By Valorie Clark
It would be too simple to say that religious people drink coffee because it’s not alcohol. When coffee was first commodified, all three Abrahamic religions had to contend with how this new beverage fit into each faith’s ideal way of life. Each religion had their opponents and proponents but most eventually accepted the beverage. However, acceptance wasn’t achieved without a fight (and some cheekiness).
Early legends of the discovery of coffee are familiar to us: 9th century Kaldi and his goats, who showed him the way by dancing after eating coffee cherries. The legend sometimes goes on that Kaldi took the miraculous berries to a local monastery to show to a monk, who was amazed when the berries helped him stay awake for midnight prayers. Unfortunately, repeated Islamic jihads in Ethiopia destroyed most of the churches and monasteries in the 16th century, so any record of whether monks continued consuming coffee and how have been lost.
However, some of the Oromo people of Ethiopia still practice Waaqeffanna, their indigenous religion that survived Christian and Islamic attempts at conversion. Waaqeffanna is a primarily oral tradition, so it often gets excluded from historical records, but the religion probably predates all the Abrahamic religions, and it includes a story about coffee. In Oromo tradition, their creator god Waaqa approached the corpse of a man who had refused to do his will. Waaga shed tears over the man’s body, and where his tears hit the ground, the first coffee trees sprouted. Today, roasting and drinking coffee is still central to Oromo religious ceremonies.
Our earliest written history of someone consuming coffee as a beverage come from tales of Sufi mystics in 1414. Sufi Muslims are a sect of mystics focused on the purification of the inner self. After working their day jobs, Sufis would join together for evening prayers, and often enjoy coffee poured out of clay pot beforehand, to perk up their energy. According to Tim Schenk, author of Holy Grounds, this developed into a devotional ritual which “involved coffee-drinking accompanied by recitation of aratib, the invocation 116 times of the divine name Ya Qaqi.”
The drink spread beyond the Sufi devout. Briefly there was some resistance—conservative Muslims believed that coffee should be viewed as an intoxicating substance and therefore banned, as alcohol was. The authorities latched onto the intoxication as inspiring sedition in the Ottoman realm. This link inspired leaders like Sultan Murad IV to crack down on coffee consumption with deadly force.
In response, legends that legitimized coffee for Muslims began to crop up, including that the angel Gabriel had given coffee to devout Muslims to cure disease, help them pray, or even to Muhammad himself when the prophet had a stomachache. Eventually, the drink was accepted and, according to Farshid Emami, coffeehouses were “ubiquitous in Ottoman lands” by the early 17th century. From there, they spread through the Arab world and along the Mediterranean.
Much like the Muslims before them, rabbis and Jews discovered the beneficial addition of coffee to late-night rituals. The Tikkun Chatzot is a midnight rite that, according to the Talmud, honors a dark night when God mourned the destruction of a temple. Even devout Jews hated the midnight start time though, and lobbied to have it start earlier until coffee was introduced the Palestine in the late 16th century. Once Palestinian Jews could drink coffee to stay awake through the vigil, it took off in popularity.
Questions of acceptability arose within the Jewish community as well, and continue to be negotiated. The initial debate centered around whether preparing coffee counts as cooking, and whether Jews could therefore drink coffee made by a non-Jew. As Schenck relates, this was settled by deeming coffee simply flavored water, which allowed it to become a legal exemption in Halachic law.
However, as milk, syrups, and decaffeination have joined the world of coffee, each has had to be negotiated. Today, syrups have to be taken on a case-by-case basis, with each determined as kosher depending on the process for the individual flavor. Tools like kosherstarbucks.com have cropped up over the years to help Jews keep kosher while enjoying coffee. As for decaffeination, the Swiss Water Process is the only decaffeination method permissible under Halachic law.
It was the Jewish community of Livorno, a port city in Italy, who first imported coffee to Italy and opened the first Italian coffeehouse in 1632. In fact, the Jewish community of Europe played an instrumental role for the first 100 years of the coffee trade. Unfortunately, they were banned from the trade around 1780 by anti-Semitic Europeans who had noticed that coffee could be lucrative and wanted it for themselves. Nevertheless, it was a man remembered only as Jacob the Jew who opened the first coffeehouse in Oxford, England in 1650.
The spread of coffee into Europe was met with ire by Christians. Early Christian opposition to coffee was largely due to its link with Islam. First introduced to Europeans during the religious wars we know as the Crusades, coffee finally started to gain popularity in Europe during the late 16th century. But when it was finally imported into Italy, the 16th-century capital of Christianity, from the “land of the Mohammadens” by Jewish traders, the drink was viewed as suspect. So deeply linked were Islam and coffee that Europeans referred to the drink as the “Devil’s drink” and the “wine of Araby” until it was accepted in Christian culture.
It was allegedly Pope Clement VIII who weighed in around 1605. Priests pressed him to ban it outright, denouncing it as “an invention of Satan,” as William Ukers wrote in All About Coffee. While Christianity has lots of rules about what adherents can and can’t do, there are few food restrictions in the faith, with the notable exception of meat on Fridays during Lent. For the Pope to ban an entire beverage would have been unprecedented. But priests insisted, claiming that allowing Christians to drink coffee “was to risk falling into a trap set by Satan for their souls,” Ukers relates.
Pope Clement, wanting to make an informed decision, asked for coffee to be brought to him first. He found the smell so appetizing that he tried a sip. According to Ukers, his amazed response was, “Why, this Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall fool Satan by baptizing it, and making it a truly Christian beverage.” Clement VIII’s famous quote is probably cheekier than his real response, but whatever his official declaration, coffee spread like wildfire throughout Catholic Europe once the Vatican had given its blessing. Today there’s even a joke among Protestant leaders that once Catholics started to drink coffee and sober up, they became Protestants.
Puritans were one of the few religious groups to embrace coffee quickly. In England, Puritans had long protested the widespread consumption of beer, which they saw as leading drinkers into sin. (In cities, beer had long been replied upon as a source of hydration–potable water was hard to come by.) So the rise of coffeehouses as a center of civic engagement and community was seen as a big win for the anti-alcohol lobby. Coffee’s known stimulating properties also fit in well with the espoused Protestant work ethic, leading to a wholehearted acceptance of the beverage.
This embrace of coffee and coffee culture by Christians has only intensified. Across the United States, churches open coffee shops like Westside Vineyard’s Coffee Connection in Los Angeles with the stated goal of evangelizing to non-Christians in subtle ways. In the US South, it is not uncommon to stumble across a Bible study in any given cafe, and searching “Jesus and coffee” on Instagram yields millions of aesthetic photos of Bibles with coffee mugs.
On the other hand, Mormons today abstain from coffee. According to LDS history, God revealed to Joseph Smith in Doctrines and Covenants 89 that “hot drinks”—loosely understood as coffee and tea—”are not for the body or belly.” Caffeine itself is not banned, so soda is acceptable for Mormons, but the LDS church recently issued a statement saying iced coffee is not. Apparently, Mormon youth were increasingly drinking iced coffee to get around the ban on hot drinks.
Coffee has come a long way from its early reputation as intoxicating, dangerous, and Satanic.
Perhaps because coffee is not seen as a drug, nor as “intoxicating” in ways that concern most people, it’s become the acceptable social beverage of most religious communities. Through the blessings of religious leaders, coffee became an acceptable way for people to connect outside places of worship. Once rejected by the conservatives of almost every religion, today coffee is arguably a religion unto itself, with its own unique rituals, worshippers, and devotion. For the non-religious, coffee’s ability to bring together community can fill the communal role that worship once played.