Gilbert Tennent, eldest son of William Tennent, was born on Feb. 5, 1703, in County Armagh, Ireland. The family emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1717. Educated at home by his father, a Presbyterian minister, Gilbert was excellently grounded in the classics and Hebrew and made a beginning in the study of the Bible and theology. This learning was probably regarded as a near equivalent to what a bachelor of arts degree required, because when he went to Yale, he received a master of arts in 1725.
That year Tennent was licensed to preach and began to do so at once but remained only briefly at his first charge, in Newcastle, Del. He helped his father build a log cabin to be used as a divinity school (later known as the Log College) and began the study of medicine.
In 1726 Tennent accepted a call to a congregation in New Brunswick, N.J. During his early years there he also assisted Theodorus Frelinghuysen, an evangelist among the Dutch Reformed congregations in the same area, thereby discovering his own abilities as an evangelistic preacher and also experiencing marked success. In 1738 the English evangelist George Whitefield heard Tennent preach on one occasion and wrote in his Journal that never before had he heard "such a searching sermon." Whitefield joined briefly in the New Jersey revival that was sweeping the colony.
As the new converts were gathered into new churches, the demand for ministers to serve them resulted in the choice of Log College graduates, who were zealous to save souls and had some training in evangelistic preaching. Several Yale graduates of similar mind joined this group, which under the leadership of Tennent organized itself into the New Brunswick Presbytery with power to license its own ministers. But the older ministers who had been trained in Scottish universities looked on in alarm. Their first move to regain control and maintain their standard of ministerial fitness was a law in their own synod requiring graduates of other than university colleges to be examined before a license to preach could be granted. This was a distinct blow to the Log College.
The Great Schism
Tennent's response to this action was his Nottingham sermon of 1739: "The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry." This was a violent denunciation of ministers who had criticized the extreme emotionalism of the revival. The all but inevitable breach in the Presbyterian ranks followed. Known as the Great Schism, it lasted for 17 years, created bitterness which lasted much longer, and destroyed much that was good.
In New England a similar rift followed, though without formal division. Tennent was in part responsible for this disunion also. When Whitefield departed after preaching in Massachusetts in 1740, leaving scores of new converts and newly awakened communities behind him, Tennent immediately followed, preaching in some 20 of the same towns before the revival fever had time to cool.
Intensely zealous as to the saving of souls, less gifted as a speaker, Tennent was in some ways more forceful than Whitefield and more disrupting to the community. Tennent was noisy rather than eloquent and lacking in the art and grace of public address. Also, in his sermons he made salvation less a better way of life and more an escape from eternal punishment. He often frightened his audience by stressing the certainty of hell for those who did not repent in time. He also offended many by his unpolished manners. Saddest of all, he widened the breach between those who believed the revival was of God and those who heard only the noise and resented the criticism against the settled ministry.
In 1743, when the revivals were no longer front-page news, Tennent left New Brunswick and accepted a call to a newly organized Presbyterian church in Philadelphia made up largely of Whitefield's friends and sympathizers. Tennent's success was moderate and his record free of any return to the excesses of his earlier ministry. After his father's death in 1746 and the consequent closing of the Log College, he was helpful in founding the College of New Jersey (now Princeton). He was one of a committee who went to England in 1753 to solicit funds for the college, and after it was founded he became one of the trustees.
In 1758 Tennent was active in bringing about the union between the Philadelphia Presbytery and the Presbytery of New York, thus ending the long division in the Presbytery in America. It is not often that a man is given a chance to heal the breach his lack of wisdom has created. He died on July 23, 1764, in Philadelphia. Tennent served high purposes, without counting the cost. His own conviction was his guide and mentor.
Tennent figures in general works on religion in America, among them Charles H. Maxson, The Great Awakening in the Middle Colonies (1920); Leonard J. Trinterud, The Forming of an American Tradition: a Re-examination of Colonial Presbyterianism (1949); and Edwin Scott Gaustad, The Great Awakening in New England (1957). Winthrop Still Hudson,Religion in America (1965), is recommended for general historical background.
Coalter, Milton J., Gilbert Tennent, son of thunder: a case study of continental Pietism's impact on the first great awakening in the middle colonies, New York: Greenwood Press, 1986. □