The Use of Communion Tokens
[excerpted from The Charleston Observer 11.2 (Sat., 14 Jan. 1837): 6, col. 2]
(To view a recent donation of communion tokens received at the PCA Historical Center, click here.)
The enquiry [sic] is often made whence originated the use of tokens at one period in this country, so extensively in the Presbyterian Church, but now almost obsolete? The following answer from the Rev. Dr. Miller of Princeton, to the Editor of the Southern Religious Telegraph, appears to us satisfactory. — Philadelphia Obs.
“The use of Tokens had its origin in the churches of Scotland. At the commencement of the Reformation in the country, the Lord’s Supper was administered four times in each year. Afterwards, for reasons altogether insufficient, as I suppose, that ordinance came to be administered less frequently ; in none more than twice. The consequence of this arrangement was, that, whenever the ordinance was dispensed in each church, it was made an ecclesiastical occasion. The pastors of three, four, or five neighboring churches left their own pulpits on that day, went to the aid of their brother, and took the mass of their congregations with them, to enjoy the privilege of communing with their sister church. The sacramental service was commonly preceded by preaching on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, one of which days was observed as a Sacramental Fast ; and the Monday following the Sabbath as a day of Thanksgiving. This, of course, gave rise to much preaching, which rendered the presence and aid of several ministers highly desirable, if not necessary. When the Sabbath came, the Ministers, Ruling Elders and Communicants of four or five different churches were all assembled, and gathered round the same sacramental table. In these circumstances, the question arose, How should those who were really communicants, in good standing, be distinguished from unworthy intruders, who belonged to no church, and were perhaps even profligate ; but who, from unworthy motives, might thrust themselves into the seats of worthy communicants, and thus produce disorder and scandal? To meet this difficulty, the plan was adopted, to deposite [sic]in the hands of each pastor and his elders, a parcel of cheap metallic pieces, called “Tokens,” which they were to dispense to all the known members of their own church, who were in attendance, and wished to commune. Thus, although not a quarter part of the communicants were personally known to the pastor or elders of the church in which the sacramental service occurred ; yet those cheap and convenient little certificates of church membership, (for such they were intended to be) being received by each communicant, from the minister and elder of his own church, prevented imposition and secured regularity and order.
Such was the origin of Tokens. They were then of solid use. And wherever similar circumstances and practices exist now, they or something equivalent, may be usefully emplayed [sic]. As in many other cases, however, they have been long used, both in this country and in Europe, where the circumstances which brought them into use no longer exist. But it does appear to me that the use of these passports to the communion table, in cases in which the members of a single church only (every one of whom is known to the minister and elders) are about to commune, is a strange, if not a ludicrous example of the pertinacity with which good people cleave to old habits, when the reasons for them have entirely ceased.