The Puritans on the Lord’s Supper (4)

Biblical Simplicity in the Lord’s Supper

If the material principle of the Reformation was justification by faith alone, the formal principle was that Scripture alone is the rule of faith and obedience. The Puritans viewed this truth as nothing less than the enthronement of Christ as King among His people. Willison said a true sacrament must be instituted by Christ “to show that Christ is the sole king and head of the church, who alone hath the power to appoint her ordinances.”[1] The Puritans earnestly applied the principle of sola scriptura to worship. Owen wrote in question-and-answer format:

Q: What doth God require of us in our dependence on him, that he may be glorified in us, and we accepted with him?

A: That we worship him in and by the ways of his own appointment….

Q: How then are these ways and means of the worship of God made known to us?

A: In and by the written word only, which contains a full and perfect revelation of the will of God as to his whole worship and all the concernments of it....

Q: What is principally to be attended unto by us in the manner of the celebration of the worship of God, and observation of the institutions and ordinances of the gospel?

A: That we observe and do all whatsoever the Lord Christ hath commanded us to observe, in the way that he hath prescribed; and that we add nothing unto or in the observation [observance] of them that is of man’s invention or appointment.[2]

The Puritans also applied the principle of sola scriptura to the Lord’s Supper. Perkins wrote, “The right manner of using the Lord’s Supper … is the observing of the institution, without addition, detraction, or change.”[3] For this reason, the Puritans preferred to call the sacrament “the Lord’s Supper” rather than “Holy Communion” or “the Eucharist,” thus rooting it in the words of Scripture (1 Cor. 11:20).[4] For the Puritans, the sacrament revolved around the Word, especially Christ’s words of institution (Matt. 26:26–28, 1 Cor. 11:23-26). Perkins said, “Therefore this word in the administration of the sacrament ought to be pronounced distinctly and aloud, yea, and as occasion serveth, explained also.” He wrote, “All the efficacy and worthiness” of a sacrament depends on Christ’s words of institution.[5] Indeed, the elements of the sacrament are “visible words,”[6] “the signs representing to the eyes what which the word doth to the ears.”[7]

Each action of the Supper has spiritual significance. Perkins said the minister in his sacramental acts represents God: (1) by taking the bread and wine as a sign of the Father electing His Son to the office of Mediator; (2) by blessing it through the words of institution for sacred use as a seal of God sending His Son in the fullness of time to do His work; (3) by breaking the bread and pouring the wine as a seal of the death of Christ for our transgressions; (4) by distributing the bread and wine to the communicants as a seal of God offering Christ to all, but giving Christ only to the faithful to increase their faith and repentance.[8]

According to Perkins, the actions of the person who receives the Supper also symbolize spiritual events: (1) taking the bread and wine into his hands is a seal of apprehending Christ by faith, (2) while eating the bread and drinking the wine is a seal of applying Christ to himself by faith to increase his union and communion with Christ.[9] More than a century later, Willison attributed the same meanings to these sacramental actions of the minister and communicant, showing the continuity of the Puritan tradition.[10]

The simplicity of the form of the Supper was determined by biblical authority. The Westminster Directory for the Publick Worship of God (1645) instructed ministers to celebrate the Supper “frequently” as “most convenient,” especially after the morning sermon and prayers. The Presbyterian form for the Supper included the following parts: (1) a short exhortation on the blessings of the Supper and necessity of faith, repentance, love, and spiritual hunger; (2) a warning that the “ignorant, scandalous, profane, or those that live in any sin or offence” not partake, but that broken-hearted penitents should come; (3) the reading of the words of institution from a Gospel or 1 Corinthians 11:23–27 with explanation and application; (4) a heartfelt prayer of thanksgiving for the redemption of sinners by Christ, and petition for God’s blessing on the ordinance, “that we may receive by faith the body and blood of Jesus Christ, crucified for us, and so to feed upon him, that he may be one with us, and we one with him”; (5) introductory words spoken by the minister to account for the actions performed: institution, command, and example of Christ—“According to the holy institution, command, and example of our blessed Saviour Jesus Christ, I take this bread, and, having given thanks, break it and give it unto you…”; (6) breaking the bread and distributing it, and the cup with the words of Christ, “Take ye, eat,” etc.; (7) an exhortation to walk worthy of the grace of Christ held forth in the sacrament; (8) a prayer of thanksgiving; and (9) a collection for the poor.[11] The Puritans concluded the Lord’s Supper service with the singing of a Psalm, following the example of Christ (Matt. 26:30).[12]

Since some aspects of the Supper’s manner of administration are not given in Scripture, Puritan practice varied. The ceremonial details of the Lord’s Supper were hotly debated at the Westminster Assembly; three weeks alone were spent on whether to seat communicants at a table.[13] In general, the English Independents celebrated the Supper every Lord’s Day, the Baptists once a month, and the Presbyterians four times a year. The Baptists at times preferred to celebrate the Supper in the evening, following scriptural examples (Mark 14:17; 1 Cor. 11:23).[14] But Willison, a Presbyterian, argued, “The circumstances of time, place and company, in the first administration, not being essential to the ordinance, were not intended for our imitation. We are no more required to receive it at night, than to do it in an upper room, with but twelve in company. Moreover, the time was occasioned by the Passover, that was always eaten at night, and in private families.”[15] The Scottish Presbyterians seated communicants at a table, while Independents carried the elements to people in the pews.[16] Within each group there were variations.

Regardless of the specifics of the Lord’s Supper, they were to be ordered for what Reynolds called the sacrament’s “most express end,” namely, “to celebrate the memory of Christ’s death and passion.”[17] This was not just a “historical memory” but what Reynolds called a “practical memory,” that is, the memory of faith, thankfulness, obedience, and prayer.[18] This leads us to the manner of spiritually partaking the Supper, as the Puritans understood it.


Meet the Puritans is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting us.


[1] Willison, “A Sacramental Catechism,” in Works, 2:42.

[2] Owen, “A Brief Instruction in the Worship of God,” in Works, 15:447, 449–50, 462. See also William Ames, A Fresh Svit against Human Ceremonies in God’s Worship (1633); George Gillespie, A Dispute against the English Popish Ceremonies Obtruded on the Church of Scotland (1637; repr., Dallas, Tx.: Naphtali Press, 1993).

[3] Perkins, “Of Divine or Religious Worship,” in Works, 1:713.

[4] Horton Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans (Morgan, Pa.: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1997), 204. It should be pointed out, however, that the terms communion and thanksgiving (eucharisteia) are associated with the holy supper in Scripture in 1 Corinthians 10:16. Euchariasteia or giving of thanks, is part of the sacrament, as instituted by Christ (1 Cor. 11:24).

[5] Perkins, “A Golden Chaine,” in Works, 1:71.

[6] Perkins, “A Golden Chaine,” in Works, 1:72; Perkins, “A Reformed Catholicke,” in Works, 1:611.

[7] Perkins, “A Reformed Catholicke,” in Works, 1:610.

[8] Perkins, “A Golden Chaine,” in Works, 1:75. 

[9] Perkins, “A Golden Chaine,” in Works, 1:75.

[10] Willison, “A Sacramental Catechism,” in Works, 2:74–78.

[11] “The Directory for the Publick Worship of God,” in Westminster Confession of Faith, 384–86.

[12] Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans, 216.

[13] Mayor, The Lord’s Supper in Early English Dissent, 76.

[14] Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans, 205–208, 213.

[15] Willison, “A Sacramental Catechism,” in Works, 2:68.

[16] Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans, 214.

[17] Reynolds, “Meditations on the Holy Sacrament,” in Works, 3:87.

[18] Reynolds, “Meditations on the Holy Sacrament,” in Works, 3:104, 107, 108, 110.

Previous Posts in this Series

  1. Introduction
  2. Papal Errors in the Lord's Supper
  3. Christ's Presence in the Lord's Supper
Joel Beeke