Communion tokens offer historical insight into Christianity

This is the first story in a two-part series exploring communion tokens.

By Jesse Robitaille

As a window to the history of Christianity, communion tokens are a highly collectible area of religious exonumia that’s beloved by numismatists around the world.

Retired Reverend Angus Sutherland, a long-time member of the National Presbyterian Museum advisory committee, is also a long-time numismatist with an extensive collection of communion tokens.

“There have been references to tokens down through the ages,” said Sutherland, who added tokens were used as far back as early Christianity (also known as the “Early Church”), which includes that religion’s origins until the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.

One early example is made of clay and reportedly mixed with shavings from the so-called seventh-century “Procession of the True Cross.”

In his Historia Ecclesiastica (“Church History”), fifth-century historian Socrates of Constantinople (also known as Socrates Scholasticus – not the classical Greek philosopher of the same name) describes the “True Cross of Christ.”

Empress Helena (later Saint Helena), the mother of the first Christian Emperor of Rome, travelled to the Holy Land, where she found three crosses believed to be used for the crucifixion of Christ and the two thieves.

Socrates’ history explains each of the three crosses were separately touched by a deathly ill woman, who fully recovered upon touching the third cross, which was believed to be the “True Cross of Christ.”

Through the ensuing centuries and wars, the cross was taken to different areas by various leaders before being recovered and returned to Jerusalem. In villages along the way, the cross was met by countless pilgrims who received a sacred token for commemorating its return.

The tokens are said to be made from a portion of the “True Cross” that broke on its journey before being burned and mixed with clay.

“The number of these tokens that are around suggest there must be more than one ‘True Cross,’ but it’s an interesting little collectible,” said Sutherland.

The church used other tokens before the Reformation was spurred on by Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses in 1517 and continued by John Calvin and other Protestant reformers across 16th-century Europe.

One piece used by the Catholic church in France offers insight into the time in which it circulated,” Sutherland said.

“Apparently, the numbers do not indicate a denomination but instead refer to the time of day that they had prayers.”

Communion tokens, on the other hand, are a “Christian phenomenon,” he added, “and with it we are zeroing in on the Reformed Church, which is largely Presbyterian.”

A former advisory board member for the National Presbyterian Museum, Angus Sutherland owns a clay token that was reportedly made of a burned piece of the ‘True Cross of Christ’ and shared with pilgrims who commemorated the cross’ procession back to Jerusalem in the seventh century AD.

TAKE AN IDEA & RUN

The Reformation was a time for “new beginnings,” Sutherland said.

John Calvin – the father of the Reformed church – first recommended the use of communion tokens in a letter sent to the Council of Geneva in 1560.

“It would be good to avoid the danger of those who profane the Lord’s Supper, of which one cannot know everyone,” reads the English translation of Calvin’s 459-year-old letter.

“Begin to make tokens, and when the day of the Lord’s Supper comes, each member would go and get tokens for those in their households that have received instruction, and the strangers who come, having given witness to their faith, would receive them as well, and that those who have no token should not be admitted to the supper.”

While this “indicates a closed reference to communion service,” according to Sutherland, it was not without reason: at the time of the Reformation, the Church of Rome was “quite corrupt.”

“Literally, people were walking into communion for a chunk of bread and a bit of wine. The reformers realized this rot had gotten into the church, and they originally wanted to reform it from within but were forced out.”

As the so-called protesting – or Protestant – churches were formed, the Reformation took hold outside of the Church of Rome.

This began with Luther, who nailed his protest to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg (present-day Germany) in 1517, but soon after, Calvin published his seminal work Institutes of the Christian Religion, which sought to standardize Protestant theories.

“Calvin’s understanding of Christian teaching became known as the Reformed Church,” said Sutherland. “He, along with Luther and others, was quite dismayed that people were coming in and receiving communion – the Lord’s Supper – without understanding.”

Sutherland referenced a Bible passage that Calvin “took very seriously.”

“For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves,” reads 1 Corinthians (Chapter 11, Verse 29).

“The reformers were very concerned for the people who were coming in and profaning the Lord’s Supper,” added Sutherland. “They weren’t just doing damage to the Lord’s Supper; they were doing damage to themselves. Something needed to be done to help them really understand this.”

To remedy this “profaning” of the communion service, Calvin suggested people “had to understand some basics of the Christian faith” to receive a token, Sutherland said.

“Then, when communion service came, you handed in the token in order to receive the communion.”

A 1553-dated token from France “indicates Calvin was probably talking about something that was already in place,” he added.

“He recommended it to the churches in France, and they jumped on it.”

Another piece in Sutherland’s collection was acquired at a sale hosted by Jeffrey Hoare Auctions about three decades ago.

“I thought, ‘It looks like a communion token,’ and I had it appraised by a museum in Scotland and a museum in France. Both stated that, in their opinion, this was a French communion token.”

REFORMATION ABROAD

One of Calvin’s students was John Knox, a Scottish minister who was the leader of his country’s reformation in the 1560s.

“Knox was looking for teaching, looking for enlightenment and looking for help, and as a student of Calvin, he heard about the idea of these tokens, and he took the idea to Scotland,” said Sutherland, who added upwards of 85 per cent of known communion tokens are Scottish.

“The Scots clung onto the idea even more than the French did, and from there – as Scots moved out into the world – they took the tradition of these tokens with them,” he said, adding the idea spread across Canada and into the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and the Caribbean, among other areas.

“You can find tokens in most of these places, and most of them due to the Scots.”

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