Communion Tokens

Communion Tokens

Communion Tokens

Communion tokens have been used since the mid 16th cent for controlling the administration of the eucharist in Protestant churches; chiefly in Scotland and wherever Scotsmen have gone, but also on the continent by the Huguenots. The communion service has traditionally been treated with greater reverence and more of a sense of occasion in Scotland than it has elsewhere in Britain; in England a church may go through the motions every other week, but in Scotland it is something special; an event held but two or three times a year, if that; to be prepared for, and to be contemplated. It is not just a Sunday service; it is, or has been, a whole weekend of events, culminating in the central ceremony.

With that in mind, the Calvinistic church elders have traditionally been very strict in assessing who and who not should be permitted to attend and, accordingly, have issued passes in the form of communion tokens {CTs} to those whom they deem worthy. CTs have also, in more turbulent times such as those of the Covenanters back in the 17th cent, had a secondary purpose of keeping enemies at bay.

Whether one approves of this moral policing or not, the CT provides a very interesting numismatic requirement for Scotland’s 901 ancient parishes, and their various offshoots, to solve. Every parish bought into the above approach, and with it the need for local provision of tokens, to no particular standard other than what there own elders deemed necessary; but not all had the manufacturing or artistic skills to make the necessary provision. Some had metal workers, others did not. Some combined their efforts or used adjacent parishes’ resources, which resulted in an area having similarly-designed pieces. Regional traditions evolved, notable examples including small pewtery rectangles in northern Fife {early-mid 18c}, robust squares in Aberdeenshire and Nairn {19c}, chunky white metal in Roxburgh c.1825-45, upright ovals in Perth and Midlothian {19c} and, most numerous of all, a Glasgow design consisting of a pewtery square with a circle in it.

Most early pieces are lead. Some of these are more pewtery than others, and around 1800 there is a move towards white metal, which predominates by the 1820s or 1830s and continued throughout the 19th cent. There are a handful of copper and brass pieces in the 19th cent, but they are not widespread and always command a premium; in the early period, there are also one or two bracteates.

Early pieces were very simple, often showing only the initial letter of the parish, but as time went on this was joined by the initials of the minister and/or the date. These later expanded gradually into abbreviations and full names. Dates are uncommon before 1680, the earliest known being 1648, and even in the mid-18th cent many pieces do not bear them; although beware, a few dates are those of church foundation, rather than those of issue. Scriptural texts are a later feature, rare before the 19th cent; references only at first, but working forward, mainly in the days of white metal, to full quotations. About ninety different verses are known.

After the Industrial Revolution reached Glasgow and Edinburgh, most churches put the manufacturing work out to companies in the big cities. Alexander Kirkwood in Edinburgh was particularly prolific; active by the late 1820s, rectangular pieces with cut corners suddenly became the fashion. Ovals remained popular, but round and square pieces were largely consigned to history. The secession of the Free Church in 1843 was the largest of several major schisms, and provided die-stampers like Kirkwood with much business.

Population increase brought new churches, particularly in the cities; as also did the numerous mergers and schisms which punctuated Scottish ecclesiastical history at regular intervals. Several new denominations emerged, and like the regions these evolved their own styles.

In a large church there would also be some practical issues to resolve, such as ensuring the distribution of communicants between tables so as render the process as quick and efficient as possible; for which purpose many CTs are counterstamped with table numbers. A small number of churches used serial numbers, although how these were deployed is uncertain; one, at Leith, briefly used both simultaneously.

Many ministers marked the beginning of their tenure with an issue of tokens; whether this was always necessary is uncertain, but like kings many of them were keen to have their names on their coinage as soon as possible.

The churches treated their tokens with great reverence and did not therefore dispose of them as casually as did merchants; frequently, they were buried in one batch on the premises when no longer required. In consequence of this practice, more is known about the provenance of apparently anonymous pieces than with comparable series like commercial crude lead. Common pieces are therefore those where the batch survives, and are often all in the same condition {good or bad}; rare pieces are where the main batch has not been found and the surviving pieces are casual losses. One cannot imagine that the elders let anyone keep them as momentos!

Geographically, CTs spread evenly across Scotland in proportion to the population concerned. Northumbrian parishes, although English, behave very similar to Scotland. As to the rest of the British Isles, CTs are likely to be found wherever Scottish congregations were established, which chiefly means the ports around the coast. Most English CTs conform to the typical design, as to those in British colonies overseas, but the London pieces are rather individualistic. Many emigrant communities contained sizeable numbers of Scots, and in the case of the Highland clearances some whole Scottish communities emigrated en bloc. For this reason there are significant numbers of CTs in the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere; whilst Ireland, which like Scotland had a strong Presbyterian tradition, also has a sizeable issue.

A few Protestant churches, outside the Presbyterian stable, also issued CTs; however, it was not widespread.

Some parishes contemplated the replacement of tokens by invitation cards as early as 1860, but 1900 is a more typical date for the changeover and there are one or two parishes which have continued regular usage until very recent years; 1938 is the latest new issue of which I am aware in mainland Scotland. Some churches have also celebrated significant anniversaries with special issues, but these are scarcely to be regarded as part of the main story.



L.M. Burzinski’s "Communion Tokens of the World" {1999} is considered the current main reference work for the series. The earlier works by Brooks{1907} and Kerr/Lockie {1940-53} contain excellent line drawings of pieces for which illustrations are not otherwise available; see the section of the LTT bibliography on communion tokens at for further details.

For overseas CTs, there are also a number of works on the issues of particular countries.

"Tokens of Grace", by Laurie Stanley-Blackwell {Cape Breton University Press, 2006} is an excellent description of the evolution of the Scottish communion service tradition.