“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
Stewart, Kenneth J. – ‘The Frequency of Communion Calmly Considered’ (2012) 12 paragraphs at The Gospel Coalition
Mathis, Shawn – Words of Life: the Bible & Weekly Communion (2005) 95 pp. A masters thesis
On the History of
Kuehner, Adam – ‘Calvin, Weekly Communion & the Scottish Reformed Tradition’ Download 30 pp.
MacWard, Robert – pp. 69-70 of ‘The Second Dialogue’ in The True Non-Conformist (1671)
MacWard was a Scottish covenanter who wrote much from the Netherlands. He was the disciple of Samuel Rutherford and wrote this book defending non-conformity to Episcopal Erastianism in Scotland during the era of persecution of presbyterians.
Anderson, John – ‘Of Humiliation Days Before & Thanksgiving Days After the Administration of the Lord’s Supper’ Download (1800) 30 pp. in Vindiciae Cantus Dominici
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.
Dick, John – pp. 238-40 of Lecture 92: ‘The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper’ in Lectures on Theology, vol. 4 (1834)
Lee, Francis Nigel
‘Quarterly Communion at Biblical Seasons Annually’ 2001 ed. 119 short paragraphs
Quarterly Communion at Annual Seasons 5th ed. (2003) 38 successive webpages This was part of a dissertation.
Thomson, John – Letters Addressed to the Rev. John Mason of New York, in an Answer to his Letters on Frequent Communion (Glasgow, 1801) 47 pp.
Thomas was of the Scottish Seceders.
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 (Edinburgh, 1807) 223 pp.
Hottinger, Johann Jakob – Theological Diatribe on the Frequency of Communion (Tigur, 1705) 34 pp.
Vitringa, Sr., Campegius – ‘Of the Repetition of the Sacred Supper’ of The Doctrine of the Christian Religion, Summarily Described through Aphorisms (d. 1722), vol. 8, pp. 401-6
Vitringa, Sr. (1659-1722) was a professor in Franeker and a Hebraist. “…Vitringa… maintained a fairly centrist Reformed position… Vitringa and De Moor serve as codifiers and bibliographers of the earlier tradition, the former from a federalist, the latter from a nonfederalist perspective.” – Dr. Richard Muller
The relevance of the following quote by Gillespie is that:
(1) if God reveals Himself more prominently, immediately, distinctly and with greater specificity through an ordinance, then one has greater responsibility in coming to that ordinance (and hence preparation for it); and
(2) Gillespie, a main writer of classical presbyterianism, taught this, which is in accordance with the majority, historic presbyterian view of the frequency of the Lord’s Supper.
English-Popish Ceremonies (Naphtali, 1993), pp. 218-9
“As, then, in civility, there is a respect and reverence different from adoration, so it is in religion also… We neither submit our minds nor humble [bow] our bodies to the sacrament, yet do we render to it veneration (Cartwright on 1 Cor. 11, sect. 18), forasmuch as we esteem highly of it, as a most holy thing, and meddle [handle] reverently with it, without all contempt or unworthy usage. ‘Inanimate things’, says the Archbishop of Spalato, ‘may indeed be as sacred as you please, they do not deserve other honor from us except in a negative sense (Dr Rep. Eccl., bk. 7, ch. 12, num. 50), as that they be not contemned, nor unworthily handled.
If it is said that we ought not to contemn the Word, yet has it not that respect given to it which the sacrament has, at which we are uncovered, so that this veneration given to the sacrament must be somewhat more than [the absence of] profanatio [profanation], I answer, as honor both in the positive and negative sense, has various degrees, and according to the more or less immediate manifestation of divine ordinances to us, so ought the degrees of our veneration to be intended or remitted… for the greater regard of those things which are more immediately divine, we are not in the usage of them, to take to ourselves so much scope and liberty as otherwise we may lawfully allow to ourselves in meddling with such things as are not merely, but mixedly, divine, and which are not from God so immediately as the other, but more by the intervention of means; and thus a higher degree of veneration is due to the sacrament than to the Word preached, not by taking aught from the Word, but by adding more respect to the sacrament than the Word has.
The reason hereof is given to be this, because when we come to the sacrament, ‘nothing here is human, but everything divine’ (Didoclav., ubi supra, p. 808); for Christ’s own words are, or at least should be spoken to us when we receive the sacrament, and the elements also are, by Christ’s own institution, holy symbols of his blessed body and blood; whereas the Word preached to us is but fixedly and mediately divine; and because of this intervention of the ministry of men, and mixture of their conceptions with the holy Scriptures of god, we are bidden try the spirits, and are required, after the example of the Bereans, to search the Scriptures daily, whether these things which we hear preached be so or not.
Now we are not in the like sort to try the elements, and the words of the institution, whether they be of God or not, because this is sure to all who know out of Scripture the first principles of the oracles of God. The consideration hereof warns us, that the sacrament given, according to Christ’s institution, is more merely and immediately divine than is the Word preached…”
On Weekly Communion
A Dissuasive from the Errors of the Time, wherein the Tenets of the Principal Sects, Especially of the Independents, are Drawn Together in One Map (1645), ch. 6, p. 121
“For the manner of their [Independents’] celebration, they who have seen it profess it to be in a very dead and comfortless way: it is not as in New England, once in the month, but as at Amsterdam, once every Lord’s Day, which makes the action much less solemn than in any other of the Reformed Churches, and in this too much like the daily masses of the Church of Rome.
They have no preparation of their flock before: they are so happy as to have all their members prepared always sufficiently for the Lord’s Table, from their first entrance into their Church to their dying day; for all this time there is no catechizing among them; this exercise is below their condition and altogether needless in any of their congregations. They will have no sermon in the week before, nor so much as any warning [fore-notice] of the Communion. This practice of New England, to give warning the Sabbath before, is disliked now at London: nor must there be any sermon of thanksgiving after that sacrament: They use not so much as a little application of the doctrine in the sermon before it to that occasion.
When they come to the action, there is no more but one little discourse and one short prayer of the minister; all the time of the participation, there is nothing in the congregation but a dumb silence: no reading, no exhortation, no psalms; their people need no such means to furnish them in their sacramental meditations;”
That the Lord’s Supper is Not of the Same Nature as the Preaching of the Word, & Hence Need Not Always to be Conjoined thereto in Confirmation of it
The preaching of the Word is to indiscriminate hearers, not only to the congregation, but to non-Church members and excommunicates, and is often used evangelistically not to the congregation at all, but to persons who are wholly not God’s people. The Lord’s Supper is only to those having a credible profession of faith, able to discern the meaning of the Supper, etc. (that is, to those to whom, with Christian charity, the promises of salvation apply).
The preaching of the Word is to involve the whole counsel of God. The Word attending the Supper is specifically about Christ’s death, atonement, the Covenant of Grace, etc.
The Word is not inherently a seal; it only takes on this function as it is received by faith and spiritually applied by the Holy Spirit to those things it speaks to and to the heart of the believer. The Lord’s Supper is a physical seal, and that not simply of the Word of God, but of the Covenant of Grace.
The Scriptural injunction to examine and judge oneself is made specifically to the Lord’s Supper, and not any other element of worship. That is, preparation is specifically appended to the Supper (as the Westminster Catechisms teach), whereas it is not in the same intensity of degree in all cases with the hearing of the Word. Preachers are to preach in season and out of season. The Word, by God’s design, often meets people with no preparation at all.
The sanctions, or judgments, attending the Supper are much higher than hearing the Word without faith. Persons may hear the Word without faith, and go their way, and there may not necessarily be any outward judgment at all. Such was not the case in Corinth with the Supper, with professing Christians dying from sicknesses for receiving it unworthily.
The reason why the sanctions are higher in the Supper is because there is more responsibility in the Supper. The reason why there is more responsibility in the Supper is because there is a more clear manifesting (even by sight, sound, eating, etc.) of God’s revelation and a greater spiritual communion with Christ therein, as there is a more particular and close application (by Spirit and physical sign) of the promises of the Covenant of Grace and salvation to God’s chosen and beloved people.
Also, as there is a greater revelation of God and his Covenant in the Supper, and communion with Christ therein, it is a law of natural equity (not to mention that it is evidenced throughout Scripture) that there is to be a greater preparation thereto, to come suitably for the blessing. Thus the often trotted out justification that persons come prepared for the Supper simply by their everyday spiritual maintenance in the Christian life or preparation for the worship service is inadequate and wrong. The preparation needed for the Supper is greater than that of a worship service.
In the O.T. there were plenty of times where additional preparation was required of God’s people on various occasions of the greater revelation of God and their salvation, many of those times of extra preparation being precisely the annual sacramental communion meals that all male Israelites had to attend.
The Reformation Generally
Maxwell, William – Appendix E, ‘Frequency of Communion in the Early Reformed Church’ in John Knox’s Genevan Service Book, 1556; The Liturgical Portions of the Genevan Service Book Used by John Knox While a Minister of the English Congregation of Marian Exiles at Geneva, 1556-1559 (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1931)
Earngey, Mark – ‘Soli Deo Gloria: The Reformation of Worship’ being ch. 2 of ed. Gibson & Earngey, Reformation Worship: Liturgies from the Past for the Present (New Growth, 2017), p. 39
“This [four times a year] was also [in addition to Geneva] the practice of Zwingli and Bullinger (though the 1559 publication of the Zurich rites mentions only three times). John Knox envisioned monthly Communion (as did the Palatinate Church Order), but on his return to Scotland, The First Book of Discipline (1560) modified the frequency to four times per year, and this became the practice in the Book of Common Order (1564).
Klaassens, Harry – ‘Church Life in the Seventeenth & Eighteenth Century’ in ‘The Reformed Tradition in the Netherlands’ being ch. 13 of The Oxford History of Christian Worship (Oxford, 2006), pp. 466-7
“In the seventeenth century… The intention was to celebrate the eucharist six times a year; however, liturgical freedom led in some cases to an even lower frequency, sometimes only once a year.”
p. xlix, Canon XIV of Ch. 12, ‘Of the Lord’s Supper’ (1559) in ed. John Quick, Synodicon in Gallia Reformata… (1692), vol. 1
The Church of Scotland
First Book of Discipline of the Church of Scotland 1560
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 & Observations Concerning the Worship, Discipline & 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.”
Leishman, Thomas – bottom of p. 342 to 344 in ‘The Ritual of the Church’ in ed. Story, Robert, The Church of Scotland, Past & Present, vol. 5 1890 ff.
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.
MacLeod, Ian – Ch. 6, ‘The Frequency & Mode of Sacramental Celebrations’, pp. 210-61 in The Sacramental Theology & Practice of the Reverend John Willison (1680-1750) PhD thesis (1994)
Hughes, Kenneth Grant – ch. 2, ‘The Scottish Communion & Frequency of Celebration’ in Holy Communion in the Church of Scotland in the Nineteenth Century PhD thesis (1987), pp. 11-36
Hughes surveys and documents the trend, beginning in the early-1800’s, for more frequent communion in Scotland. Some of this trend was good, as implemented by the Free Church of Scotland, for instance, though much of it devolved into daily or weekly communion.
On the Westminster Assembly
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.
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 & Notes, pp. 115-34
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.
Robert Baillie (1602-62), Letters & 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 & the Scottish Reformed Tradition’ (2014), pp. 10-12
“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.”