Material History of American Religion Project

The Individual Communion Cup

Practices have beginnings—they don't just happen. That somewhat obvious conclusion is becoming clear from the Project's research. Contemporary American churches engage in a variety of practices every day that seem obvious and inevitable—as if we have always done them that way. This includes everything from pledging to women's societies. Each of these things has a history. One of the Project's goal is historicizing these practices—trying to locate their origins and their contexts.

Individual communion cups provide a good example. The size of a small shot glass and made of glass or plastic, they are used in a majority of Protestant churches across the country. They're passed from person to person in trays, and contain a half-ounce or ounce of grape juice (or, less often, wine). They're convenient and sanitary. But, in the history of Christian practice, they're a fairly recent invention—probably dating to the 1880s. Until fairly recently, Christians of all varieties shared one cup at the Eucharist.

This 1906 article, reprinted in the United Brethren Review from the Lutheran Quarterly, traces the origins of the individual communion cup and justifies its use. While the author presents sanitary reasons, note his resort to biblical and artistic evidence for the authenticity of the practice. Even if it is a good idea, he doesn't want it to be a new idea—if it's going to be authentic, it needs to be consistent with how Jesus and the disciples celebrated the Last Supper. Yet the article also relies on fairly recent discoveries about germs and sanitation—as well as concerns about the health of your fellow communicants.

The subject of the individual communion cups is one of no little moment, one which has raised and still is raising comment from all sides. It is a question which involves not only the clergy; but, since the Lutheran and several other denominations do not recognize the rulership or domination of the clergy, this question hears a voice from the laity. Some good and earnest men are among its vigorous advocates, while others equally good and earnest are equally vigorous in the denunciation of what they term "a new way of celebrating the Lord's Supper." But how and by whom did the suggestion originate? Was it the invention of some fertile mind, or has it been a gradual outcome of years of study and research? These are questions which we of necessity consider. We find that the use of individual cups, in modern times, was first suggested by Mr. A. Van Derwerken, of Brooklyn, N. Y., in the year 1882. In 1887 he wrote an article advocating the use of individual cups in the communion service; but being opposed by his pastor, he did not publish the article until a year later, when it appeared in the Annals of Hygiene, of Philadelphia. One year passed ere any one braved the idea of putting Mr. Van Derwerken's suggestion into practical use. In November, 1893, the Psi Upsilon fraternity, of Rochester, N.Y., celebrated the Lord's Supper with individual cups. The news spread like wild-fire; like a river gathering new volume as it goes to sea, so this question has gathered new volume as it wends its way into the sympathies of Christian hearts. There are to be found many good people who are always on the alert, ready for any advance thought, and it for us to determine whether these are justified in defending and advancing the individual cup.

In treating this subject we shall first investigate the biblical account of the institution of the Lord's Supper, and endeavor to ascertain the mode of administering the initial Supper. We are also compelled to deduce from Christ's command the mode in which he wished the supper to be celebrated. Not only must the Word be preached in its purity, but the sacraments must be administered according to divine command. Only three of the gospels give an account of the institution Supper--Mathew, Mark, and Luke--all of whom of record kai labon poterion, "and taking a cup." True, Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians makes use of the article—to poterion. Those who have been the ardent defenders of the common cup have held that the use of the article by Paul necessarily limits us to the use of but one cup. But this shall be treated later. It has also been claimed that Christ, when he said, "This is my blood of the New Testament which is for many," pointed to that one cup which he had used, and thereby designated the use of one and only one cup. We shall for a moment concede them the point, however, we shall ask, Where is that cup to which Christ is claimed to have pointed? If that particular cup was "the blood of the New Testament," then wherein are we justified in celebrating the Lord's Supper, since we have not that cup? Again, were it possible to produce the identical cup which Christ used, how were it possible for all Christians to drink from that one cup? The absurdity of this argument against the individual cup lies in carrying it to its logical end; namely, producing that cup to which Christ is claimed to have pointed, and then use no other in administering the Sacrament. It would require long years for that one cup to make the circuit, and many would never have the divine pleasure of communing with Christ. Those who have placed so great an emphasis on poterionhave gathered a wrong conception of the word. Thayer, in his Lexicon, says: "poterion by metonymy of the container for the contained, the contents of the cup." Dr. Balentine says: "The Lord's Supper is that sacrament or rite in which, by the institution and word of Christ, bread and wine are made to the believer the communion of his body and blood." However, let us go to higher authority; returning to the account as given in Scripture, we see that Christ himself gave the true definition of the import of poterion when he said: "I will drink no more of the fruit of the vine, until the day when I drink it in the kingdom of God." Thus the Synoptics and Paul convey the same idea; namely, that the wine was his blood, and necessarily the cups had no essential import. The cup or cups, be they silver, gold or glass, have nothing to do with the validity of the sacrament. The validity lies in thecontents, and the efficiency in the spirit in which it is received. Says a writer in the Lutheran Quarterly, "If the church provide the (individual) cups it would be expensive in a membership of 500 or 1,000, or 2,000." Granted that this would entail more expense to the church, I would ask, "Is not communion with Christ cheap at any cost?" Again, we venture to say that this reverend Divine has at least two cups in his communion set. Would it not be more economical to have but one cup? We find many of the great antagonists of the individual cup with at least two cups in use at the Holy Supper. If two cups cause them not to stumble, why should fifty, a hundred, even a thousand, offend their taste? If the use of individual cups is unscriptural, we venture to say that the use of two common cups is equally contrary to divine command.

We shall proceed one step further and assert that not only are individual cups permissible, according to Scripture, but that at the initial Supper individual cups were used. As proof for our assertion we cite the fact that at the Paschal feast there were four wine drinking periods, each one of which was known as a cup; Christ took one of these cups, or wine-drinking periods, when he instituted the sacrament which commemorates his death. Thus it is that the Synoptics say that he took "a cup," meaning that he set apart one of the drinking periods which they should celebrate in remembrance of him; so also Paul says that he took "the cup," wishing to designate the particular cup or drinking period which was set apart. It is also a well-known fact that at the passover table each person was provided with his cup for individual use. Since this is true, is it not likely that the same custom was observed when Christ transformed the passover into the Lord's Supper, and also that individual cups were used? Again, religious art tells us thateach one of the apostles had his own individual cup at the initial Supper. In the celebrated painting of Leonardo da Vinci, Christ and the apostles are represented as each having his own individual cup. But the question naturally arises in the minds of my readers, "How then was the common cup substituted for the individual?" The reply is very simple. Might it not have occurred thus? In the times of the hierarchical church, as in the Roman Catholic Church of to-day, the cup was withheld from the laity--the pope or priest drinking all the wine for reasons which are known to all. The withholding of the wine from the laity made the numerous cups unnecessary and since the priest alone drank the wine his cup was the only one retained. Thus when the reformation came the one-cup idea was so rooted and grounded into the lives of the people that to have made a change would have hindered the progress of the reformation. To us it would seem that the common cup is the fruits, not of strict interpretation, but of the hierarchical church.

Since the individual cup is not contrary to Scripture, and is in all probability more nearly the correct mode of celebration, let us view some reasons why it should be introduced into church usage. The common, cup should be shunned for sanitary reasons. There is an old adage, "Cleanliness is next to godliness." The use of a common cup is by no means a cleanly practice, to say nothing of the various diseases which can be transmitted by the use of a common cup. As the same cup is passed from person to person, the wine advances to the lips, and then receding carries with it the impurities of the mouth. The cup gradually becomes partially emptied and is then refilled, and again passed to the communicants. This refilling process is repeated many times, until at length we have a cup which may contain germs of scores of diseases. Professors on bacteria agree that "from what is known of the biology of these organisms, it can readily be seen that the mouth should form a kind of hot-house or forcing ground for their cultivation." It is estimated that there are at least twenty-two known diseases which may be communicated from one person to another by the mouth. If the mouth be the hot-bed of germs, why should it be asked of people to open themselves to these germs, when it can be avoided without breaking the divine command? Again, the usage of polite society calls for the adoption of individual cups. When we invite friends to surround our family table, we deem it essential courtesy to give each person a cup from which to drink; not to do so would be a lack of propriety. Social custom should not be in advance of religious custom. Why compel men to do at the Lord's table that which in home life would not only be deemed uncleanly, but the height of impertinence? Behold the communicants as they surround the chancel at our first celebration of Christ's Holy Supper. Here we have a man with a much-detested growth on his lips; again, we have the constant use of tobacco discount cigarettes; now we have one with a throat-and-nasal disease. The detested growth is immersed in the wine, the abominable tobacco is washed from the lips, and the germs of the throat- diseases are disseminated in the wine. The discreet brother and sister are to follow. And all joy of the divine communion is lost in the thought of the brother who preceded. They sip of the cup timidly, with no thought of the meaning attached thereto, or perhaps they never allow the wine even to touch their lips. They shrink from the idea of opening the system to the germs of the disease, and they revolt at the unclean brother who has preceded. This is all eliminated by the individual cup. Were it not better for those who believe this bacteria question to be of no consequence, to say with Paul: "If meet maketh my brother to offend, I will cat no more meat while the world stands"? The choice between theindividual cups and the common cup involves a choice betweenclean and unclean.

Apart from the sanitary and cleanly aspect is that of its convenience. The individual cup not only expedites matters, but it also relieves the minister of a great nervous strain. In administering the Supper with the common cup the minister must be continually on his guard lest he tip the cup too far or perchance not far enough; in the one case spilling the wine and causing disorder, and in all likelihood causing the recipient to lose all thought of the solemnity of the occasion; in the other case he will offend the communicant by not allowing him to partake of the blood of our Lord. The tipping of the cup to the proper angle is not only difficult, but also very trying, especially when administering to the "large-hatted" sister, and of necessity requires considerable time.

This brings our next point, that of saving time. In this advanced age, when congregations swell to the ranks of hundreds and thousands, it is necessary to expedite matters as much as possible. People are no longer willing to sit in the sanctuary and watch the minister as he slowly, moves to and fro in administering the Lord's Supper. As a rule, the communion services are prolonged to twice the length of the ordinary services, and for this reason we should expedite matters as much as possible. The individual cup will expedite the service, and as we have shown it is biblical, historical, sanitary cleanly, and convenient. This is attested by the fact that practically all denominations and sects are using the individual cups. This is true not only in America, but the wide world over wherever Christ is preached. The individual cup is making its way rapidly, considering all circumstances. However, its general use will be attained, as all reforms are attained, only by slow and general education, and by bringing scientific truths to the attention of the clergy and of the public; and the time will come when an individual cup may be passed to each communicant, who can partake of its contents without fear of contracting any contagious disease from his brother. --The Lutheran Quarterly.

Rev. J.D. Krout, "The Individual Communion Cup," United Brethren Review 17:2 (March-April 1906), 101-105.

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