June 24, 2012

God of Wine Part II: The Church of Bacchus

In the year 1820, Ephraim Lyon of Eastford, Connecticut came up with a surprising idea: he decided to found a church dedicated to Bacchus, the god of wine.

The temperance movement was starting to gain influence at this time, so perhaps Ephraim's religious revelation was in reaction to the movement's anti-alcohol messages. Whatever the reason, Ephraim took his calling seriously. As the History of Windham County, Connecticut notes,

He named himself as the high priest, saying he must become badly intoxicated several times each year in order that he might hold the office. 

The rest of the church's membership was composed of those who "used intoxicating liquids to excess." Members didn't need to apply, and Ephraim didn't ask permission before adding someone to the church's membership list. Instead, he added a new member's name whenever he learned of someone who had been drinking heavily. Eventually, the Church of Bacchus had more than 1,000 members, both male and female, in its congregation. The only way to be removed from Ephraim's list was to go on the wagon.

Unfortunately because of the growing temperance movement many of the church's members didn't want their names on the list, and asked Ephraim to be removed. He refused. The requests became threats, but still Ephraim refused. Fearing for life and property, Ephraim's wife finally burned her husband's list, but he recreated it from memory and hid it someplace secure. It was rumored that he shared the list only with an inner circle of church deacons derived from Windham County's most zealous drinkers.

A Roman sarcophagus decorated with a Bacchic scene.
Despite threats and being socially ostracized, Ephraim maintained his devotion to the god of wine until his death in 1840. The deacons and other devout Bacchants memorialized his life with plenty of strong liquor and merrymaking. Ephraim claimed that "members who died in full membership were said to go the Bacchanalian revels of their patron god," so I hope he's happy somewhere with a big glass of wine in his hand.

Was Ephraim Lyon serious about his church? Did he really believe in Bacchus as the god of wine? I suppose it's impossible to say. Maybe he was just protesting against the temperance movement, or perhaps it was just all an elaborate joke.

I do wonder, though, if a joker would risk his life and his home the way Ephraim did. And Ephraim's statements about the afterlife match what the ancient followers of Bacchus believed. Perhaps he did receive a genuine divine revelation, even if it was a drunken one. As I noted in last week's post, Windham County did have a history of encounters with Bacchus.


I got this information from David Philips Legendary Connecticut (2001) and History of Windham County, Connecticut (1889) by Richard Bayles.

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