Minting A Tradition: Communion Tokens

Dating back to the 16th century in England, Scotland and other countries, Presbyterian and Reformed church-goers could only attend communion by invitation. This invitation included a token. Only those who qualified could present their tokens on communion day to partake in the Lord’s Supper. 

In the second half of the 1500s, Protestant Reformer John Calvin determined that those “not instructed in the doctrine of the gospel ought not to approach what the Lord has instituted.” He established the use of communion tokens and declared “those who had none should not be admitted to the tables.” 

Pictured left: Three Scottish communion tokens from the 18th and 19th centuries are shown. (Left to right) 1827 Errol Church of Scotland; 1765 Kemback Church of Scotland; and, 1802 Associate Congregation Church, Glasgow.

Before the communion festivities took place, Scottish and Scot-Irish ministers and church elders would visit each church member and examine their knowledge of the faith. Those meeting the elders’ approval were given a small token permitting them to receive communion. These communion tokens were made from many different materials: white metal, lead, pewter, brass, copper, nickel, silver (rarely), zinc, wood, and even paper. These tokens would sometimes list the church, a year, and the minister’s initials. They might also list a table number, where during the annual or semi-annual communion season, communicants would sit at their assigned table for the multi-day worship. 

Pictured above: An American Colonial communion illustration shows a regional communion gathering. These communion services often lasted several days, consisting of a Fast Day, followed by a Preparation Day, Communion, Sabbath, and a Thanksgiving Day.

These tokens were widely used in the 18th and 19th century by Scottish and Scot-Irish Presbyterian churches. With the migration of Presbyterians to the American colonies, communion tokens also came. The practice of communion tokens continued through the 1800s, although many churches stopped the use of the communion token by the late 1820s. By the early 20th century, use of communion tokens had basically ceased as clergy and elders viewed communion as a means of grace, not as a reward for knowledge and good behavior.

Pictured left: A 19th century communion token mold from Reformed Presbyterian Church in Bloomington, Indiana.

An expanded exhibit of communion tokens will open at the Presbyterian Heritage Center in mid-February. Come visit!

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