Whoever . . . eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. (1 Cor. 11:27–30 ESV)
What does it mean to examine oneself before participating in the Lord’s Supper? While it may not be top of mind in evangelical circles today, the apostle Paul’s exhortation in 1 Corinthians 11 has weighed heavily on Christian consciences over the course of the last two millennia. From the writings of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, Gabriel of Qatar, and Thomas Aquinas before 1500, to Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the Puritans thereafter, church history is replete with examples of Christians committed to intentionally and intensively preparing to receive the elements. This preparation served to ensure that those coming to the Lord’s Table were not doing so unworthily, thereby making themselves “guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord” to their own judgment.
For early Protestants emerging from the shadows of the medieval Mass, which in the words of the nascent English evangelical George Joye did “daily . . . crucify and offer [Christ] up again” for sins, the Lord’s Supper instead was to be a joyful celebration of salvation accomplished and applied by Christ’s “once for ever” sacrifice for sin. Preparation, then, was meant to arouse and nurture in believers the comfort and delight found at the root of the ordinance.
At the same time, preparing for the Communion meal was serious business. It was both a privilege and a duty, and it served as a sobering acknowledgment of the gravity of the sacrament. Though they took on a variety of forms, these processes of preparation were all concerned with instilling in the hearts of believers sufficient knowledge of—and trust in—Christ and his saving work, repentance from sin, thanksgiving to God for his grace, and love toward one another. This uniformity of attention to right preparation is underscored quite clearly in the fact that, despite the confessional rancor of the early modern period, these practices transcended confessional boundaries. Protestants of all stripes displayed an earnest commitment to being appropriately prepared for the Lord’s Supper.
From the mid-sixteenth century on, following the efforts of the early Reformers on the Continent, the English Reformed—conformists, nonconformists, and independents alike—published their own preparation manuals for a broad readership. All this ultimately came to form a distinct, but still underexplored, subgenre of the famous English “practical divinity.” Paired with the steady diet of preparation sermons that were often preached in the lead-up to the celebration of the meal, Puritan preparation manuals helped edify believers by training their attention on the beauty of Christ’s death and resurrection for sinners, and the transcendent splendor of being united to him through conversion. The Puritan treatment of preparation, like its parallels in other Christian contexts across church history, fostered hope, unity, and comfort for Christians as they gathered in their local churches throughout England.
A 1609 preparation manual from moderate Puritan William Bradshaw is a helpful model for what preparation meant in early modern England. Bradshaw divides his treatise into two parts: the first half offers a detailed explanation of the dangers of “unworthily” coming to the Lord’s Supper, and the second half provides clear instruction on how to prepare oneself for “worthy” reception of the sacramental elements. The key ingredient in all this is the self-examination mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:28—a process in which, according to Bradshaw, a “most careful and diligent search and inquisition” is to be made “within our own souls and consciences, whether there be in us, those gifts and graces that are necessary to the worthy and reverent receiving of this sacrament.” Ultimately, the foundational grace one must discern in these examinations is “a true and lively faith in Jesus,” accompanied by biblical spiritual fruits like repentance, love toward others (but above all toward fellow believers), kindness, and obedience to God. For those who find it, this faith means they are “true believers,” or “those which rely and depend upon Christ Jesus only for the pardon of their sins, and for the everlasting salvation of their souls.” Christ instituted this sacramental meal “to be a seal of the covenant of grace,” which offers to those so sealed “further certainty and assurance of salvation by the death of Christ.” Since only believers make up those found within the covenant of grace, they alone are the appropriate objects of Christ’s sacramental seal. As such, these worthy partakers derive actual spiritual benefit from the meal, because in it the “soul of the worthy receiver is fed and refreshed, washed, purified, and cleansed from sin by the body and blood of Christ received therein.”
Sounding a more somber note, Bradshaw explains that the souls of those who receive the elements unworthily, or without that “true and lively faith” of the true believer, are “polluted and defiled, and made accursed and miserable thereby.” In fact, “the oftener” they communicate as those outside of the covenant of grace, “the more abominable” they are “in the sight of God and man.” Framed another way, the Lord’s Supper is a sign of Jesus “and his merits,” or that eternal salvation promised to all who believe in his sacrificial death for sin, and subsequent resurrection. Only those who “hath already received the thing signified”—i.e., Christ and, through him, salvation—“hath a privilege and interest to receive the sign.”
If this preparatory regime strikes modern sensibilities as an anxiety-inducing way to sow seeds of doubt in overly scrupulous Christian minds, it could have had the same unintended effect for early moderns as well. Given its emphasis on both an intensive and extensive practice of self-examination, Christians suffering a spiritual dry spell could often despair of their salvation under this probing investigation. Anne Venn, a Puritan diarist, records that in preparation for a particular administration of the Lord’s Supper around the year 1645, she endeavored “in a serious and solemn manner” to seek the Lord and to examine her “own heart both touching my duties and graces,” praying that God would not give her over “to a deceived heart.” It was “with some small hopes, yet mixed with a great deal of fear” that she went to the Lord’s Table, and almost immediately upon partaking of the elements, she felt that Satan began “to suggest to me that I had now eaten and drank my own damnation, in receiving that whereto I had no right.”
Puritan preparation was, however, meant not as a source of despair but as an exercise in assurance. The searching self-examination at the heart of this pre-Communion process was intended as a means of comfort for believers, given the way in which it led them to identify their sin and to trust all the more in the sacrificial body and blood of Christ for their pardon. William Bradshaw’s manual makes clear that it was quite truly “the worthiest Christians” that tended to “judge themselves of all others the most unworthy; and are many times most dejected with the sense and feeling of their own defects and wants.” Those who sincerely despair of their sin have assurance, in Christ, that they are forgiven. Many of the early modern English preparation manuals follow Bradshaw and the Puritans, attempting to stave off despair and doubt by emphasizing that sincere self-examination will always discover the faith requisite to be a worthy receiver, and then in the Lord’s Supper, believers will be certain to “receive the assurance of that grace and mercy” that the meal represents. Indeed, as Bradshaw explains, “we have such a hope and firm promise, that if we search with a desire to find, we shall be sure to find it,” and “with it, and in it, a sealed pardon of the forgiveness of all our sins . . . a firm title to the kingdom of heaven.”
The writers of these manuals also took great pains to assure their readers that worthy reception did not require a perfect faith. Thus Bradshaw makes clear that regarding faith, “they that have but the least degree thereof, are true Christians, though but weak and imperfect . . . and have an interest in Christ and his merits, & therein a right into this Sacrament.” The notebooks of Nehemiah Wallington, a lay Puritan craftsman in London, offer a colorful glimpse at how this translated into Christian practice. As Wallington records in the lead-up to the Lord’s Supper celebration in his local church on January 3, 1641, “I did in some poor measure prepare myself for it begging of the Lord that still I might find the benefit and fruit of this his holy ordinance.” In triumph, Wallington goes on to note that “the Lord did hear me his name be praised” and that at this particular Communion meal, he found his “heart much stirred up to much thankfulness” for the spiritual fruits that God had granted him in it.
Such reassurances of the gracious aim of preparation brought no small measure of comfort to those like Anne Venn, who yearned to come worthily to the Communion meal. Despite her early trepidations, later in life she contemplated how she “had endeavored to do my duty according to my knowledge and power, in examining my own heart, what my ends, aims, desires, and wants were, and according to my ability desired the Lord to make it a strengthening and sealing ordinance to me.” Venn’s subsequent reflections about her self-examinations show her trusting in God’s readiness to forgive her discovered sins and accepting her inability to make herself worthy. In this way, she drew comfort from her time of preparation, resolving that sinners like her “cannot say I have sins and guilt, but can find no pardon, no, Christ bids you” eat the sacrament and “eat as long as you live, yea until his coming again.”
Past preparatory regimes, especially those formalized and developed among the Puritans in early modern England, offer a wealth of devotional material for modern Christians. These practices were propagated amid the social, political, and ecclesiological instabilities that marked sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. They were thus meant to accommodate the various local church contexts in which the faithful would find themselves in this era of tumult. Some pastors led their congregants in weekly celebrations of the Lord’s Supper, while others could do so only infrequently in the wake of the collapse of the national church and internecine war in the 1640s. Regardless of the frequency of administration, due preparation for the Lord’s Supper was inculcated among the godly as an ongoing process tied intimately to their status as redeemed, blood-bought members of the body of Christ. The Puritans were concerned less with the process of preparation as such and more with its end: worthy reception of the Lord’s Supper. This prize was an achievement of God’s grace alone, through faith in Christ.
Central to this whole vision was the glory of God, best promoted by the participation of all true believers (and only true believers, as was the hope) in a powerful means of grace that spiritually nourished Christ’s bride. Preparation then served as a spiritual exercise intended to offer believers both assurance of their salvation—and therefore admission to the Lord’s Table—and a special mode of thanksgiving to God for his gift of righteousness and the remission of sins. Preparation was meant to encourage a perpetual heart comportment in Christians, one that necessarily hit an inflection point as each local church approached the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
With the decline of clearly defined processes of self-examination and reflection on the significance of the sacramental meal, many modern evangelicals are missing out on a comforting practice meant to both protect and fortify their souls. Self-examination in preparation for the Lord’s Supper serves to keep the unworthy (in Paul’s language) from wrongly deriving assurance of their right standing before God in this sacramental meal, while also confirming and strengthening the saving faith of believers to their comfort and joy. As with the example set by many of the Puritans, preparation as a devotional activity inspires a continual rhythm of reflection, pardon, assurance, and worship in the lives of believers committed to worthy reception.
Rather than lay an additional burden on Christians, this rich history should encourage us to explore how we might fruitfully engage with past church practice for the benefit of our souls and the edification of our local congregations. Personal self-examination according to the Lord’s command offers believers an important occasion to identify sin and unbelief in our lives, repent of it, trust Christ, and glorify a gracious God who grants such pardon and comfort to sinners.
Jonathan Baddley is an (incoming) PhD student in history at the University of Cambridge. He previously earned an MA in history from Vanderbilt and an MTS in the history of Christianity from Harvard. His dissertation focuses on Puritan “practical divinity” and preparation for the Lord’s Supper in early modern England.
2. George Joye, The Souper of the Lorde (published in Nornburg [perhaps Antwerp or London] by Niclas Twonson [perhaps N. Hill], 1533), A5r–A6v.
3. William Bradshaw, A Direction for the weaker sort of Christians, shewing in what manner they ought to fit and prepare themselves to the worthy receiving of the Sacrament of the body and blood of Christ (London: W. Hall, 1609), 71.
4. Bradshaw, A Direction for the weaker sort of Christians, 77.
5. Bradshaw, A Direction for the weaker sort of Christians, 136.
6. Bradshaw, A Direction for the weaker sort of Christians, 139.
7. Bradshaw, A Direction for the weaker sort of Christians, 66.
8. Bradshaw, A Direction for the weaker sort of Christians, 66.
9. Bradshaw, A Direction for the weaker sort of Christians, 66.
10. Bradshaw, A Direction for the weaker sort of Christians, 76.
11. Bradshaw, A Direction for the weaker sort of Christians, 76.
12. Anne Venn, A Wise Virgins Lamp Burning; Or, Gods sweet incomes of Love to a gracious soul waiting for him (London: E. Cole, 1658), 11–12.
13. Venn, A Wise Virgins Lamp Burning, 12.
14. Bradshaw, A Direction for the weaker sort of Christians, 129.
15. Bradshaw, A Direction for the weaker sort of Christians, 132.
16. Bradshaw, A Direction for the weaker sort of Christians, 111.
17. Bradshaw, A Direction for the weaker sort of Christians, 78.
18. David Booy, ed., The Notebooks of Nehemiah Wallington, 1618–1654: A Selection (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2007), 147.
19. Booy, ed., The Notebooks of Nehemiah Wallington, 147.
20. Venn, A Wise Virgins Lamp Burning, 12.
21. Venn, A Wise Virgins Lamp Burning, 110.