Sacred Grounds: The Surprising Religious History of Coffee
The humble coffee bean has a surprising religious history that weaves together many fascinating tails and origin stories.

The humble coffee bean has a surprising religious history that weaves together many fascinating tails and origin stories.

Would you call your morning cup of coffee a mystical experience? In our quest to power up for the day, we probably don’t think about coffee’s origins. Yet this humble bean has a surprising religious history. It’s a fascinating and complex tale that began in Africa many centuries ago.

Coffee’s Ethiopian Origins

Coffee cultivation takes place in over 80 countries today, most of them located in tropical regions. One popular legend claims that an Ethiopian goat herder discovered the plant after noticing strange behavior out of his goats. After finding a green shrub decked with bright cherry-colored berries, he picked some of the fruit and brought it to a local monastery. The caffeine enabled the monks to stay awake, and the rest was history.

Except that it wasn’t really history.

Journalist Livia Gershon explains that the coffee plant did first grow wild in Ethiopia. However, the local tribespeople discovered it first. Thanks to its energizing properties, the bean was used as a sacrament in communal ceremonies. Hunters also imbibed it to stay alert and stave off hunger while seeking their prey. It eventually made its way to other parts of Africa, where other cultures found more uses for it. Some brewed a drink from the vivid red berries, while others roasted them in fat or chewed them without any prep. The Haya people of Tanzania even traded the beans as currency.

Java and Midnight Meditations

Just in case you thought the Ethiopian goat herder would get all the credit, there are two other myths about coffee’s origins. The Spruce‘s Lindsey Goodwin mentions one story in which a Sufi mystic finds and chews the berries during his journey through Ethiopia. Another tale claims that an exiled sheik on the verge of starvation discovered the plant in the wild. When he tossed the berries into his campfire, he fell in love with their aroma but found them too hard to chew. After trying to soften them in water, he drank the liquid and felt invigorated.

It’s hard to separate truth from myth, but we do know that Yemenite Sufi Muslims consumed coffee to keep alert during nighttime chanting rituals. Coffee eventually spread throughout the rest of the Muslim world, fueling Yemen’s economy for over 250 years. Many people drank it to stay awake during late-night Ramadan festivities, and coffeehouses sprung up to fuel the demand. More legends propagated about the bean’s origins, with some crediting Muhammed or the archangel Gabriel for gifting it to humanity.

Coffee Comes to Europe and America

Coffee was widely consumed in the Muslim world by the 1500s. Around this time, Europeans began encountering the drink during their travels. Although they found it bitter due to its initial lack of sugar, they loved its energizing effects. The drink soon came to Europe, where it was both loved and considered controversial. Just as in the Middle East, coffeehouses popped up in major cities throughout the continent. They became cultural centers and community meeting places, much like taverns were during America’s colonial era.

One often-repeated legend claims that several clerics asked Pope Clement VII to ban coffee, insisting that it was “Satan’s brew.” Yet when the pope tried coffee for himself, he enjoyed it so much that he gave it his blessing. From there, coffee came to the Americas, where early colonialists embraced the brew. “Coffee makes a man more reasonable, better able to concentrate and hardworking,” comments Laura Turner in the Washington Post. “No wonder people might see it going hand in hand with the Protestant work ethic.”

All Hail the Mighty Bean

Canada ranks third in the world for coffee consumption. For many of us, this bold brew is a must-have that fuels our bodies and minds. Whether or not we thank the divine for our daily drink, it certainly holds a revered place in our modern lives.

A Collection of Literature for Black History Month
A library full of different texts and literature.

By reading literature from the past, we can help make our future better.

The 2017 theme for Black History Month is “The Crisis in Education.” Even though racially separated schools are illegal, many urban neighborhoods that are predominantly African-American still have a crisis in education. Schools are underfunded and overcrowded and fail to deliver substantive opportunities. These gaps have to be addressed to ensure all children have the opportunity to change the world. Take some time to read one of these great books for Black History Month to understand how these artists have made a different in literature.


Literature Based on the Harlem Renaissance

  1.  “The Collected Poems” by Langston Hughes

    Explore the works of one poet in this collection. Hughes was a writer in the early 20th century who received many awards that allowed him to travel and write. He is a lyrical poet and considered one of the fathers of “jazz poetry.” As a leader of the Harlem Renaissance, he is an influential American who had a way with words.

  2. “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston

    Hurston was a contemporary of Hughes. She experienced literary success in the 1920s, leading her to be an influential figure during the Harlem Renaissance. This novel is considered her masterwork, but at the time it was published, in 1937, it was poorly received.

  3.    “Go Tell It on the Mountain” by James Baldwin

    This novel, Baldwin’s first, is an autobiographical story of his life as a teenager during the Harlem Renaissance. He draws heavily on the language of the King James Bible and makes several references to stories in the Bible, which are important to his culture. The Church has both positive and negative influences in this classic.

Other Reading Material for Black History Month

  1. “The 100 Best African American Poems” edited by Nikki Giovanni

    Giovanni put together this collection of great poetry that celebrates the African-American heritage. It’s probably the best compendium for readers to get a taste of poetry from the lens of the Black poet.

  2. “Native Son” by Richard Wright

    Although “Native Son” may seem like a trope of the classic story of an African-American man who kills a white woman, Wright never attempts to justify the behavior; he just explains how it was inevitable. It’s about poverty, fear, fate and free will.

  3. “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison

    Ellison’s novel is a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, that discusses many of the social and political issues of the 20th century that affected black men. Time magazine called it more than a race novel, naming the book as one of the top-100 Best Novels from 1923 to 2005

  4. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” by Frederick Douglass

    There’s probably no other memoir that has been as influential on the abolition of slavery than this one. Even if you don’t enjoy reading, this novel should be on your must-read list as a story of what it was like in the 19th century for a black man.

  5. “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead

    Whitehead writes about a literal “underground railroad” that slaves can take to freedom. This novel, which has won awards, reimagines what we know about the stories of the South. It’s a grim and realistic look at slavery during the Civil War.

Learn From the Past

In order to understand the future, we have to understand history. Knowing the civil rights issues that the African-American faced in the past helps us ensure that our country never returns to that place. Maya Angelou said, “It is impossible to struggle for civil rights, equal rights for blacks, without including whites. Because equal rights, fair play, justice, are all like the air: we all have it, or none of us has it. That is the truth of it.”