John Calvin first recommended Communion to-kens with the intent that no unworthy person would be admitted to the communion service. They were first used in the Reformed Church of France in the year 1560. The Dutch used to-kens in Amsterdam as early as 1586. England and Ireland began to use communion tokens near the end of the 16th century when authorities found it useful to know who did or did not conform to the legal form of worship of the state church.
But it was in the Presbyterian Churches of Scotland that communion tokens were most widely used. Many believe that there may have been a second reason for using tokens, and that was to protect communicants from betrayal by spies during periods of religious persecution. Communion tokens were used in the Presbyterian Churches of Scotland until World War I. A number of other churches have issued tokens in recent years, but these are normally replicas to commemorate a centennial or some other anniversary.
Communion tokens have been used in Great Britain, Ireland, France, Germany, Greece, Netherlands, Italy, Africa, India, South America, the West Indies, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. Churches in at least 24 states in the United States issued communion tokens, with over 400 recorded varieties in Pennsylvania. Tokens were used by churches in Freeport, Deer Creek, Glade Run, and Parnassus, plus six different churches in Pittsburgh and three in Allegheny City. But it was in Scotland where the tokens had their deepest roots with over 7,000 different types being recorded.
Practically all of the earliest communion tokens were made of lead or pewter, while more modern examples exist in aluminum, tin, brass, zinc, copper, wood, and ivory. The earliest tokens were crude, blank pieces of metal with no information stamped on either side. These early tokens were followed by tokens with one or two stamped letters, which helped to identify the church. The initials could be for the name of the town, the church, or the minister. A second type has only a date, which could indicate the founding of the church, the installation of the minister, or the year the token was first used. A third type shows only a Bible verse, the two most common verses are “This Do In Remembrance of Me” and “Let A Man Examine Himself”. Over 90 different Bible verses have appeared on communion tokens. Some tokens use all three designs or combinations of the three.
Communion tokens have been made in many shapes—round, square, ob-long, oval, heart shaped etc. They also vary greatly in size and thickness, the smallest being the size of a dime, while others are as large as a silver dollar.
A local metal smith under the supervision of a committee or the church elders normally produced the earliest tokens. The tokens were the property of the minister and were retained by him when he moved to a new church, where they were used with no regard for the design or legend.
Later tokens of the 18th century were often made by a commercial diesinker with very elaborate and attractive designs. These tokens often portray a picture of the communion table, a burning bush, the arms of the city, or a view of the church. On some tokens the full name of the church, town, or minister may be included. The diesinkers also prepared “stock” tokens, which showed no local designation and were used by congregations that were unable to purchase their own dies.
The earliest communion tokens were considered to be holy objects. When a church found it necessary to secure new tokens the elders had the responsibility to melt, bury, or in some way destroy the old tokens. In later years, congregations were less concerned with the holiness of the tokens and many tokens were retained by individual members as souvenirs.
During the 1800s, many churches switched from using metal tokens to cards, which could be produced at a much lower cost. In addition to lowering the cost, these cards could also include much more information. Many of them had several verses from the Bible, the name and location of the church, the date, and the name of the person who received the card.
The Use of Tokens
The Presbyterian Church is organized with a form of government similar to that of the earliest Christian churches. Each congregation selects its own minister who is an ordained clergyman. The minister elects, from the members of his church, several “elders” who must be ordained before taking office. The minister and elders form the “Session” which makes all decisions for the congregation. In earlier times the communion service was held only once or twice a year, preceeded by several days of preparation. All communicants had to attend classes prior to the communion service. A communion token was given to each member if the session felt that the person was worthy to receive communion. All new members or visitors had to pass an oral exam that was based on the Ten Commandments, the Apostles Creed and the Shorter Catechism.
On the day of the communion service, tables were placed in the front of the church. The bread and wine were placed on the tables and communicants would take their place at one of the tables according to the “table number” stamped on their token. Some churches had tokens with numbers 1 to 7, indicating that up to 7 tables were used. Anywhere from 12 to 40 members were assigned to a single table.
Many churches other than the Presbyterian Church used communion tokens, including the Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Free Church, Reformed Presbyterian, and the Relief Church. In most of these churches, communion to-kens were used as tickets to gain admission to the communion service. But unlike the Presbyterian Church, the tokens of the other churches were not re-tained by the minister when he moved to another location.
Token Values and
The most complete reference book on communion tokens is by O. D. Creswell listing over 6500 tokens. The communion token book by Autence A. Bason is an excellent reference on all U. S. tokens. Unfortunately, neither of these books have any information on token prices and very little information on the number of tokens that were originally minted, or even more important, on how many of these tokens still exist.
Most Scottish tokens can be purchased for $5 to $20. Tokens from England, Ireland, Canada, and New Zealand usually cost in excess of $25, while United States tokens are valued at more than $100.
Unfortunately, many early tokens no longer exist since they were deliberately de-stroyed. There are many other tokens where only 1 to 10 specimens are now known to exist. In spite of this scarcity, some rare tokens still show up at flea markets or in estate sales.
We thank the Western Pennsylvania Numismatic Society for granting permission to reprint this article.