Monday, September 13, 2010

Communion Tokens

Have I mentioned that I love podcasts? They really are about the best thing ever. I subscribe to more than I could ever listen to in a hundred lifetimes. In pathetic effort to clear the back-log I listened to four or five of Radio Four's Making History programs while driving on Saturday.

A story from the June 29th episode made me think of the Scottish emigrant experience. (click here for a link to the program) The presenter visited the Isle of Bute to see the local museum's collection of Communion Tokens. These tokens were an entry ticket to communion. No token, no communion. It seems that the church community decided who was good enough and who was not. I can't even begin to imagine the social pressure to conform to expected behavioral norms that this would have caused. Especially, since until the 18th century many crime against God and the Church, like adultery and blasphemy, were also crimes in the eyes of the State. I wonder if these strict morals also caused some people to drop out, as it were, thinking "I can never be that good, so why bother?"

The Church of Scotland eventually decided on infrequent Communion, meaning that each parish only held it about once a year. Consequently, it became a REALLY big deal. They turned into four-day events known as Holy Fairs with sermons, fasting, question-time, and debate. Many people travelled about going to communion in different parishes. 

Communion tokens and Holy Fairs were such an important part of the Scottish Presbyterian experience, that it travelled the oceans with them and both are seen in America. Religious debate in Scotland informed church practice in America and traditional Presbyterian practice remained strong in the Ohio Valley well into the 19th century. There is even a tiny bit of evidence that a Holy Fair or two occurred at Scotch Settlement. However, I would imagine morality became harder to police in America as it was so easy for people to pick and move or attend a church of a different denomination. Those who came to America to practice their faith as they saw fit, also had the freedom to dissent from it.

Holy Fairs: Scotland and the Making of American Revivalism  For a detailed and informative discussion of Holy Fairs in Scotland and America and Scotland's influence on the Great Awakenings see Holy Fairs by Leigh Eric Schmidt. This link is to the 2nd edition of the work with updates and a new preface. I read the 1st edition, published in 1990. Warning: unless there were massive rewrites in the 2nd edition, this work is for the keen historian; even I found it tedious to read.

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