Web site visitor Richard C. Gascoyne, an elder of the First Presbyterian Church, Albany, submitted these questions about the famous Albany Church Penny. He did not have an image of the church's coin handy, so I've used a Heritage lot for illustration.
First Presbyterian Church, Albany, NY has for many years had one "Church Penny" (1790) stored in the safe. We have recently given it to the Albany Institute of History and Art in anticipation of the celebration of the 250th Anniversary of our founding (1763). We know precious little about the coin but have seen a great deal of speculation on its use and noticed that the last one to be sold at auction was in Jan. 2012 for $115,000 -- a pretty penny!
We have seen discussion of the coin sometimes describing it as a "communion token," a common practice in the Scots-Presbyterian tradition, but we feel confident that this coin is not for that purpose. Although communion tokens were used in the early history of our Albany church, there is also this reference, quoted from even earlier records of the church as follows: "It was resolved that one thousand coppers be stamped church penny, and placed in the hands of the treasurer, for the purpose of exchanging with the congregation at the rate of twelve for one shilling, in order to add respect to the weekly collections." (J. McClusky Blayney, History of the First Presbyterian Church of Albany, NY.; Lists of its Officers, and a Complete Catalogue of its Members From its Organization, Albany: Jenkins and Johnston, 1877). You mention this in one of your comments on the coin but from a source that is apparently quoting the Blayney source.
We are assuming that members of the congregation bought these pennies to put in the collection plate weekly, and that the purpose was to get money from congregants up-front whether or not they came to church and put them in the plate, and to recycle and resell the coins that were returned and put in the collection plate.
I have several questions about the coin:
1. Is the above assumption correct?
2. Are there other examples of church coins minted for a similar purpose either in the US or England/Scotland or anywhere?
3. Can you lead us to a full and definitive discussion of the Albany Church Penny?
An early attendee of our church was Alexander Hamilton, and it was our pastor, Eliphalet Nott, who delivered the funeral oration after his duel with Aaron Burr, who also attended the church, as did John Jay. That speech, many feel, was a deciding factor in the outlawing of dueling in the US. At the time of the issuing of this coin (1790) Alexander Hamilton was deeply involved, as you know, in getting the US Mint going. We feel that the value of this coin is in its continuing historical connection; it shows the wear of time, as it should.
I'm sure our readers may have additional information, but here's what I know. First, I agree that the Albany penny is not a communion token. The evidence points to these being made in response to a shortage of small change, allowing parishioners to donate affordable amounts and the church to collect funds they wouldn't otherwise.
The two most recent books on the topic of U.S. colonial coins seem to agree on that much. I consulted In Yankee Doodle's Pocket by Will Nipper (2008, p152) and the Whitman Encyclopedia of Colonial and Early American Coins by Q. David Bowers (2009, p240)
It may be a matter of speculation whether parishioners would explicitly exchange silver for coppers in advance, or simply take some change in pennies when dropping a silver coin in the collection plate.
Chapter 13 of Walter Breen's Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins (1988) is titled "Church and Communion Tokens". It lists the two major types of Albany Church pennies as numbers 1169 and 1170. Numbers 1170 through 1183 are unfortunately unillustrated and although some are clearly communion tokens it is unclear if any served the same change-making purpose as the Albany pennies. The tokens are from New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Vermont. There may be more to be found about these tokens in numismatic periodicals such as The Colonial Newsletter.
In checking our E-Sylum archive I saw some inquiries in 2010 about the Albany Church Penny from (who else!) Eric P. Newman. So I forwarded Richard's inquiry to him.
Eric Newman writes:
About three or four years ago I was writing an article on the Albany Church Penny after finding something new and fascinating. I am fully familiar with the various varieties of paper Church money as detailed in my Early Paper Money of America book.
The Albany Church Penny has a comical twist as well and also has a contribution to the history of printing.
Eric's book pictures a number of New York notes issued by churches in the 1790s, including a One Penny note of the German Reformed Church of Schohary and a Two Pence note of the Presbyterian Congregation in Troy. The New York chapter's bibliography lists these articles: Schenectady Church Money by George Korb (The Numismatist November 1939) and (most apropos) The Albany Committee of Correspondence Paper Money by Joseph Lasser (American Numismatic Society Museum Notes 31, 1986).
To read the earlier E-Sylum article, see:
ALBANY CHURCH PENNY RESEARCH FOLLOWUP
Wayne Homren, Editor
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