Our History: Communion Tokens

Our History: Communion Tokens

Ken Rae, our Church Historian, has been working over the last few years to document more about the Old Kirk and it’s history.

Many of you reading this will be aware that, in common with the other Reformed Churches, the Church of Scotland recognises two Sacraments; Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Communion).

In the Old Kirk our practice has been to hold Communion services quarterly (d.v.) and you may recall that prior to these services your district Elder would visit and deliver your “Communion Cards”.  This led to the belief that these cards were a necessary requirement for entrance to the service.  The Church of Scotland require various statistics to be gathered annually and in practical terms they were a means to determine how many members attended communion over the year.  Some years ago the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland decreed that the issue of communion cards was no longer required and as a result many churches, including our own ceased to do so.

Historically however the issuing of a paper based notification in the form of a card was not the first style of such reminders and the reason for their issue was for a somewhat different purpose rather that statistically.

It was John Calvin in the late 16th century who saw the usefulness of using lead tokens as proof that people had been properly instructed prior to coming to the Lord’s Table.  

The French Reformed Church was the first to put Calvin’s suggestion into practice and it later spread to Scotland probably by John Knox and others who had observed the practice on their visits to the Continent. As well as indicating the communicants’ right to partake in the Lord’s Supper it is likely that the tokens also served to safeguard the Reformed churches from spies at a time when church meetings were illegal. The Scots who came in large numbers to Ireland in the 17th century brought with them not only their own ministers but the use of tokens as a means of regulating communion.

The earliest tokens were made of lead but others were of tin, brass or white metal usually by a local blacksmith or silversmith. The tokens generally either bear the initials of the church or of the minister or some other unique feature. Good examples of communion tokens from Presbyterian churches in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland, Scotland and Australia have survived.

Communion tokens were commonly used in Presbyterian churches across the world from the Reformation through to the nineteenth century. Anyone attending church who was in possession of a token was known to have proved their spiritual fitness to attend communion. In Lasswade, Midlothian, in 1710, those that were given tokens were “…fund weill instructit in the Belief, the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Command”.

Those about to take communion were seated at a table which was separated by a wooden paling from the rest of the church. The table was guarded by two elders who were responsible for ensuring that only those with a token were allowed to sit there. When a large number of people attended, there could be more than one sitting at the table.  Tokens were stamped with the number of the “sitting” the member was required to attend, and the sittings could be linked to the social status of the communicant. Those of the “lower orders” could have to attend in the “wee sma’ hours” whereas those considered more respectable attended later in the day.

The earliest tokens were usually made of lead, copper or tin, and cast in a mould or struck with a punch in a variety of shapes and sizes. The collection in Dunblane Museum has many rectangular, square and circular tokens but there are also more unusual shapes such as hexagonal, oval or heart-shaped.

Early tokens tend to be plain with very little information on them but a date and initials representing either the minister or the parish name.  Later tokens started to show their connection with the communion when biblical texts started to appear on them such as “Do this in remembrance of me” and “Let a man examine himself”. Symbols including the vine, lily, sun, fish etc. also began to appear. The supply of tokens was the responsibility of the minister acting in conjunction with the Kirk Session. Tokens were made for use in one church and not intended to circulate.

 (ref the information for this article was obtained from the Dunblane Museum webpage)

Old Kirk