If you enjoy a cold beer this summer, thank God. Beer and belief in God share a long history—one that stricter American Protestants once tried to squash.
Stephen Mansfield recounts the history of beer and religion in his wonderful book The Search for God and Guinness. Sumerians started making beer with the dawn of cereal agriculture (c.10,000 B.C.E.). It made them feel “a religious awe.” The Babylonians followed, with the first mention of brewing in the religious epic of Gilgamesh.
Beer then wound its way into Egypt. Pyramid builders got a daily ration of it. Christians viewed beer as a way to “cultivate the earth” to promote human flourishing (Gen.2:15). This is why St. Patrick, arriving in Ireland in the early 400s brought his brewmaster, Mescan. In the early 500s, St. Arnold of Metz noted: “From man’s sweat and God’s love, beer came into the world.” St. Brigid of Ireland asked God to turn bathwater into beer so that the lepers she worked with could enjoy it. St. Arnou appealed to God for cold beer for the soldiers to drink during a battle in Flanders in the 11th century.
In 1759, Arthur Guinness, a Christian, founded his brewery at St. James’s Gate. He sought to stem Ireland’s ruinous gin craze. Guinness brewed a dark stout that was low in alcohol content. That helped, but Guinness also sought shalom, the flourishing of Dublin. The company routinely paid wages that were 10 to 20 percent higher than average. Guinness had the reputation as the best place to work in Ireland.
This tie between beer and belief began to unravel in the early 1800s. That’s when a truncated gospel began to emerge. Throughout history, the gospel was defined by four “chapters”—creation, fall, redemption, and the final restoration. In the early 19th century, American evangelicals introduced a truncated version, a “two-chapter” gospel—the fall and redemption. God loves you, you are a sinner, accept Jesus for salvation.
This gospel isn’t all bad. It will get you to heaven. But it has difficulty bringing heaven to earth. Why? It starts in chapter two (fall)—not one (creation). In creation, God made everything good (I Tim.4:4-5). That includes alcohol (“God gives wine to cheer the heart”—Ps.104:15). Sin is a corruption of good things. Alcoholism is a corruption of alcohol. “Two-chapter” gospel Christians start with the fall. Drinking alcohol is sin. Two-chapter Christians tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
That’s what happened in many evangelical sects in 1800s America. Waves of immigrants began pouring in from Germany, spurred by hard times and a crackdown by repressive governments. They “brought their beer-drinking ways” to America, writes Edward Achorn. Entire families, children intact, could be seen sipping beer together at newly minted “beer gardens” in Midwest cities. The eastern Protestant establishment was appalled. So were the stricter evangelical sects.
The Protestant establishment pooh-poohed beer drinking. “In the old countries,” wrote The New York Times, “where freedom is smothered, drinking may be necessary to drown the depressing influences of despotism.” In America, “no such beastly compensation is called for.” The Times felt “our German fellow-citizens are born for higher and nobler uses than for schnapps and lager-bier.” The Protestant establishment was snooty.
The evangelical sects were separatist. They didn’t pooh-pooh beer; they sought to prohibit it. Prohibition would prove to be a grand failure.
The good news is that Americans in the late 1800s began to appreciate the Germans’ love of beer. Achorn says Germans enjoyed gemutlichkeit—“a compound of conviviality, camaraderie and good fellowship… all washed over by flowing kegs of good lager beer.” In 1883, Lippincott’s Magazine praised Germans who see beer and wine “as gifts of God to be enjoyed in moderation for lightening the cares of life and adding to its pleasures. Sunday afternoon is devoted, by all who do not belong to the stricter Protestant sects, to recreation.” Sunday beer drinking became known as “soul-feasts.”
This is not to minimize the devastating effects of alcoholism. Frontier life was often wrecked by whiskey. Alcoholism is abhorrent. It continues to this day. But the gospel doesn’t start with corruption. It starts with creation. Arthur Guinness got this. He didn’t pooh-pooh beer or seek to prohibit it. He brewed to promote the well-being of all. It’s still evident in one of the advertising slogans for Guinness Irish Stout: Out of the darkness comes light. God created by saying, “Let light shine out of darkness” (II Cor.4:6).
I’m thrilled that a new generation of evangelicals gets this. Over the last few years, younger believers have gotten into the brewing business. Good for them. Good for us. If you enjoy a cold beer this summer, thank God for these fine folks. Cheers.
 Edward Achorn, The Summer of Beer and Whiskey (New York: Public Affairs, 2013), pp. 4-6.