by Al Maxey

Issue #148 ------- September 18, 2004
Little boats must keep near shore.
Larger ships may venture more.

An English Proverb

Tale of the Tossed Token
Campbell's Cast Communion Coin

What is a Communion Token, and what role does it play in the thinking that led to the American Restoration Movement? To discern the answers we must cross the Atlantic Ocean and go back in time almost two centuries. It was May, 1809 in the city of Glasgow, Scotland. A young man of only 21 years, a student at the University of Glasgow, was about to make one of the most important decisions of his life. Indeed, his life would forever be changed, and the impact of this decision upon church history would be enormous. But, we're getting ahead of ourselves. We need to get back to the question: what exactly is a Communion Token (an early sample of which is pictured here)?

According to the web site of the Hunterian Museum, which is affiliated with the University of Glasgow, "A Communion Token is a simple metal ticket which permitted the holder to partake of Communion in the Church of Scotland and other Presbyterian Churches." Such a token or coin might seem rather strange to many, especially to those who practice a more "open communion." However, in centuries past, especially among certain religions, communion was very restricted. Only those "approved" by the clergy were allowed to consume the bread and wine. To be admitted to the Lord's Table, one must "pass examination" of the ministers and elders of the church. Those who passed were issued tokens which allowed them to eat the elements of the Lord's Supper. Those not approved by the clergy were banned from the observance. "The communion service was a special occasion, held perhaps only once or twice a year. Shortly before the Sacrament was celebrated individuals were examined by the minister to ensure that they understood and practiced the basics of their religion and led good lives. If an individual was found worthy, he or she was given a token which admitted them to the Sacrament" (Hunterian Museum web site). The goal of the token, therefore, was to carefully protect the Lord's Table from profanation by "the unfaithful." It was a part of a broader system of church discipline and control.

These tokens came in various sizes and shapes, and were made of several different substances. The earliest ones were fairly crude in form, and were little more than beaten flat lumps of metal. In time, they took on more artful designs. Most ranged in size from dime-size to quarter-size, although some were as large as silver dollars. Almost all the early tokens were made of either lead or pewter, but more modern tokens have been made of aluminum, tin, brass, zinc, copper, silver, wood, leather, and ivory. The early tokens had only a few letters stamped upon them, usually identifying the church which issued them. In addition, some would also stamp the name of the town and the minister of the issuing church. Later tokens included Bible verses (over 90 different verses have been documented) and engravings (such as a view of the church building or the town). Most were either round, square, oblong, oval or heart shaped. Communion tokens have been used in Great Britain, Ireland, France, Germany, Greece, Netherlands, Italy, Africa, India, South America, West Indies, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA. However, it was in the Presbyterian Churches of Scotland that communion tokens were most widely used. Indeed, over 7000 different types of these tokens have been found and preserved just in Scotland alone.

These tokens, in time, came to be regarded as the personal property of the minister of the local church. In many cases, they were stamped with his name or initials. "By the eighteenth century the minister's initials were regarded as more important than the name of the parish" (Masse, The Pewter Collector). When he moved to another location, he took his sack of tokens with him. This gave the minister, and his chosen elders, great power over the congregation (very similar to the power the priests found in the sale of indulgences, with which Martin Luther took great exception, and which helped spur on the Protestant Reformation). As previously noted, these tokens came to be regarded as holy. In fact, when it came time to make new tokens, or put the name of a new minister on these coins, the old ones were collected and either melted down or buried. They could not be left in the hands of the laity.

The use of communion tokens found its way into the United States in its early years, mostly within the Presbyterian Church. At least 24 states issued these tokens to their members, with over 400 recorded varieties in Pennsylvania alone. In South Carolina, prior to the Civil War, there were two distinct tokens issued to the Presbyterian laity: silver tokens if you were white, pewter if you were a slave. The use of such tokens to gain admittance to the communion service, however, has almost totally died out since World War I. In the few places where such is felt to be necessary, they have mostly switched to cards rather than coins. Thus, this practice is largely a thing of the past, although there is a movement within the Presbyterian Church to bring them back.

Campbell's Great Dilemma

Alexander Campbell was born September 12, 1788 in Ireland. He was the son of Thomas Campbell (1763-1854), who was a Minister for the Seceder Presbyterian Church in northern Ireland, and also an honor graduate of the University of Glasgow. His mother was of French descent. In 1807, for health reasons, Thomas came to America. He was joined by his family two years later (August, 1809). At the age of 21, Alexander joined with his father in what would become a lifelong endeavor to serve God and His people by proclaiming a message of grace. For the next 57 years he would excel as "a gentleman farmer, Virginia legislator, political theorist, educational philosopher, lecturer, debater, preacher, and religious journalist." However, he would be chiefly remembered as "the central figure giving stimulus to the origin and early development of that religious communion which developed along the frontier of nineteenth-century America," and which would later divide into the three branches known today as Disciples of Christ, Christian Churches, and Churches of Christ (D. Ray Lindley, Apostle of Freedom, p. 8). "In personal appearance Campbell was tall, vigorous and athletic. His hair was light and his complexion moderately fair. His face had no straight lines, and his aquiline nose was arched, as Raccoon John Smith said, 'a little to the north.' Few ever saw him when he was not cheerful" (William Blake, Alexander Campbell: Apostle of Truth).

In his own words, Alexander aspired to become "one of the best scholars in the kingdom." When Campbell was in his late 50's, a period some regard as one of his most productive, Tolbert Fanning wrote of him, "His scholarship is admired by both friends and foes; and in logical powers, the world, in my humble opinion, has not his equal. As a declaimer, he is not generally admired by the multitude; but men of the best order of mind are always delighted with his addresses ... His arguments are always well arranged, and are generally full and satisfactory on every point he touches. ... For logic, scriptural knowledge, genuine criticisms, dignity of manner, fairness and Christian courtesy, it is barely probable Alexander Campbell has an equal living" (The Christian Review, May, 1844). Campbell was also one who didn't like "wasting time" sleeping. He was up by 4 a.m. and would not retire at night until very late. Tolbert Fanning regarded this, and his distaste for idleness, as "the main key to his greatness."

In 1823, Alexander began publishing a journal in which he sought to present his growing convictions regarding his quest for ultimate Truth. He called it The Christian Baptist. It shook up many brethren, and broke down many barriers; he made enemies through these writings, and he made lifelong friends. Seven years later (1830) he would begin a new journal -- The Millennial Harbinger. In his "Prospectus," Campbell declared the purpose of this journal: "This work shall be devoted to the destruction of Sectarianism, infidelity, and antichristian doctrine and practice." Campbell believed the only way to usher in the perfect rule of Christ in society (the millennium) was to forever break down the sectarian barriers and unite all believers in a harmonious fellowship. To this end he devoted his life. He died March 4, 1866 and is buried in Bethany, West Virginia. On his tombstone is the phrase, "Defender of the Faith once delivered to the saints." His wife comforted him with the following words as he was dying, "The blessed Savior will go with you through the valley of the shadow of death." He replied, "That He will! That He will!" These were his last words.

But, let's go back in the history of Alexander Campbell a few years. As mentioned above, he joined his father in America in August, 1809. However, much of the year prior to that was spent at the University of Glasgow. Indeed, he had entered his studies a bit late, signing the register on November 8, 1808. In the months that followed, young Alexander came under the influence of the personalities and the teachings of the Haldane brothers, James and Robert, and of Greville Ewing. These were early reformers who had left the Church of Scotland and had formed independent congregations. Campbell began to think seriously about the many aspects of Presbyterianism with which he was becoming increasingly uncomfortable. He was beginning to think like a reformer .... indeed, he was beginning to think. And the more he thought and studied and reflected, the more disgusted he became with the sectarian bias he was seeing in his own religion. The seeds were thus being planted for his own life's work against sectarian bias. For a fuller discussion of this, I would refer the readers to Reflections #115 -- The Lunenburg Letter: Campbell's Controversial Correspondence with a Sister over Saints in the Sects.

In May, 1809 (three months prior to Alexander's departure for America to join with his father Thomas Campbell, who was the author of The Declaration and Address, one of the great documents of our faith-heritage), the Presbyterian Church in Glasgow prepared to hold one of its semi-annual observances of the communion. In the weeks prior to this observance the minister and elders began a process of visiting the various members to determine who among them was "worthy" to receive a token which would admit them to the communion service. "Alexander Campbell agonized over the law ordering communicants to acquire proof of worthiness to take the Lord's Supper" (W.A. Such, Restoration Quarterly, vol. 36, no. 3, 1995). He viewed this as sectarianism, and believed "it exemplified man-made judgments fostering divisions among Christians" (ibid). This whole idea repelled and disgusted Campbell. He sincerely believed that no man had the right to sit in judgment on the spiritual worthiness of another to come to the Table of the Lord. "For Alexander Campbell tokens publicly accented the man-made splits in the Scottish Church" (ibid).

The customary observance in Scotland was according to the following pattern: "After a protracted and solemn address upon the deep meaning of the celebration and the duties of church-members, the oldest members of the congregation were seated at the table and partook of the sacrament. Thin cakes of unleavened bread were specially prepared for the sacred service. Again and again were the tables refilled with communicants, for often seven hundred church members were present. Thus, the services were prolonged from early morning until nightfall. When so many were to partake of the Lord's Supper, it seemed necessary to prevent any unworthy or improper person from presenting himself. Hence the tables were fenced off, and each communicant was obliged to present a 'token'" (Charles Montgomery, A History of American Pewter, p. 87-88).

Campbell struggled within himself as to what to do, thus he held back and let others seat themselves at these tables. He kept hoping he might resolve the conflict he was feeling in his heart and mind. His biographer and physician, Robert Richardson, wrote, "The hour at which the administration of the Lord's Supper was to take place found him still undecided, and, as there were about eight hundred communicants, and some eight or nine tables to be served in succession, he concluded to wait until the last table, in hopes of being able to overcome his scruples" (Memoirs of Alexander Campbell, vol. 1, p. 189). "Token in hand, he waited for the last of eight or nine tables to be served, hoping he might resolve his doubts in those last moments" (Dr. Leroy Garrett, Our Heritage of Unity and Fellowship, p. 21).

Campbell's Great Decision

The time had arrived for young Alexander to take his seat at one of the tables in Pastor Montre's church. According to Louis Cochran's account of Campbell's life --- The Fool of God --- this pastor had put "the fear of God" in those who approached this solemn event. "They were warned that if they partook of the emblems unworthily they 'would be made seven times more fit for the devil than before,' yet they were also told it was a sin to withdraw. 'Dare ye bide away,' warned Pastor Montre in his sermon, 'and give that affront to His Supper and frustrate the grace of God, ye take His wrath upon thee from this holy place!'" Campbell was still struggling with what to do when he took his place at the table, and the warning of the pastor didn't help any!! "No doubt part of what bothered him as he prepared to break bread with his own sect of Seceder Presbyterians was that he knew that Greville Ewing, the Haldanes, and the great host of Scottish reformers that he had come to know, could not join him around the Lord's table. They were not in the right party!" (Dr. Leroy Garrett, Our Heritage of Unity and Fellowship, p. 23).

The plate was passed around the table, and the communicants in turn placed their tokens in the plate, thus signifying their "worthiness" to partake of the Lord's Supper in that particular church under the oversight of those particular leaders. The plate came to Campbell, and "he threw his token upon the plate handed round!" (Robert Richardson, Memoirs of Alexander Campbell, vol. 1, p. 190). He had made his momentous decision. When the elements (the bread and wine) came around, he refused to eat them. He then arose from the table and walked out of the building. "It was at this moment that the struggle in his mind was completed, and the ring of the token, falling upon the pewter plate, announced the instant at which he renounced Presbyterianism forever -- the leaden voucher becoming thus a token not of communion, but of separation" (ibid). "In the instant when the leaden token rang dully upon the pewter plate placed before him, in that instant Alexander Campbell in his heart renounced all allegiance to the Seceder Church of Scotland, or any other ecclesiastical body, by whatever name, that proclaimed itself the only doorway to the throne of God" (Louis Cochran, The Fool of God).

Our brother Leroy Garrett has declared this the defining moment in the history of the Restoration Movement. In the first chapter of the book "Our Heritage of Unity and Fellowship," he wrote, "I propose to describe the precise incident that spurred our Movement into existence." It was the "incident that provided the spark, without which it would have been a different story." That specific incident, of course, was the one described above. Garrett wrote, "We'll let that 'moment' be the beginning of the Restoration Movement in America. I realize that James O'Kelly and Barton Stone, along with many others, had already begun their labors in the New World. Even Alexander's own father was having experiences at that very time which were crucial to the making of our Movement. But it took Alexander Campbell to make the Movement what it came to be, and the turning point in his life was that dramatic moment in which he turned his back against the party of his fathers and resolved to be a free man in Christ."

A 21-year-old university student, away from his family and homeland, found the courage of conviction to stand alone against the ecclesiastical powers of his day. He searched his heart and realized he could no longer sanction sectarianism. When he tossed his token that day he declared himself the enemy of factional thinking and the champion of the religiously oppressed. As he walked away from that table, he walked away a free man! In the years that followed, this man, and his associates, led a movement of determined disciples with a vision of unity among believers. His goal was to break down sectarian walls and bring God's people together in sweet fellowship. He envisioned a table with no fences around it, a spiritual meal with no tokens required for admittance. He proclaimed liberty in Christ and the brotherhood of all believers. "The sound of that token on the plate is still reverberating. Can't you hear it?!" (Dr. Leroy Garrett, Our Heritage of Unity and Fellowship, p. 26).

Reflections from Readers

From a Reader in Washington:

My husband and I sincerely appreciate your ministry. I know of nobody else like you! I thought you would like to know that your comments are greatly appreciated by a good friend of ours with whom we share your messages. Following is one of his comments for your encouragement: "I hope you both really read the last two articles from Al Maxey. I found both of them to be compelling, to say the least. He really gets the mental juices running! I was so glad he talked about Paul in Romans 7. It made me feel a whole lot better about myself, cause I am a Christian, yet struggle daily, and sometimes don't really like myself very much. I'm so glad God does!"

From a Reader in Nassau, Bahamas:

Brother Maxey, I recently read the debate between yourself and brother Hughes concerning grace and baptism. I must say that I fully endorse what you said and whole-heartedly agree with you. In fact, it was amazing to see how similar your beliefs and arguments are to my own.

From a Reader in Tennessee:

I just received my 2003 CD of your 95 Reflections articles. I now can clean out my "My Documents" file, which will give me more memory. I look forward to every one of your articles. Now I'm looking forward to 2004 ending so I can get another CD!! Keep up the good work; my prayers are with you so that you may keep up with your wonderful insights.

From a Reader in Louisiana:

Al, I just wanted to drop you a line and let you know how much I appreciate your work. I teach Bible at a Christian School, and I have been having my students do group projects on the Intertestamental Period. I refer them to your web site, and my students frequently tell me that your material is the easiest to understand and use on this topic. Keep it going, and keep up the good work. If you ever make it to northern Louisiana, come see us at White's Ferry Road Church of Christ, and come visit the school.

From a Reader in Moldova:

Al, I am in Chisinau, Moldova, a country that was formerly part of the USSR. Pertaining to the Lord's Supper observance, I think my experiences here may be of some help to the readers. I worship each Lord's day in two different cities that are two hours apart -- one at 9:00 a.m. and the other at 5:00 p.m. Each of them observe the Lord's Supper in the following manner: We have about 5 songs and 2-3 prayers during the observance. It is all centered around the death, burial and resurrection of our Lord, so we can "remember HIM." I will speak at this time for about 45 minutes to an hour, just pertaining to the Lord's Supper, about what God and Jesus did for us and why; about His love for us in sending His only Son to die for us while we were yet sinners. We use just one piece of bread, and everyone breaks from it, and we also use individual cups. At the end of this observance we visit for about ten minutes, then we have about an hour to ninety minutes of Bible study, then a closing song and prayer, and then we leave for our homes. It is really "meaningful worship." Just thought you might like to provide this to everyone. The focus of the worship is on Jesus, His love for us, and the remembering of the event.

From a Reader in North Carolina:

"Practicing Pared Patterns" was a fantastic article, brother! I had been eagerly awaiting this one! I wish every church (not just Churches of Christ) would review and study this issue. It challenges us to rethink some of our "traditions," and to explore the entirety of the Scriptures. "The sum of Thy word is truth!"

From a Reader in Texas:

I just finished reading "Practicing Pared Patterns" (as well as the other Reflections articles that were referenced). Thank you, Al, for once again providing well-researched and well-thought-out information. May God bless you in your ministry.

From a Reader in (Unknown):

Thank you for your thoughtful articles. I have appreciated your readers' comments on our methods of observing the Lord's Supper, and I certainly agree that the way we do it in our congregations could be much more "nourishing." Thanks for keeping us moving in God's direction.

From a Minister/Elder in New Jersey:

Al, It looks like you had a good response to your special request. As always, you fielded the questions and responses in a thoughtful, humble, Christ-spirited manner. Well-done! It appears to me that responses to issues of this nature often fall into two groups. One group of conservative rationalists who forbid anything not specifically approved in Scripture, and the other group of liberal rationalists who allow anything not specifically condemned in Scripture. They differ vehemently -- but they are both rationalists!

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