John M. Mason
Letters on Frequent Communion
Copyright © 2001 Naphtali Press
Letters on Frequent Communion – Part Two1
John M. Mason
- Letter 1: Introduction
- Letter 2: Frequent Communion an Indispensable Duty
- Letter 3: Objections Answered – Innovation
- Letter 4: The Subject Continued — Irreverence — Want Of Preparation
- Letter 5: Of the customary appendages to the Lord’s Supper; particularly public fasts and thanksgivings
- Letter 6: Public Fasts and Thanksgivings Continued
- Letter 7: The Evils occasioned by Sacramental Fasts and Thanksgivings
- Letter 8: Some Popular Pleas for Sacramental Fasts and Thanksgivings, briefly Considered
- Letter 9: Benefits of Scriptural Communion
Attempts to restore frequent communion have been charged, not only with innovation, but with disrespect to the ordinance of the supper: for it is objected,
II. That “by rendering the duty too common, it would deaden affection, destroy solemnity, banish reverence, and thus be injurious to the religion which it is designed to aid.”
That such an objection should be made by a formalist, who goes to the communion-table once or twice a year to save appearances, or to quiet conscience, is nothing strange. But that it should ever be proposed by a living Christian is truly astonishing.
On what is it, on what can it be founded? Is it countenanced by the word of God, by the nature of the exercise, or by the experience of believers? Did Jesus when he said, This do in remembrance of me, caution us not to do it too frequently, lest we should lose our veneration? Did he bid us to show our reverence to his institution by trampling on his command? or our gratitude for his love by slighting his memorial? The same objection was made by some at the reformation, and was treated with the utmost indignation. A wonderful reverence, truly, for the sacrament, cries Bucer,2 by which it is contemned, and the saving communion therein offered with the Son of God rejected! But let us appeal to fact. Do other duties grow contemptible by their frequency? Is the Sabbath vile because of its weekly return? Are the divine scriptures, is family religion, are secret and ejaculatory prayer, insipid to those who are most conversant with them? Pray without ceasing, saith the Holy Ghost. “Pray but seldom,” replies the objection we are combating; “You will be too bold and familiar with holy things if you often meddle with them. Frequent prayer will end in profaning the presence of God, because it will diminish your sense of his majesty.” How does this language sound in pious ears? The heart of a believer revolts: his blood runs cold. The testimony in his own breast refutes, as he goes along, these impious suggestions. And can any man conceive why frequent prayer, meditation, etc, should promote the spiritual life, and frequent communicating hinder it? Will increased faith produce unbelief, or renewed love indifference? Will melting views of divine grace harden the heart, or a commanding sense of the divine glory generate pride? Will “fellowship with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ” abate heavenly mindedness, or the sealing of the Spirit of promise nurture carnal confidence? Oh! – tell it not in Gath! Let not the rumor reach an uncircumcised ear, that believers in Jesus, who profess to love him supremely, proclaim his excellence to others, and declare that the more they know and enjoy of him, the more they desire to know and to enjoy – that, even believers in Jesus, when invited to frequent an ordinance which he hath left as a seal of their covenant-mercies, a mean of intercourse with himself, a pledge of his eternal kingdom, should not only refuse, but justify their refusal, by pleading that it would diminish their reverence!!
No, Christian reader; carelessness and carnality keep pace with neglect. The new man is deprived of his food, while the old man, “corrupt according to the deceitful lusts,” gains strength, and thus aversion from duty is doubled with remissness. This is a lesson of universal experience. Never were there more devout and humble, and reverential communions, than in the days of primitive purity. No where, at this hour, do they more deeply interest pious affection, or exert a benigner influence, than where they most resemble, both in frequency and simplicity, the apostolic pattern.
III. It is objected, that “very frequent communicating is unfriendly to suitable preparation, as we could not always afford the time necessary to be spent in it.”
Far, infinitely far, be it from me to encourage levity or sloth in a service so spiritual. Woe to him whose profane approach makes him “guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.” But in many, there is reason to fear, the objection arises from no such scruple. It cannot but be a favorite with those, who “having the form of godliness without the power,” find it useful in palliating their inattention to a duty which they secretly hate, and from which they would gladly be exempted. Miserable men! They need preparation indeed, but such as they will never acquire by the farce of “hanging down their heads like a bulrush, and assuming once in six months, or once in twelve, the austerity of a monk, and the precision of a Pharisee; while, during the rest of the year, they sacrifice at the shrine of mammon or of lust..
In what, however, does preparation for the table of the Lord consist? In a multitude of outward performances? In devoting a great part of the preceding week to various exercises of public worship? Alas! all this may be done, and the heart remain as unprepared as ever. The religionist, who, besides giving tithes of all that he possessed, Fasted twice in the week, was not thereby fitted for communion with his Maker. One hour, one minute, of genuine humiliation before God – one tear of gracious contrition for sin – one groan unutterable of the spirit of adoption, is of more value in his sight than the most splendid round of formalities. If we trample on manifest duty under the notion that by performing it seldomer we shall perform it better, he will not accept a host of un-commanded offerings as an equivalent for the disobedience. He hath said, I hate robbery for burnt offering. “Burnt offering you must bring, but you shall not plunder your neighbor’s fold to replenish my altar.” Preparation for the holy supper is indispensable. But we may not withhold from our Redeemer the sacramental tribute on pretence, that, when we do pay it, we will make up the deficiency by our superior qualification. It is the most perverse of all perversions to displace a duty by preparing for it.
But why must so much time be consumed in extraordinary preparation for the Lord’s Supper as to hinder its frequent celebration? It is said, that ” we therein make a nearer approach to God than in other duties, and therefore need more cautious and thorough preparation.”
This mode of arguing is common; but is it just? Is it scriptural? Let us examine it. Briefly, it amounts to this, that the Lord requires more holiness from us in sacramental than in other services; i.e. allows us to be less holy in the latter than in the former. I might excuse myself from saying another word about it: a simple statement is a refutation. But to sift it a little more – is God more holy on sacramental than on other occasions? Is an irreverent mind or a polluted heart less offensive to him on these than on those? Does communicating possess either more inherent or more accidental sanctity than any other act of spiritual worship? Let the living God plead his own cause. He hath said, I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me. Again: Having boldness, saith his apostle, to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus – let us draw nigh. It will not be disputed that these embrace every act of worship. God has, therefore, imprinted the same character upon them all; and as he has not discriminated between them on account of their greater or less degree of sacredness, let us beware how we do it. He is as jealous of his honor in prayer, in praise, etc, as in communicating. Were we rightly affected, as deep solemnity would rest on our spirits in asking a blessing at our meals, as in breaking the sacramental bread. And it betrays either much ignorance, or much carnality, if a communion-season fills us with awe, while the other offices of piety find us and leave us cold or unconcerned.
I am so far from questioning a believer’s sweet and joyous communion with his God in the sacramental feast, that this is one of my principal arguments for its frequent celebration. But that it is, in itself, a nearer approach to him than others, or that equal nearness is not attainable in others, can never be admitted. Such an opinion is neither founded in the scripture nor supported by fact. What is communion with God in the usual acception of that phrase? Is it not the reciprocation of love between him and his people? His love “shed abroad in their hearts by the Holy Ghost;” and their love flowing, out to him in return? What is nearness to God? Is it not a realizing view by faith of his most glorious perfections, accompanied with a sense of his favor as our reconciled God in Christ? And will any pretend that believers may not at times enjoy these privileges as largely in the retirements of the closet, or in the other parts of public worship, as in communicating? Nay, is it not evident, that if you except the social acts of eating and drinking the symbolical bread and wine, the exercises of a communion-table are or ought to be the very same with those which should mark other duties of devotion? Godly sorrow for sin – triumph in the merits and grace of the Lord Jesus – self-dedication to him – appropriation of his covenant-mercies, etc, form the essence of worthy communicating; and they equally form the essence of every other part of acceptable worship. The tenet here opposed is therefore utterly groundless; and it is pernicious also, for it exalts one divine institution at the expense of the rest. And in its operation it may engender idolatrous notions of the supper, but will never promote a sound and evangelical piety.
An habitual frame for any duty to which we may be called, would be our unspeakable happiness. But on our present plan, one communion is forgotten, and its impressions worn out, before the next arrives. A due frequency would bring on a new one, while the favor of the last is yet fresh and cheering. It would foster the spirit of communion-sabbaths, and keep our Lord’s death in a manner always before our eyes. And whether this would not be a more effectual preparative for the sacramental supper, than a crowd of week-day services, let Christians judge.
The last two objections lead to consequences as forbidding as they are natural. If frequency of communion breeds irreverence, then reverence is befriended by infrequent communion. If the former deprives us of leisure for preparation, then the latter must be highly favorable to it. The conclusion, on the whole, is, the seldomer we communicate, the better: and we would be far more reverentially impressed, and might be far better prepared, if, instead of twice in one year, the Lord’s death were celebrated only once in two years, or once in ten. We should. then have abundance of time for every prerequisite. We might have tenfold the present employment, and tenfold the pomp: if a week were too little, we could afford a month; and the supper of the Lord would be immensely honored. Hither the plea which I have been considering, conducts us at last. But, O thou that lovest a crucified Savior, avoid its snare. This smiling vizard conceals a fiend. Beneath this garb of piety lurks a dagger for thy life; and ere thou art aware, it will stab thee to the heart, and put thy Redeemer to an open shame.
LETTER 5: Of the customary appendages to the Lord’s Supper; particularly public fasts and thanksgivings
A fear is entertained, that a frequency of communion, much greater than ordinary, would involve the abolition of the previous fast-day, and the subsequent day of thanksgiving; – and this forms, with many conscientious people, a
IV. fourth and very formidable objection.
The consequence is not dissembled. These observances cannot consist with a proper regard to the command of the Lord Jesus. And if we mean to obey it “in simplicity and godly sincerity,” they must be laid aside.
The writer of these letters is very sensible that he here enters on the most delicate and difficult part of his undertaking; that, on this subject, the prejudices even of the truly pious are both strong and irritable; and that, if a well-meant attempt to promote a scriptural commemoration of the love of Jesus Christ should fail, this is the rock on which it will perish. But being fully assured that the general attachment to these observances results less from conviction than from habit; and that a fair representation, candidly weighed, will remove every scruple, he deems it his duty to discuss them with openness and freedom. Let no upright man be alarmed for the issue. Truth cannot lose by inquiry. Error only shrinks back from the light, lest her “deeds should be reproved.”
Bear with me then, Christian brethren, while, in reviewing our sacramental fast and thanksgiving days, I endeavor to show,
First, That they have no warrant in the book of God.
Secondly, That they are contrary to the judgment of almost the whole Christian church.
Thirdly, That they are attended with great and serious evils.
To prevent mistake, the reader is admonished that a day of fasting before, and of thanksgiving after, the communion, are not condemned as in themselves unlawful, or in every connection improper. The object of animadversion is that system which either inculcates their necessity, or perpetuates their observance. With this explanation, then I say,
First, That they have no warrant in the book of God.
That the scripture is a perfect revelation, containing everything necessary for the instruction and edification of the church ; that nothing which it does not expressly appoint, or fairly imply, can be admitted into her doctrine, discipline, or worship; and that all opinions and practices, fathers, canons, and councils, are to be tried at its bar; are fundamental principles of Protestantism. Whatever cannot abide the furnace of “the law and the testimony,” though recommended by numbers, tradition, antiquity, or aught else, must be rejected as “reprobate silver.” This maxim was the two-edged sword which hewed down the legions of Antichrist before the victorious reformers. It is stated, with equal strength and precision, in our confession of faith (Chapter i:10), and is received as an axiom in religious controversy, by all whom the subject in hand more immediately interests.
In applying this maxim to the case of the fast and thanksgiving days attached to the Lord’s supper, it will readily occur, that this part of Christian worship, if any, requires, in all its circumstances, to be distinctly marked. Is it, therefore, creditable, that God should couple it with a day of fasting and thanksgiving, and not even mention this in his word? And yet the scripture is silent. When Jesus Christ instituted the supper, he simply said, Take, eat; this is my body – This cup is the New Testament in my blood: drink ye all of it. When Paul interposed, with his apostolical. authority, to correct the abuses which had crept into the church at Corinth, he detailed the nature, ends, and manner of communicating. He even speaks, most pointedly, of preparation for it. Let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. But not a syllable of fast-days. Now, can any judicious Christian imagine, that neither Christ himself, in the institution of the supper, nor his apostle, in restoring its decayed purity, should hint at observances which both knew to be connected with it? Could such an omission have been suffered, when the Lord foresaw that, for a series of ages, his church would in this very particular go universally and uniformly astray?
It is not, indeed, as far as I know, maintained by any, that he has explicitly enjoined these days; but many plead that they are, nevertheless, deducible from scriptural declarations and appointments.
They find that on the great day of expiation, a solemn fast was kept in Israel: and hence infer, that as a public fast preceded the offering up of the typical sacrifice for sin, so it ought to precede the commemoration of the real sacrifice, which is already offered. ” Is not sin as evil and as bitter now as it was then, and humiliation for it as pressing a duty? Should not the memorial of Emmanuel’s suffering, excite as much compunction as the prospect of it?” No doubt. Believers will never disagree in this. It is perfectly just: and yet the argument drawn from it utterly inconclusive. In tracing the analogy of the two cases, it overlooks an essential difference, viz. the divine precept in the one, which is wanting in the other: and in laboring to bring the Jewish example to bear, it presents no point of attack where it is not mortally vulnerable.
1. The Jewish fast was peculiar to the old dispensation, and so cannot establish a precedent for the new.
2. It ceased with the law of Moses; and it is certainly singular reasoning, that an ordinance which God himself hath abolished, infers his will, that a similar one should be perpetuated.
3. Our fast-days are preparative to the supper: but the Jewish fast bore no such relation to the sacrifice on the day of atonement. It was not a preparative, but an accompanying exercise.
4. The supper has not succeeded to the sacrifice of the day of expiation; but to the feast of the Passover: it is from this institution therefore, if from any in the Old Testament, that we are to derive the manner of celebrating it. But the Passover was not preceded by a day of fasting, though it was followed by a holy convocation, and a week of unleavened bread. Here, then, is a much stronger reason from analogy, against our sacramental fast, than the day of expiation can furnish for it. And whoever finds the Monday thanksgiving in the “holy convocation” after the Passover, must also find something to correspond with the “seven days of unleavened bread.”
5. As the good faith of argument requires us to admit the legitimate consequences of our principles, let us see whither the plea that the fast on the day of expiation warrants a fast before the supper, will lead us.
On the same ground you must maintain that the supper should be celebrated but once a year; and this would be equally repugnant to its own nature, and the example of the Apostles, who certainly understood the will of Christ as well as we can pretend to do.
But now, if one Jewish institution furnish a precedent for imitation, it is hard to tell why another may not; the daily sacrifice for instance; seeing it as really typified the atonement of Christ, as the sacrifices of annual expiation did. Thus we should be reduced to a curious dilemma; the argument from one ordinance, limiting us to a yearly communion, while the argument just as good, from another, would oblige us to communicate twice a day.
This sample of inconsistence and contradiction is enough to show how cautiously inferences are to be drawn from institutions under the law, to duties under the gospel. Error here has been one of the most fruitful sources of corruption; and an inlet to all the rabble of the Anti-christian hierarchy.
There have not been waning some to allege the four fasts mentioned by Zechariah, which the Jews kept on account of their calamities, as countenancing our sacramental fasts. But the notion is so extravagant, that it would be worse than trifling to spend a moment in refuting it.
Should these refuges fail, there is one left; viz. that religious fasting, before special duties, has ever been deemed by the church of God both suitable and necessary; and that it becomes us to act upon this principle when we are about to join in the communion of “the body and blood of the Lord.” Here a large column of texts is displayed, some containing the doctrine, and some examples of fasting. But after they are collected with so much pain, and propounded with so much zeal, what do they prove? Nothing more than that fasting, on particular occasions, is a moral duty. This is mere ” beating the air.” Nobody denies it.
The question is not whether fasting is a divine ordinance, but whether it is a divine ordinance preparative to the holy supper? Now it is obvious, that the application of a principle to particular circumstances cannot be grounded upon texts, which speak of it only in general, without any reference to those circumstances. Such is the nature of the passages alluded to. If in this question they prove anything, they equally prove the necessity of fasting before baptism; before the Sabbath; before family worship, or craving a blessing to our meat, as before the sacrament of the supper; because they have no more coupled it with the latter than with the former. “These things,” you will say, “are absurd.” Absurd enough, I own. And one would think that the argument which begets them cannot be much better.
In order, therefore, to work up your quotations into proofs, you must resort to those scriptural examples in which the principle of fasting is reduced to practice. But the success here will be little better. It would be no difficult task to show that none of the instances which the scripture has recorded of social or solitary fasting, lend the least aid to the service into which they are pressed. Who can bear such reasoning as this? David fasted when the prophet Nathan charged upon him the guilt of adultery and murder – Ezra and his company at their return from captivity – Nehemiah with the Jews at the restitution of Jehovah’s worship, and the solemn recognition of his covenant – the apostles at the ordination of ministers – therefore we must have a fast-day before the sacrament of the supper!! An apostle cautions against “wresting the scriptures;” and they are always wrested when they are brought to prove what they will not prove. High indignity is offered to them and to their Author when men are determined to force out of them, at all events, a testimony according to their wishes; and rather than fail, will adjudge them to the tortures of licentious criticism. Be it remembered, they are sworn witnesses for the King Eternal; let their deposition be heard; but if it do not accord with our prejudices, let us beware how we presume to order them to the rack.
It will still, however, be insisted, that scriptural precept, together with the example of the saints, establish this position, That on the approach of special duty, and in the expectation of special blessings, we are to humble ourselves before God in religious fasting; and that the supper being an occasion on which we perform the one and look for the other, a preparatory fast is highly necessary. The plea accosts us here in its most imposing form. But, notwithstanding, there are weighty reasons for refusing our assent.
1. The cases are not parallel. All the scriptural instances of public fasting are founded in circumstances out of the ordinary course of providence; and therefore leave precedents for such circumstances only. But the sacrament of the supper is an ordinary part of divine worship; or if it be in any respect otherwise, our own negligence and not God’s word has made it so.
2. If the scriptural doctrine and examples of fasting oblige us to that exercise as preparative to the Lord’s table, it is beyond measure astonishing that this was never thought of till the other day; that it should not be heard of among Christians for near seventeen hundred years; nor then, except in a corner of the church; nor even in that corner till men were driven to invent a defense of a custom which they had observed, without asking whether it was right or wrong. Nay, that a principle of practical religion which involves a serious question of duty and sin should be overlooked by the very apostles under the plenary inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and by Christ Jesus himself! If the reader can credit all this, it is time to lay aside this discussion. It is vain to contend with prejudice impenetrable to everything but Omnipotence.
3. The force of the plea we are examining lies in assuming, that the Lord’s Supper is one of those special occasions to which the above principle strictly applies. But this is taking for granted the very thing in dispute. That the Lord’s Supper is such an occasion is peremptorily denied; and the proof of the affirmative lies upon the affirmers. However, not to take the advantage of so material an error, it may be remarked, that special occasions of duty being such as are out of the line of God’s ordinary providence, the special duties adapted to them must be such as depart from the line of his ordinary worship. As we cannot determine beforehand the period of their arrival, so we cannot beforehand determine the season of the duties attached to them. With regard to societies, they may not occur perhaps once in two or three years; and the larger the society, and the more complex the social relations, the longer in all probability will be their intervals; yet they may occur half a dozen times in one year. It is plain, then, that none of the ordinary institutions of the gospel can furnish any such special occasions, and so cannot obligate to any such special duties. Now the Lord’s Supper is one of the most important of these ordinary institutions (Westminster Confession of Faith, xxi:5); it equally belongs to times of prosperity and of adversity, of joy and of sorrow.
Farther, as it is not in itself an extraordinary duty, so the blessings which we are to seek in performing it do not come under the description of special blessings; i.e. blessings appropriated to special occasions as already defined. If, in controverting this sentiment, any use the term “special” more vaguely, he will only destroy his own argument, since its very existence depends on the supper being in a restricted sense a special occasion of duty. I would therefore beg the Christian to point out a single blessing to be supplicated or expected at the holy communion, which he does not, or at least ought not, to supplicate and expect in every approach to God through the faith of Jesus. Till this be done, all that has been and all that can be said about the specialty of the blessings connected with the sacrament of the supper, is mere illusion. It is not, no, it is not, a just regard for that precious ordinance, which, both in opinion and practice, has put the prodigious difference between it and others; but these are not duly improved; these are undervalued, and men seek to compensate their fault by idolizing the other.
On the whole it appears, that our sacramental fast and thanksgiving days are destitute of Christ’s authority.3 The utmost that can be alleged for them, amounting with the most liberal indulgence to no more than a presumption from analogy; a presumption opposed by a thousand contrary presumptions; a presumption which violates every law of analogical inference; which cuts instead of untying the knot of difficulty; attempts to browbeat facts, and flies in the face of apostolical precedent.
My second proposition relative to days of public fasting and thanksgiving at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, is, that they are contrary to the judgment of almost the whole Christian church.
By the Christian church, I understand the body of visible believers, from the resurrection of Christ until now.
The only way of ascertaining their judgment on this point is to inquire into their practice, compared with their known and established principles. It would be idle to demand any other kind of proof: for no man in his senses will look for express and formal condemnation of what was never heard nor thought of. The argument, therefore, is this; that if days of public fasting and thanksgiving at the sacrament of the supper, as now in use among us, were unknown in the church for a long series of ages; then, for a long series of ages, it was not her judgment that they should be observed. And this, if duly considered, will demonstrate that they never were appointed by Christ, and have no claim on our regard. For although the existence of a custom in the church is no proof that it was instituted by Christ, yet the non-existence of it in the times of primitive purity, is proof decisive that he did not institute it. Man may have added to his worship, many un-commanded and superstitious rites; but it cannot be pretended, that the church has lost any part of her testimony; because she has not lost the Bible. A custom, then, affecting in any manner, the vitals of duty and of worship, and of which no traces are to be discovered in the apostolic church, nor in any part of the church at all, for a great number of centuries, is both unscriptural and anti-scriptural, and ought to be laid aside.
I As to the apostolic church, viz., that which was founded by the ministry of the Apostles, and is described in their writings, every man, by reading his Bible, may decide for himself. Here all is plain and simple: not the most distant hint of our numerous observances.
When we descend to the succeeding ages, we see the inventions of men obtruded upon every department of the church’s worship: her beauty disfigured by meretricious embellishment; and her appointments buried under a load of carnal rubbish. Fasts, feasts, and a monstrous assemblage of trinkets and trumpery, debauched men’s minds from the “simplicity that is in Christ,” turned his house into a puppet show, and marked the swift approach of the “man of sin.” All these things were adopted, and justified, not on the authority of the written word: but on the pretext of decency, devotion, and especially of tradition. Then, indeed, there were fastings in abundance: forty days at once in Lent: four times more at stated seasons, and afterwards twice a week.
At these times, it is true, the custom was to communicate fasting. But still a fast-day, as preparative to it, was not known. When the communion happened on the Lord’s Day (and amidst all the corruption it was yet common every Lord’s Day) it was celebrated early in the morning, and the fast was merely an abstinence from meat till it was over, when they fell to feasting. This is evident, not only because the feasts called agape, or love-feasts, usually accompanied the communion; but because solemn decrees of council had pronounced fasting on the Lord’s Day, excepting Easter, a high offence. It was also frequent to communicate on fast-days through the week. But fasting, in both these cases, arose from a very different cause, than a conviction of its necessity as a preparative for the communion. It originated in rank and pitiable superstition. On the Wednesday and Friday, both the one and the other were intended to honor the supposed sanctity of the days. And the reason of communicating fasting on the Lord’s Day was a notion that no meaner food ought to enter the communicant’s mouth before the consecrated bread and wine. The great Augustine, speaking of this practice, says, “thus it hath pleased the Holy Ghost.” But with all deference to this worthy father, we would rather have his proofs than his opinion; and must be excused, if, in appeals to unerring truth, we allow the Bible to speak for itself. It is true, indeed, that some of the ancients, as well as of the moderns, have quoted, in support of Augustine’s assertion, 1 Cor. 11:34. The rest will I set in order when I come. From which, say they, “we are given to understand, that the Apostle then appointed this custom of receiving fasting.”4 How they came at the inference is not quite so clear. To tell people that if they were hungry they should eat at home, is rather an odd way of enjoining a fast; and hardly to be discovered without the penetration of the sage who spied a whole book of common prayer in the text, Let all things be done to edifying.
I am under no temptation to conceal what some may suppose inconsistent with the foregoing representation, that among the causes assigned for the observance of Lent, this was one, that persons who communicated but once a year, might, by great fastings and austerities, be purified from their sins, and qualified for the communion on Easter Sunday – Mark – once a year – on Easter Sunday. For that day was a high day, and was signalized, as well as the week proceeding, with prodigious parade. I grievously mistake, if any to whom these pages are addressed, will chose to refer to this as a precedent; and if they should, it will only prove a serpent that will turn and bite them. For,
1. It was not preparation for the Lord’s Table, so much as preparation for it at Easter, that occasioned the previous fasting. The homage was paid to the day, not to the ordinance.
2. The reason, as far as it went, embraced two fast-days, viz. Friday and Saturday, and even extended to all the silly penances of Lent.
3. It was alleged only by a few who communicated but once a year, which, with the multitude of their rites, they thought a full equivalent for the want of frequent communions. But this was the subject of severe and pointed crimination, by those who retained something of the Spirit of Peter and of Paul. And is it not strange that the very principle which 1400 years ago was lamented by the best men in the church, as a sinful defection, should now be considered as a substantial part of a reformation-testimony?
4. The men least remarkable for their piety, were the most distinguished for these temporary rigors. None so filled with reverence for the sacrament as they: none so fearful of unhallowed approaches. But the truth is, they cast the spirituality of their profession behind their backs for the rest of the year, and Lent was the time of settling their accounts current with the church.
Thus far our researches for solid examples of our sacramental fasts and thanksgivings have been fruitless. No one, surely, will hunt for them in the ages that follow. Degeneracy succeeded degeneracy: the genius of Christianity was forgotten by the multitude: Church services swelled into an enormous bulk: but the living spirit was fled and the mass of putrescence which remained behind, served only to nurture and bring to his full size, “the son of perdition.”
Passing by, therefore, the long and dreary reign of darkness and idolatry, we resume our inquiries at the era of the reformation. But we shall be as much puzzled to find precedents here, as in the days of the Apostles. The pretensions of the Pope, and the corruptions of popery, were manfully rejected: the worship of God freed from profane encumbrances: the stupid blasphemy of deified bread, and all its mountebank superstition, exploded: every punctilio of the sacramental doctrine and rites severely discussed: but of a day of preparatory fasting and subsequent thanksgiving no body dreamed. They were unknown to the good Waldenses; to Luther, to Calvin, to Melancthon, to Bucer, to Beza, and all the rest of the worthies who espoused the quarrel of the Lord against the mighty. There is not a vestige of them in those illustrious compends of evangelical doctrine, which were framed when the lamp of reformation began to shine the brightest; and the churches were eminently favored with the spirit of judgment, and the spirit of burning. The Helvetic, Gallican, English, Scottish, Belgic, Strasbourgh, Augsbourg, Saxon, Bohemic, confessions, all treat of the supper, and almost all of fasting; they were drawn up with the express design of separating the precious from the vile; they speak particularly of self-examination, in order to worthy communicating; they explain the nature, and point out the seasons of religious fasting; but not a lisp of it as a needful preparative to the table of the Lord. Nay, the Belgic confession asserts roundly, “all the abuses and accursed inventions which men have added to the sacraments, and mingled with them, we justly reject as a real profanation; and affirm, that all the godly are to be contented with that order, and those rites alone, which Christ and his Apostles have left us.” So that, in the view of these bold witnesses for truth, everything added as a necessary appendage to the manner which Christ and his Apostles have delivered to us of celebrating the sacraments, is an abuse, a profanation, an accursed invention. What would these honest disciples say, could they lift up their heads and see whole bodies of Christians professing to walk in the track of the written word, and to preserve the best spirit of the reformation, stickling for observances, and those too, as obligatory on conscience, which have no more authority from Christ or his Apostles, than the feast of Purim, or the fast of Lent?
But what is still more in point, because it comes nearer home, and may, therefore, have greater weight, is that our numerous services about the holy supper are diametrically opposed to the current of public sentiment in the church of Scotland; and to her solemn, repeated enactions, from the commencement of the reformation, down to the establishment of the Westminster Confession of Faith.
This may startle some serious people who have not thoroughly examined the matter; but the fact is incontestable. For,
1. The confession of the English church at Geneva, speaking of the sacraments (Art. IV) says, “neither must we, in the administration of these sacraments, follow man’s fancy; but as Christ himself hath ordained, so must they be ministered.”5 This confession was received and approved by the Church of Scotland.
2. The confession of faith of the Protestants in Scotland, drawn up in 1560, declares (Art. XXII) “that the sacraments be rightly ministrate, we judge two things are requisite: the one that they be ministrate by lawful ministers – the other, that they be ministrate in such elements, and in such sort (form or manner) as God hath appointed; else we affirm that they cease to be the right sacraments of Christ Jesus.”6
3. The first book of discipline, composed in 1560 by several reformers, of whom John Knox was one, presented to the great council on the 20th of May that same year; signed by all the first reformers, January 17th, 1561,7 speaks only of the “preaching of the word,” to “precede the ministration of the sacraments.” And enjoins, that “in the due administration of the sacraments, all things should be done according to the word: nothing being added nor yet diminished. The sacrament should be ministered after the order of the kirk of Geneva. All ceremonies and rites invented by men should be abolished; and the simple word followed in all points.” (Art. II.)8
Nor were these views entertained only in that remote and difficult period. They have again and again been formally avowed by the Church of Scotland when she was in the zenith of her spiritual prosperity and glory. For,
4. The national covenant, as approved by the General Assembly in 1638, and 1639; and subscribed by persons of all ranks in 1639, adopts the confession of 1560, and declares all who “refuse the administration of the holy sacraments as they were then ministered, (1560) to be no members of the true and holy kirk of Christ Jesus, within the realm of Scotland.”9
5. An act of the Assembly passed 1638, after referring to several public instruments, finds that “whatever gesture or rite cannot stand with the administration of the sacraments as they were administered in 1567, and were ministered ever since the reformation till the year 1618, must be condemned as a rite added to the true ministration of the sacraments, without the word of God; and as a rite or tradition, brought in without, or against the word of God, or doctrine of this reformed kirk.”10
It is very true, that these acts are leveled immediately against corruptions which had taken place in the manner of distributing and receiving the sacramental elements; but it is evident that they lay down an universal rule condemning the imposition of rites and observances in divine worship, which have no foundation in the word of God; and thus conclude, with great energy, against those corruptions as particular instances contravening the general principle.
From these facts it appears that the church of Scotland, from the dawn of the reformation till 1638, indulged but one sentiment as to the administration of the sacraments, viz. that it is not to be encumbered with any rites or traditions contrary to, or beside the written word. And what was in her eyes the scriptural mode of administering them, is sufficiently ascertained by her prescribing conformity in this matter with the church of Geneva. But in that church, a day of fasting before, and of thanksgiving after the sacrament of the supper, were never heard of. And hence it is clear, that the prohibitions of the acts quoted above, extend, in their spirit, to these no less than to other un-commanded observances.
But we have not yet done. The General Assembly in 1645, directing the method of procedure in dispensing the Lord’s supper, positively precluded these days: enacting that there be one sermon of preparation, delivered in the ordinary place of public worship, upon the day immediately preceding. That before the serving of the tables, there be only one sermon delivered to those who are to communicate, and that in the same kirk there be one sermon of thanksgiving after the communion is ended.”11 This last sermon could not have been intended for a weekday; because the assembly evidently passed their act to accommodate their manner of celebrating the supper to the directory which they had just before adopted, and which knows nothing of such a service.12
If we now repair to the Westminster Confession of Faith, and Directory for Public Worship, we shall meet with evidence enough to destroy every surviving doubt.
The directory, on the head of the supper, and the preparatory service, not only does not enjoin a fast-day, but does not even insist on a weekday sermon. Its words are, “Where this sacrament cannot with convenience be frequently administered, it is requisite that public 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.” Nothing is here required, but that something concerning the ordinance and preparation for it be taught; and it is left discretionary whether this shall be spoken on the Sabbath preceding, or at any other time in the course of that week.13 It is, indeed, pretended that the directory does, by implication at least, suppose the necessity of the previous fast-day; because it declares public solemn fasting to be a duty which God requires when special blessings are to be sought and obtained; and because it considers the administration of the sacraments as a special occasion, which affords matter of special petitions and thanksgivings; whence it is inferred, that the directory contemplates the holy supper as one of those occasions on which God requires public solemn fasting.
Had not this argument been used often, and not without an air of triumph, time would have been worse than misspent in giving it an answer; but as the case stands, it must be seriously examined and put to silence and to shame. This will be effectually done by quoting fairly the passages to which it alludes, and adding one or two observations.
Concerning fasting, the directory says, “when some great and notable judgments are either inflicted upon a people, or apparently imminent; or by some extraordinary provocations notoriously deserved: as also when some special blessing is to be sought and obtained; public solemn fasting (which is to continue the whole day) is a duty that God expecteth from that nation or people.”
Under the head of prayer after sermon, it says, “whereas, at the administration of the sacraments, the holding public fasts and days of thanksgiving, and other special occasions which may afford matter of special petitions and thanksgivings, it is requisite to express somewhat in our public prayers – every minister is herein to apply himself in his prayer, before or after sermon, to those occasions.”
Whoever finds, in either of these passages or in both of them, an injunction of our sacramental fast, certainly finds in the kernel what never was in the shell. Can any man persuade himself, that the Westminster divines would have taken such a crooked method of inculcating it, and not utter a syllable about it, either in the directory, confession, or catechisms, when expressly treating of the supper, and of the due preparation?
But, beside this general reflection, which one would think sufficient, I say,
1st. That the words “special blessing,” “special occasion,” “special petitions,” on which the whole stress of the argument is laid, prove nothing at all: because the term “special” is indefinite. Its precise meaning must be ascertained from its relation to the subject of discourse. When applied to the Lord’s Supper, it merely distinguishes this from other duties: when applied to the occasions of fasting or thanksgivings, it distinguishes them from the ordinary occurrences of providence. Accordingly, the supper, with regard to its peculiar character, is called a “special occasion,” but when compared with the occasions of public fasting and thanksgiving, is reckoned a part of ordinary worship (Conf. Ch. xxi). The paragraph last cited from the directory no more determines the supper to be an occasion of public fasting, than a public fast to be an occasion of communicating; but mentions both as occasions of special prayer: that is, of prayer adapted to the nature of these exercises. And in what sense the word special is used in its connection with public fasting, the appendix to the directory has made plain enough. “It is lawful and necessary, upon special emergent occasions, to separate a day or days for public fasting or thanksgiving, as the several eminent and extraordinary dispensations of God’s providence shall administer cause and opportunity to his people.” No one, surely, will call the administration of the supper, an “eminent and extraordinary dispensation” of providence.
2d. In one of the places cited from the directory, there happens to be a small letter which completely ruins the cause the citation was intended to support. It does not say, “in the administration of the sacrament,” but “sacraments” including baptism, and making this to be an occasion no less special than the supper. So that if the argument, shape it as you please, proves anything, it proves that the directory prescribes a public fast as often as a child is baptized. Unless this be admitted, the foundation is swept away, and the fabric reared upon it, tumbles to the ground. So much for the Directory.
The Confession of Faith, which treats in chapter xxix of the Lord’s Supper; and the Larger Catechism, which points out, with great care, the various exercises that should precede and follow it (Ques. 171, 175), do neither of them contain an iota of the doctrine of a previous fast, or a subsequent day of thanksgiving.
But the matter is decisively settled by the twenty-first chapter of the confession, which treats of religious worship. In section V., “the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments,” are classed with reading the scriptures, preaching and hearing of the word and singing of psalms; and are declared to be, equally with them, “parts of the ordinary religious worship of God;” whereas “solemn fasts and thanksgivings” are classed with “religious oaths and vows,” are declared to belong to “special occasions,” and are thus entirely separated from any immediate connection with the Lord’s Supper. There is no getting over this. You must either pronounce the Lord’s Supper an extraordinary duty, or public fasting and thanksgiving ordinary ones; and, in both cases, you overthrow the doctrine of the confession. It is needless to say more; the contradiction is direct and full; nor has the most ingenious sophistry one subterfuge left.
It is, therefore, a stubborn fact, however illy it may be received, that the Lord’s Supper, dispensed without fast-day, thanksgiving day, or weekday sermon, would comply not only with the spirit, but with the letter of that very directory, which we ourselves have solemnly approved, as being substantially founded in the word of God; and that our present sacramental fast and thanksgiving days are in open hostility with the decision of that system, which we hold up to the world as exhibiting our genuine faith. And yet the least attempt to lay any of them aside, that is, to act up to our own avowed principles to conform to that order which we profess to believe according to the divine will, is reproached as innovation and defection!!
But if these days are so destitute of every just authority, how were they introduced? Like all other unwarranted rites – by stealth. They originate, perhaps, in accident; they are continued without design; the popularity of a name recommends them to respect; one imitates another; and thus, or [ere] ever we are aware, they glide into the worship of God, and usurp the dignity of his institutions. This is the ordinary progress of corruption. The readiness with which men leave divine appointments for their own fancies, is proportioned to their reluctance in leaving their own fancies for divine appointments.
But in whatever manner the sacramental fasts and thanksgivings came into use, they are clearly of modern date. We have already seen that no traces of them can be found in the apostolical churches, or in those of the reformation. Their existence in Scotland is certainly later than 1645, as is manifest from the directory for worship, and from the act of the general assembly quoted above. It even appears that there was no fast-day as low down as the year 1657, ten years after the adoption of the confession, and twelve after that of the directory. It is not denied that weekday sermons had sometimes been preached after the communion. That glorious one of the renowned John Livingston, from which near five hundred persons reckoned their conversion to God, or their establishment in his ways, was delivered on a Monday after the sacrament, in 1630. But these were entirely occasional; and the event at the kirk of Shots was “the more remarkable, that one, after much reluctance, by a special and unexpected providence, was called to preach that sermon on the Monday, which then was not usually practiced.14
It is also true, that in 1657, although the fast-day had not yet come into fashion, services accompanying the communion were enormously multiplied: But this was with many, and very justly, a source of serious discontent. As the account is little known, and may be useful, the chief of it is here given from Dr. Erskine’s dissertation, as he took it from the author of “Dan in Beersheba.”15 “The general assembly, in the year 1645, did establish an. order for preventing confusion in the celebration of the sacrament, with which the whole church were satisfied. Yet, since our divisions, our dissenting brethren16 have taken up a new and irregular way of dispensing the holy supper, whereby they have turned it either into a theatrical pomp or into the Popish error of opus operatum. They have a great many ministers assisting them; six or seven; nay, sometimes double that number, whose congregations are generally left destitute of preaching that day. Every day of their meeting, viz., Saturday, the Lord’s Day, and Monday, (N.B. they had then no fast days) many of these ministers do preach successively one after another; so that three or four, or sometimes more, do preach at their preparation, and as many on the Monday following. And on the Sabbath, sometimes three or four preach before they go to the action, besides those who preach to the multitude of the people who cannot be contained in the church. Never before were there so many sermons in any church, in so short a time. These practices, as they are a clear violation of the order unanimously established in the church, and do occasion great animosity and alienation of simple people against those ministers who will not imitate those irregular courses; so disinterested observers perceive a clear design in all this, to set up themselves as the only zealous and pious people, worthy to be trusted and followed in our public differences: which, if it be not an injury to that sacred ordinance, and an improving that which should be a bond of unity and communion, to be a wedge to drive and fix a rent, let the judicious and sober judge.”17 How far some of these reflections are applicable to our own circumstances, is left to the reader. But as to the narrative, it may not be unworthy of remark, first, that the whole church was satisfied with the order established by the assembly in 1645; that is, without either fast or thanksgiving days. Secondly, that the multitude of weekday services shortly after introduced, were opposed both as new and irregular. Thirdly, that they were considered as turning the celebration of the holy communion into a kind of theatrical pomp – and, fourthly, that their effects were most baneful. There are few so hardy as not to condemn these abuses: and yet they are not more indefensible than some usages which are now viewed as sacred. Nor is there a doubt, that had they continued to our day, it would have been quite as difficult to get rid of them. On the whole, from the obscurity which covers the rise of the sacramental fasts, and the disorder which at first reigned in the other extraordinary services, it seems evident that they crept into the church by degrees; that custom, regardless of the reason of things, and equally tenacious of the wrong as of the right, transmitted them to posterity; and that undistinguishing habit, and the belief of the cradle, have numbered them with the ordinances of Jesus Christ.18
- The text for this new edition of these letters is taken from The Complete Works of John M. Mason (New York: 1849), and has been corrected and edited. Mason was “a distinguished Presbyterian divine and noted American pulpit orator. … The Associate Reformed Church, to which he belonged at this time, had been wont to celebrate the Lord’s Supper but once or twice annually. Mason believed in more frequent communion, and both by his pen and his tongue went forward to advocate reform in this respect. A pamphlet, consisting of “Letters on Communion,” which he published, brought him prominently before the religious world, and thereafter John Mitchell Mason was not an uncommon name in the assembly of American Christians. … The mind of Dr. Mason was of the most robust order, his theology Calvinistic, and his style of eloquence powerful and irresistible as a torrent.” McClintock & Strong. [↩]
- Mira sanè sacramenti reverentia, qua contemnitur, et salvisica in eo oblata filii Dei communicatio repudiatur! apud Calderwood in Altar. Damasc. p. 536. [Ed. David Calderwood (1575-1650), Altare Damascenum (1623; 1708)]. [↩]
- Even the soberer papists confess that “it does not appear by his own practice, or any commands which he gave to his disciples, that he instituted any particular fasts, or enjoined any to be kept out of pure devotion.” Calmet’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 1, p. 556. Art. Fasting. [↩]
- Bingham, vol. 1, p. 808. Folio. [↩]
- Collection of Confessions. 8vo. 14. [↩]
- Ibid, p. 36. [↩]
- Erskine, p. 276. [↩]
- Collection of Confessions, p. 43. [↩]
- Collection of Confessions, p. 99. [↩]
- Ibid, 200. [↩]
- Erskine, p. 281. [↩]
- The directory was adopted in their 10th session, and the above act passed in the 14th. [↩]
- In strict compliance with the directory, the preparatory discourse is delivered to the congregation at New York, on the Friday evening preceding the communion. [↩]
- Fleming’s Fulfilling of the Scripture, vol. 1, p. 400. [↩]
- This writer’s authorities are two books published in London, 1657, and entitled, Uldericus, Veridicus, sive de Statu Ecclesiae Scoticanae, and a True Representation of the Rise, Progress, and State of the Divisions in the Church of Scotland. [↩]
- It refers to the dispute between the Resolutioners and Protesters. [↩]
- Erskine’s Diss. p. 282-283. [↩]
- When the Scottish confession of 1560 was publicly discussed and approved, three Popish noblemen, the Earl of Athol, and Lords Somerville and Bothwick, dissented upon this ground, we will believe as our forefatheris belevit. Knox’s Historie, p. 253, fol. There is too much of this Popish leaven fermenting in every corner of the reformation. [↩]