8 Encouragements for Creative Thinkers From the Man Who Changed 1900 Years of Church Tradition

Thomas Bramwell Welch Sacramental Wine

Creative thinking and innovation is hard anywhere, but especially so in an institution that turns daily practices into sacred rituals. Creative thinking and innovation in the church is vital, yet it isn’t for wimps. Here are eight encouragements from the man who changed a tradition 1900 years strong. As with many creative inspirations, it began with frustration.

Smashed on the Sacraments

Thomas Bramwell WelchThomas Branwell Welch was tired of seeing his friends getting wasted on leftover communion wine. The Lord’s Supper was a central act of worship, but its drink too often led to a drunkenness offensive to the temperance of his Methodist faith.

Early Methodists were largely teetotalers, and the church’s first discipline, or rule book, in 1843 called for unfermented wine – grape juice – for communion. But this injunctive was difficult to fulfill for most local congregations. Grape juice naturally turns alcoholic as it sits and ferments, and it was too difficult to make fresh unfermented wine every time. Besides, most congregants had grown up drinking wine at the Lord’s Supper, like their Christian brothers and sisters had for the previous 1800 years, and saw nothing wrong with it.

What really bothered Thomas, though, was how his church friends were prone to imbibing the leftovers. One night after a clergy friend stopped by his house in a stupor, Thomas was sufficiently upset to do something about the problem.

Some years prior, Thomas had been a practicing Methodist minister. Now he was a dentist with medical and divinity degrees and interested in the intersection of church and science. He began to explore how to bottle a juice that wouldn’t ferment.

Fortunately, in the previous generation two disparate creative innovations had developed, without which his problem might not have had a solution.

#1: Growing a Good American Grape

The first trend was the development of the American grape.

For a generation, Concord, New Hampshire, resident Ephraim Bull had been obsessed with growing a marketable American grape that could compete with the lush flavors of its European cousin.

Bull had spent hours poring over the vines behind his barn with the companionship of neighbors and fellow thinkers Bronson Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Finally, in 1853, after cultivating some 22,000 seedlings over a period 20 years, Bull was satisfied with his vines and sent off some specimens to a local expo for display.

“He sowed; others reaped.”Ephraim Bull's Epitath
Unfortunately, Bull took sick the day of the expo and decided not to attend his grape’s big debut. They sold well anyway. A little too well, perhaps, for soon, nursers around the southern New Hampshire region were growing their own version of Bull’s plush American grape.

Unlike some creative ideas, it was literally impossible for Bull to keep his methods a secret. All people had to do to make to their own was stick their purchase in the ground. By 1855, “concord grapes” were everywhere, and Bull had moved on to other pursuits.

#2: Keeping Juice from Turning Alcoholic

Nine years later, Louis Pasteur got a good amount of press for his new drink preparation method, in which he heated juice just enough to kill most of the bacteria that caused spoilage. After the boiling process, bacteria wouldn’t re-appear. Pasteur’s work was being used for milk, for keeping wine from going bad, and for keeping juice from becoming alcoholic.

Squeezing Creativity From a Grape

Sacramental Wine LabelWelch read about Louis Pastuer’s new process and wondered about its potential for removing fermentation from the winemaking process. Through experimentation Welch figured out how to combine Bull’s concord grapes and Pasteur’s process in a painstaking set of tasks:

  • squeeze (a lot of) raw grape juice
  • pour it into a bottle
  • seal it with cork and wax
  • place the bottle in boiling water

His method killed the yeast responsible for fermentation, leaving a fine juice suitable for communion. It also almost killed his family. Charles Welch later recalled of father’s experiments,

For three years, you squeezed grapes; you squeezed the family nearly out of the house; you squeezed yourself nearly out of money; you squeezed your friends.A young Charles Welch, to his father

Finally, Thomas slapped a label on his idea: “Dr. Welch’s Unfermented Sacramental Wine” – and asked for $12 a bottle. It was 1869.

The new grape juice bombed.

Resistance, Then Acceptance

Three reasons why it bombed:  It was too expensive. Its market didn’t yet exist. Worst of all, church people thought unfermented wine wasn’t appropriate for the Eucharist. Some even called it heresy.

Eventually, broke and broken, Welch stored his bottles away and returned to his medical business.

An entire generation had passed when Welch’s son Charles had an idea. Partly due to Methodist influence in America, temperance had become a trending topic by the 1890s, and in the trend the son saw an opportunity to re-introduce his father’s idea. The fatigued father gave a warning:

Now don’t think I’m trying to discourage your pushing the grape juice. It is right for you to do so, so far as you can, without interfering with your profession and your health.An elderly Thomas Welch, to his son

Charles ignored his father’s caution and plowed ahead. He found his big break at the 1893 World’s Fair, where he introduced a new batch of “Welch’s Unfermented Wine”, minus the “Dr.” on the bottle, not just as a sacramental drink but as a juice for common consumption.

This time, Welch’s Grape Juice was a sensation. Soon, for the first time in over almost 1900 years of church history, Christians began to drink a non-alcoholic version of wine in Sunday worship, and Charles Welch became a millionaire.

There are few stories of such significant innovation in Christian history. Here are eight encouragements from the story of how one man changed almost two millennia of Christian tradition.

Eight Encouragements for Creative Thinkers and Innovators


1. You don’t have to operate from a position of authority or hold credentials or title to introduce something new.

Although he had attended seminary and for a short period worked professionally as a minister, Welch was a long time layman by the time he made his unfermented juice, and his son had no professional history in the church. They just saw a need and an opportunity.

2. Creative thinking starts from a source of un-peace.

An advocate of Methodist temperance, Welch was intensely bothered by the hypocrisy of a church moral code that preached abstinence yet served alcohol in its most sacred worship ritual. It was, as I describe in my book on creativity Think Like a Five Year Old, his source of un-peace. He was compelled to do something.

3. Limitations may seem bad but can actually be good and even necessary for creativity to occur.

We all have handicaps. We think they hinder our ability to create, but they might actually be helping it. Welch’s juice didn’t flow from an industry of abundance like the vineyards of Europe but from the land with the worst grapes, America.

4. Innovation doesn’t occur in a vacuum but works with and builds upon the work of others.

Welch’s spectacular innovation was merely the combination of two previously new ideas. He built on Bull’s grapes and Pasteur’s process. Creativity is current; it lives in time and space, and depends on the good ideas of others.

5. Innovation depends on cultural trends.

The temperance movement of which Methodism was a part gradually grew in influence throughout the 19th century, until by the 1890s it was the concern not just of a denomination of Christians but of the society as a whole. It wasn’t until the temperance movement had become a national trend that Welch’s juice took off.

6. What the church calls sacred may not be as unassailable as you’d think.

Many Christians believed that to drink anything for the Lord’s Supper beyond the very drink that Jesus served his disciples in the Scriptures was heresy. The church had practiced the use of wine for almost two millennia and it was the model Jesus had established in Scripture. Yet now, a hundred years later, many conservative denominations make the practice of drinking non-alcoholic wine just as holy and immutable.

7. Church people sometimes best respond to ideas introduced by the general market.

When it was introduced to church people as an alternative to a time-honored ritual, it bombed. When it became a beverage common to everyday life, clergy and lay people naturally saw its benefits for church use. People have a natural bias against change; sometimes its easier to do an end run around a tradition rather than try to change it directly.

8. Creative thinking and innovation are sufficiently powerful to change traditions that are thousands of years old.

Welch’s source of un-peace had no initial impact on church life. Yet 40 years later his creative idea had changed the communion experience for millions of believers.


What creative idea have you been mulling over?


About the Author

Len Wilson

Facebook Twitter Google+

Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).