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
Parent(s) William Tennent Sr.
Catherine Tennent[1]
Relatives William Tennent, Jr. (brother)[1]

Gilbert Tennent was a pietistic Protestant evangelist in colonial America. Born in a Presbyterian Scots-Irish family in County Armagh, Ireland,[3] he migrated to America as a teenager 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 anti-revivalistic ministers to the Pharisees described in the gospels.


Early life[edit]

Gilbert was born and raised in Ireland, where he was home schooled by his father. In 1718 the family emigrated to Philadelphia. Nearby his father built the Log College, which trained many Presbyterian minister; Gilbert around 1725 was an assistant there.[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."

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 sermon, "The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry,"[4] 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.[5]

Paxton Boys[edit]

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.[6]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Sprague, William Buell (1858). Annals of the American Pulpit: Presbyterian. R. Carter and Brothers. pp. 35–52. Retrieved 23 January 2015. 
  2. ^ Sprague, William Buell (1858). Annal of the American Pulpit: Or, Commemorative Notices of Distinguished American Clergymen of... R. Carter and Brothers. p. 100. Retrieved 23 January 2015. 
  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 (eBook). Harvard University: Joseph M. Wilson. Retrieved 23 January 2015. 
  4. ^ Tennent, Gilbert. "The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry, 1740". Cengage Learning. Retrieved 23 January 2015. 
  5. ^ Bennett, James B. (1993). 'Love To Christ': Gilbert Tennent, Presbyterian Reunion, and a Sacramental Sermon. 71(2). pp. 77–89. 
  6. ^ Kenny, p.162

Further reading[edit]

Access Date: Jan 22 2015; Short scholarly biography

External links[edit]