To understand how Baptists approach the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion, one needs to be reminded that Baptists originally were part of the Puritan-Separatist reaction against excess sacramentalism in the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church. Early on, most Baptists followed the thinking of Huldreich Zwingli (1484–1531) who maintained that Communion was primarily a memorial through which the worshipers were bound together in an expression of loyalty to their Lord. This was consistent with Baptists’ views on baptism, which they held to be symbolic in nature also. Generally, Baptists refer to the sacraments as “ordinances” which highlights their sense of obedience to Christ in remembrance of him.

From the beginning of the movement in the 1600s into the 1860s, Baptists used wine and bread, which were usually prepared within the church family, for Communion. In times of short supply, other staples, such as beer, brandy, biscuits, and cake, were also used. With the advent of the American temperance crusade, however, Baptists became suspicious of alcoholic beverages and looked for substitutes. By the 1880s when unfermented grape juice was introduced to the market, a debate was raging among Baptists about what Christ and his disciples used and how the word oinos should be translated. Baptists concluded (with the help of available technology) that grape juice was the only acceptable beverage for the Lord’s Supper. Still today Baptists will refer to “wine” or “fruit of the vine” by which they mean grape juice.

Baptists also commonly distribute the “wine” in individual Communion cups. The use of these came about later in the history of the group. The medical profession in the 1860s came to understand, through the “germ theory,” the origin of disease. Rochester, New York theologians wondered about the implications of this theory for the administration of the ordinance. They designed individual glass cups to be used to avoid “the maladies which are spread by mouth such as cancer, tuberculosis, influenza, and whooping cough,” when the common cup was passed. (Indeed, with the gradual shift from wine to grape juice, there was some plausibility to the concern, from an historical perspective.) The first use of individual glass cups occurred at the North Baptist Church in Rochester, New York, in 1854.

Technology and science thus brought about fundamental changes which theologians then had to account for. The concept of the minister as priest serving the sacrament to people changed to the concept of the priesthood of all believers as deacons served individual members in a democratized Lord’s Supper. And an entirely new school of biblical interpretation grew up around the meaning of “wine” in the Word.