The Puritans generally regarded the Supper as a vehicle that the Spirit employed as an efficacious means of grace for the believer. The seventeenth-century Baptists and their heirs in the eighteenth century, like Isaac Staveley, would have judged the memorial view of the Lord’s Supper—the dominant view among today’s evangelicals—as far too mean a perspective on what was for them such a rich means of grace.
“May these precious seasons make me fruitful.” These words, found in the diary of a certain Isaac Staveley, who worked as a clerk for coal merchants in London during the 1770s, were written after he had celebrated the Lord’s Supper with his church, Eagle Street Baptist Church, in 1771.
In the rest of this diary, Staveley makes it evident that the celebration of the death of the Christ at the Table was a highlight of his Christian life. In the evening of March 3, he recorded that he and fellow members “came around the table of our dear dying Lord to feast on the sacrifice of his offered body, show his death afresh, to claim and recognise our interest therein, to feast on the sacrifice of his offered body as happy members of the same family of faith and love.” How many today view the Table this way?
Packed into these few words, Staveley reveals his conviction that the Lord’s Supper was a place of communion — communion with Christ and with his people. It was a place of spiritual nurture and of witness. And it was a place of rededication, both to Christ and to his church family.1
Unprized Means of Grace
I suspect that Staveley’s words sound strange to the ears of many modern evangelicals, who might think they are reading the diary of a Roman Catholic or High Anglican, not that of a fellow Reformed evangelical from the eighteenth century. Indeed, the oddity of Staveley’s words to the ears of evangelicals today reveals how much we have lost over the last two centuries. We are out of touch with a tradition that highly prized the ordinances as vehicles of spiritual grace.
It is not simply that we have come to use mainly the word ordinance for the Lord’s Supper and baptism, rather than the word sacrament, whereas many Baptists like Staveley would have been quite comfortable with the latter term in the eighteenth century. Rather, under the impress of the rationalistic mindset of Western culture, we have lost a sense of mystery about the dynamics of the Table.
John Calvin (1509–1564), who stands at the fountainhead of the tradition of which Staveley was a part, was quite content to leave it as a mystery as to how the emblems of bread and wine are employed by the Holy Spirit to make Christ present at the celebration of his Supper. And roughly down until the opening of the nineteenth century, anglophone evangelicals followed in his stead, treasuring the presence of Christ at the Table without feeling pressured to explain exactly how this worked.
Diluting the Wine
How did this understanding of the Lord’s Supper lose its way?
During the nineteenth century, church services became primarily places of evangelism. But the Lord’s Table was not a converting ordinance, and thus great evangelistic preachers like Alexander Maclaren (1826–1910) — though not C.H. Spurgeon (1834–1892), it needs to be noted — came to regard the Table as a rite of little import in the Christian life. The emergence of the Oxford Movement in the Anglican Church — with men like John Henry Newman (1801–1890) and John Keble (1792–1866), who revived the doctrine of transubstantiation — also served to push evangelicals toward downplaying the importance of the Lord’s Supper.