Altar (altare, altarium) is since Tertullian and Cyprian in the third century A.D. the name given the table at which communion is served ("Lord's table," 1 Corinthians 11:23). The celebration of the love feast (Agape) and the Lord's Supper connected with it required a table. Jesus observed the first Lord's Supper with the disciples at a table and thus the disciples later presumably also observed it. When the Christian worship service was transferred from private homes to a special building, the exclusive use of tables for communion services continued. Usually the table was covered with a linen cloth.
Later in the Roman Catholic Church altars were made coffin- and box-shaped, since they also served as storing places for the sacred relics. Then roofs and canopies supported on pillars were placed above the altars for ornamental purposes, topped at their highest point by a golden crown, while crosses, crucifixes and candles were placed on the altar surface. The altar cloths, especially the front panel, were fashioned of costly material. The table altar thus became a sacrificial altar. Instead of the one altar in a church, several were set up. The Middle Ages brought the Gothic altars, which were provided with increasingly elaborate carvings and ornamentation.
All this the Reformation radically changed in Protestant churches. While the Reformed churches replaced the altar with a firm and movable table, the Lutheran and Anglican churches removed only the additions that had made an altar of the Lord's table, keeping the fixed altar. In the order of Reformation of Homburg, Hessen, of November or December 1536 it was stipulated that all altars should be removed from the churches except the one from which the emblems of the Lord's Supper were dispensed. This altar was henceforth to be called a table rather than an altar, since the communion service is not a sacrifice but the commemoration of the sacrifice which Christ made once for all. The altars were removed because the heathen, Jews and Roman Catholics understood an altar to be a place of sacrifice. (Fr. Thudichum, Die deutsche Ref. II, 1909.)
The Mennonite churches in the Netherlands for the most part used a table, which was placed before the pulpit, and from which the bread and wine were served. This table was set there only during the communion service (whereas in the Reformed churches the table was usually not removed).
In North America none of the more conservative or traditional groups, whether of German, Swiss, or Russian background, used the communion table. Among the less conservative Mennonite churches, however, the majority by the mid-20th century used a communion table from which the bread and wine were served.
Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. I, 37.
Cite This Article
Neff, Christian. "Altar." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1955. Web. 21 Aug 2018. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Altar&oldid=143818.
Neff, Christian. (1955). Altar. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 21 August 2018, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Altar&oldid=143818.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, p. 75. All rights reserved.
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