Sunday, April 13, 2014

Covenanter Communion Tokens

A Covenanter CT was sold on ebay this week. These are rare pieces -- I have never seen one offered before, so I decided to take a closer look in this post rather than wait for a market review.
     The auction ended four days ago with quartet of determined bidders pushing the hammer price to $355 after 13 bids. The CT was sold by comtok who relayed to me a "feeling of loss" just after listing his prized piece. I know this feeling: after all, we have to pass our tokens on to the next collector at some point. I am sure the new owner is excited -- that can be comforting for the seller.
     This particular Covenanter CT carried the phrase: holi/ (obverse); the/lord (reverse). It was a cast rectangle, in lead, with hand-cut letters -- all in lower case. The piece was from Burzinski's collection and is the plate specimen. It is the only Covenanter CT pictured in his catalog.
     This token, along with four other Covenanter CTs, are illustrated in Brook. All of them are mavericks. As such, Brook did not number them (but Burzinski did: BZ7511 to BZ7515). As Brook put it: "None of them mentions a date or the locality whence the tokens emanated, nor do they bear the initials or names of the ministers by whose orders they were made."
     Burzinski listed a sixth Covenanter CT as BZ7516. This one is round. It was apparently documented by Rev. H.A. Whitlaw but destroyed in 1909 -- so none are known to exist(?).
     So when were these tokens made and used? Brook explained: "Although the struggle against Episcopacy commenced in 1638, it was not till the Restoration in 1660 that the ministers had to leave their churches. Previous to this there is no doubt they used the existing tokens of the churches where they officiated and celebrated the Lord's Supper. When field conventicles began in 1663 it became necessary for them to have tokens of their own, and it was probably at that date or a little later that these tokens were made."
     Let me provide a little clarification of this history. Most of you are probably aware of the tumultuous history of the Scottish reformation. Protestant opinions reached Scotland soon after the movement gained momentum in Germany. The heretical ideas challenged the ascendency of the Roman Catholic polity and were summarily squashed. One of the first such actions was the burning at the stake of Patrick Hamilton on February 28, 1528. More executions followed. Even the bold and fiery John Knox was threatened with an assassination plot, but he was unmoved: "As for the fear of danger that may come to me, let no man be so solicitous; for my life is in the custody of him whose glory I seek" [June 16th, 1559 at St. Andrews].
Five Covenanter CTs illustrated
by Brook.
     It was this devotion among the early Presbyterians -- fueled in no small part by the recent history of struggle, that led to a series of pacts made to bound themselves to the Presbyterian doctrine and polity. The covenant of 1581 forwarded by John Craig, known as the National Covenant or King's Confession is considered to be the pivotal event, as it harshly denounced Popery and the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. It was endorsed by James VI of Scotland and enacted into law.
     When James VI became the King of England in 1603, he lost interest in the cause and eventually reversed his position. In 1618, the Articles of Perth were introduced to force the Presbyterians to adopt practices consistent with the Anglican church. James I reminded the prelates that the sword was in their hands, and they should not let it rust. So too, Charles I attempted to force Anglicanism upon his Scottish subjects, introducing the Book of Canons in 1636.
     The Covenant was reaffirmed in 1638 at a Presbyterian assembly in Glasgow. The Articles of Perth were declared unlawful and the Book of Canons was condemned. But all this was to no avail.
     Following the execution of Charles I in 1649, the Presbyterians suffered during the Civil War at the hands of Cromwell, as the Presbyterians were considered to be insurgents. When Charles II ascended to the throne in 1660 (note that he was crowned in Scotland in 1651 by supporting the Presbyterians), the push to suppress the Presbyterian polity continued with a renewed vigor. In fact, Charles II renounced the covenants, declaring them unlawful in 1662 with the Adjuration Act. All ministers who refused to recognize the authority of the bishops were to be expelled in October 1662 (an extension was given until February 1663 when it was discovered that many ministers had refused to succumb).
     After February 1663 -- as mentioned by Brook -- many ministers resigned, and the Covenanters began to meet in secret. These rebel ministers preached in the glens -- the meetings were known as conventicles. It was a capital offense to attend these treasonous gatherings, but the meetings continued until the Presbyterianism was restored by law in 1688. It was at the conventicles that Covenanter CTs are thought to be used (1663 through 1688).
     Certainly one of the allures of CT collecting is their association with this history of devotion and perseverance in the face of grave danger. The Covenanter token sold this week was born of this tumult.
     No wonder comtok was reluctant to part with it. I want to thank comtok for providing some of the info included in this posting. He has many CTs coming up for sale in the next few weeks!


  1. I think you have probably just identified the Grail of the Scottish series or indeed the five Grails.

  2. A reference to Covenanter tokens can be found in a Vol. 17 of "A Photographic Atlas of The Oliver Keith Rumbel Church Token Collection", a type written compendium put together in 1965, illustrating part of an enormous collection, now in the custody of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

    Accompanying the photographs is the following annotation: “The originals of the only set of five known varieties of Covenanter Tokens used in Scotland (Brook 1907) were returned to the Scottish people as a gift by Mr. and Mrs. Oliver Keith Rumbel of Mission, Texas, on July 5, 1965, and placed in the National Museum of Antiquities, Edinburgh, Scotland. The set shown in this Volume is a replica of the originals.”

    The Atlas also illustrates tokens of the same design, apparently used in Ireland. The annotation to these states: “Covenanters in Ireland used similar tokens. The only known set of these is in the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin, where the replicas shown in this volume were cast.” Six tokens are illustrated, the token bearing the legends 'holi nes-to / the lord', being represented by two specimens.

    The Irish tokens are listed in "A Catalogue of the Irish Traders' Tokens in the Collection of the Royal Irish Academy", by R. A. S. Macalister: Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Section C: Vol. 40 (1931/1932), p. 173, no. 981.

  3. The National Museums of Scotland has a set of these Covenanter Tokens as illustrated by Brook. They are somehow more attractive with their terse verses than the more standard tokens from later years. I conserved this set for display in the new Museum of Scotland back in 1998 as they were suffering from corrosion of the lead, a common problem with tokens. I have conserved many hundreds of lead communion tokens for various museums using an electrolytic reduction process - with good results. Will Murray ACR, The Scottish Conservation Studio.