A Treatise on the Use of The Communion Table, in Celebrating the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

By James Begg


Section Four. The use of the Communion Table in celebrating the Sacrament of our Lord’s Supper, is in conformity with the .laws, and authorized practice of the Established Church of Scotland, since the Reformation.


The late innovation of substituting pews for the Communion Table, is a violation of the laws of the Established Church of Scotland, and a departure from the constant authorized practice of the Church. At the Reformation, our pious ancestors in Scotland endeavored to bring every part of the public worship of god to the Scripture pattern, and particularly the manner of celebrating the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper. They acted on that leading principle of the Reformation, “That the holy Scriptures are the only infallible rule of faith and practice.” On this principle, they removed from the manner of celebrating this ordinance, not only the superstitious and idolatrous practices, which had been introduced in the darkest ages of popery, which had been introduced in the darkest ages of popery, but even some unscriptural practices which had obtained among the Fathers in the early ages of the Christian Church.

It was an early practice to give the sacrament to children, which our ancestors in Scotland rejected as contrary to Scripture, because they were not able to examine themselves as directed by the Apostle, 1 cor. 11:28. It was an early practice to send the consecrated elements from the Communion Table to people in their private houses, especially the sick, there being no authority from Scripture for such disorderly and private administration. It was the early practice for the communicants to stand around the Communion Table, and sometimes to kneel, which practices were rejected by our Presbyterian ancestors, as not agreeable to the pattern exhibited by Christ and the Apostles, at the institution of that ordinance, nor to our table posture; and the posture of sitting at the Communion Table was adopted, as most conformable to both. It was an early practice for each communicant to receive the elements from the officiating minister; but our Presbyterian ancestors rejected this, and the nearest communicant received the bread and wine from the officiating minister, and then passed them from hand to hand, because Christ said, Luke 22:17, “Take this and divide it among yourselves,” which, though applicable to the cup in the Passover, was considered by them as equally applicable to the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper.

At the Reformation in Scotland, and the times immediately following, there was no dispute among our ancestors whether there should be a Communion Table. In the twenty-third Chapter of the Confession of Faith, agreed on by the General Assembly, 1560, the Communion Table is expressly mentioned. It is there called “the holy table, and table of the Lord Jesus.” In the first Book of Discipline, agreed on by the Assembly, 1560, and ratified by the Privy Council the same year, it is distinctly stated, head second, that “the table of the Lord is then most rightly ministered when it approacheth mot near to Christ’s own action. But plain it is, that at supper Christ Jesus sat with his disciples; and therefore do we judge that sitting at a table is most convenient to that holy action;” and in head ninth, under the title of reparation of Kirks, it is provided, that “every Kirk must have doors; close windows of glass; thatch able to withhold rain; a bell to convocate the people together; a pulpit; a bason for baptizing; and TABLES for ministration of the Lord’s Supper.

Ministers were enjoined by Act of Assembly, in December 1562, that in the ministration of the sacraments, they should observe the order of the English Kirk at Geneva, where Mr. Knox had been sometime minister. This Act was renewed by the Assembly, 1564; and the order of Geneva for ministration of the sacraments, etc. was usually prefixed to the version of the Psalms then used in the Church of Scotland, and was the Directory for worship then observed, commonly called the Book of Common order. This order expressly mentions sitting at the Communion Table, and refers throughout to that practice. In the exhortation before dispensing the sacrament, the minister says, “In the name and authortie of the eternall God, and of his Sonn Jesus Christ, I excommunicate from this Table all blasphemers of God, all idolaters, all murtherers, all adulterers, all that be in malice or envie, all disobedient persons to father or mother;” etc. etc. charging them, as they will [“]answere in the presence of him who is the righteous Judge, that they presume not to prophane this most holy table,” etc. etc. On the other hand, the minister encourageth the penitent in terms of that order, “Seeing that our Lord hath indued us with will and desire to renounce and withstande our owne affections, with a longing for his righteousnesse, and the keeping of his commaundementes, we may be now right well assured, that those defaultes and manifold imperfections in us, shall be no hinderance at all against us, to cause him not to accept and impute us as worthie to come to his spirituall table,” etc. etc. The order proceeds thus, “The exhortation ended, the minister commeth downe from the pulpit, and sitteth at the table, every man and woman in likewise taking their place as occasion best serveth; then he taketh bread and giveth thankes, either in these words following, or like effect.” Here follows the form of blessing or consecration. “This done,” saith the order, “The minister breaketh the bread, and delivereth it to the people, who distribute and divide the same among themselves, according to our Saviour Christ’s commandement, and likewise giveth the cuppe. During which time some place of the Scriptures is read, which doth lively set forth the death of Christ,” etc. etc. After this the minister giveth thanks in the manner there directed. Then the order proceeds, “the action thus ended, the people sing the 103d Psalme, My soul give laude unto the Lord, etc. or some other thanksgiving, which ended, one of the blessings before mentioned is recited;” namely, those in Numb. 6:24-25, and 2 Cor. 13:14, “and so they rise from the table and depart.”

Such is the order of the English Kirk of Geneva,[1]which was observed in the Church of Scotland by enactment of the General Assembly, 1562 and 1564, subsequent to the Reformation, and frequently referred to in after times as the practice of our Church. In this order, sitting at the Communion Table is prominently presented to our attention. The table is called the “holy table, the spiritual table, and every man and woman take their place at the table, as occasion best serveth.”

At and after the Reformation, there was a party attached to the Episcopal forms of worship and government, which considerably increased after the accession of James VI to the throne of England. That Prince favored the Episcopalians, and exerted himself greatly in their behalf. Under the influence of the Court, the General Assembly which met at Perth in the year 1618, enacted that communicants should kneel at the Communion Table, and other things favorable to the Episcopal form of worship. These were usually called the articles of Perth. This was the cause of much confusion and dissention in Scotland, and for some time both the practice of kneeling and of sitting at the Communion Table obtained, and caused much dispute. Those attached to Episcopacy, insisted on the practice of kneeling, while the Presbyterians considered sitting as more agreeable to the Scripture pattern, and our own table posture. This struggle continued for nearly twenty years, until the meeting of the General Assembly at Glasgow, in the year 1638. In that Assembly the Articles of Perth were condemned, and the order of Geneva was again approved as a directory for worship, and the ministration of the sacraments. The Presbyterian form of worship and government now acquired the ascendancy; the order of Geneva was observed, and the communicants came in companies, and sat down at the Communion Table, according to that order. In this state, matters continued until the meeting of the Assembly at Westminster, in July 1643.

The object of this Assembly was to unite the whole island in one Confession of Faith, one form of Church Government, and one directory for the worship of God. It was then designed to establish the form observed by the Presbyterian Church of Scotland; and commissioners from the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland were sent to the Westminster Assembly, to assist in this good work. Our commissioners, it appears, had to struggle about the Communion Table, both with the Episcopalians, on the one hand, and the Independents, on the other. On the 20th of May, 1644, they wrote a letter to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, giving an account of their progress, in which they say, “We cannot but admire the good hand of God in the things done already;” and among other things they state, “that altars were removed, and the communion in some places given at the tables, with sitting.”

In a letter from the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland to the Westminster Assembly, dated June 4, 1644, they say, “We are greatly refreshed to hear by letters from our commissioners there with you, of your praiseworthy proceedings, and of the great things the Lord hath wrought among you, and for you;” and, among other things, they congratulate them, “That the sacraments were sincerely administered, according to the pattern in the mount,” referring to the account received by them of the “communion being given at the table, with sitting.”

The struggle, however, with the Episcopalians, was then short, and the victory was easily obtained. But very different was the case with the Independents. The struggle between our Presbyterian commissioners and the Independents in the Westminster Assembly, respecting the Communion Table, was long and arduous. The Independents warmly opposed the use of a Communion Table, and going in companies to the table, according to the practice of our Presbyterian Church. Principal Baillie of Glasgow College, one of the commissioners from the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland to the Westminster Assembly, gives, in his letters, an account of that opposition, from which I make the following extracts: --

In Letter fort-fifth, dated London, April 2, 1644, he says, “Our paper anent the sacraments we gave in. We agreed, so far as we went, except in a table. Here all of them oppose us and we them. They will not, and say the people will never, yield to alter their practice. They are content with 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 celebrating 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 are 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 distributed and participate in silence, without exhortation, reading, or singing, and all is ended with a psalm, without a prayer.”

In Letter sixty-four, June 1644, he says, “We are proceeding in our Assembly. This day, before noon, we got sundry propositions of our directory for the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper passed; but in the afternoon we could not move one inch. The unhappy Independents would mangle that sacrament. No catechizing nor preparation before; no thanksgiving after; no sacramental doctrine, or chapters in the day of celebration; no coming up to any table; but a carrying of the elements to all in their seats athort the Church; yet all this, with God'’ help, we have carried over their bellies to our practice. But exhortations at tables we yet stick at. They would have no words spoken at all. Nye would be at covering the head at receiving; we must dispute every inch of our ground. Great need had we of the prayers of all God’s people.”

In Letter sixty-sixth, June 28, he says, “This day we were vexed also in the Assembly; we thought we had passed with consent sitting at the table; but behold Mr. Nye, Mr. Goodwin, and Bridges, cast all in the hows, denying to us the necessity of all in their seats, without coming up to a table. Messrs. Henderson, Rutherford, and Gillespie, all three disputed exceedingly well for it, with arguments unanswerable; yet not one of the English did join with us, only Mr. Assessor Burgess, who was then in the chair, beginning to speak somewhat for us, but a little too vehemently, was so met with by the Independents, that a shameful and long clamour ended their debate.”

In Letter sixty-seventh, July 5, 1644, he says, “As for the Assembly, these three weeks Mr. Nye, and his good friend Mr. Herle, have kept us on one point of our Directory alone, the recommending of the communicants coming up to the table to communicate. Their way of communicating, of some at the table, and some about it, without any succession of companies to more tables, is that whereon we stick, and are likely to stick longer.”

In Letter sixty-eight, July 12, he says, “In our Assembly we go on as we may. The Independents and others kept us long three weeks upon one point alone, the communicating at a table. By this we came to debate the divers coming up of companies successively to the table; the consecrating of the bread and wine severally; the giving of the bread to all the congregation, and then the wine to all; and so twice coming up to the table, first for the bread, and then for the wine; the mutual distribution, the table exhortations, and a world of such questions, which, to the most of them, were new and strange things. After we were over-toiled with debate, we were forced to leave all these things, and take to us general expressions, which, by a benign interpretation, would infer our church practices, which the most promised to follow; so much the more as we did not necessitate them by the Assembly’s express determination. We have ended the matter of the Lord’s Supper, and these last three days have been upon baptism. We have carried, with much greater ease than we expected, the publicness of baptism. The abuse was great over all this land. In the greatest parish of London, scarce one child in a year was brought to the church for baptism. Also, we have carried the parents’ presenting of his child, and not the midwives, as was their universal custom.”

It thus appears from the statements of Principal Baillie, that the Communion Table was a subject of much discussion in the Westminster Assembly for some months.; the Independents insisting upon communicating in their pews, as they had been accustomed; whilst our Commissioners from the Church of Scotland insisted that the communicants should come up in companies to the Communion Table. After long and serious discussion, it was decided as in the Directory, which states, that “The table being before decently covered, and so conveniently placed, that the communicants may orderly sit about it, or at it; the minister is to begin the action, with sanctifying and blessing the elements of bread and wine set before him,” etc. etc.; and after the blessing the Directory proceeds, “That the minister, being at the table, is to take the bread,” etc.

The Directory thus states the necessity of a table, not a table from which the great body of the communicants are excluded, according to the late corrupt innovation, but a “table that the communicants may orderly sit about it, or at it,” in opposition to the communicants sitting in their pews, as had been argued by the Independents. The Directory for worship, agreed on by the Assembly at Westminster, was examined, approved, and established, by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, by an Act, dated Feb. 3, 1645. This Act was passed unanimously, and “requires, decerns, and ordains, that according to the plain tenor and meaning thereof, and intent of the preface, it be carefully and uniformly observed, and practiced by all the ministers, and others, within this kingdom, whom it doth concern;” – thus preventing every minister from introducing any innovation, or making any deviation from the form of worship established in the Directory, “according to the plain tenor and meaning thereof,” and which is to be “carefully and uniformly observed and practiced by all the ministers, and others, within this kingdom.” So that no discretionary power is left for any minister to make innovations according to his own pleasure on the established form of public worship.

But as several things in the Directory are, in the language of Principal Baillie, stated in “general expressions, which, by a benign interpretation, would infer our church practices;” and as the Communion Table had been a matter of so much debate between the Independents, in the Westminster Assembly, and our Scottish Commissioners, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, in their Act, 1645, approving and establishing the Directory for worship, have inserted a special clause of exception or explanation respecting the Communion Table. The words of the clause are: “Provided always that the clause in the Directory of the administration of the Lord’s Supper, which mentioneth the communicants sitting about the table, or at it, be not interpreted, as if, in the judgment of this Kirk, it were indifferent and free for any of the communicants not to come to, and receive at, the table;” – thus prohibiting all communicants from receiving in any other way, that at the Communion Table, and, as the Act respecting the whole Directory bears, “according to the plain tenor and meaning thereof.” This clause is evidently directly against the practice of the Independents, and intended to guard against all such innovations as that lately introduced.

In a letter from the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, to the Assembly at Westminster, dated Feb. 13, 1645, they plainly and decidedly state their reasons for introducing this clause. Say they, “We have thought necessary to declare and make known, that the clause in the Directory for the administration of the Lord’s Supper, which appointeth the table to be so placed, that the communicants may orderly sit about it, or at it, is not to be interpreted, as if, in the judgment of this Kirk, it were indifferent for any of the communicants not to come to, and receive at the table; in which particulars we still conceive and believe the order and practice of our own Kirk to be most agreeable and suitable to the word of God, the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the nature of that heavenly feast and table.” They farther add, “Nevertheless, in other particulars we have resolved, and do agree, and we do most willingly part with such practices and customs of our own, as may be parted with safely, and without the violation of any of Christ’s ordinances, or trespassing against Scriptural rules, or our Solemn Covenants.

It thus appears, that the reasons of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, in 1645, for introducing this clause of explanation respecting the Communion Table, were at once wise, pious, and conscientious. They were willing to part with such of their own practices and customs as did not violate any of Christ’s ordinances, or trespass against Scripture rules; but in this particular they declare their adherence to the order and practice of their own Kirk, which at that time was that of Geneva, as appointed by Acts of Assembly, 1562 and 1564; according to which, “every man and woman take their place at the table, as occasion best serveth;” and this they consider as “most agreeable and suitable to the word of God, the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the nature of that heavenly feast and table.” Such then is the law and determination of the Church in this matter; and the Act of Assembly, 1645, is approved by the fifteenth Act of Assembly, 1705.

Many are the laws of the Church of Scotland, guarding against all innovations, contrary to the purity and uniformity of worship authorized and practiced in our national church. The thirteenth Act of Assembly, 1639, and the fourteenth Act of Assembly, 1641, both of which are confirmed by the eleventh Act of Assembly, 1695, are all directed to this object, as well as the ninth Act of Assembly, 1697, commonly called the Barrier Act. The fifteenth Act of Assembly, 1707, is particularly directed to this object; and to this Act every probationer, at receiving license, and every minister of the Church of Scotland, at his ordination, in the most solemn manner, promises subjection and obedience. In answer to questions put to them, they are taken bound, in the most solemn manner, “to maintain and defend the doctrine and worship of the Church as presently authorized and practiced, and contained in this fifteenth Act of Assembly, 1707, and to follow no divisive courses from said doctrine and worship.”

By the twenty-second Parliament of James VI, chap. 6, in the year 1647; it is ordained, “That kirks be provided with basons, and lavers for baptisms, and cups, tables, and table cloths for the holy communion, at the expense of the parishioners; and that the minister keep the same; and he, and his heirs, and executors, be answerable therefore, in case they be either lost, or used to profane uses.”

The Act of Assembly establishing the Directory, 1645, was confirmed and ratified in all the heads and articles thereof, by an Act of Parliament, dated Feb. 6, 1645: and since the Revolution, the worship of the Church of Scotland, is secured by the Acts of Parliament 1690 and 1693, and by the Act of security, 1707. this forms an essential article in the union with England, and is secured by the coronation oath of the sovereign; so that the form of worship, authorized and practiced in the Established Church of Scotland, is as well secured as any laws, ecclesiastical or civil, can possibly render it.

From this statement it is evident, that the late innovation of excluding communicants from the Communion Table, and substituting pews for the Table, is a violation of the laws of the Established Church of Scotland, as well as a departure from the constant authorized practice, which ought to be corrected without delay. It is exceeding proper and becoming, that the laws of the church on this subject should be carried into effect; that unity and uniformity in public worship of God, may be observed in all parts of our Established national Church: for if every one is allowed to make alteration, as he shall judge agreeable or convenient, nothing but disorder and confusion will follow.


[1]The above quotations are made from the order prefixed to the old version of the Psalms, used in the Church of Scotland, from the copy in the public library of the University of Glasgow, printed at Middleburgh in the year 1594.

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