For many, it’s hard to imagine Sunday morning without coffee.
You fall out of bed, crawl downstairs, and switch on your coffeemaker, or your espresso machine, or your Moka pot, or your pour-over, or whatever the heck it is you pretentious hipsters are using these days. You brew the stuff, burning yourself several times in the process, because you can’t even open your eyes without a caffeine infusion, you friggin’ addict. You load the kids into the minivan, and then swerve all over the road, because you’re half-exhausted and half-hyped-up, all the way to church, where a giant urn full of more of the stuff is waiting for you. Or else, if you’re the sort who wears skinny jeans to church, maybe there’s a whole Starbucks-knockoff coffee bar. Either way, there’s no doubt a dozen or more parishioners are crowded around, sharing warm welcomes and smiles and just the joy of being alive. Ah, this is what Sunday mornings were made for.Coffee culture is weird, you guys.
Except, not. Because coffee has only been part of the standard Christian Sunday morning routine for a handful of centuries—and it only is now because of a particularly baptize-happy pope.
But, as always, let’s start at the beginning.
Allegedly, coffee was first discovered by a goatherder in Ethiopia, who noticed that his goats would get particularly buzzed after eating a certain kind of cherry. I have no idea what a herd of goats with a caffeine high is like, but I imagine they get adorably efficient at eating tires, or something. After what was no doubt a wacky montage of failed attempts to turn the cherries into some sort of delicious human food, the goatherder figured out the process of pitting the fruit, roasting the pits, grinding them into a coarse powder, and brewing the powder in hot water. You’d think for all that effort, the result would have been something that actually tastes good and not a gross, bitter drink that we all pretend to like to impress each other, but I guess it is what it is.
You might imagine that this is the part where I’d say, “…and the rest is history,” but as it turns out, coffee has met with opposition from the religious and political establishment pretty much wherever it’s gone (which Mormons will no doubt find gratifying). Even in the Middle East, the region in which the drink first achieved massive popularity, it wasn’t always smiles and Frappuccinos. Sultan Murad IV (AD 1612–40), for instance, made coffee-drinking (along with alcohol and tobacco use) a capital offense, apparently in an attempt to rid the empire of vice. It wasn’t exactly an idle threat, either—according to at least some historians (who may have been drinking too much… coffee), Murad was so super-serious about the ban that he made a habit of disguising himself as a commoner and going out into the streets of Istanbul to catch people in the act. As they raised the steaming mug-o-joe to their lips, Murad would throw off his cloak, shout “A-ha!” and behead them where they stood. So I think we can all agree that what Murad lacked in mercy he made up for in sheer, unbridled awesomeness.
Even at times when the Muslim world was okay with it, though, Christian Europe was highly suspicious of coffee. After all, if those heathen Muslims were drinking it, it must have been the devil’s drink. This was unfortunate, since there were significant arguments for adopting coffee: in an era where clean drinking water was scarce, your choice of beverage was usually limited to boiled, highly acidic stuff, like coffee, or—y’know—alcohol. Turns out Europe was totally fine with just being sloshed all the time (because, I mean, who isn’t?), as long as it didn’t mean drinking liquid heresy. This contempt for pumpkin spice lattes and their ilk continued for much longer than you might think: into the seventeenth century.
It was Pope Clement VIII (AD 1536–1605) who finally made coffee drinking respectable for Western Christians. Members of his court were begging him to formally denounce the “devil’s drink” as “the bitter invention of Satan,” because sure, what could be more pressing for the leader of the world’s largest Christian body than telling people what to drink with their Pop-Tarts. Upon trying the stuff, though, Clement declared, “This Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it.” He then allegedly “baptized” the coffee, which I assume historians mean in a metaphorical sense, but who knows? He might have literally sprinkled some holy water on a pile of roasted beans, because that makes about as much sense as making coffee out of weasel poop, which by the way, is totally also a thing that happens.
Coffee culture is weird, you guys.
Anyway, once the Pope approved, coffee spread throughout the Catholic world, and eventually made its way to the Protestant world as well. That’s when everyone experienced a new and weird feeling… that is, finally sobering up. The productivity of Europe suddenly went through the roof (turns out that “Protestant work ethic” you’ve heard so much about is actually just coffee), and people started getting together at coffeehouses instead of bars, where they would exchange ideas instead of fists and bodily fluids. This, according to some, anyway, directly fueled the Enlightenment. At the very least, it fueled Voltaire, the famous Enlightenment philosopher, who supposedly drank up to 50 cups of coffee a day while he wrote on Enlightenment-y stuff like freedom and equality. Of course, all that coffee he was drinking was almost definitely grown by slaves, but, y’know, baby steps.
So, anyway. Keep all that in mind next time you show up at the church coffee bar this Sunday. If it weren’t for a particularly eccentric pope, we’d all be standing in the narthex swilling beer.
Actually, now I’m kind of upset with the guy.