Communion Tokens: What are they and how were they used?

Ann MacKenzie Vanderwal is a part-time MLitt student with UHI in history and archaeology. She teaches 15 to 18 year olds history, Latin, law and social in Calgary, Alberta. She has a personal knowledge of communion tokens from attending the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland as a child and teenager in Toronto, Ontario where they were used until 1989.

In the Historylinks collection are four little bits of metal that look like square or oblong coins. Although unfamiliar to most today, these are communion tokens which were widely used in Scotland, and around the world by the diaspora, for hundreds of years.

Fig 1

Tokens on a Gaelic catechism. Photo: Ann Vanderwal.

The idea of communion tokens was first conceived by John Calvin in 1560 as a way to know who was a member of the church (permitted to participate in communion) and who was not. The idea was rejected in Geneva but embraced by French Huguenots and in Presbyterian Scotland. In 1562, the Kirk of Scotland’s General Assembly decided that communion should only be held in each church between two to four times a year, making the opportunity to participate in this important aspect of Christian life even more treasured.

Communion developed into a series of services labeled the ‘communion season starting on Wednesday or Thursday and concluding on Monday. Customarily, on Saturday, members who attended the service would go to a church elder to receive one of these tokens. The elder would not only check to ensure they were indeed on the roll of members but might refuse a member a token if their recent behaviour was felt to not reflect proper Christian behaviour. Saturday was also the opportunity for people to become members. The minister and elders would meet potential members individually and ask them a series of questions to determine their knowledge of essential doctrines. Each applicant also related their personal testimony which would include their conversion experience. Those who were felt to be genuine received a token and their names were recorded on the communicant roll.  Since communion was only held in some areas twice a year, it was very common for members of one church to visit another church to take communion more frequently. In such a case, their own minister or elders gave a token to the member who could use it to show their admissibility.

Dornoch 1789

Dornoch token from 1780 (or perhaps 1789) Photo: Ann Vanderwal.

After the sermon on Sunday, or the Sabbath, the minister ‘fenced the table’. He warned those whose heart was not in the right state to refrain from coming forward, even if they had obtained a token. Each member or visitor presented their token to the elder at the front of the church and could then take a seat at the communion table. Most communions had visitors from many other areas resulting in a ‘mixed-bag’ of tokens.  Some had a number stamped on them because there were too many people for the number of tables available and each group would come forward when their number was called. Serving everyone could take an entire day, even with visiting ministers to help. The communion season was often scheduled to coincide with the full moon to make it easier for everyone to see their way home.

New tokens were made when the old supply started to run low, an updated design was wanted or there was a fear that unused tokens had fallen into unapproved hands. Early tokens were made by the local blacksmith, but firms such as Crawford’s of Glasgow began to produce them commercially. Most congregation’s tokens were unique. The earliest have one or more letters to identify the congregation and perhaps the date. As time went on, more information was included such as the minister’s name, a Bible verse and perhaps a graphic such as a burning bush. The majority were in English but there are tokens from Lewis, Harris and St Kilda in Gaelic. In 1843 at the Disruption the Free Church made stock tokens but individual congregations quickly had their own made.

Carloway token

Free Church token from Carloway, Isle of Lewis. Photo: ‘Carloway, Lewis Token, post-1843’, Hunterian Museum, GLAM-7412,  (accessed 02.04.19).

Tokens began to fall out of use in Scotland in the 1800’s when they were replaced with paper cards but some congregations continue to use them up to the present. Wherever immigrants or missionaries from Scotland went, they took the idea of tokens with them. One minister, John Geddie, from Aberdeenshire moved to Pictou, Nova Scotia and then continued on to Vanuatu in the South Pacific as a missionary. He took some Pictou tokens with him but once a congregation was established in Vanuatu, he created tokens for them in the local language while conforming to the style popular in Scotland at the time. These pieces of lead or tin might be small but they tell a fascinating tale of an idea that Scots treasured for centuries and took with them around the world.

Free Church 1843 back

Bible verse encouraging self-examination on the back of a Free Church stock token from 1843. Photo: Ann Vanderwal.

Further Reading

Burns, T., Macgregor, J. and Brook, A., Old Scottish Communion Plate (Edinburgh: R & R Clark, 1892).

Brooks, A. ‘Communion Tokens of the Established Church of Scotland: Sixteenth, Seventeen and Eighteenth Centuries’, in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Vol. 41 (Edinburgh, 1907). p 453-604.

Haddow, E., ‘Communion Tokens, Vanatu’ in Jacobs, K., Knowles, C. and Wingfield, C. (eds), Trophies, Relics and Curios? (Leiden: Sidestone Press, 2015), p. 171-208.

Shutty, M., Communion Tokens: A Guide for Collecting Scottish, Canadian and United States Tokens (Shelbyville: Wasteland Press, 2013).