First Communion during the Lutheran Reformation

This is our pastor’s article for SOTHLC ‘s November newsletter.


Today, almost all of us have grown up seeing infant baptism as the norm.  Later, a baptized child would finish confirmation around the 8th grade, and then he would receive his first communion.  That is what is normal for us.

Yet, throughout history, we will find a much different practice.  From the beginning of the New Testament Church, the standard practice was infant baptism, confirmation, and communion, all done at the same time, one following the other.  This was the norm for about 1,000 years.  This practice continues today in the Eastern Christian Churches (Orthodox and Coptic).

However, within Roman Catholicism, fear of desecrating the consecrated elements in the Lord’s Supper began to remove infants from receiving Christ’s body in the Lord’s Supper.  Later, in 1215, the Roman Catholic Church decided to remove the cup from the laity, which included all infants.  This was over fear of spilling Christ’s blood during the Lord’s Supper.  Then in 1300, influenced by rediscovered ancient Greek philosophy and its age-of-discretion thinking, first communion was changed to seven years of age.

This was what the Lutheran Church inherited from Rome at the dawn of the Reformation.  Yet, Luther, seeing no mandate to receive communion based solely on how old someone was, removed an age for first communion.  For Luther, age was irrelevant.  What mattered for him was someone’s ability to recognize Jesus’ body and blood in the Sacrament and have a basic understanding of sin and grace.

So then, how did the Lutheran Church first practice first communion?  That depended on the child’s parents and how well they taught him the Small Catechism.  (We must remember that Luther wrote the Small Catechism for parents, mainly the father, to teach their children.)  When a father thought a child was ready to receive communion, he would bring the child to the pastor for examination.  Most of the time, this examination was in private, not public.  If the child’s confession of the faith satisfied the pastor, the child would then be admitted to the Supper.

After a child received communion, he would then attend the catechismus (catechism instruction).  In Wittenberg, this instruction took place through weekday preaching services in the city church.  Attendance usually stopped when someone turned 21 or when he or she married.  This was the method most widely used in the Lutheran Church in the 16th and early 17th centuries.

So, what was the typical age of first communion during the Reformation?  We find this out from Johannes Bugenhagen, who was Luther’s pastor.  He mentioned, in passing, that those who received first communion “were little children of about 8 years or less” (Bente, Historical Introductions to the Symbolical Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Section 104).  So, the oldest children receiving first communion were about 8, with no mention of how old the youngest were.

Now, why are we getting into this?  After all, you are way past first communion!  It’s because a mother in our congregation has asked that her son, who is 7, begin receiving communion.  So I have begun instructing him, not for confirmation, but for first communion.  If all goes well, after I have privately examined him, he will receive Christ’s body and blood later this month.

Perhaps, we can think about first communion this way.  If the Lord’s Supper is what we say it is, Christ’s body and blood for the forgiveness of sins, then we should be communing as early as possible.  For it is not only we who continue to need Christ and His forgiveness in His Supper, but also the young.