Admission to Holy Communion was regulated in the reformed church by means of a system of tickets, testificates or tokens. As early as 1590 the Rev Robert Bruce of Kinnaird, then minister at St Giles, Edinburgh, was presenting would-be communicants with a ‘pre-communion examination’ testing ‘doctrinal knowledge and godly living.’  Entries in our local session minutes show the criteria necessary for passing such an examination and receiving tokens. Three entries from across the centuries at Carriden show that a serious approach to the practice of the faith was called for.  In 1700 we find:

“The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper being to be celebrate at Mid-Calder Sabbath next appoints such who are known to be prayers and keepers of familie worship to have testificates for receiving tokens there.”

In 1701 mention is made of an examination of those applying for a token, presumably carried out by the minister and elders:

“The session appoints the elders to call for tickets from the m[iniste]r and eldership of Uphall to be given to such in our parish who are known to keep  up familie worship & otherwayes are praying folks & have submitted themselves to the examination, all minde to communicat [sic] there Sabbath next.”  Some idea of the nature of this ‘examination’ can be found in the work of Bruce of Kinnaird:

“Members would pass the test by reciting the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments and the Catechism.”

Sometime later, in 1861, the examination was much the same:

“Regarding…applicants for admission to the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper: Some of them repeat the Shorter Catechism admirably and appear to understand its statements…”

At Bothkennar in 1730 tokens were given to each of the elders to be distributed to “such in their several proportions as were reckoned in the judgement of Charity capable of partaking in the Lord’s Supper.” In 1732 in the same parish the session went through the parish rolls to decide who were capable to attend. By 1860 at Carriden, “those who have a desire of joining for the first time in that Holy Solemnity will have an opportunity of conversing with the Minister on the subject on Tuesday first.” At Falkirk in 1747 the session “called before them the first Communicants to whom they also distributed tokens, after they had declared their adherence to their baptismal Engagements, and willingness to ratify the same publickly at the Table of the Lord.”  A year later in the same parish it was agreed that “any who may apply for tokens whose names are not in the Lists are to be referred to the Minister or his Assistant to be conversed with before they be served.”

Those who failed to receive tokens did so for various reasons.  At Bothkennar in 1761, for example:

“Andrew Bow, James Aitken, and Charles Primrose not to be admitted to Communion, nor to present their children for Baptism” till they acknowledge their fault for working on the Sabbath.

In 1752 at Falkirk no such public denunciations were made:

“This day the Session went thro’ the Roll of Communicants and several people having some things exceptionable in their Behaviour, the Minister took a Note of their Names in order to speak with them in private.”

There is even a case from Denny of someone obtaining a token falsely in 1808:

“Compeared voluntarily William Russell of Crumnocksteps who declared before the Session, that thro’ conversation with Thomas Miller one of their number after leaving the Session last Sabbath he had been brought to recollect that he had obtained a token to the Lord’s Table from John Young his elder by falsehood and that he was sorry for the same.”

Russell had form in this regard. Two years earlier he was up before the session:

Denny Church 30thNovr. 1806

                        Which day met the Kirk Session of Denny and being constituted. Compeared William Russell of Crumnocksteps, who in consequence of an application to the Clerk for a testimonial of his character, had been by him, from understanding of the mind of the Session, desired to attend the Session at their first meeting for the purpose of conversing with him previous to granting him a testimonial  The Session considering that after the dispensation of our Lord’s Supper in December 1804 it had been agreed, in consequence of several reports to the disadvantage of the said William Russell, to advise John Young the Elder of his quarter to inform the said William Russell that it would be necessary for him to converse with the Minister before receiving a token at next communion, and that John Young had informed him accordingly and considering that notwithstanding on the Saturday before the Communion in June 1805 the said William Russell made application to the said John Young his Elder, without having conversed with the Minister, and that when enquired at by his said Elder whether he had been conversing with the Minister as he had been told he should, he said he had, and that upon receiving a token in consequence from his said Elder, he went off with it waving it in his hand and exclaiming neither he nor you, meaning neither the Minister nor John Young, would prevent him from receiving a token. Considering farther that the said William Russell had been desired several times to meet and converse with the Session on his conduct in the above affair, but that he had never done so. Considering also that the said William Russell is subject occasionally to great depression of spirits, and at other times to very high spirits and that some of the Members are not without apprehensions of his being at present in a state which renders him unfit for being a subject of discipline it was agreed to delay entering into any particulars with the said William Russell for some short time, that there might be farther opportunity of noticing his behaviour. The said William Russell who had been directed to withdraw for a little, while the Session deliberated, having been called in. the Moderator intimated to him that the Session had thought it best to delay for a little his affair, but that by & by they would converse with him in regard to it; and that he would be duly informed. The said William Russell upon this expressing great dissatisfaction, in many words: the Moderator informed him that if he were dissatisfied he might protest and appeal to the Presbytery: but that as his case could not be considered until the second Wednesday of January next it would be more advisable to delay protesting, as before that time he would have other opportunities of appearing before the Session, and if not ultimately satisfied with their conduct to him, might then in due time appeal. But the said William Russell declaring he would not delay, protested and appealed to next ordinary meeting of the Presbytery of Stirling and took instruments in the Clerks hands. The Moderator informed him that his reasons of protest and appeal must be lodged with the Clerk within ten days, and the Clerk was directed to furnish him with extracts should he require them.”

More murky work anent tokens was in evidence at Bo’ness in 1850:

“The session proceeded to consider the case of William Cunningham their officer, & in consideration of him having unwarrantably distributed tokens previous to the last dispensation of the Lord’s Supper, agree to suspend him from his duties & emoluments as Beadle.”

Tokens were handed out either after the sermon the week before the communion, at some other time deemed suitable, or from the hands of named elders as happened at Airth in 1663:

“This day was intimation made to the people of Elphingstoun to get or reserve their tickets at Alexr Jack his seat & the people of Airth at Andrew Mastarson his seat & the Carse people in the Session house.”

In Bo’ness in 1754 an elder attended “the Minister when distributing the Tokens on Friday afternoon.” In other words, after the day of fasting and humiliation.

The proceedings at Denny in 1828 are set out in some detail:

“The Minister reported that from the general understanding that the way of going to the Lord’s Table by tokens numbered 1,2,3 &c progressively, each Communicant going to the Table which is numbered in his token, gives general satisfaction, he had ordered from Edinburgh 900 tokens agreeably to what was the understanding of the session when the subject was last before them, which tokens he expects by the Coach on Saturday first… The Session agree further that the Tokens shall be distributed in the Church on the Fast Day after pronouncing the blessing, further that the Communicants be invited to come along the passage next to the Pulpit room the west to the east door to be supplied by the Minister with such number of Tokens as they may require, and that the elders be present with the Minister in the Baptism room when the tokens are distributed.”

Rather than buy tokens some churches purchased a mould to cast their own. Carriden session spent 10/6d on a token mould in 1826 as well as buying 400 tokens for 14/-.  The same was done at Falkirk in 1719: “to also look over the Tokens and if need be to cast them anew or increase their number.” Eventually they paid three pounds for three hundred tokens plus a mould.  In 1735 in the same parish they paid “John Johnstone, smith, for making 2000 tokens.”  In 1725 Bothkennar parish ordered 800 tokens to be provided, and in 1812 at Bo’ness “the Session came to a resolution to renew the Tokens and Pewter plate belonging to the Church and requested the Moderator to get them renewed upon as moderate terms, and as soon as possible.”

The local session records contain one notice of tokens being collected, in 1664 at Airth:

“This day Alexr Elphingstoun carried the Bread, John Logan the wine, Patrick Hodge made a way at the tablehead, Wm Logan, John Gillespie gathered the tokens, George Commathie made a way at the tablefoot.”

The tokens would definitely have been collected by all the other parishes as they were not something to be used again without the communicant undergoing examination of his or her knowledge of church teachings and his or her mode of life. The antiquarians who put together the information on collections of communion tokens did so by visiting individual churches and gathering details from them by inspecting the tokens still in their possession. Today it is metal detecting and archaeological digs that uncover such tokens as still exist.

Allan Ronald, 2021