Tokens of Grace
Cape Breton’s Open-air Communion Tradition
Publisher: Cape Breton University Press
Reviewer: Discerning Reader Team
Compared to the history of our neighbour/neighbor to the south, the history of Canada is not quite as explosive. Even so, a lifetime of study could not exhaust the social, political, and economic events and upheavals seen and experienced north of the 49th parallel. Then there is the religious history of the nation, of which Canadian church history is a subset. In her 2006 book Tokens of Grace: Cape Breton’s Open-air Communion Tradition, history professor Laurie Stanley-Blackwell focuses in upon the rise and demise of Cape Breton’s annual Gaelic tradition of outdoor mass communion.
In all probability, the book will not prove overly rewarding for those unable to summon up a modicum of interest in the niche historical topics of Gaelic culture, church history in Canada, linguistic history in Canada, or the sociological phenomena of groupthink and/or individualism. However, Tokens of Grace should adequately engross any reader even remotely interested in any one or more of those areas. Author Stanley-Blackwell writes in an evocative style and knows just how much detail to include ‘ or leave out ‘ in order to keep the pace going at a good clip.
The origins of open-air communion lie in the mists of the Scottish Highlands of the 18th century. The legendary Scottish Covenanters would join in mass worship in open fields in defiance of the mandated state religion. This practice eventually became an annual event and was exported to the New World with the flood of Scottish immigrants in the 18th and 19th centuries. Its halcyon days over by the 1920s, congregants “now took communion as ‘segregated households’ sitting ‘in relative isolation from one another’ “. And this wasn’t the worst of it: by this time the open-air communions had become, to a large extent, the place to cavort with the opposite sex and to see and be seen for one’s fashionable clothing. These were the death knells of a flawed but fine religious tradition.
Published by Cape Breton University Press, Tokens of Grace is not a Christian book per se. However, I did perceive deep understanding of Christian faith on the author’s part, whether or not Stanley-Blackwell is indeed a woman of faith: “religion was not consigned to the periphery of everyday life; it left a deep imprint on their psyche, anchoring their identity, infusing them with a sense of community, filtering their world views and shaping their hearts and minds.” This brief book of only 100 pages of actual text is an enjoyable and enlightening account of an almost-forgotten chapter in Canadian church history.