A Stout Faith: When Beer was a Mission Field
- Monday, March 17, 2014
Today is St. Patrick’s Day. You can hardly miss it: In Chicago they dye the Chicago River green, even when, as is the case this year, the river is frozen. Then there’s the heavily-advertised green milkshake sold by a fast-food company that I won’t name but I suspect you can.
But in the midst of this ersatz-Irishness, I’d like to tell you a story about something genuinely Irish that may surprise you.
I’m referring to Guinness stout. Very few of those hoisting their beer glasses today will know about the Christian vision that animated the brewery’s founder, Arthur Guinness.
The connection between “brewery” and “Christian vision” is the subject of “The Search for God and Guinness: A Biography of the Beer that Changed the World” by Stephen Mansfield, and a new article on the Breakpoint website by my friend Glenn Sunshine. It’s part of his “Christians who Changed their World” series.
As Mansfield documents, for people in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, beer was “more than a pleasurable drink.” For instance, the Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower, whom no one would characterize as hedonistic, “had plenty of beer for the voyage onboard.”
That’s because, like most Europeans, they drank beer “for fear of drinking water.” And for good reason: The water in most European cities well into the nineteenth century was unsafe to drink.
That left people with two options: beer, which was regarded as a kind of liquid food, or distilled spirits, in particular gin, which destroyed both bodies and souls.
And that’s where Arthur Guinness enters the story. Guinness was influenced by John Wesley, who taught his followers to “Make all you can, save all you can, [and] give all you can.” Guinness “recognized that he could use his wealth and the way he went about his business for the glory of God as surely as any money given at church.”
Part of this whole was producing a product that could be substituted for the destructive distilled spirits. Plus his beer was more filling so folks would be less likely to get drunk. The other part consisted on what Guinness did with the money he made from selling his product.
He became the governor of Meath Hospital, whose mission was the relief of the poor in the surrounding area. He worked to abolish dueling among his peers; he “promoted Gaelic arts and culture as a mean of instilling an ennobling sense of heritage among his countrymen.”
Perhaps the cause that best reflected his faith and social concerns was the founding of the Sunday Schools in Ireland. He was convinced that offering a basic education for the poor, including the Bible, literacy and other subjects, offered them the best chance to avoid a life of crime.
Guinness’ descendants maintained his commitment to doing good, including one of my favorite Christian thinkers Os Guinness. Another example, in 1900, the brewery’s chief medical officer surveyed the homes of it workers and the people living in the nearby vicinity. Appalled by his findings, he sought and obtained permission from the board to clean up the problems.
Hiring nurses, health workers and providing decent housing cost a lot of money, but it was in keeping with the ideals espoused by Arthur Guinness.
As Mansfield reminds us, none of this would have been possible if Arthur Guinness “had not been skilled at brewing beer.”
While craft microbrews may not be the next great mission field, all of us are called to integrate our Christian and professional lives in the way Arthur Guinness did.
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