget” in order to live lives that honor the Lord. We need to be in constant prayer, loving action, and humble trust- and the only really safe place is at the foot of the Cross.

  6. I also signed the CLC from EMC&S, and haven’t had a drink since I signed it in ’87. If your signed the CLC, then drinking wasn’t OK. Your word is suppose to mean something. As has been said already, your drinking may cause another to become drunk.

    As far as administrators and other memebrs of EMC&S, now EMU&S, they should set the example for the community. If you choose to drink in your own home that is one thing, drinking in public is another. If they did in fact change the wording of the CLC, who decides what is moderation?

    What about drinking and driving? Do you really want to be behind the wheel and be in an accident, even if no one is killed? The risk is too great but how many more people will die before people stop drinking and driving?

    1. Thanks for the thoughts, Dennie. My point in the essay was not about whether drinking is okay or not, though, but about why Mennonites can’t seem to talk about it. Obviously there was a huge disconnect between the rules that EMU tried to impose on people in its community and the actual beliefs of those responsible for enforcing those rules (not to mention the majority of community members). I don’t think it serves those who believe that the rules were correct for there not to be discussion about why the rules were valid—a discussion where those who disagreed with the rules would be free to defend their views, too. What is it about Mennonites communities that creates such a failure?

  7. Truth in advertising: I very occasionally have a glass of wine or beer. My spouse comes from the Old Order Mennonites, and they have shot glasses of home-made dandelion wine at weddings–good stuff. Before the children came along, we would occasionally have a glass of wine together.

    The fundamental problem in understanding the prohibition against occasional consumption of beverages is that for most of its history, the Mennonite tradition have been fundamentally conservative.

    Conservatives believe that rules develop organically in a community, that humans flourish best in geographical and spiritual pluralism, and that change should take place gradually as each community spontaneously discerns how to adapt its tradition to present circumstances. (OOMs are the best example among Mennonites as to how this happens.) Different communities are only responsible for the integrity of their own life. (My OOM relatives don’t judge me.)

    The prohibition against alcohol developed “organically” out of the acceptance of the revivalist spirituality and the teetotaling morality that accompanied it. (Neither the OOM or the OOA share this morality.) “Temperance” (meaning, inconsistently, abstinence) itself developed as a response to real problems in 19th century American society. In short, *Mennonites are teetotalers because of their acceptance of evangelicalism.*

    Now you want to change it. Why? Because it’s not a part of your moral-spiritual vision. You all know it’s the rule, and no one keeps it. Why then is the rule still kept around? I suggest the authorities of Mennonite academics know they need to keep up the *illusion* that they share the basic moral conservatism (in the above sense) of their constituencies. The authorities know that academics *do not really do so,* and to openly take the “rule off the books” is to “let the cat out of the bag.”

    That’s why, Ted, we cannot talk about it.

  8. Welcome back, David 🙂

    I think your comments (up until near the end!) are perceptive and help me understand the dynamics around (certain) Mennonites and alcohol better. The difference between the Mennonite Church (pre-merger) branch of Mennonites and the Old Orders on this issue is instructive, and perhaps illuminating of broader issues.

    The point about rules developing “organically in a community” makes a lot of sense—at least for rules that are authentic and life-enhancing. But perhaps the difference here is that the anti-alcohol absolutism actually did not develop “organically in a community” but was something grafted on from the outside (“revivalist spirituality”)—while the Old Orders tolerance of alcohol is more reflective of the Mennonite tradition as a whole (the Dutch/Russian/Canadian/GC tradition was never teetotalistic in the same way either). I don’t know enough about the development of those rules among revivalists or Mennonites in the 19th century. I tend to think though that they never were probably very effective in dealing with the “real problems.”

    In my childhood (in a very non-church environment in the Pacific Northwest), the community had moralistic attitudes about alcohol that seemed to foster unhealthy approaches to drinking—generally alcohol was not seen as a normal part of life but you drank to get drunk or to rebel. In recent years, my home town has become a winery hotbed. I would interested to know of the general attitude about alcohol has evolved in a more healthy direction.

    If you’re meaning that I personally have wanted to change teetotalism among (certain) Mennonites you are misunderstanding the point of my post. It wasn’t about what I wanted (or want) but rather I was noting what seems like a kind of pathology in how (certain) Mennonites treat alcohol that exists totally apart from me (and I’m at best a marginal Mennonite anyhow).

    And to conclude that this has anything particularly to do with Mennonite academics seems inaccurate (and unfair). I used the example of EMU only because that’s my own context. Neither of the other examples (the Gospel Herald letters a generation ago or the recent winery story in The Mennonite) had anything to do with EMU. And, actually, EMU doesn’t have a rule against drinking anymore. I think the process to change it reflects the unhealthiness in the broader church on this issue, but certainly now we don’t now have a situation where there is an “illusion of moral conservatism” at EMU on this issue.

  9. Ted:

    I accept that my final point was tendentious and, expressed with a nasty edge. I apologize. If you would be so kind, look past my inappropriate formulation at the underlying claim: *we find ourselves unable to talk about it because we are afraid of how the conversation will expose undesirable contradictions.*

    An earlier example of the same dynamics was the debate (during the 30s? 40s?) over premillennialism/dispensationalism: what was then E. M. *School* was–from one perspective–“progressive,” and was active in promoting it: J. S. (initials?) Smith, A. D. Wenger, Sr., later J. Otis Yoder. My impression is that Lancaster Conference–being good “conservatives”–simply refused to talk about it and shut the discussion down.

  10. Alcohol Among the Mennonites of Northwest Germany

    Among the Mennonites of North Germany beer brewers and brandy distillers were relatively numerous. This may be due in part to the fact that not all professions and trades were open to them.
    For Norden Abraham Fast (Die Kulturleistungen der Mennoniten in Ostfriesland und Münsterland 1939-47) reports:

    “It was the especial achievement of Privy Councillor Jan ten Doornkaat Koolman to develop the distillery founded by his father into a business of outstanding economic importance for the city and to make the Doornkaat the popular whiskey of East Friesland and beyond. On Jan. 9, 1886, the city of Norden instituted a spectacular torchlight parade for the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of his business career. In the procession one of the objects of exhibition was an original export flask with the legend, ‘2,000,000 liters annual production.’
    The rules on alchohol within Mennonite communities is obviously flexible (historically) perhaps it should be questioned where the current views on abstinence originated, and as the EMU clearly don’t wish to observe their own ruling, it seems a little hypocritical to follow in their beliefs. Or do we live in a faith of ” do as I say, not as I do ” .
    Alcohol in moderation is and has never been a sin, how one behaves after consumming alcohol is the real point here.

  11. Jesus made a lot of wine out of water. That says it all!

    And, considering drinking as a sin is OT Pharissical stuff , meaning: I’m good here and this adds to my Holy living and I will go to heaven because I got enough goody credits. Forget this Grace and forgiveness and faith stuff.

  12. This issue of total alcohol abstinence is to me clearly a product of American cultural dynamics. However, it is uncanny to what degree Mennonites seem eager to pick up on any sort of self-denying principle whatever and espouse it as their own.

    1. And are so willing to be “culturally conformed” to aspects of culture that confirm those “self-denying principles.”

  13. I stumbled (sober) onto this past rather accidentally. I have always been very concerned about the lack of good teaching and honesty amongst mennonites in regards to alcohol. I too am very concerned about alcohol abuse in society. However, the level of hypocrisy in this area is downright emberassing.
    I have resolved to live my life honestly in this area. This has at times left me open to judgement. I love a good beer. I realize and am cognizant of the dangers of over indulgence. It is very important to teach our children an honest and moderate view of something that was obviously a part of Jesus’ life.
    It is also very important not to tempt a weaker brother. Be sensitive to those around you and don’t flaunt your freedom and drag down a recovering alcoholic. It’s not a simple dialogue is it??
    Once I was teaching an adult men’s Sunday school class and the topic (much to my dread) was “the Christian and alcohol”. The class was comfortably cruising along with the normal pat answers. “Don’t cause your bro to stumble”. “Beer is a brawler ….” “abstinence is a clear way to avoid alcoholism. …” I could have let the self righteous banter continue but, no, I had to open my big mouth. With my fore finger I pointed and counted aloud up to 14. There were 18 men in the class. These are Godly men who are my friends. I then said something that made my heart beat out of my chest. “I’ve had a beer with 14 of you. Let’s cut the bull shit and talk.” It turned out to be candid discussion for once on this topic. I did open myself to judgement though. I do respect anyone who does not drink alcohol.
    Something to think about… Jesus never expressed any concern in causing a Pharisee to stumble. ..

  14. I think this is largely a generational issue. My grandparents have never even sipped alcohol. My parents (the oldest of their siblings) are pretty moralistic about not drinking (dad is a pastor), while their younger siblings occasionally imbibe. My sister, and our Gen X and Millennial cousins and I all drink in moderation. All 3 generations are Mennos, attended Menno colleges–where my aunts and uncles and cousins all clandestinely drank our share at parties, most of us have done MCC and VS gigs, a fair number are pastors, or are employed in other church organizations, and serve on the boards of church institutions. In short: we are all well-adjusted contributors to our respective communities. I remember when, to our great delight, my aunt and uncle (who has a *wine cellar* in his basement!) busted out the champagne at the family’s annual Christmas dinner that they were hosting. 4 or 5 members of the older generation exchanged glances but just held their tongues, because they were *far* outnumbered by the 40 or so rest of us who were enjoying a glass of wine with our meal. You know: normal. We’re supposed to be followers of Jesus, and his first miracle was at the wedding of Cana, where he changed water into wine. Sounds like my kinda guy!

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