St. Thomas Bray and the Religion of Beer

We’re only a few days from Mardi Gras, which means we’re only a few days from one of the nation’s most amateur of holidays, ranking only under St. Patrick’s Day and just above New Year’s Eve as “the day you’re most likely to be accosted by a group of drunk people hoisting beads around your neck.”

What we often forget is that Mardi Gras is actually a religious event - the final hurrah before six weeks of contemplation and self-control. Mardi Gras aside - and regardless of your own personal affiliation or lack thereof, it’s hard to move past the fact that, at its heart, beer and religion are deeply intwined.

It’s not a surprise that, for many of us, it’s hard to hear the word “monk” and not instantly think of malty Belgian nectar and brewmasters in white robes. The rise of Christianity fueled the rise in beermaking, and though they weren’t the first to use beer as a religious tool (we can thank the Egyptians for that) the marriage of beer and religion for most of us begins with the monks.

This partnership - the partnership between hard working, pious monks and the amber waves of grain that help make beer so delicious - has led to some of the greatest beer ever produced: the Trappist style from France made its way to Belgium, and now the words “trappist” and “Belgian” are almost synonymous with amazing beers. Think Orval and Chimay, Westmalle and Westvleteren. These breweries gave us the dubbel and the tripel, and for that we should all be thanking our favorite diety.

Nowadays, nearly all beer fans celebrate the importance of Trappist monks in our understanding of what good beer should be. But not all of the connections between beer and religion are so widespread. Look only to the story of St. Thomas Bray, an Englishman who came to Maryland long enough in the late 1600s to fear for the state of America’s young churches and begin a fervent campaign to educate the nation’s churchless.

Though he worked hard at trying to improve religious standing across the soon-to-be-new-nation, the movement was ultimately a failure. It was his next passion - English prison reform - that would finally catch on. Bray’s new passion was to raise awareness of horrible prison conditions, arguing that prisoners are worth nothing if kept weak and miserable. His answer was, naturally, in food and beer - Bray developed a group of friends who would spread ministry through beef and beer on Sundays across the prisions.

These provisions were immortalized as Beef and Beer Dinners, a tradition that some churches use to replace the traditional Shrove Tuesday pancakes. There’s no need to gorge on bread and syrup, some churches say, when the final day before Lent could be spent partaking in two of the world’s finest consumables.

Here in Sioux Falls, the Beef and Beer tradition is alive and well. If you’re looking for a different way to celebrate Mardi Gras, maybe think about attending Church of the Good Shepherd’s Beef and Beer dinner. Or, go back even further and grab yourself a bottle of Westmalle Tripel and contemplate whatever it is you believe in the quiet of your home.

Either way, sure beats the typical Mardi Gras hurricane-fest.