If you have ever attended a church service where the Lord’s Supper was observed, you may have noticed that a tray of individual cups or drinking vessels were used to distribute the fruit of the vine to the people present. Did you ever wonder exactly where and when that practice began? The Bible accounts of the institution of this sacred feast all indicate that in the original observance Jesus took a loaf of unleavened bread and a cup (one) containing fruit of the vine. (Mt 26:26-28; Mk 14:22-24 ) Just how long the new testament church observed the communion in that fashion is unknown, We do know that about two hundred years after the establishment of the church there is a record indicating that more than one container was used in the Lord’s Supper. That record also indicates that there were other additions and changes being made in the divine pattern. Individual cups, however, are of rather recent origin. Rev. J.G. Thomas, a minister, who was also a physician, claims credit for inventing the first individual communion set. Their first use occurred in the Vaughnsville Congregational Church located in Putnam Co., Ohio sometime during the year of 1893. The idea became very popular and spread rapidly throughout the country. As people became more conscious of germs and the possible transmission of disease by several people drinking out of the same container, more and more churches adopted the practice. There were some, however, who felt that the sanitation feature was being overplayed and even ridiculed the necessity of individual drinking cups. In fact, there were a number of denominations that refused to accept them, because they viewed them as an addition to the teaching of the scripture.
In the early days of the restoration movement many churches used one cup. Alexander Campbell was in attendance at a congregation where such was the case and he described it as one of the most beautiful services he ever attended. I quote:
“He then took the cup in a similar manner, and returned thanks for it, and handed it to the disciple sitting next to him, who passed it round; each one waiting upon his brother, until all were served.”
During the same time period there were some churches who used two, or perhaps four cups to serve the congregation the fruit of the vine. One popular practice was to have all men sit on one side of the meeting house with the women sitting on the other side, a cup was then passed down each side. Eventually, it would be the use of more than one cup that made the adoption of individual cups all the easier to accept. For after all, as the argument was made, if you can use more than one, then you can use as many as you might like to use, and that certainly became the case.
One of the early preachers, in the church, to oppose individual cups was the honored and revered J.W. McGarvey. In Feb. 1910 he received a query about the use of cups. His reply is as follows: “A brother in Pensacola, Fl. asked me what authority have we for using the single cup in the communion service, as has been the custom of the Christian churches, other than it is implied in the narratives of the three gospels? We have none, but that is enough. On the other hand, we have no authority for doing otherwise. Every divinely appointed ordinance would be observed precisely as divine wisdom has appointed it.” How then, did the individual cups find their way into the church of Christ? Brother C. E. Holt of Florence, Al. may well have been the first non-instrument preacher to come out in favor of individual cups. His article in the June 11, 1911 Gospel Advocate claimed that the use of individual cups was probably much cleaner and more sanitary than several people drinking from the same cup. David Lipscomb, then editor of the paper, was not so easily convinced. In fact he steadfastly opposed the use of the individual communion cup, for a rather lengthy period of time. It was only after a visit from G. C. Brewer that Lipscomb began to weaken somewhat and say that he was about to reach the conclusion that the cups were in no way a violation of scripture teaching. Soon after this Brewer introduced the individual cups into the Central Church of Christ in Chattanooga, Tn. A short time later Lipscomb wrote in the Advocate that he no longer felt that individual cups were a violation of new testament teaching. From this point forward churches began adopting them throughout the country.
The above is a brief history of the changes that resulted in the introduction of individual cups into churches of Christ in America. Divisions came, as they always do, when innovations find their way into the church. It is noteworthy that this addition was not the result of what Jesus or Paul said, but rather what men like C. E. Holt and G. C. Brewer said. It is rather sobering when one realizes that there is no higher authority for the use of individual cups in the communion than these mortal men.
Published in the July 1, 1991 issue of the OPA.