The lonely peppermint has had a rough ride in recent years as critic after critic of Reformed worship practices has pointed to the eating of peppermints in church at the onset of the sermon as either a silly habit or a nasty addiction. The idea that at a given time during the worship service (liturgically determined by the closing of the pulpit Bible) a hundred or so people should reach for a roll or bag of peppermints to be distributed to immediate members of the family and a few neighboring unminted souls seems entirely out of keeping with the spiritual import of the moment.
Critics have called the peppermint a kind of "opium" that permits the congregation to settle back and allow the most fiery sermon to wash over them without the least bit of damage. But that accusation has been dismissed by several theologians of high repute. The latter have pointed out that the Israelites of old used to tithe mint as part of their religious obligations, providing therewith the Old Testament foundation for the New Testament eating of mint. The Pharisees were, of course, condemned for relying on this tithing of mint to the exclusion of seeking judgment (not to be confused with "judgemint"), mercy, and faith. But peppermints have never been idolized that way in the Reformed tradition, say such doctrinal stalwarts as Berkhof and Bonnhoffer.
There is, unfortunately no reference to "pepper" in either the Old or the New Testament to give orthodox standing to the pungent taste of peppermint. But according to a hitherto unknown doctrinal standard from the seventeenth century called "The Amsterdam Confession of the Rotterdam Faith," it is permissible to base the practice of mixing pepper with mint on frequent references in the Bible to "salt." The reason given is that many of us have a tendency to reach for the saltshaker when it is the peppershaker we want, or vice versa. It was even noted that one minister, by mistake, once preached on the text "You are the pepper of the earth."
It is true that some Reformed adherents of the mint have defended the little white tablet a little too much, calling it a bonding mechanism or "a convenantal pebble." They see the ritual act of peppermint eating as a powerful tool to unite an auditorium full of hitherto disconnected individuals. They remind skeptics that without so much as a signal from anyone, hands quietly move to mouths, linger for a moment, and then return to the safety of skirted or trousered laps. Such a wave of graceful actions washing over row upon row of anticipating saints almost attains the status of a mystical experience, say fanatical proponents.
Actually, the truth about the peppermint lies somewhere between the status of opium and ecstasy; somewhere between a nasty habit and a third sacrament. Scientists have come to our aid in determining the value of eating a peppermint just before the preaching of the Word.
According to a recent news item, William Dember, a professor of psychology at the University of Cincinnati, has conducted a study of the impact of the scent of peppermint on people required to do "sustained vigilance tasks." What did he find? That the mere smell of peppermint increased attentiveness and concentration by 15 percent! The smell of the lily of the valley has the same effect, but that lies beyond the scope of this article. Reformed people are not known for consuming quantities of lilies of the valley.
If the mere smell of peppermints can increase concentration, think what the smell and taste can do! It appears, then, that Reformed people have been entirely correct in maintaining the custom of eating peppermints at the beginning of the sermon. This habit only confirms the high place accorded to preaching in Reformed churches. Preaching is so important to Reformed people that they will gladly make themselves look foolish in the eyes of non-peppermint Christians by sliding a little white attention stimulant into their Word-hungry mouths.
This is not the time to be proud, of course. We must in all humility accept the findings of science and resist the temptation of saying to other Christians, "I told you so." Instead, let us steadfastly maintain our present practice of eating peppermints... with only one minor alteration. Let us, instead of stealthily shoving a peppermint into our face, throw it up in the air joyfully and catch it with our mouths as it comes tumbling down in all its glorious splendor. The added bonus of instituting such a dramatic act will be that the scent of mint will permeate the auditorium and assure that all potential sleepers will stay awake.
And perhaps, by thus boldly incorporating the act of eating a peppermint into the liturgy, it can attain the status of religious ritual.
Bert Witvoet has been chewing peppermints in church ever since he knew the difference between them and the buttons on his dad's shirt. This article first appeared in the December 13, 1991 issue of that publication and is reprinted by permission.