On Sunday morning October 7, 1894, parishioners filled the Bedford Avenue Baptist Church of Brooklyn, New York, in anticipation of experiencing what The New York Times termed a “novelty in communion service” (October 8, 1894). Two newspapers had announced in late September that this church would implement individual cups. The September 28, 1894 issue of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle quoted Bedford’s pastor, J. H. Gunning, as saying that the cups would be used at the next communion service. However, attendees who arrived expecting the individual cups “were disappointed” to see the same old six silver goblets (The New York Times, October 8, 1894). After the service, Rev. Gunning called a business meeting during which he said he was anxious that his church be the first in Brooklyn to use individual communion cups. A majority voted, by standing, to purchase 200 three-inch tall silver cups lined with gold at a cost of thirty-five cents per communicant.
Up until the 1890s, Protestant churches throughout the world used common communion chalices. Some used just one, while others were known to use several in order to administer the fruit of the vine in a time-saving manner. However, churches using multiple chalices still had tens or perhaps hundreds of people sipping from the same cup during a communion service. In the late-nineteenth century, when outbreaks of diphtheria and tuberculosis were common, American sanitarians agitated to reform this religious practice—though no disease contraction had been linked to the use of a common communion chalice.
Reformers proposed several alternatives such as intinction, individual fistulas or siphons, scalloped-rim chalices, and disinfectant cloths. However, among all proposals, individual cups emerged as the most popular method. Enough pastors and laymen became convinced of the sanitary need to use individual cups that the idea took hold, then rapidly spread into the twentieth century. This reform changed what was believed to be an almost 1,900-year-old method.
Which church was first?
Late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century newspapers, religious periodicals and medical journals attempted to identify the first church to enact this unprecedented reform. In this clamor for notoriety, at least seven churches publicly claimed or were bestowed with the distinction of being the first to use individual communion cups. Some of these conflicting claims have also appeared in books, articles and websites in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, which evidences a persistent lack of consensus on the matter of first use. This article presents conflicting first-use claims and identifies which of the public claims represents the earliest use of individual communion cups.
Market Street Presbyterian—Lima, Ohio
Currently, Ohio’s Allen County Museum and Historical Society displays the first individual communion cups and filler mechanism used by Market Street Presbyterian Church of Lima, Ohio (http://www.allencountymuseum.org/W.html). The Lima News reported that this was the first set sold by the then-fledgling Thomas Communion Service Company of Lima (January 16, 1955, p. 5B). The museum’s Curator of Manuscripts and Archives/Librarian has an article on file from the Lima Times Democrat which reported that Market Street first used these individual cups on October 7, 1894. The museum website states that “Thomas was the originator of the individual communion cup.”
Central Presbyterian—Rochester, New York
However, an earlier claim is also documented. According to the May 14, 1894 Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the elders of Central Presbyterian Church of Rochester, New York, appointed their pastor, Rev. Dr. H. H. Stebbins, and fellow elder and physician, Dr. Charles Forbes, to “design a plan for individual cups” at the urging of the Rochester Pathological Society in early 1894 (p. 9). The same article reported that a plan was devised and Central Presbyterian first used individual cups on May 13, 1894.
A few months after this service, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle stated that “Central Presbyterian Church…has the distinction of being the first church in the world to adopt the use of the individual chalices in the celebration of the Holy Communion” (September 24, 1894, p. 8). Dr. Forbes went on to found the Sanitary Communion Outfit Company. An early twentieth-century advertisement for his company (pictured at the beginning of this article) appearing in The Expositor and Current Anecdotes claimed, “We introduced individual service…” (October-December 1911; January, February, April, June, & July 1912).
North Baptist—Rochester, New York
Central Presbyterian used individual cups in the spring of 1894, but were they really the first that year? When the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reported on Central Presbyterian’s seventy-fifth anniversary as a church it stated that Central’s Pastor Stebbins “had inaugurated the use of the individual communion cup which has spread throughout the entire world,” but it also mentioned that some of the cups ordered for Central’s first individual-cups communion service were used “as a preliminary test” the previous Sunday morning at North Baptist Church of Rochester, New York (November 11, 1911, p. 17). This service took place on May 6, 1894. About nine months later, North’s pastor, Rev. G. F. Love, wrote in the New York Evangelist, “My church was the first to use them [individual cups] and it will be the last to give them up” (February 21, 1895, p. 28). About a year after North’s initial use of the cups, a statement appeared in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) made by Dr. H. S. Anders—a Philadelphia physician who promoted individual cups—which claimed, “The first church in Christendom, so far as known, to adopt this modification was the North Baptist Church of Rochester, N.Y., at the communion service held May 6, 1894” (June 8, 1895, p. 890).
First Congregational—Saco, Maine
A couple of years after making his statement about North Baptist, however, Dr. H. S. Anders made conflicting statement in JAMA which claimed, “So far as our knowledge extends, the first church to use individual communion cups for sanitary reasons was the First Congregational Church of Saco, Maine, in November, 1893” (October 16, 1897, p. 792). In the Outlook, two people from Saco—one a deacon—wrote to the editor that their church first used individual cups in January 1894, not November 1893 (April 14, 1894, p. 680; June 2, 1894, p. 980). This coincides with a report in the Lewiston Saturday Journal (Maine) which cited a Boston Congregationalist article stating that “At the January  communion of the Saco church individual cups were used…” (March 10, 1894, p. 2).
Vaughnsville Congregational—Vaughnsville, Ohio
Evidence points to an even earlier date for the first use of individual communion cups, though. According to A Standard History of Allen County, Ohio, John G. Thomas—a physician and pastor of the Vaughnsville Congregational Church—designed a communion outfit after noticing “a communicant with a diseased mouth condition” (p. 288). Thomas applied for a patent for his invention on August 2, 1893, in which he wrote that he “invented certain new and useful improvements in communion service” which would “provide an individual or separate cup for the use of each person at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, commonly called the communion service…” (Serial No. 482,186). According to The Lima News, Thomas and his church elders first experimented with the individual cups “sometime during 1893” (January 16, 1955, p. 5B). The patent for his invention was granted on March 6, 1894, and marked the first time an individual cup service received letters patent in the United States (Patent No. 516,065). An early twentieth-century advertisement (pictured right) for the Thomas Communion Service Company appearing in the Methodist Review claimed “We were originators of the individual communion service” (May 1914, p. 506). But Vaughnsville Congregational’s claim to have been the first users of individual cups appears to be incorrect as well.
First Methodist Episcopal Church—Ypsilanti, Michigan
When Centennial Methodist Church of Newark, New Jersey, implemented the use of individual cups for the first time on March 3, 1893, it enlisted the help of Rev. Dr. E. W. Ryan, pastor of First Methodist Episcopal of Ypsilanti, Michigan. At the time, the Utica Weekly Herald (New York) claimed that Ryan had “started the [individual cup] notion” at his Ypsilanti church (March 12, 1893, p. 11). According to a former Methodist Librarian at Drew University, Ryan became pastor of this Ypsilanti church in 1892 (November 18, 2010 e-mail from Jennifer Woodruff Tait). Therefore, this Ypsilanti church first used individual cups some time after Ryan’s arrival in 1892, but before he assisted with Centennial’s service in March of 1893. However, documents reveal one more first-use claim.
Scovill Avenue Methodist Episcopal—Cleveland, Ohio
In 1892, Alfred Van Derwerken—a lawyer in Brooklyn, New York—sent Brooklyn pastors a paper he wrote titled “The Sacramental Cup.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reproduced this paper which urged pastors to provide “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). In responding to criticism for proposing this reform, Van Derwerken defended himself in the same newspaper by saying, “This opinion of mine regarding the use of many cups at a communion service…. is in operation in the West” and proved his point by presenting a letter he had received from Rev. H. Webb, pastor of Scovill Avenue Methodist Church of Cleveland, Ohio. In the letter, Webb wrote that he believed his church’s first use of individual cups on December 6, 1891 was “absolutely the first time or case where it has been thus served” (December 2, 1892, p. 2). Reports in December 1891, in both The Brooklyn Daily Eagle and the Utica Morning Herald, stated that the Scovill Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church of Cleveland first used individual cups on December 6, 1891. These two reports also detailed that some of the cups “had to be washed” during the service because the number of people who attended outnumbered the seventy-two available cups. This first use by the Scovill Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church marks the earliest publicly recorded date of individual communion cup implementation.
Despite Rev. Gunning’s desires in the fall of 1894, Bedford Avenue Baptist of Brooklyn could not have become the first church in Brooklyn to use individual cups, even if they had been used in October as originally planned, because Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church of that city had already implemented the reform on March 4, 1894 (The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 14, 1894). On the national level, the Scovill Avenue church had begun the practice more than two years earlier.
The above timeline charts the dates of some of the first uses of individual communion cups in the late-nineteenth century. Perhaps readers know of earlier, but less publicized, uses of individual cups that should be included in the timeline.