Gilbert Tennent

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Portrait of Gilbert Tennent

Gilbert Tennent (February 5, 1703 – July 23, 1764) was a religious leader, born in County Armagh, Ireland.[1] Gilbert was one of the leaders of the Great Awakening of religious feeling in Colonial America, along with Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. His most famous sermon, "On the Danger of an Unconverted Ministry" compared anti-revivalistic ministers to the Pharisees described in the gospels.


New Side Presbyterian pastor and revivalist, was born in County Armagh, Ireland, the eldest son of William Tennent. The family emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1718, and Gilbert received his MA from Yale College (1725). Ordained by the presbytery of Philadelphia in 1726, he was called to pastor in New Brunswick, New Jersey, where he met the fiery Dutch Reformed minister Theodorus Frelinghuysen, whose emphasis on conversion and pietist theology encouraged him to focus on those aspects of Ulster Scots piety. By 1734 revivals had begun, and by the time George Whitefield visited Tennent in 1739, they were thriving. Whitefield encouraged Tennent to engage in a preaching tour of New England in the winter of 1740–1741; it proved highly successful. By 1735 Tennent had been joined in his revival efforts in the Raritan Valley by several young pastors who came to finish their pastoral training under his supervision after studying with his father at the Log College. In 1734 Gilbert Tennent encouraged the synod of Philadelphia to examine candidates and even current ministers for ‘the evidences of the grace of God’. The synod instead required all presbyteries to ‘diligently examine all the candidates for the ministry in their experiences of a work of sanctifying grace in their hearts’. Rather than focusing on conversion, the synod’s directive emphasized sanctification. By 1737 Tennent and his supporters had begun to itinerate throughout several presbyteries, and wherever they went, division and disorder seemed to follow. In 1738 the synod decided that in order to keep the peace, the revivalists should be given their own presbytery, and presbytery boundaries were redrawn to include the majority of the revivalists in the new presbytery of New Brunswick. The Intrusion Act of 1739 allowed a presbytery to forbid a minister from preaching within its bounds if it judged that his preaching was divisive. At Nottingham, Pennsylvania, Tennent replied with his most famous sermon, ‘The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry’ (1740), in which he claimed that many of the ministers in the synod of Philadelphia were unconverted ‘Pharisee-Teachers’. Calling upon his hearers to support the work of the revivalists with prayer and money, he advocated preaching the terrors of the law in order to bring about conviction of sin and true repentance. Within a year of the sermon’s publication, more than a dozen congregations had split in order to avoid the ministrations of ‘unregenerate’ pastors. At the synod of 1740 Tennent claimed that anyone who was opposed to the revivals was opposed to the work of God, and therefore devoid of the Spirit of God, and he accused such people of being hypocrites who did not care for Christ’s flock, but he refused to name names. In 1741 there was a split in the synod, and in 1745 the revivalists formed the synod of New York. In 1743 Tennent accepted a call to pastor the nondenominational tabernacle that Whitefield’s followers had opened in Philadelphia. Once settled in the city, Tennent began moving away from his earlier extemporaneous preaching style and rustic dress, provoking from one disillusioned follower the caustic accusation that he was ‘turning back to Old Presbyterianism, and a State of dead Forms’. This change was largely caused by Tennent’s encounter with Nicholas von Zinzendorf and the Moravians, who accused Tennent and the Great Awakening of not going far enough. The radical pietism and emotionalism of the Moravians convinced Tennent that his condemnation of other Presbyterian ministers had been too strong. Tennent realized that his objections to the Moravians were virtually identical to the anti-revivalists’ objections to him. Further, George Whitefield’s opposition to Tennent’s pastorate in the ‘New Building’ led to heightened tensions between them, and resulted in Tennent’s declaration that although he remained supportive of Whitefield, he believed his Anglican colleague was insufficiently committed to orthodox Calvinism. Tennent admitted in his Irenicum Ecclesiasticum (1749) that he could not ‘find that the Christians of the three first Centuries after CHRIST made gracious experiences, or the Church’s Judgment about them Terms of Communion’. So rather than judging the spiritual state of others, Tennent now advocated reunion with the Old Side because they were orthodox in doctrine and regular in life. Although this return to Scottish piety aroused the ire of some of his revivalist colleagues and did not immediately allay the suspicions of the Old Side ministers, it did provide the initial groundwork for reunion nine years later, and in 1758 Tennent was elected moderator of the reunited synod of New York and Philadelphia.[2]


The Presbyterians split on the wisdom of revivals, with the “New Side” faction strongly supportive and the “Old Side” holding back. Tennent was the most uncompromising of New Side Presbyterians. His sermon, "The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry" (1739) played a major role in the schism that divided the Old Side and New Side. However, there was another side of Tennent's faith, one characterized by the pietism that nurtured religious renewal in the 18th century. This pietism is best seen in Tennent's celebration of the Sacramental Season, with its emphasis on Christian love and fellowship. Indeed, Tennent, like other revivalists, drew inspiration from the communal emphasis that permeated the sacramental celebration. In 1757, Tennent wrote a sacramental sermon, entitled "Love to Christ." It contains those elements of pietistic communion that inspired this "Son of Thunder" to work feverishly for the reunion of the New York and Philadelphia Synods, which took place the very next year.[3]

Tennent was one of the clergymen who was sent as an emissary by John Penn to the Paxton Boys in February, 1764 as they marched on Philadelphia, threatening the lives of about 200 Moravian Indians.[4]


  1. ^ "A History of the Presbyterian Church in America" Page 387, 1857
  2. ^ Timothy Larsen, D. W. Bebbington and Mark A. Noll, Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 664-65.
  3. ^ James B. Bennett, "'Love To Christ': Gilbert Tennent, Presbyterian Reunion, and a Sacramental Sermon". American Presbyterians 1993 71(2): 77-89. 0886-5159
  4. ^ Kenny, p.162


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