Material History of American Religion Project

Communion tokens

As we note in our discussion of the individual communion cup, religious people often describe their practice as obvious and inevitable—as if it never had a beginning, but had always been done that way. This discussion of communion tokens takes a slightly different approach. (To see communion tokens, visit the accompanying object.)

Tokens were commonly used in Presbyterian churches in Scotland and America, from the Reformation through the early nineteenth century. In the weeks before the celebration of communion, the church's elders would visit each member and examine his or her knowledge of the faith and purity of life. Those who met with the elders' approval were given a small lead token which permitted them to receive communion. The goal was a careful protection of the Table from profanation by immoral or unfaithful people. It was part of a larger system of church discipline.

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Through the acculturation of the church and the rise of liberal theology during the nineteenth century, communion tokens fell out of favor. Theologically, clergy and elders came to see communion as a means of grace rather than a reward for good behavior. Socially, members came to see church discipline as unfashionable and judgmental.

Mary McWhorter Tenney, the assistant curator of the Historical Foundation of the Presbyterian and Reformed Churches, objected to this decline in discipline. (Her photo suggests she was a very disciplined soul.) In her 1936 volume, Communion Tokens: Their Origin, History, and Use, With a Treatise on the Relation of the Sacrament to the Vitality and Revivals of the Church, Tenney reacquaints Presbyterians with the tradition of the token, and argues that it offers a key to the revival of the church, through discipline and knowledge of the faith. Her language here reflects her contempt for modern dismissals of discipline, and for the immorality of her age. As the introduction notes, "people took their religion seriously in those days."

In the first chapter, presented here, Tenney traces the origins of tokens to pre-Christian religions. Surprisingly for a dedicated Presbyterian, she sees precedent for her beloved tokens in pre-reformation Catholicism. Rather than accepting a practice as timeless and thus inevitable, Tenney shows that the use of tokens had a long history, and thus deserved even more to be restored.

Tokens, the leaden foot-prints of Church history, lead certainly back to the time of the Reformation, and those who have carefully studied the subject are agreed that there is good reason to believe that the metallic trail leads on back to the earliest days of Christianity, when it is made brighter by the sardonic glare of the flames of pitiless persecution.

There are thousands of Presbyterians, and other denominations as well, who have not so much as heard of the Communion Token, and would not have the remotest idea of what is meant by the term, or how, or where such a thing could have been used. Many who have heard of them have but a vague idea of their significance. Some regard the story of the part played by the little metal pieces in the religious life of the people as merely a tradition of the olden times, rather than as an historical fact; while others look upon it as a joke, saying there was a mighty lot of judging going on in those old days, and dismiss the subject with a laugh.

In the days when Church discipline meant something, it was not a joke to him who was, because of scandal, denied the token which entitled him to take a seat at the communion table; it was not a joke to him who was ignorant and did not care to learn, to know that he must commit to memory the Lord's Prayer, the Apostles' Creed, and the Ten Commandments, before he could claim as his own the token, without which he would not only be excluded from the Sacrament, but from certain other Church privileges.

Communion Tokens were usually made of lead, or other base metal, in various shapes and sizes, marked with the name of the congregation to which they belonged, the date of the church organization, the initials of the pastor, or some appropriate text of Scripture. On some of the specimens a large letter, or a large numeral standing by itself, indicated the part of the house, (as E for East) or the number of the table at which the communicant should present himself. There were other tokens which had neither name or date to identify them with a home; they were simply marked with a large T (token), or a text to mark their sacred office, or indeed just a plain piece of metal like a slug, and could be used anywhere. These were known as Stock or General Tokens.

The word token has been identified as a mark or sign, symbol of good faith or authenticity. The rainbow in the cloud is the token of the covenant between God and Noah, and between God and all flesh that is upon the earth that there would not be another world-wide flood. (1) And we find tokens of various sorts often referred to in God's dealings with the Israelites, and on through the Bible to their last mention by Saint Paul, who writes to the Thessalonians that mine own hand, which is the token in every epistle. (2)

It is interesting to note that wherever the word is used in the Bible it is invariably a token for good, except where Judas that betrayed Him had given them a token, (3) and that token was a kiss.

In all ages and among all nations there seems to have been a constant endeavor to devise a suitable token which would identify the possessor as the votary of some particular religion, and reveal him openly or secretly to his fellow believers. Among such tokens may be mentioned the Gnostic gems. The Abraxas or Abrasax stones of the first and second centuries are an evidence of this practice. These stones were of various forms, but all had the word Abraxas engraved on them in connection with certain mystical symbols.

The Abraxas stones were first used in Egypt, and from there spread to Syria, and in the fifth century were carried to Spain. These emblems were first given to neophytes as a convenient symbol by which they could be recognized at once and admitted to the secret gatherings where their instruction was completed; they were counted as all powerful for a great many purposes, when the possessors had attained to a full understanding of the things signified. These tokens were not always made of stone, sometimes they were of metal much like the Roman tesserae.

Roman tesserae were used to identify those who had been initiated into the Eleusian and other sacred mysteries. They were given to winners in the public games, as vouchers that they were for life wards of the State, and they were also used in the army. Every evening before the watches were set for the night, the watchword or private signal by which they might distinguish friends from foes, were distributed to the army by means of square tablets of wood in the form of a die, called Tessera on them were inscribed whatever word or words the General chose. A frequent watchword of Brutus was LIBERTAS. (4) When the Roman Ambassadors went to Carthage on a mission involving peace or war, they offered the Carthagenians two tokens, one marked with an olive branch, the universal emblem of peace, the other marked with a spear, and requested them to take their choice.

The common usage of tesserae by the Romans and Greeks paved the way for the introduction of tokens into the early Christian Church. It is easy to understand how they would quickly adopt this well known custom as a safeguard against traitors and informers in times of persecution. And by the same emblems Christians could quickly recognize each other.

There is evidence that tokens were given to the converts who were added to the Church in Apostolic times. Does not the promise To him that overcometh, (in the church in Pergamos, a city where vice, sensuality, and godlessness reigned supreme) will I give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it, (5) plainly refer to the tessera or token that admitted the professor to the Agapae and Communion feasts of the early Christians? Is it not an allusion to a custom known and used by all to whom the Apostle was writing?

The Lord's injunction, Give not that which is holy unto dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, (6) was literally obeyed by the primitive Christians in their dealings with the heathen. In those days believers are called the faithful, the illuminated, the perfect, says an early Church historian. (7) Paul wrote: We speak wisdom among them that are perfect (8) and a system of secret teaching, Arcani Disciplina, became the recognized practice of the Church from about the middle of the second century. This regulated the dealings of the fully initiated believers with all those on the outside. The simplest doctrines were not even mentioned to the heathen neighbors, who were always ready for a dispute. However, any one who gave evidence of being sincere became a catechumen, and had the new faith explained to him.

The institution for the training of catechumens was the most important of all the institutions of the ancient Church, because it determined the conditions of Church membership.

Its proselytes came from every quarter of the pagan world; from the ranks of the army in which military service was permeated with idolatrous practices; from the deep degradation of the life of slavery, and sometimes from the palaces of a corrupt aristocracy. These were the rough, unhewn, discolored stones, which were to be cut, polished, and engraved with the impress of the Church before they could be built into the living temple which she was rearing for God. This imagery, taken from the Third Vision of The Shepherd of Hermas, (9) is an accurate representation of the discipline of the catechumens. The Apostolic Constitutions (10) and the writings of the Fathers of that period give us a complete picture of this institution, which exercised the untiring zeal of the Church.

The Apostles' Creed was probably framed for the use of catechumens. The whole theology of the Grecian world was affected by the famous Normal School of Catechists at Alexandria. Origen, when eighteen years of age, was a catechumen at this school, and Clement of Alexandria was one of the Catechists. (1l) From various sources we learn that the body of catechetical instruction in that day comprised the Ten Commandments, the Apostles' Creed, and the Lord's Prayer.

Roman Catholic writers make it clear that tokens were used by their Church along through the years between the Apostolic times and the Protesant Reformation. Tesserae were used as credentials when persons were sent to confessors in prison to minister to them. They were used for giving admission to shows, or entitling to share in the distribution of grain, and some of these bear Christian symbols. They may also have been used to identify the faithful when they desired admission to religious gatherings.

The Tokens issued to the clergy in collegiate churches as a record of their presence at mass, at the canonical hours, and at other offices in order that they might claim the statutory payment for their services, were most commonly known as Mereaux. The first documentary reference to these seems to date from 1375, (12) when Charles V granted to the canons of the collegiate church of Langeac, to have struck at the Royal Mint, Merelli for distribution to clerks and canons present at offices. They were to be of copper, tin, or lead, and to be carefully distinguished by their types, from the coin of the realm. The Church Mereaux in the base metals were cast in moulds, but a large proportion of them were struck from engraved dies. Non-metallic substances, such as leather, or paper could be used.

Mary McWhorter Tenney, Communion Tokens: Their History and Use, With a Treatise on the Relation of the Sacrament to the Vitality and Revivals of the Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1936), 11-16.

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