Part of a Presbyterian Communion Service is the collection of the Communion Tokens by the serving elders. The use of tokens goes back to the very early days of Presbyterianism. One of the first problems to be addressed by the leaders of the reformed churches in the sixteenth century was the irregularities, found in connection with the observance of the Lord's Supper. They sought to remove by instigating a system by which they could decide who should and who should not be allowed to communicate. It was John Calvin who first saw the usefulness of tokens in such a system. He wrote, “Each person should receive tokens of lead for those of his household who were instructed; and the strangers who might come, on giving testimony of their faith, should also receive tokens, and those who had none should not be admitted to the tables”.
Calvin’s proposal to use tokens was then adopted by the French reformed church. John Knox and other leaders of the reformed church in Scotland were in close contact with Calvin and the practice of using Communion Tokens came to Scotland. When Presbyterianism spread to Ireland in the 17th century, the newly formed congregations there followed the Scottish practice of using tokens. They were distributed to communicants by the elders, in the days just prior to the Communion Service.
Without a token a person would not be admitted to the Lord’s Table. The elders, using small wooden trays, collected the tokens. The earliest surviving Presbyterian Church session book is that of Templepatrick. In it we have the first record of tokens being used in Ireland. Entry June 28, 1647, regarding arrangements for Communion Service: “For receiving the tokens at the tables, Gilbert McNeilie and John Pettigrew...Thomas Windrum and Thomas Taggart for the keeping of the west door that all may be “keeped out” that wants tokens. John Inglis and Thomas Loggan for the east door that none comes in at that door but go immediately from the tables”. In the session book of Carnmoney Presbyterian Church, in an entry giving particulars of a Communion Service held in 1697, we have another reference to tokens: “First Communion during the ministry of the Reverend Andrew Crawford, 22nd August 1697.
We had eight tables and nigh to 600 communicants. Collects on Fast Day, Saturday, Sabbath and Monday were £4-2s-7d; laid out on elements, £2-18s-0d; to the poor among our own, 17s-8d; for 700 new tokens, the old being lost during the troubles, 3s-6d; laid out other-ways for carrying on our affairs proper for the occasion, 3s-6d”. The “troubles” would have been the wars between King James II and William of Orange. The above entry in Carnmoney’s session book reveals that the “Communion Season” comprised a Fast Day, usually Friday, followed by a Preparation Day (Saturday), Communion Sabbath and a Thanksgiving Monday. Over this period there would have been as many as six services as well as the Communion Service itself. Ministers from two or three neighbouring congregations would assist at the Communion Season, in the example above, the Ministers of Killead, Killyleagh and Dundonald were in attendance at various times, preaching at services.
At least two of them assisted at the actual Communion Service. Long tables were set up in the aisles of the Church and communicants took it in turn to come to the tables. Each minister would have charge of a number of tables. A Communion Service could therefore last for several hours and families often brought provisions with them. There was usually a considerable number of visiting communicants from neighbouring congregations. They would have to produce proof that they were communicants of their own churches before receiving tokens.
Most of the early tokens in Ireland were made of lead, as it was cheap and easy to work. The shapes and sizes varied – round, square, elliptical, diamond or octagonal. Most of them would have been about one inch in length or diameter. In most cases the tokens would have had the name of the congregation, usually abbreviated, and sometimes only the initial of the name. A few bore initials of the ministry and a few had the date on which they were made. The lead tokens were often cast in moulds, shaped out of soft stone or brass. But in many other cases the tokens were just cut out with a chisel and indented with punches. Later steel dies were used which allowed longer inscriptions and even Bible texts to be printed on them.
The two most common texts were from 1st Corinthians, Chapter 11, “This do in Remembrance of Me” and “But let a man examine himself”. Later “stock tokens” were produced from steel dies. The name of a particular congregation could be easily added to these tokens but especially towards the end of the nineteenth century, many congregations simply used “stock tokens” without the name of their congregation. From the end of the nineteenth century metal tokens were gradually replaced by communion cards and rules regarding admission to the Lord’s Table were eased, allowing visitors who were members of other denominations, on profession of their faith to communicate.
Examples of Communion Tokens from Churches in North and East Antrim:
Armoy A M Raised letter Oblong 1.00 ins x 0.625ins Ballycastle B C Incuse Diamond 0.75 ins x 1.00ins Cairncastle C 1832 Upright oblong 0.625ins x 0.88ins Cushendall Oval stock token Larne (First) LEARN 1700 Round 0.813ins ALES ENVER(on reverse) Gardenmore (Larne) AC/1785 Oblong 1.00ins x 0.81ins Newtowncrommelin NEWTOWNCROMMELIN. CONGREGATION..1836 Oblong 1.00ins x 0.75ins Ramoan R/A 1777 Square 0.75ins x 0.75ins
Notes: Gardenmore: A C is for Associate Congregation. Larne (First): This is the Old Presbyterian Congregation of Larne, now Non-Subscribing. The present 1st Larne was the result of a split in the Old Congregation in 1715.