[By Alexander Campbell, with emphasis added in bold by Scott Shifferd Jr.]
I DO not aim at prolixity, but at brevity, in discussing the various topics which are necessary to be introduced into this work. We are not desirous to show how much may be said on this or any other subject, but to show how little is necessary to establish the truth, and to say much in a few words. We shall not, then, dwell any longer on the Scriptural authority for the weekly breaking of bread; but for the sake of those who are, startled at what they call innovation, we shall adduce a few historical facts and incidents. We lay no stress upon what is no better than the traditions of the church, or upon the testimony of those called the primitive fathers, in settling any part of Christian worship or Christian obedience. Yet, when the scriptures are explicit upon any topic which is lost sight of in modern times, it is both gratifying and useful to know how the practice has been laid aside and other customs been substituted in its room. Here is, too, a corroborating influence in authentic history, which, while it does not authorize any thing as of divine authority, it confirms the conviction of our duty in things divinely established, by observing how they were observed and how they were laid aside.
All antiquity concurs in evincing that for the three first centuries all the churches broke bread once a weak. Pliny, in his Epistles, book 10th; Justin Martyr, in his Second Apology for the Christians; and Tertullian, De Ora. p. 135, testify that it was the universal practice to all the weekly assemblies of the brethren, after they had prayed and sang praises–“then bread and wine being brought to the chief brother, he takes it and offers praise and thanksgiving to the Father, in the name of the Son and the Holy Spirit. After prayer and thanksgiving the whole assembly says, Amen. When thanksgiving is ended by the chief guide, and the consent of the whole people, the deacons (as we call them) give to every one present part of the bread and wine, over which thanks are given.”
The weekly communion was preserved in the Greek church till the seventh century; and, by one of their canons, “such as neglected three weeks together were excommunicated.”–Erskine’s Dissertations, p. 271.
In the fourth century, when all things began to be changed by baptized Pagans, the practice began to decline. Some of the councils in the western part of the Roman empire, by their canons, strove to keep it up. The council held at Illiberis in Spain, A. D. 324, decreed that “no offerings should be received from such as did not receive the Lord’s Supper.”–Council Illi. canon 28.
The council at Antioch, A. D. 341, decreed that “all who came to church, and heard the scriptures read, but afterwards joined not in prayer, and receiving the sacrament, should be cast out of the church till such time as they gave public proof of their repentance.”–Council Ant. canon 2.
All these canons were unable to keep a carnal crowd of professors in a practice for which they had no spiritual taste; and, indeed, it was likely to get out of use altogether. To prevent this, the council of Agatha, in Languedoc, A. D. 506, decreed “that none should be esteemed good Christians who did not communicate at least three times a year–at Christmas, Easter, and Whitsunday.” Coun. Agatha, canon 18. This soon became the standard of a good Christian, and it was judged presumptuous to commune oftener.
Things went on in this way for more than six hundred years, until they got tired of even three communications in one year; and the infamous council of Lateran, which decreed auricular confession and transubstantiation, decreed that “an annual communion at Easter was sufficient.” This association of the “sacrament” with Easter, and the mechanical devotion of the ignorant at this season, greatly contributed to the worship of the Host. Bingham’s Ori. B. 15. c. 9. Thus the breaking of bread in simplicity and godly sincerity once a week, degenerated into a pompous sacrament once a year at Easter.
At the Reformation this subject was but slightly investigated by the reformers. Some of them, however, paid some attention to it. Even Calvin, in his Ins. lib. 4. chap. 17. 46. says:–“And truly this custom, which enjoins communicating once a year, is a most evident contrivance of the Devil, by whose instrumentality soever it may have been determined.” And again, (Ins. lib. 6. chap. 18. sec 46.) he says:–“It ought to have been far otherwise. Every week, at least, the table of the Lord should have been spread for christian assemblies, and the promises declared, by which, in partaking of it, we might be spiritually fed.”
Martin Chemnitz, Witsius, Calderwood, and others of the reformers and controversialists, concur with Calvin; and, indeed, almost every commentator on the New Testament, concurs with the Presbyterian Henry in these remarks on Acts 20:7. “In the primitive times it was the custom of many churches to receive the Lord’s Supper every Lord’s day.”
The Belgic reformed church, in 1581, appointed the supper to be received every other month. The reformed churches of France, after saying that they had been too remiss in observing the supper but four times a year, advise a greater frequency. The Church of Scotland began with four sacraments in a year; but some of her ministers got up to twelve times. Thus things stood till the close of the last century.
Since the commencement of the present century, many congregations in England, Scotland, Ireland, and some in the United States and Canada, both Independents and Baptists, have attended upon the supper every Lord’s day, and the practice is every day gaining ground. These historical notices may be of some use to those who are ever and anon crying out Innovation! Innovation! But we advocate the principle and the practice on apostolic grounds alone. Blessed is that servant who, knowing his master’s will, does it with expedition and delight. Those who would wish to see an able refutation of the Presbyterian mode of observing the sacrament, and a defense of weekly communion, would do well to read Dr. John Mason’s Letters on frequent Communion, who is himself a high-toned Presbyterian, and, consequently, his remarks will be more regarded by his brethren than mine.