Thursday 11 April 2024

Communion Season in Glasgow and the Surrounding Areas, c.1695-1720: Evidence from the Wodrow Collection

GEMMS MS #001768 (MS Gen 408) and GEMMS MS #001779 (MS Gen 410) contain a total of 177 sermons, all of which were given at Communion seasons in Glasgow and the surrounding area between 1695 and 1720 (Figure 1). As such, these manuscripts offer valuable insight into the practice of Communion in the period.

Figure 1: The two manuscripts (MS Gen 408 and MS Gen 410) side-by-side
(Image taken by NC with permission of Glasgow Special Collections)

The manuscripts form part of the collection of Robert Wodrow (1679 - 1734, GEMMS-PERSON-002061), the Scottish minister and ecclesiastical historian, whose papers are held by the University of Glasgow (MS Gen ACCN 1233). Both manuscripts share the same format and structure; including an index at the beginning detailing the initials of the preacher, chapter and verse of scripture, and the page on which the sermon can be found (Figure 2). The only ownership marks are found in MS #001768, which features an inscription ‘to the Rev[eren]d Mr Rob[er]t Woodrow min[iste]r at Eastwod.’ This inscription initially suggests that the sermons were gifted to Wodrow, meaning he was not the original author, and they have therefore been historically catalogued as having an unknown author.

Figure 2: Index of  MS Gen 408
(Image taken by NC with permission of Glasgow Special Collections)

However, closer examination of the collection, and a side-by-side comparison with Wodrow’s sermon notes in MS GEN 430-433 (GEMMS manuscripts #001800, #001801, #001818 and  #001822) means that it is now possible to confidently attribute these manuscripts to Robert Wodrow. The Communion sermons contained cover an extended period during which Wodrow was firstly a librarian at the University of Glasgow (1697 to 1701) and then, from 1703 onward, minister at Eastwood.[1] The manuscripts can therefore, alongside other items in the collection, offer new insights into the networks that Wodrow established in Glasgow before and during his time in the ministry - an undoubtedly fruitful source for future research! However, today’s blog post will focus on the Communion, considering some of the ways that these manuscripts can broaden our understanding of early modern Scottish practice.

The Communion Season

The First Book of Discipline (1560) of the Church of Scotland sets out the vision for the Reformed church. Within the discussion of the ‘Ninth head concerning the policie of the Kirk’ it proposed that ‘foure times in the yeare we think sufficient to the administration of the Lords table.’[2] This was based on the Genevan model, which had been reduced from Calvin’s original proposal to hold a weekly Communion. The Communion, Lord’s Supper, or Sacrament - some of the many designations - played an important and distinct role in Protestant churches. In Scotland, as in Geneva, one of the key features was the Table - with Communion recipients all being seated around tables rather than kneeling to be given Communion (although this became a disputed issue between the 1621 ratification of the Five Articles of Perth and their repeal in 1690[3]).  

The ‘season’ reflects two aspects of Scottish Communion. Firstly, Communion was most commonly held around Easter (which was no longer celebrated  after the Reformation[4]), or in the early summer months, creating a season. Secondly, due to the infrequency of the Communion, it became an event in and of itself, taking place over an extended period of around a week. This became known as the Communion Season, or Holy Fair. The c.1830 Alexander Carse painting, Mauchline Holy Fair, portrays the Season as depicted by Robert Burns in his 1786 poem The Holy Fair, in which he contrasts the festivity of the common folk assembled for the Communion with the puritanical exhortations of the ministers (Figure 3). The celebration of the Communion Season was, by Burn’s time, well established, with attendance at multiple Communions becoming common in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century.

Figure 3: Alexander Carse (c.1770–1843), The Mauchline Holy Fair, c. 1830 
(Photo credit: National Trust for Scotland, Robert Burns Birthplace Museum)

The importance of the Communion in post-Reformation Scotland has been debated. Andrew Spicer notes that a shortage of ministers meant that the prescription to hold Communion four times a year was not met, meaning that it ‘ceased to have an important place in Scottish worship.’[5] This has been disputed by John McCallum, whose research into Communion practices in Fife between 1560 and 1640, suggests that, whilst Communion was only celebrated annually in most parishes, this infrequency ‘does not make the Sacrament a marginalised element of Scottish worship.’ This, he argues, is evident in the multiple seatings at the Table, ensuring there was space for all parishioners, and the importance with which the Communion Season came to be held.[6] The most comprehensive scholarly discussion of Communion practices is found in Margo Todd’s The Culture of Protestantism in Scotland (2002). Todd’s work reveals how the annual Communion became a great celebration, with urban parishes over time being able to hold more than one in a year. The ministry officially claimed, in their justifications to church authorities, that the practice of holding the Communion around Easter helped to counter the tendency to practice ‘superstition’ at that time. However, it appears, Todd argues, that the local sessions were bowing to the popular demand to hold celebrations at that time of year, with the Communion replacing the traditional Easter festivities. 

The Season often took place over a period of at least two weeks, with multiple seatings (as many as three in larger parishes, with the first at 4 am), or even offerings of the Sacrament on two consecutive Sundays to accommodate the needs of the parish. As well as the Communion itself, on the Sabbath, there were also preparation sermons on a Saturday and Monday thanksgiving sermons  (these were the three key days, but other sermons also took place - discussed further below). Attendance was compulsory and so shops would be closed and fields left unattended for the duration of sermons, meaning it became a holiday weekend of sorts. Prior to the Communion, examinations were also held over a period of several weeks, testing parishioners on their knowledge of the Catechism. Lists of eligible parishioners would be kept and tokens were given to those who passed their examination, granting them entry to the Communion.[7] 

Existing research points to the development of the Communion Season over time, with it holding increasing importance in the liturgical calendar across the seventeenth century. Todd’s discussion draws attention to the importance of the Communion within wider Protestant worship, considering a broad time period and geographical scope, and McCallum’s research on Fife offers a regional perspective. However, the Communion Season remains relatively unexplored in the wider scholarship, and there is an undoubted need for further regional and national considerations of its role and importance in post-Reformation Scotland. GEMMS MS #001768 and MS #001779 demonstrate a wide number of ways in which this topic might be explored - from attendance and the movement of ministers to the content of the sermons themselves.

GEMMS MS #001768 and MS #001779

Wodrow’s record of the sermons allows us insight into the parishes that he frequented, and how often, and on which date, the Communion was held within each parish. Since the manuscripts were catalogued as unassociated to one another they are not in chronological order. MS #001779 (MS Gen 410) covers the period between 1695 and 1702, when Wodrow was a librarian at the University of Glasgow and confirms his attendance at Communion in five different parishes. MS #001768 (MS Gen 408) covers the later period of 1712 and 1720, during which Wodrow was the minister of the parish of Eastwood. In contrast to the earlier period, Wodrow attended a far larger number of Communions in this period, totaling 39 different Communions over the nine years. This included the Communion season within his own parish, which was held annually in August. John McCallum has shown that in Fife between 1560 and 1640 that the months of March and Easter, and in particular the dates surrounding Easter, were the most common choice for the Communion Season, with the summer months being the second choice.[8] The evidence within the Wodrow manuscripts for Glasgow and the surrounding area  suggests that spring appears to have fallen out of favour by the late seventeenth century or was perhaps never as popular in the west of the country - a question for future research to uncover. Wodrow’s record of Communion seasons points to the spring months being no more popular than Autumn. The date of the Communions varies between parishes and across years, but the manuscript sermons reveal a clear dominance of the summer months. 

As Todd highlights, the Communion Season took place over an extended period of time. The manuscripts provide extensive detail on the structure of the Communion, which appears to most often have taken place over a number of weeks, with the preceding Sabbath(s) before Communion featuring preparatory sermons. In the week of the Communion itself, there were four key days: the Thursday fast day, the Saturday Communion preparation (Figure 4), the Communion on the Sabbath, and the Monday after – with at least one sermon, but usually more, held on each day. On the Communion day, the manuscripts record a number of different sermons, such as the Action Sermon, the sermon given ‘before the tables’, and the sermon ‘at tables.’ In addition to the Monday directly after Communion, which often involved as many as three sermons, the following Sabbath might also feature a sermon relating back to the Communion.

Figure 4: A sermon given ‘By Mr John Dickson … Saturday befor[e] the co[mmun]ion’,
August 15 1696. MS Gen 410, p. 94.
(Image taken by NC with permission of Glasgow Special Collections)

Alongside his own parish, Wodrow frequently attended Communion season at the Barony Parish, as well as the Inner and Outer parishes of the High Kirk, with which he had established a connection in the earlier period. For the Barony Parish, the months given for Communion vary from June in 1712, October in 1713, November in 1714, July in 1715, 1716 and 1717, and February in 1719. This points to two possibilities: either the parish often found the need to move their annual Communion, or by the early eighteenth century the Barony parish was able to hold Communion more than once a year. The latter is highly likely given that Wodrow attended Communion within so many parishes, even dividing his weekends on occasion. In June 1718, for example, he attended the Thursday fast sermon at Govan and then the Saturday, Communion Day, and Monday sermons at Mearns (MS Gen 408, pp. 349, 351-352, 356).  Todd has estimated that in Glasgow alone there were around 13,000 Communion tokens produced in 1700, in contrast to 4,000 in 1604, attesting to their growth and frequency.[9] This is supported by Wodrow’s manuscripts, which reveal the large number of Communion seasons taking place in the Glasgow area, with ministers and attendees travelling between parishes and often attending multiple seasons within the year.

Figure 5: ‘Preaching tent’, National Museums of Scotland (Image accessed 26/01/2024) 

As well as the movement of Wodrow himself, the manuscripts record the sermons of over forty ministers and reveal which parishes they preached in beyond their own. James Stirling (GEMMS-PERSON-002140), for example, preached at Communions in his own Barony parish, as well as in Rutherglen, Eastwood, the Outer High Kirk, Eaglesham, and Cathcart. The sermons themselves offer insight into the structure and content of the Communion and highlight the wide range of Old and New Testament scripture that was selected. Other details about Communion practice are also recorded, such as the use of Communion tents - a type of pulpit that was utilised in outdoor sermons. The above image is an early nineteenth-century example held by National Museums Scotland (Figure 5). Wodrow attended outdoor Communion sermons ‘at the tent’ in Eaglesham in 1702 (MS Gen 410, p. 110) and Eastwood in 1715 (MS Gen 408, p. 258). 

This short introduction to GEMMS manuscripts #001768 and #001779 only scratches the surface of the information that can be drawn from Wodrow’s sermon notebooks. There are numerous ways that these manuscripts could be used - from studies of Wodrow, to closer examination of Communion sermons - but above all they attest to the need for further research into Communion practices in early modern Scotland. The Communion season and its regional, as well as national, role and importance in post-Reformation Scotland remains underexplored, and the GEMMS database can offer researchers an accessible and informative starting point to identify and locate related manuscript sermons. 


[1] The external binding, on which the inscription is written, appears to have been a later addition.

[2] The First and Second Booke of Discipline, as It Was Formerly Set Forth in Scotland by Publicke Authoritie, Anno 1560 (London: 1641), pp. 62-63.

[3] For more on the Five Articles of Perth, see, Laura A. M. Stewart, ‘The Political Repercussions of the Five Articles of Perth: A Reassessment of James VI and I’s Religious Policies in Scotland’, The Sixteenth Century Journal, 38:4 (2007), pp. 1013–36.

[4] Easter, as well as Christmas and other ‘festive’ calendar dates, were not understood to have a scriptural precedent by the post-Reformation Scottish Kirk and were therefore not officially celebrated. During certain periods this prohibition was lifted, and the question of adherence is more complicated. For more on this, see Margo Todd, The Culture of Protestantism in Early Modern Scotland (London: Yale University Press, 2002).

[5] Andrew Spicer, ‘“Accommodating of Thame Selfis to Heir the Worde”: Preaching, Pews and Reformed Worship in Scotland, 1560–1638’, History, 88, (2003), p. 408.

[6] John McCallum, Reforming the Scottish Parish (Ashgate: Surrey, 2010), pp. 81-82. 

[7] Todd, Culture of Protestantism, pp. 77-78, 85-87.

[7] McCallum, Reforming the Scottish Parish, pp. 83-5.

[8] Todd, Culture of Protestantism, p. 113.

Further reading on Communion and post-Reformation worship in Scotland

Alexander J. S. Brook, ‘Communion Tokens of the Established Church of Scotland’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 41, (1907), pp. 453-604.

George B. Burnet, The Holy Communion in the Reformed Church of Scotland, 1560-1960 (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1960).

Duncan B. Forrester and Douglas B. Murray (eds.), Studies in the History of Worship in Scotland (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1984).

Ian Hazlett (ed.), A Companion to the Reformation in Scotland, c.1525–1638 (Leiden: Brill, 2021). Especially chapters 10 (Bryan D Spinks, ‘The Emergence of Reformed Worship Tradition’) and 18 (Jamie M McDougall, ‘Popular Festive Practices in Reformation Scotland’).

Chris R. Langley, ‘“A Sweet Love-Token betwixt Christ and His Church”: Kirk, Communion and the Search for Further Reformation, 1646–1658,’ in John McCallum (ed.), Scotland’s Long Reformation, (Leiden: Brill, 2016).

Margo Todd, ‘Profane Pastimes and the Reformed Community: The Persistence of Popular Festivities in Early Modern Scotland’, Journal of British Studies, 39:2 (2000), pp. 123–56. 

~ Nicole Maceira Cumming

Wednesday 15 November 2023

GEMMS Virtual Lecture: Hannah Yip, "'Sir Henry Vane’s Affection to the Ministery’: Sermons by the unordained”

There is less than a week before Hannah Yip's free virtual lecture, "'Sir Henry Vane’s Affection to the Ministery': Sermons by the unordained" on Tuesday, 21 November 2023 at 5:00-6:30 GMT/12:00-1:30 EST!

To register to join us live or receive a link to the recording later, see

We hope to you can join us!

Lecture abstract:

"Although there has been extensive research which has explored the preaching of the Ranting sects of the English Civil Wars, the wider phenomenon of sermons delivered by unordained preachers in the seventeenth century remains to be addressed. This lecture will address the handwritten survivals of these sermons (including reports of them, drafts, and full transcripts), the contexts in which these sermons were composed and preached, and their significance for further study. This lecture also seeks to question the approach of these individuals towards writing sermons, from politicians such as Sir Henry Vane the younger, who preached regularly to his family, to polymaths such as the orientalist Edward Bernard, exploring their motivations for preaching and their intended audiences and readers."

Monday 30 October 2023

Call for papers: Preachers, Hearers, Readers, and Scribes: New Approaches to Early Modern Sermons in Manuscript

The collaborators on GEMMS: Gateway to Early Modern Manuscript Sermons invite proposals for papers on sermons in manuscript from 1530 to 1715 for a conference to be held 3-5 October 2024 at Harvard Divinity School and the Congregational Library, Cambridge and Boston, MA. Featured keynote speakers are Dr. Frank Bremer (Millersville University), Dr. David Hall (Harvard University), and Professor Ann Hughes (Keele University).

We are particularly interested in presentations that make use of the GEMMS database ( or the types of manuscripts included in GEMMS, which focuses on sermons, sermon notes, and reports of sermons and preaching.

We would welcome proposals on a wide range of topics, including (but not limited to):
  • comparisons of preaching practices across the Atlantic world
  • the contents or contexts of individual sermons, sets of sermon notes, or sermon collections
  • sermons related to particular Biblical passages
  • particular genres of, or occasions for, sermons
  • sermons preached at particular venues or in specific regions
  • the responses of auditors and/or readers of sermons, or note-taking practices
  • women’s relationships with sermons and preaching
  • comparative perspectives on sermon manuscripts in other languages or religious traditions
  • preaching patterns and methods
  • compilers, collectors, or owners of sermon manuscripts
  • related manuscript materials, such as liturgical, doctrinal and devotional manuscripts
  • perspectives of librarians or archivists on manuscript sermon collections
  • use of digital tools and methods to study sermon manuscripts or related data
  • related early modern digital resources

Proposals should indicate a preference for longer papers of 20 minutes or shorter papers of 10 minutes. Please include a title and an abstract of 250-300 words. We are also happy to consider other kinds of presentations, such as demonstrations, workshops and roundtable discussions. Select publications will be included in a special issue of Renaissance and Reformation / Renaissance et Réforme.

Send proposals to Jennifer Farooq,, no later than 1 January 2024.

Friday 23 June 2023

GEMMS Virtual Lecture: Catherine Evans, "'Sweete Words' and 'Lasting Monuments': Manuscript sermons, letters, and poetry"

 There is only 4 days left before the next GEMMS virtual lecture by Catherine Evans, ""'Sweete Words' and 'Lasting Monuments': Manuscript sermons, letters, and poetry" on Tuesday, June 27!

To join us live on Zoom or to the receive a link to the recording, register at

We hope you can join us!

Lecture abstract:

“A verse may find him whom a sermon flies”, as George Herbert writes in The Church Porch. Herbert may have been pre-emptively batting away criticism for taking time away from composing and delivering sermons to dedicate himself to the poetic arts, suggesting that for some poetry would be more effective as a spur to devotion. This talk will consider the relationship between verse and sermon from the perspective of the lay reader, examining manuscript poetry written in response to hearing or reading sermons. These include poems by a wife about her clergyman husband’s preaching, verses by an Essex cloth worker on his own sermon attendance, and a reworking of a funeral sermon in rhyme. If, as Arnold Hunt has discussed, we need to consider how sermons taught their hearers to listen to rhetoric and recall the word of the Bible, how did they also move them to create new texts and transform them into poetry?

In A Call to Come to Christ, a poem found in a religious manuscript miscellany once belonging to Lady Betty Bruce Boswell, Elizabeth Melville rewrites Christopher Marlowe’s The Passionate Shepherd to His Love: “Come live [with me] and be my love/ And all these pleasures thou shalt prove… O loath this life and live with me/ This life is but a blast of breath”. She transforms the words of “lawless lust” and “love profane” into “that living well/ Which shall thy dwining [thirsting] drowth expell”. Research for GEMMS has demonstrated that manuscript sermons often sit beside all sorts of “profane” material: personal account books, recipes, and extracts of amatory verse to name a few. By exploring the poetry that sits alongside sermons, and in many cases was inspired by them, this talk will situate sermons within the broader literary landscape of the time.

Wednesday 31 May 2023

GEMMS Virtual Lecture: Lucy Underwood "Preaching the Counter-Reformation in England"

There is only a week until Lucy Underwood's virtual lecture "Preaching the Counter-Reformation in England" on June 7!

Register today to join us live or receive a link to the recording later.

Lecture abstract:

"After the accession of Elizabeth I, Catholicism became a prohibited religion in England. Yet, from the 1570s onwards, the project of the ‘English Mission’ was to bring the Catholic Reformation, which in this case may be properly called a ‘Counter-Reformation’, to England. Like proponents of Catholic Reform elsewhere, they knew the value of preaching, but like other Catholic practices, Catholic preaching happened in the shadows, passing unnoticed except when people got caught. It is therefore difficult for historians to trace: we know it happened, but when, where, how often and – crucially – what was preached has been very difficult to know. There has been more scholarly focus on the practices Catholics used to substitute for preaching and sacraments, when access to a priest was dangerous and infrequent – the printed word becoming especially important.

However, sources on Catholic preaching do exist. This lecture will trace those clues, and will examine the texts of Catholic sermons which survive from the century following the Protestant Reformation – some preached in English Catholic institutions in exile, others, it seems, in England itself. What missionary priests preached, and what English Catholics heard from them, are key to understanding how the Counter Reformation helped to create Catholic communities which could survive in Protestant England."

Monday 8 May 2023

GEMMS Virtual Lecture: Mary Morrissey "Sermons in series and fragments" 11 May 2023

There is only three days until Mary Morrissey's virtual lecture: "Sermons in series and in fragments: GEMMS, the archive, and finding the Spital and Rehearsal sermons"!

Register today to attend live or to watch the recording later:

Mary will be discussing the annual Spital and Rehearsal sermons preached at St Mary's Spital and St Paul's Cross. She will consider the particular challenges in recovering textual witnesses to these sermons and in classifying and interpreting them.
Mary will particularly highlight how databases likes GEMMS can help with these challenges.

This is the first in a series of lectures hosting by GEMMS in the spring and fall of 2023. Here is the list of our upcoming lectures.

Tuesday 13 September 2022

Job Opportunity: Research Assistant in the UK

The Gateway to Early Modern Manuscript Sermons (GEMMS) project is seeking a student enrolled in a UK PhD program in a related field of study (including but not limited to early modern English literature, social, political, and religious history, theology, and book history) to assist with data collection. The duration of the position is twelve months, with a 3-month probationary period. There is a possibility of extending the contract. The researcher will work approximately 20 hours per month during the term of the contract, though the number of hours is negotiable with the principal researchers.

GEMMS is a group-sourced, online, bibliographic database of early modern (1530-1715) sermon manuscripts in the UK and North America ( The role of the Research Assistant is primarily to collect metadata for the database in selected UK repositories identified by the principal researchers. The Research Assistant also may have the opportunity to present research, to participate in promoting GEMMS, and to conduct workshops for groups of potential contributors and users.


Collect metadata on sermon manuscripts at libraries and archives in the UK (repositories to be selected in consultation with the principal researchers) and enter this data into the database.

Advise principal researchers of difficulties encountered and significant discoveries of additional materials.

Check and correct data currently in the database.

Contribute to GEMMS’s social media, including short posts and blogs, to highlight the content of GEMMS.



The Research Assistant will be compensated £17.50/hour to a maximum of £4200 plus travel expenses as required. In consultation with the principal researchers, the student will develop a mutually beneficial research schedule.



Candidates must be enrolled in a PhD program in a related field at a UK university. Candidates whose work involves the use of early modern British sermons and/or who have a background in early modern British ecclesiastical history will be preferred.

Candidates also must be willing to travel within the UK to conduct research and potentially internationally to attend conferences.

Candidates must be able to communicate effectively both orally and in writing and must be able to work well independently.

Candidates must have accurate word processing skills and be attentive to detail. Familiarity with databases is an asset.

Candidates with training in early modern British paleography will be preferred. Some knowledge of Latin and/or Greek would be useful, though not required.


Application procedure:

Applications will be accepted until November 4, 2022. We anticipate hiring to be completed in November and work to begin in January 2023, though an earlier start date may be possible.

Please submit a cover letter outlining your qualifications and availability, a current CV, and the names and contact details for two referees to or