The Story of Those Little Communion Cups, Whatever Those Are Technically Called
Every other Friday in D-List Saints, Luke T. Harrington explores one of the many less-than-impressive moments in Christian history.
Like all important stories, this one begins with a bit of #fakenews.
Apparently, in September of 1894, a couple of newspapers had reported that Brooklyn’s Bedford Avenue Baptist Church was introducing a “novelty in communion service”—individual little cups for each communicant. A century ago, this sort of idea was so insanely crazy that apparently Brooklynites just had to see it for themselves, and the church was packed to the gills with visitors desperate to know what it would be like to drink grape juice out of little shot glasses. (Presumably, the Dodgers were having a bad season that year.) These would-be communicants went home disappointed.The Eucharist is an ancient ritual handed down by Christ himself, through the Apostles, and kept alive in the Church for millennia—and a hundred years ago, we decided to change it?
As it turned out, the newspapers in question had jumped the gun, reporting a bit of speculation by the church’s pastor as fact, the same way that modern newspapers crash the stock market every time President Trump tweets something stupid. Pastor J. H. Gunning, however, had had his first taste of fame, and he wasn’t about to give it up now—as soon as the service was over, he called a business meeting where the purchase of tiny little gold-and-silver shot glasses was approved. From that moment, a brand-new worship tradition was born, ready to take its place in the same pantheon as Gregorian chant and the smoke machine.
It’s actually not known with a ton of certainty which congregation was the first to use individual communion cups—there are at least seven congregations making the claim—but it is known that the idea is barely over 100 years old, it’s uniquely Protestant, and it was invented somewhere in the American northeast. In any case, it’s clear that it didn’t take long at all to go from gold-and-silver, to cheap glass, to über-cheap plastic. Soon, we were all slurping the newly invented grape juice out of tiny little shot glasses, and then flicking the empty cups at that cute girl from youth group. It’s a practice that’s commonplace and unremarkable now, but after nearly 2,000 years of sharing a single cup among everyone in the congregation, it was a radical change.
What made it seem like such a good idea? Part of it was just a side-effect of industrialization. More people had been moving into the urban centers for a new life of 12-hour sweatshop shifts and never seeing the sun again, and because the sewer hadn’t been invented yet , the era was seeing outbreaks of infectious diseases like diphtheria and tuberculosis. Fortunately, germ theory was revolutionizing medicine, and Americans have never met a problem we didn’t think we couldn’t solve with whatever scientific discoveries were grabbing headlines at the time.
If you’re wondering, there’s actually never been a disease outbreak traced back to the common communion cup. Nor is it likely to occur, given the particulars of the ceremony—silver and gold don’t constitute a hospitable environment for bacteria, and neither does an alcoholic beverage. And if you come from a tradition, as I do, that believes Jesus is actually present in the wine (and the bread), it seems pertinent to point out that that guy is in the business of healing disease, not spreading it. But then again, if Americans were the sort who let sound science and good theology get in the way of our love of novelty, we never would have invented Hot Pockets, either.
By 1906, the practice was becoming popular enough that Pastor J. D. Krout published an article in Lutheran Quarterly arguing that (1) no one can say for sure that there was only one cup at the first Lord’s Supper (except, presumably, everyone who had ever read the relevant Scriptural passages before he did), (2) individual cups are more sanitary, and (3) hey, it’s more convenient. Maybe it’s that last point that really led to the practice catching on—Americans have never met a convenience we didn’t like. We won’t eat food unless we can microwave it or get it out of a drive-thru window (preferably both), and we want our movies in three easy acts and our pop songs in two simple verses (and, like, a million choruses). “In this advanced age,” Krout wrote (weirdly describing an era before spray cheese was invented as “advanced”), “when congregations swell to the ranks of hundreds and thousands, it is necessary to expedite matters as much as possible. People are no longer willing to sit in the sanctuary and watch the minister as he slowly moves to and fro in administering the Lord’s Supper.”
That was it, then—we were spending way too much time on the most sacred of all Christian rituals. Communion may be the moment where God and man meet face-to-face every week, which is cool and all, but yeesh, get on with it, God. We’ve got places to be, and we need to beat the lunch rush at Typhoid Mary’s joint.
Once you get that “convenience” ball rolling, though, it’s hard to stop it. It wasn’t terribly long before we had gone from silver-and-gold communion cups to disposable plastic ones, and then—once we realized filling all those little cups was a pain in the butt—we started selling all-in-one, prepackaged communion. You can buy this convenient product right now, hermetically sealed for astronaut-caliber freshness, complete with a styrofoamy wafer and your choice of red or white grape juice—because nothing says “sacred rite” like, “Here, peel the plastic off of these Lunchables.”
I can hear you all now: “Geez, Luke, lighten up! Two weeks ago, you were making jokes about castration, and this week you’re giving us uptight lectures about Communion?” And the answer is, “…yeah.”
Look, I get that there are more important things to worry about—that’s a great all-purpose objection for derailing any conversation—but just because something isn’t THE MOST IMPORTANT THING EVER doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. The Eucharist is an ancient ritual handed down by Christ himself, through the Apostles, and kept alive in the Church for millennia—and a hundred years ago, we decided to change it?
I can already hear what you’re saying next: “It doesn’t matter how we do it, just how we feel about it!” But that’s a two-way street. How we do something has a direct effect on how we feel about it. When we share a cup, we proclaim that we’re all united in one Christ, not only with each other, but with the saints throughout space and time. When we take shots of grape juice, we’re telling the world…what? That we can’t find some decent Scotch?
Which—come to think of it—is also probably true.
Image via Flickr: fcor1614
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Actually, there are recorded instances of disease transmission (flu, typhoid) and the like with the common communion cup as the single disease vector. When the Methodists switched from using wine (with alcohol) in a silver cup (both of which will kill almost everything) to using Mr. Welch’s newly invented pasteurized non-alcoholic grape juice to satisfy the Womens Christian Temperance Union, people started getting sick. Thus, Sanitary Communion Ware was invented. Rochester, NY has the strongest claim for the earliest set, I think; the doctor who invented the set was a member of the Methodist church there. If you email me privately, I can send you a much more in-depth article I have about this. Somewhere. – The Rev. Dr. James J. Olson
Yeah, I’d certainly believe that grape juice can/will spread disease. I did look pretty hard for instances of Communion spreading disease when I wrote this piece, and didn’t turn up anything, but I’ve been wrong before. Feel free to email me at luke.t.harrington [at] gmail [dot] com.
Luke, would you consider a study in why uppity Christians call Communion “Eucharist”? It is the Greek work for blessing. Jesus blessed the loaves and fish. Jesus blessed the children. Jesus blessed the loaf and cup during Passover. I personally do not think Communion should be called Eucharist. Why do others?
I’m not sure what you mean by “uppity,” but there have always been differing words for Communion / the Eucharist / the Lord’s Supper / the Mass, especially since Christians have spoken all sorts of different languages throughout history. My guess is that the Church called it the “Eucharist” before they called it “Communion,” since the earliest Christians were more fluent in Greek than in Latin. If you really want to describe the liturgical feast with a word that’s not used for anything else, you should probably avoid “Communion” as well, since that can mean a lot of other things (“the communion of saints”; “the Anglican Communion”; etc.).
The word Eucharist means the good offering or gift and connotates Thanksgiving. When Christ blessed the loaves, He “gave thanks” hence the word eucharisteia. It is really a potent term that captures the love fest of giving between God and His Church and the grace of thankfulness. God gives us the grapes and the wheat. We add our particulary human gift of making them into wine and bread and then offer them back to Him. Then in the Divine Liturgy, in prayer and worship and through the workings of the Holy Spirit, God gives these elements back to us as the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. In the Orthodox Church, the offering bread or “prosforon” must be made by someone in the congregation because it is really our personal and relational offering. If we can get the wine from our own grapevines, all the better but often we purchase it. The wine is often bought and brought to the church by the congregants. It is about Offering and Thankfulness and Communion and about relationship. Oneness with God and oneness with each other, hence the Common Cup is the great symbol of our unity in Christ. Volunes more could be said here…
Interestingly, during the times of the plagues there are not reports of priests dying from consuming the remaining Eucharist from the Common Cup, which they would do at the completion of every Liturgy. The Body and Blood of Christ cannot commune corruption —it conveys only life from the Source of Life.
“The Body and Blood of Christ cannot commune corruption —it conveys only life from the Source of Life.”
This is not a scientifically or historically accurate statement. While wine from a silver or gold chalice is generally thought to be antiseptic, there are instances where illness has been transmitted via the common cup. Grape juice in glass or pottery has been shown to be a potential disease vector. Note also that there have been instances of illness from a bread-borne spore that is not killed in the baking process, particularly in the medieval period.
It is all well and good and proper to have faith in the elements of communion, but let us not make blanket statements that are not correct and could endanger people’s health and safety.
little communion cups – wow – cool that you can have cups at all. I had missionary friends in the Philippines that were sharing communion while sharing the gospel open air and they only had a couple of yams and water. Another pastor had communion with goats milk and cheese had no wine or bread) my point is its not the brick and mortar per se… or the uaity of the contents… it is Jesus that blesses the brad of His Body and the wine of His blood. He created the universe for heaven’s sake (oops is that a cuss?) He can certainly bless whatever He provides for us to ask His blessing upon to become what He wants it to be. The Bread of His Flesh feeds, heals and reveals what He wants us to see and recognize as His way to give us another morsal of heaven’s life (Luke 24) and the wine of His blood is a flood, tide of His liquid love that He calls His Blood. In the flow and merger of His blood into our bloodstream our ears open to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit Psalm 29, Hebrews 12:24. Isn’t it revelation of Jesus that feeds us and and becomes our spiritual drink? Jesus has a great ‘show n’ tell’ for each individual that is personal, one on one and intimately prepared for you. It is not eating and fdrinking from a tree of knowlege of good and evil – it is dining and drinking in from the Tree of Everlasting Life that beccomes ourturninggpoint and transformation. Silver and old? really? My retirement doesn’t provide enough to keep the lights on… but my heavenly bank account is filled to overflowing and I can’t give it away, try as I might. “Got Communion?”
I guess you’ve never seen the kitchen staff of a church washing 200 glass communion cups.
Oh, with Indian Jones and the Last Crusade in mind, do you think that Jesus and the 12 used a gold or silver cup for the Passover Meal? Or that the thirteen or so who were there only had one cup that they all had to share?
As a rule, what’s convenient to one person tends to be an inconvenience to someone else. ;)
In the Jewish tradition, there was a separate place setting for the coming savior. that place setting was normally unused. The cup Jesus used was from that place setting. That indicate WHO Jesus was.
I can’t believe this to be a good idea…first the use of one cup unifies the group. Have been to larger groups where the use of two were going at once. The idea of grape juice instead of wine…even worse Christ didn’t tell us to have bread and food of his body. Which I believe you will find grape juice even in juice form to be a food. Wine on the other hand, the blood is quickly absorbed into the blood and moves thru out the body. This is another example of God who created man and man now trying to do God the return favor of creating Him in our image. At a church I did attend with a friend using the cups they had the little packs. Communion had been reduced to the annoucement that they were starting the Communion feast four ushers came down handed packs to the ppl on the end and passed the packs down. After everyone got the pack they opened and ate, Communion was done. What happened to the remembrance? the thanks? the act of sharing in Love as one body?
Good article, and it makes sense that American were the ones who decided to make communion more efficient. I once attended a church where we used the prepacked cup/wafer set. When it was time to eat the bread, you had the awkward moment where the arthritic church members couldn’t open the wrapping.
But maybe it’s because I’ve known little else than the little plastic cups, but I appreciate doing communion this way. One, I don’t like germs or waiting in line. But I like the fact that, no matter their position or status in the church, everyone — pastors, elders, congregants and guests — eat and drink at the same time. Reminds me that the ground is level at the foot of the cross.
Chris, the comment about the ground being level at the foot of the cross…amen to that. God bless
About a decade ago, I went to a megachurch in Ohio where they used what I called a “communion Lunchable” with the wafer in a plastic compartment above the plastic glass. It expedited communion since folks would pick it up on their way into the sanctuary.
There was an Australian study in the 1980s which determined that the use of individual communion glasses was far more unsafe than the use of a metal chalice using proper wine, particularly given the careless way in which many congregations washed, dried, and stored their individual communion glasses between services.
Now *that’s* interesting. And it confirms my natural biases, so it’s probably correct. :)
Quite some years ago, Professor Bill Martin of Rice University published a monthly column in the magazine Texas Monthly in which he “reviewed” church services at various churches of all denominations around the State of Texas. Bill and I are both graduates of Abilene Christian College (now University) so I was intrigued when he reviewed the service at the College Church of Christ, which is still just across the street from ACU. I remember in the review he gave high marks for efficiency and speed to the communion service. Twelve deacons, each with three trays first of the communion bread tiny pieces and then of “shot glasses” of grape juice, started at the front of the sanctuary, while six more came in from the rear of the public area. The serving by the 18 men (no women) divided the sanctuary into three equal sections and the congregants moved the trays quickly back and forth down each row. Even with a prayer before each element was served, the entire crowd of probably over 1000 was served both elements within less than 10 minutes (although I am not sure Bill provided a guess about the time taken). There is the real reason for shot glasses, although I suspect another part was anti-Catholic bias among Protestants and Anti-Baptists.
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