The History of Leith

November 16, 2011

Communions in the 17th Century.

IT is not intended in this fragmentary paper to give a detailed or picturesque history of the communion services in our church during the 17th century, although such a sketch might not be without value and the material necessary therefor is not wanting. All that will be attempted is to select some of the references to the subject contained in the published volume of the South Leith Records which should be of interest to the young people connected with our Congregation. One may turn over the pages of the Records and find them unattractive, the language unfamiliar and the subjects without meaning, unless one tries to understand them, which few people nowadays are willing to do. But it is not really difficult, if one follows the index, to get to know the main facts about these early communion services in our church ; the preparations that led up to them ; the form in which they were celebrated; the place they occupied in the religious life of the parish.
In a general way, the person who reads Scottish history is much more familiar with the subject in the 18th century. That was a happier century for Scotland when the sufferings of the Covenanters were becoming a romantic tradition, and in the prevailing peace the people were free to worship as they chose.
Then the religious zeal of the nation expanded to extraordinary dimensions, almost one might say going to extremes. In that century the communion was an event of transcendent importance. When the news spread that in a certain parish the ” Occasion,” as it was called, was about to be celebrated, people from surrounding districts set about making their arrangements to be present. Ordinary work
was suspended, for it w^s usual for servants to bargain with their masters that they should be allowed to attend so many communions each year. Within the Parish weeks were spent by the Minister and his elders visiting and catechising Church members; the Kirk Session investigated scandals and rumours, lest any unworthy persons should profane the table of the Lord with their presence. They also dealt with one another, and meetings were held at which each elder in succession left the room, and in his absence the others were asked if they knew anything against their brother. If and as each one was found to be without reproach, he was called in and ” encouraged to continue his work in the Lord.” The influx of strangers was often so great that the Minister and Session were confronted with problems which they could not solve. They met to deliberate how to feed the multitude and where to find them shelter, and they prayed for good weather so that if the floor of the church was not sufficient the people might be able to lie outside in the churchyard. This relates, however, to the 18th century, or at least to the end of the 17th century and not to the beginning, where we should more properly be at this stage. Let it be said that our Records do not indicate that the same commotion attended our early communions.
The Reformation had put down ceremonial of all kinds; it taught the people that religion was an affair of the heart and did not consist in form or ritual of any kind. Its influence was adverse to the use of symbols, and particularly to any association with the Mass of the Roman Catholic Church. The communion did not entirely fall into disuse, but for many years it was celebrated only at long intervals and in the most simple manner. This we know from general considerations, and that it was so in South Leith we may infer from the first mention of the communion
in our Records. It occurs under date 25th September 1608, ” The said day the Lord’s Supper was celebrated.” The next entry occurs on 27th August 1609, ” The said day the Lord’s Supper was ministred, and their penitents wer received, to wit, John Davie, Margaret Watson, Marioune Watson, Robert Parke.” In the same month the Session ordained the communion to be ” celebrat ” twice every year, first in February or March and thereafter in August. But, so far as the printed Records show, this standard was not maintained, for intervals of a year and more seem to have occurred. On 9th November 1643 the subject was again before the Session when they ” thought it expedient according to ye ordinance of ye general assemblie that ye comunione be geven twise in the year, viz.—in Marche
and in Agust.” Thereafter this seems to have been the rule and practice.

source-South Leith Records

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