Tuesday, January 5, 2016

When did Communion tokens start?

The origin of the Communion token is a matter of some conjecture. There is a standard belief that the Communion token begins with John Calvin, reformer and father of the Reformed family of churches.

In a letter to the Council of Geneva, dated 1560, Calvin wrote, “…[Il] serait bon que pour éviter le danger de ceux qui profanent la cène, lesquels on ne peut tout connaître, il serait bon de faire des marreaux et que, advenant le jour de la cène, chacun allât prendre des marreaux pour ceux de sa maison qui seraient instruits et les étrangers qui viennent ayant rendu témoignage de leur foi en pourront aussi prendre et ce qui n’en auront point n’y seront pas admis.”

Translation: “It would be good, to avoid the danger of those who profane the Lord’s Supper, of which one cannot know everyone, it would be good to make tokens and when the day of the Lord’s Supper comes, each [member] would go and get tokens for those in their households that have received instruction, and the strangers who come, having given witness to their faith, would receive them as well, and that those who have no token should not be admitted to the Supper.”

The reference to the tokens (marreaux) is the earliest written record, and as such has been regarded as the beginning of the Communion token.

Certainly there have been signs (the Latin word for token is ‘signum’, from which we get our word ‘sign’) and tokens used in the church prior to 1560. An early sign was in the days of persecution of the church. A Christian meeting someone whose faith was in doubt would make a curved sign in the dirt and the other, if a Christian also, would know to make a corresponding curved sign completing the simple picture of a fish. Why a fish? Because in Greek the first letter of the words for “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Saviour” ΙΧΘΥΣ is the word ‘fish’.

Tokens were used for special purposes in the middle ages. I have an example of a centuries old clay token of the True Cross. These tokens were made of clay which held shavings purportedly from the true cross of Jesus and distributed to crowds when the true cross was paraded for all to see. Some say that the vast number of tokens made would have whittled the cross to a very small size.

The Communion token, however, was a later addition to the exonumia of the church. Did it begin with Calvin, or did he simply mention a practice that had already begun in some congregations?

I tend to prefer the latter explanation, specifically because of a token I have that is dated 1553. I bought this token many years ago in an auction in Canada. It was simply listed as a French Communion token dated 1553. The cross radiate on one side and the chalice and dove on the other make this almost certain. To be certain, I have had the token viewed by Museums in both Britain and France that have large collections of Communion tokens, and they agreed with the original designation: a French Communion token. Neither said anything about the date.

So the question is this: Is the date 1553 accurate or is the token antedated to the founding of the issuing congregation?

There is a single clue. As a former collector of Scottish coinage and having seen corresponding French coinage, I know that a regular feature of coins of both countries from the 1550’s is the use of annulets (circles or haloes) over the royal initials and dates. This is a feature of this token as well, suggesting to me that the date is accurate.

Unfortunately, the congregation is not named and the exact origin of the token must remain uncertain, but it remains for me a piece of evidence that the use of the token preceded Calvin’s letter, at least to a limited degree.
The token measures 37.3 x 32 mm, is 3.4 mm thick, and weighs 17.6 grams.


  1. David Powell (British Communion Tokens - 'Mernick.org.uk' ) also notes that Mereaux may have been used by the Huguenots in 1531 but gives no source. The mereau (L. merere - to be worthy of) existed pre reformation & was distributed to those in religious institutions entitled to take communion - it later had monetary value for alms.
    In post Reformation France there were two main types & a variety of individual issues. The main types were the Bergere with Christ depicted as the Shepherd and the surrounding sheep as His flock, the other was the 'coupe' depicting a communion cup (c.f. your example). A listing of varieties is found in " Les Mereaux de Communion des Eglises protestants de France et du Refuge : Delormeau . Musee du Desert, Millet 1999. This listing however does not include your example. I acquired another example incorporating both coupe & bergere designs ex Noble & Merchant from Simmons Mailbid auction MB73 in June 2015. This token was not identified as such in the description but is clearly a mereau. More recently (22/12/15) a copper example of the bergere type sold on Ebay for c. $160 US.

    The use of Mereaux following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the Huguenots going into the 'Desert' is very similar in most respects to use by the Covenanters/Cameronians in Scotland at much the same time and in like circumstances. The tokens being used as a pass (c.f. early use of the fish symbol you refer to). Illustrations of the 'Desert' meetings as seen in the Musee protestant de La Rochelle could easily be taken to represent a conventicle. The tradition continues in the Blanket Preachings at Yarrow some 15 miles from here while another church in the area still makes symbolic use of tokens.

    In the same way as communion tokens spread through the Scottish diaspora so the mereaux spread to the Huguenot 'Eglises du Refuge' in Germany, England,Denmark & the Low Countries.

  2. Thanks for the comments. I sent this 1553 token to the Musée du Désert and the curator believes it to be a Protestant méreau. (He also would love to have it for the collection there!) It is interesting that Delormeau also distinguishes between méreaux and Communion tokens, suggesting they are not the same thing, though he does not indicate where he sees differences. If he is correct, perhaps the Communion token per se begins in Scotland rather than on the continent.