The Frequency of the Lord’s Supper

“For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come.  Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.  But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup.”

1 Cor. 11:26-28

.

.

Order of Contents

Start Here
Treatises
History of
      Church of Scotland
      Westminster Assembly

.

.

Start Here

Contemporary

Short

Stewart, Kenneth J. – The Frequency of Communion Calmly Considered  2012  12 paragraphs  at The Gospel Coalition

Longer

Mathis, Shawn – Words of Life: the Bible and Weekly Communion  2005  95 pp.  A masters thesis

.

On the History of

Kuehner, Adam – ‘Calvin, Weekly Communion, and the Scottish Reformed Tradition’  Download  30 pp.  This article can be downloaded for free by opening a free Lulu account.

.

.

Treatises

Articles

1800’s

Anderson, John – ‘Of Humiliation Days Before and Thanksgiving Days After the Administration of the Lord’s Supper’  Download  1800  30 pp.  in Vindiciae Cantus Dominici   This article can be read for free and downloaded in a contemporary format by signing up for a free Lulu account.

Anderson was a minister in the Associate Presbytery in Pennsylvania, who came from the Anti-Burgher Secession Church in Scotland.

This and the two works immediately below were responses to John Mitchell Mason (1770-1829), a minister of the Associate Reformed Church (in America) who had just written Letters on Frequent Communion, anonymously, in defense of observing the Lord’s Supper whenever the church meets together. 

Thomson, John – Letters Addressed to the Rev. John Mason of New York, in an Answer to his Letters on Frequent Communion  1801  47 pp.  Glasgow

Thomas was of the Scottish Seceders.

.

2000’s

Lee, Francis Nigel

Quarterly Communion at Biblical Seasons Annually  2001 edition  119 short paragraphs

Quarterly Communion at Annual Seasons  2003  5th edition  38 successive webpages  This was part of a dissertation.

.

Book

Duncan, Alexander – A Disquisition on the Observance of the Lord’s Supper, with a View to the Defence of the Presbyterian Plan of Administering that Ordinance, with an Appendix, a Short Review of Mr. Mason’s Letters on Communion, pts. 1, 2, 3  1807  223 pp.  Edinburgh

.

.

History of

.

The Church of Scotland

First Book of Discipline of the Church of Scotland, 9th Head  1560

“It appertains to the policy of the church to appoint the times when the sacraments shall be ministered…

Four times in the year we think sufficient to the administration of the Lord’s Table, which we desire to be distinct, that the superstition of times may be avoided so far as may be.  Your honors are not ignorant how superstitiously the people run to that action at Pasche, even as [if] the time gave virtue to the sacrament; and how the rest of the whole year they are careless and negligent, as that it appertains not unto them but at that time only…

We do not deny but that any several church, for reasonable causes, may change the time, and may minister oftener; but we study to suppress superstition.  All ministers must be admonished to be more careful to instruct the ignorant than ready to satisfy their appetites;”

.

Walter Stewart of Pardovan, Collections and Observations Concerning the Worship, Discipline and Government of the Church of Scotland, 1709

15.  Secret Preparation

It is so far from being a warrant and satisfying to a man’s conscience for approaching the Lord’s Table because the discipline of the church admits him, that even a man habitually gracious and prepared will not for ordinary adventure to approach it except he has made conscience of getting himself actually prepared and his graces put in exercise, and set apart some considerable time for that purpose.

.

Willison, John – Preface, pp. VIII-X  in A Sacramental Catechism  d. 1750

Willison, an early-mid 1700’s evangelical and orthodox minister in the Church of Scotland, who wrote classics on the Lord’s Supper, exhorts his readers to a ‘frequent’ partaking of the Lord’s Supper.  Yet, he speaks of his satisfaction of a quarterly observance as meeting this requirement, and elsewhere throughout his works assumes and argues for a full communion season.  This shows how the language of Westminster was understood as harmonious with the Scottish practice.


.

.

On the Westminster Assembly

Minutes

Gillespie, George – p. 102, June 5  in Notes of Debates and Proceedings of the Assembly of Divines and Other Commissioners at Westminster  1846

This passage is important as it shows what ‘frequently’ in the Westminster Directory for Public Worship meant:

The majority of the Assembly, being presbyterian, thought that observing the Lord’s Supper at least four times a year fulfilled the Scriptural requirement for it to be ‘frequent’.  Gillespie objected to putting a number on it, which goes further than Scripture and proposed that it be left to human discretion.  Newcomen had Independent leanings (see his book Irenicum) and said that ‘all the new gathered churches’, that is, the Independents, observed the Lord’s Supper every Lord’s Day.  To avoid a prolonged debate on the issue, both sides could agree on the wording which was adopted, that the Supper was to be administered ‘frequently’.

That is the answer to what ‘frequently’ was intended to mean: it allowed for both sides, each side being able to agree on it.  However see the larger context in the Directory below, which does not so easily agree with weekly communion.

.

The Westminster Confession of Faith

Westminster Confession 23.5 classes the Lord’s Supper as a part of the ‘ordinary religious worship of God’:

“The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear; the sound preaching, and conscionable hearing of the word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith and reverence; singing of psalms with grace in the heart; as also the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ; are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God:”

This is sometimes used as an argument that the Lord’s Supper ought to be as frequent as preaching, etc.  However this classification puts baptism in the same category, which has its own qualifications limiting how frequent this is done, it not being done, usually, every Lord’s Day.  As is seen above and below, the greater context of Westminster considered quarterly communion, for instance, to be an ‘ordinary’ part of worship, whereas religious oaths, vows and other parts may not be that frequent.

The paragraph in the Confession continues:

“…beside religious oaths and vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivings upon special occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in a holy and religious manner.”

Sometimes it is argued that ‘Communion seasons’ must be classed with these parts of religious worship for special occasions, taking place in their several times and ‘seasons’.  The ‘season’ of ‘Communion season’, though, refers to the extended length of time involved in preparing for, celebrating and giving thanks for the Communion, whereas the Confessions use of ‘season’ refers to a prolonged period of the year or the times in which certain fitting circumstances are present.  It is not clear that the term ‘Communion season’ was in use in the 1640’s; rather, it is likely that term was coined and popularized much later.  The similarity of the term being used in the Confession and in the later term is purely equivocal and incidental.  If there were any doubt, as is seen documented above and below, the Westminster context was largely practicing ‘communion seasons’, and yet they considered them an ‘ordinary’ part of worship, as they considered this to be with in the bounds of the Supper being ‘frequently’ observed.

.

The Westminster Directory of Public Worship

A key passage in the Directory is:

“The communion, or supper of the Lord, is frequently to be celebrated; but how often, may be considered and determined by the ministers, and other church-governors of each congregation, as they shall find most convenient for the comfort and edification of the people committed to their charge. And, when it shall be administered, we judge it convenient to be done after the morning sermon…

Where this sacrament cannot with convenience be frequently administered, it is requisite that publick warning be given the sabbath-day before the administration thereof: and that either then, or on some day of that week, something concerning that ordinance, and the due preparation thereunto, and participation thereof, be taught; that, by the diligent use of all means sanctified of God to that end, both in publick and private, all may come better prepared to that heavenly feast.”

Some (such as Richard Bacon, Westminster Standards & the Frequency of the Lord’s Supper) have made the first sentence of the second paragraph out to mean that ‘frequently’ meant, or lent itself to, a weekly observance.  Only if the Supper could not be observed weekly, then public notices were to be made in advance for upcoming weeks.

However, this is far from the case, as is confirmed by the materials below.

As the minutes (above) show, the majority of the presbyterian assembly thought that quarterly communion fulfilled the obligation of ‘frequently’.  Where the Supper was not being frequently observed at such regular intervals known beforehand, then when the travelling minister showed up to the rural town in order provide the Supper for them, he was to give at least a week’s notice (as opposed to simply observing the supper that day or next day, as weekly-advocates might do) so that persons may take ‘all means’ to preparing thereto. 

‘All means’ included all ‘public’ means, which included, according to the passage, prior, public, preparatory instruction the Sabbath before or on a mid-week day.  Naturally, if taking ‘all means’ was a moral requirement for the infrequent celebration of the Supper, it is also naturally a requirement for the frequent administration of the Supper to be rightfully observed.  Having a public, preparatory service before the Lord’s Supper on the Sabbath, as a rule on a regular basis, is virtually exclusive of weekly communion.

Dr. Bacon, in his article advocating weekly communion, is quick to remove the necessity for such a public, preparatory service.  However the Westminster Directory requires it by inference for the ‘frequent’ observance of the Supper.

The principle in the Directory for taking ‘all means’ for rightly observing the Supper is Scriptural and puritan.  Whatever God commands, we ought to do it personally, fully and spiritually, with all of our heart, soul and strength (as Jesus said, Mk. 12:30.  Or, as the Larger Catechism states it in #93:

“The moral law is the declaration of the will of God to mankind, directing and binding every one to personal, perfect, and perpetual conformity and obedience thereunto, in the frame and disposition of the whole man, soul and body, and in performance of all those duties of holiness and righteousness which he oweth to God and man…”

Jesus, rightly, sets the Law at the highest, spiritual bar (see the Sermon on the Mount, Mt. 5-7).  Hence the puritans (in contrast to the minimalist approach of much of Christianity in our own era) sought to fully please the Lord according to his will in all of his Revealed Will, including observing the Supper with all of their spiritual might so as to fill up the glory of God due in it.  Thus, the requirements for what a right observance of the Supper includes, according to the Westminster Larger are detailed, full and stringent, according to the full teaching of Scripture and the nature of the Sacrament (read Larger Catechism #171-175).

The Lord’s Supper is a public Sacrament for the whole congregation (not to be distributed privately, according to Scripture and the Reformation) and the elders of the Church have a responsibility and obligation to see that the people prepare themselves adequately for the Supper.  Hence, in conformity with the public, corporate nature of the Supper and the nature of the Church, their ought to be, as the Directory spells out, public preparations for the Supper.  All of this together excludes weekly communion as a regular practice.

.

Articles

M’Crie, Charles –  ‘The Frequency of Communion’  1892  3 pp.  in The Public Worship of Presbyterian Scotland, Historically Treated, pp. 443-445  Cunningham Lectures

M’Crie was a minister in the Free Church of Scotland.  The larger work has been an old classic on the history of Scottish worship.

Leishman, Thomas – ‘Of the Celebration of the Communion’  1901  19 pp.  in The Westminster Directory, with an Introduction and Notes, pp. 115-134

This is the most historically detailed commentary on the Directory, though do be aware that Leishman (1825-1904) was part of the Liturgical Renewal movement in late-1800’s Scotland, which philosophy of worship was directly contrary to the Biblical simplicity of worship contained in the Westminster Directory.

.

Quotes

Robert Baillie (1602-62), Letters and Journals, 2.148-149  Scottish Commissioner to the Westminster Assembly

“Our paper anent the Sacraments we gave in.  We agreed, so far as we went, except in a table [to be used in the Lord’s Supper].  Here all of them oppose us, and we them.  They will not, and says the people, will never, yield to alter their practice.  They are content of sitting, albeit not as of a rite institute; but to come out of their pews to a table, they deny the necessity of it: we affirm it necessary, and will stand to it. 

The Independents’ way of celebration, seems to be very irreverent: They have the communion every Sabbath, without any preparation before or thanksgiving after; little examination of people; their very prayers and doctrine before the sacrament uses [is accustomed] not to be directed to the use of the sacrament.  They have, after the blessing, a short discourse, and two short graces over the elements, which are distribute[d] and participate[d] in silence, without exhortation, reading, or singing, and all is ended with a psalm, without prayer.”

.

Adam Kuehner,  ‘Calvin, Weekly Communion, and the Scottish Reformed Tradition’, 10-12 pp.  2014

“The Westminster Assembly’s ‘Directory for the Publick Worship of
God’
, which was adopted by the Church of Scotland in 1645,
contained the following statement on communion frequency.

‘The communion, or supper of the Lord, is frequently to be celebrated; but how often, may be considered and determined by the ministers, and other church-governors of each congregation, as they shall find most convenient for the comfort and edification of the people committed to their charge.’

At the very least, the foregoing statement indicates a rejection of divinely-mandated weekly communion, since it leaves frequency up to the church courts.  However, it is particularly helpful to consider the communion practices of the seventeenth century Church of Scotland, the only church to actually adopt and enforce the directory.

Without a doubt, the seventeenth century Church of Scotland did not practice (or even attempt to practice) weekly communion.  Rather, it embraced the quarterly practice and disciplinary rationale outlined by Knox in the Book of Discipline.  Sherman Isbell observes, 

‘The seriousness with which the authorities approached the Examination is indicated by a postponement of the communion at St. Andrews in 1600.  After six weeks of examining the parish population, in which the communicants alone numbered over three thousand, the sacrament was delayed a week to allow the examination to be completed.

In 1645 the General Assembly confirmed that this long-standing custom of examining congregations prior to communion was to be continued. Into the middle of the seventeenth century, the Examination constituted a demanding responsibility for ministers, who could be excused from meetings of Presbytery to allow them time for preparing the people in this way for the Lord’s Supper.’ (‘The Administration of the Lord’s Supper’, p. 18)

Clearly, the Church of Scotland would never have adopted the Westminster Directory if it had understood it to mandate or even encourage a level of communion frequency that would prevent the examination of communicants. Therefore, its adoption of the directory indicates that it understood this document to be perfectly suited for use within the context of quarterly communion.¹

¹ It should be noted that Scottish communion frequency is too often viewed in a simplistic manner. Some rural Scottish congregations celebrated the Lord’s Supper only once or twice per year, while others kept a quarterly schedule. Nevertheless, the common practice of parishioners communing in adjacent parishes meant that many were able to commune more frequently than four times per year. This fact is often overlooked.”

.

.

.

Related Pages

The Lord’s Supper

Communion Seasons

Preparing for the Lord’s Supper

Bible Verses on Preparation for Communion with God

The Administration of the Lord’s Supper

The Common Cup

Sitting at the Table

Communion Sermons and Table Addresses

Common Bread

Wine

Intinction

All the Works of the Westminster Divines on the Lord’s Supper

Paedocommunion

The Mass – Transubstantiation