The first 1200 years

What does history tell us about children taking communion?  I’m afraid the situation becomes pretty ambiguous, especially as we move through the centuries.  Rarely is the issue treated theologically in its own right, and usually it is dealt with only polemically.  For example, in the 16th Century, (Ana)Baptists use the question of children taking communion to embarrass the Reformers – who generally argued for baptising children, but also for withholding communion from them.  As we’ll see this was often (in part anyway) to avoid the suspicion that you needed to take communion in order to be saved.  The (Ana)Baptists charged them with sacramental inconsistency – perhaps with good grounds!


Direct evidence is pretty slight in the first four centuries.  In fact, scholars can only find 3 references, the first from 251 AD when Bishop Cyprian of Carthage talks about children receiving communion.  What does such lack of evidence for 2 centuries mean?  The argument from silence could (as always) go either way!  Either there is no mention of it because it didn’t happen; or there is no mention of it because it wasn’t contentious.  i.e. there was no controversy about children taking communion.


So what does Cyprian say?  Cyprian refers to some crazy stuff that happened during the persecution of the Roman Emperor Decius, who did his level best to annihilate the Church.  In order to avoid being victims in this persecution, many who called themselves Christians temporarily apostatized, and took part in pagan religious feasts and sacrifices.  Cyprian deals with the question of whether the infants who were carried in their parents’ arms, and so implicated in these feasts, were guilty of apostasy.  He answers they are not, and in one of his arguments he happens to mention that these children had already been communicated.  He also tells the story of a wet-nurse who had taken an infant to a pagan feast, and then when the persecution ended brought the same infant to receive communion.  When a persistent Deacon gave communion to the reluctant infant, the child screamed and vomited!  Cyprian feels this is a clincher: ‘In a profaned body and mouth, the Eucharist could not remain … This much about an infant not yet of an age to speak’.  I have no idea what to make of it!  The only thing we can say with certainty is that in 251 infants not yet of age to speak were taking communion.


Another reference to infants and communion is more tragic.  It is on the tomb of a child dating somewhere around 337, who died at the age of 18 months and 22 days, but whose parents believed was a Christian and who had received communion (though thereference to communion , spoken of as ‘the customary rites’ is not straightforward).


It is only in the work of Augustine – 5th century Bishop in North Africa – that references to Infant communion become more explicit.  Commenting on John 6:53, Augustine writes:


The Lord says – not indeed concerning the sacrament of baptism, but concerning the sacrament of his own holy Table to which none but the baptised have a right to approach: ‘Except you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you shall have no life in you’.  Will any man be so bold as to say that this statement has no relation to infants, and that they can have life in Him without partaking of His body and blood ..?[1]


After Augustine in the 5th century, references to infants receiving communion become much more common.  The spectacularly named Bishop Fulgentius of Ruspe (Tunisia, died 523) for example, was asked about a child who is baptised, but who dies before receiving communion.  He replied that while communion was not essential for salvation, nevertheless, ‘there is no room for anyone to doubt that each of the faithful is made a partaker of the body and blood of the Lord when he is made a member of the body of Christ in baptism…’.  The English church historian, the Venerable Bede (died 735) cites him as authoritative.  In 675, the Council of Toledo declared that no censure should be passed on infants who were unable to retain the bread and wine.[2] In Britain, the practise seemingly remained normative.  Elfric of York (died 1051) ordered his priests to ‘give eucharist to children when they are baptised’, and in Ireland around 1070 Bishop Domnald wrote to clarify whether the English and continental churches gave communion to infants because they believed children couldn’t be saved without receiving this sacrament.  Lanfranc, the then ArchBishop of Canterbury denied this to be the case (i.e.children could be saved without taking communion), but did say that it was necessary for Christians of every age to strengthen themselves by partaking in the Body and Blood of Christ.  But it all changed in the 13th Century, as we’ll see next week!


[1] Two observations on this quote.  First, much of the later discussion of whether infants should take communion focuses on the question of whether children can be saved without taking communion.  Clearly they can, but that doesn’t answer the question of whether they should be invited to participate in the sacrament of communion.  Secondly, there were in Augustine’s time those who were beginning to argue that children shouldn’t be allowed communion, following the teachings of (hands down) the most notorious of heretics, Pelagius.  Pelagius basically argued that as you earned the right to be a Christian, so you earned the right to take communion by your performance in following Christ’s example of how to live.  An idea the Church may never have quite shaken off.

[2] The question of what to do with very small children who couldn’t handle solid food remained a perennial part of the discussion.  Common practise by the 12th century seems to have been that very young infants received only the wine, sucked from a finger, and if possible, bread soaked in water.  As soon as they were old enough to eat solids, they were expected to receive communion.

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