Communion Cups in American Churches - A Brief History
Which Church Used Individual Communion Cups First?
According to historical records based on newspaper publications of the day, Communion cups were introduced by the Scovill Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church of Cleveland, Ohio in 1892. Alfred Van Derwerken—a lawyer in Brooklyn, New York—wrote a paper called “The Sacramental Cup” which he distributed to his pastor colleagues. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle ran his paper, which encouraged his fellow pastors to use “as many small cups as there are communicants…. for each person to drink from a cup no one else had used” (December 1, 1892, p. 10).
Van Derwerken endured a lot of criticism for his suggestions. In response to outcries that he was flying in the face of established religious practices and tradition, he defended himself by writing a response in the same newspaper saying, “This opinion of mine regarding the use of many cups at a Communion service…. is in operation in the West.” To prove his point he presented a letter he had received from Rev. H. Webb, pastor of Scovill Avenue Methodist Church of Cleveland, Ohio. Webb wrote that his church was “absolutely the first time or case where it [an individual cup] has been thus served” on December 6, 1891(December 2, 1892, p. 2)
In December 1891, both The Brooklyn Daily Eagle and the Utica Morning Herald stated that the Scovill Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church of Cleveland was the first to use individual Communion Cups on December 6, 1891.
What Kind of Cup was Used for Communion Before the Individual Cup?
Up until the 1890’s, Protestant churches used one common Communion cup or chalice that was shared among all participants. Some used just one, while larger churches were known to use several set up in stations at different places throughout the church in order to administer the Sacraments in a more timely manner. This meant even churches using multiple chalices still had tens or maybe hundreds of people sipping from the same cup during a Communion. In a time when outbreaks of diphtheria and tuberculosis were common, health-conscious Americans began attempts to consider alternatives to one common cup.
Several alternatives such as intinction, which is the practice of dipping the Communion host into the cup prior to partaking, were used, together with the addition of disinfectant cloths. Individual Communion cups emerged as the most popular method. Enough pastors and churches became convinced of the health benefits to using individual cups that the idea took hold, and rapidly spread across the country.
This one simple reform changed a long-standing 1,900-year-old practice, so it’s understandable that it met with some resistance. Now, some 130 years later it seems like individual Communion cups have been around for hundreds of years.