Gilbert Tennent

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Gilbert Tennent
Gilbert Tennent portrait.jpg
Portrait of Gilbert Tennent
Born (1703-02-05)February 5, 1703
County Armagh, Ireland[1]
Died July 23, 1764(1764-07-23) (aged 61)
Philadelphia, PA
Resting place Second Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia[2]
39°57′08″N 75°08′41″W / 39.952310°N 75.144683°W / 39.952310; -75.144683
Residence Philadelphia, PA
Education Master of Arts (honorary)[1]
Alma mater Log College
Yale College (1725)
Occupation Presbyterian minister
Years active 1726-1764
Employer Presbytery of Philadelphia
Known for The First Great Awakening of the American colonies and New Jersey
Board member of Original trustee of the College of New Jersey[1]
Religion New Side Presbyterian
Spouse(s) Cornelia de Peyster (2nd wife)[1]
Children Gilbert, Elizabeth, Cornelia[1]
Parent(s) William Sr., Catherine[1]
Relatives William Tennent, Jr. (brother)[1]

Gilbert Tennent (5 February 1703 – 23 July 1764) was a pietistic Protestant evangelist in colonial America. Born in a Presbyterian Scots-Irish family in County Armagh, Ireland, he migrated to America as a teenager, trained for pastoral ministry, and became 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 contemporary anti-revivalistic ministers to the biblical Pharisees described of the Gospels, resulting in a division of the colonial Presbyterian Church which lasted 17 years. While engaging divisively via pamphlets early in this period, Tennent would later work "feverishly" for reunion of the various synods involved.


Early life[edit]

Gilbert Tennent was born in a Presbyterian Scots-Irish family in County Armagh, Ireland,[3] and raised in there, where he was home schooled by his father. In 1718 the family emigrated to Philadelphia. His father founded the Log College nearby, which trained many Presbyterian ministers; Gilbert was an assistant there, around 1725.[1]

Scottish influence[edit]

Tennent adapted the Ulster Scottish spirituality of life to the middle colonies. His life and theology were influenced more by his Ulster Scots heritage and New England Puritans than by any other factor. Tennent's life demonstrates how the new Presbyterian denomination in North America accommodated divergent types of congregations and spirituality. Prior to 1743, Tennent represented the anti-establishment dissenter tradition of the Ulster Scots; after 1743, he worked to maintain unity among deeply divided American Presbyterians as those Ulster Scots, who hoped to become the established church of Ireland, had done. Both sides to the disputes within Presbyterianism were orthodox and pious, but in different ways.


The Dutch Reformed in New Jersey near New York had been moved by evangelist Theodorus Frelinghuysen. Soon the English-speakers wanted a revivalistic preacher and called on Tennent. He learned much from Frelinghuysen's methods and they became friends. From the start of his career Tennent's striking appearance, powerful voice, and convincing style of preaching impressed his hearers; but he made few converts. Tennent made a searching examination into the experiences of professing Christians, which convinced him that many of them had not been converted. He changed style, preaching with great vividness on sin, retribution, repentance, and the need of a conscious inner change. As a result many were aroused to a more vital interest in religion. Other revivalists joined and soon the Tennents and their associates became one of the sources of the Great Awakening. He helped bring George Whitefield to the area, thus making the First Great Awakening a major event up and down the thirteen colonies. Tennent concentrated on the New Jersey-New York area, and made forays into New England as well.

The theme of his first sermon in New England was "The Righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees." Tennent condemned religious formalism as hollow and meaningless; he brandished the terrors of God before the eyes of sinners, and he boldly summoned his hearers to repentance and newness of life. No one could deny the power of his preaching. One of the Boston ministers testified that about 600 persons concerned for their souls had visited him in three months' time; another reported 1,000 or more.


The Old Side ministers were highly critical, taking note of his unpolished manners, and his ridicule of standard Presbyterian rituals:

"After Whitefield came one Tennent, a minister impudent and saucy; and told them all they were damned, damned, damned! This charmed them; and in the dreadfullest winter I ever saw, people wallowed in the snow night and day for the benefit of his beastly braying."[this quote needs a citation]

Back in Philadelphia the Presbyterians began to take sides. The Old Side had never experienced a deeply emotional religious conversion and saw no necessity of one. They insisted that ministers should be men of good character, of sound theology, and adequately trained, but they did not seek for evidences of their conversion and call; they placed emphasis on conformity to the standards rather than on essential orthodoxy, and were inclined to enforce strict obedience to the decrees of the Church. Tennent attacked his opponents as Scribes and Pharisees—hypocrites; he saw his duty to expose them and to awaken the Church from its "carnal security."

In 1737, the Synod forbade members of one Presbytery to preach without formal invitation to a congregation within the bounds of another Presbytery. In the heat of the revival, the evangelicals disregarded this rule. In 1738 the Synod passed a resolution to the effect that candidates for the ministry before being taken on trial must either present a diploma from some European or New England college, or a certificate of satisfactory scholarship from a committee of the Synod. Tennent viewed the action as a blow at his father's "Log College," and also as tending to keep devout and capable men out of the ministry. The New Brunswick Presbytery, organized in 1738, of which Tennent was the leading spirit, ignored this requirement in a major case. The Synod denounced the presbytery as very disorderly" and admonished to avoid such action in the future. Tennent and others responded with formal papers charging many of their brethren with unsoundness in some of the principal doctrines of Christianity and with being strangers to a knowledge of God in their hearts. When asked to name individuals and produce evidence, they admitted that they had not investigated the reports they had received or discussed the matter with those they condemned. In March 1739 Tennent escalated the conflict with "The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry." He vividly portrayed the majority of ministers as plastered hypocrites, having the form of godliness but not its power. Tennet's sermon was widely circulated and did much to precipitate the schism of 1741, when Tennent and his associated, in the minority, walked out of the Synod. Thus began a division of the Presbyterian Church which lasted seventeen years. Tennent engaged in pamphlet wars.

Tennent's "The Danger…" sermon played a major role in the schism that divided the Presbyterians in America into Old Side and New Side factions. Tennent called for a means of training pastors that would guarantee their loyalty to the cause of revivals. This rousing cry implied a new form of theological education. Between 1741 and 1758, significant changes in Presbyterian theological education emerged. The energies released by the awakening led to three important developments: the rise of the log college or academy, the founding of both a revival (Princeton) and an anti-revival college (Francis Alison's Academy, which later became the College of Philadelphia), and the expansion of an apprenticeship program of reading divinity, before, after, or in place of a college education.


Tennent was a leader in introducing 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.[4]

Emissarial role[edit]

Main article: Paxton Boys

The frontier of Pennsylvania was unsettled in the 1760s, and in the aftermath of the French and Indian War, new Scots-Irish immigrants encroached on Native American land, later claiming Indian raids and killings; Reverend John Elder, a parson from Paxtang, known as the "Fighting Parson,"[5] helped organize the Scots-Irish frontiersmen into a mounted militia and was named Captain of the group, known as the "Pextony boys,"[6] later the "Paxton Boys." This settler band, acting as vigilantes, attacked the local Conestoga, a Susquehannock tribe living many of whom had converted to Christianity, and were living peacefully alongside their European neighbors since the 1690s, on land donated by William Penn. Because of a snowstorm, most of the Conestogas were out of their camp; those in camp were scalped or otherwise mutilated by the Paxton Boys, and most of the camp was burned down.[7] After further such incidents, the Paxton Boys marched on Philadelphia in early 1764 to express grievance that their concerns for safety were not being met by the government, and while doing so further threatened the lives of about 200 Moravian Indians.[8] In February 1764, Gilbert Tennent was one of a group of clergymen sent as an emissary by John Penn, Governor of Pennsylvania, to the marching frontiersmen.[8]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Sprague (1858), "Gilbert Tennent. 1725-1764," in Annals, pp. 35-43.
  2. ^ Sprague (1858), "Samuel Finley, D.D. 1740-1766," in Annals, pp. 96-101, esp. p. 100.
  3. ^ Webster, Richard (1857). A History of the Presbyterian Church in America: From Its Origin Until the Year 1760, with Biographical Sketches of Its Early Ministers. Vol. 374, American culture series, ATLA monograph preservation program. Philadelphia, PN, USA: Joseph M. Wilson. Retrieved 22 August 2015. 
  4. ^ a b Bennett, James B. (1993). "'Love to Christ': Gilbert Tennent, Presbyterian Reunion, and a Sacramental Sermon". American Presbyterians 77 (2): 77–89. Retrieved 22 August 2015. 
  5. ^ McAlarney, Mathias Wilson (1890). History of the sesqui-centennial of Paxtang church: September 18, 1890. Harrisburg Publishing Company. p. 224. 
  6. ^ Sprague (1858), "John Elder. 1736-1792," in Annals, pp. 77–80.
  7. ^ Brubaker, John H. (2010). Massacre of the Conestogas: On the Trail of the Paxton Boys in Lancaster County. History Press. pp. 23ff. 
  8. ^ a b Kenny, Kevin (2009). Peaceable Kingdom Lost: The Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn's Holy Hxperiment. Oxford, GBR: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195331509. Retrieved 23 January 2015. 


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