Gilbert Tennent’s Personal and Ministerial Life (1 of 4)

In his own day Gilbert Tennent (1703-1764) was a renowned pastor and leader of the first Great Awakening. As an historical figure, however, he has been outshone by such men as George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards and is largely forgotten. Our neglect of this good man is unfortunate, for he is in many ways exemplary of pastoral ministry. His personal life, theological and ministerial distinctives and contributions to the first Great Awakening are filled with lessons for the pastor today.

Tennent’s Upbringing

Gilbert was the eldest of four sons of the Presbyterian preacher and educator, William Tennent. He was informally educated for the ministry by his father, who later would found what came to be known (especially by its critics) as “the Log College.” Besides helping to fill vacant pulpits with good men, the school was started as a reaction against the dead orthodoxy being promoted within the Presbyterian denomination in the colonies.

Tennent’s Mentors

Two men had a particularly strong role in shaping Gilbert Tennent’s spiritual life, effectively “laying the kindling” for the revival fires the Lord would eventually send.

1. William Tennent, Sr.

The Tennent “patriarch” made his finest contribution to the Great Awakening through his Log College, located about 20 miles north of Philadelphia. [1] After training Gilbert in his home, William started the more formal training of men in 1726 in an effort “to prepare ministers to preach a personalized message that called men to repentance.” [2] As its name suggests, it was a simple log cabin built in the corner of William Tennent’s yard, and it was ultimately used to train 19 men (including 4 Tennents) for the ministry. Archibald Alexander made the following comment about the College founded by William Tennent: “The surest criterion by which to judge of the character of any school, is to observe the attainments and habits of those educated in it.” [3] The school founded by William Tennent, by this measure, was fine indeed. The graduates of the Log College were very prominent among the revival’s leaders. These men would later rally around the leadership of Gilbert, who assisted his father with teaching during the school’s first year.

Though the school’s graduates were sometimes derided for their poor education, the charges were unfounded. Kuiper writes the following of William and his school:

“He trained his students very thoroughly in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, in logic and in theology. Above all he stirred in them a fervent evangelical spirit.” [4] Iain Murray explains how the institution filled a large gap within the early American church:

“At the time of The Great Awakening the log colleges of such men as William Tennent at Neshaminy and Samuel Blair at Fagg’s Manor had done more to supply able men for the ministry than had such older institutions as Harvard and Yale which had identified themselves with the criticism of the revival.” [5]

Tennent’s Log College was the unofficial forerunner to The College of New Jersey at Princeton.

It was William who taught Gilbert the traits for which the Tennent family would become famous: a passion for experiential religion, the importance of sound doctrine and the willingness to battle for truth. His own battles – including his separation from the Irish Episcopal Church prior to his immigration to the American colonies – were but a foretaste of those his sons would engage in. [6]

2. Theodore J. Frelinghuysen.

Tennent’s first pastorate was in New Brunswick, New Jersey. By the providence of God, this church was just miles from a Dutch Reformed church pastured by Theodore J. Frelinghuysen, whom some credit with being the human vessel used to start the Great Awakening. Frelinghuysen’s served as mentor to the young Tennent, especially reinforcing the pietistic ideas which were planted by his father, the most important of which was the necessity of repentance and conversion. Practically, Frelinghuysen seems to have introduced the idea of “preaching terrors” to Tennent’s pulpit ministry. [7]

Tennent’s Pastoral Ministry

Tennent’s ministry covered all of the colonies and most of Great Britain at some point in his life. However, it can be summarized by his two pastorates:

1. He pastored the Presbyterian Church of New Brunswick (1726-1743).

It was here that he learned from Frelinghuysen and here that he first met George Whitefield. During this time, Tennent traveled often to promote the Awakening. His ministry here was especially characterized by fiery evangelistic messages.

2. He pastored the Second Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia (1743-1764).

During this time, Tennent traveled less in the American colonies. He did, however, tour Great Britain to raise funds for the fledgling College of New Jersey (1753-1754). His ministry here (for reasons to be seen) was especially characterized by expository preaching.

[1] Archibald Alexander, Biographical Sketches of the Founder and Principal Alumni of the Log College (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1851), 24.

[2] M. E. Dieter, “Revivalism” in The Concise Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Walter A Elwell, ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991), 435.

[3] Alexander, 9.

[4] B. K. Kuiper, The Church in History (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1951), 418-19.

[5] Iain Murray, Revival and Revivalism (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1994), 13-14.

[6] Alexander, 15.

[7] Milton J. Coalter, Jr., 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), 20.


One Response

  1. […] Gilbert Tennent is an historical figure you should know, and the four posts I make during the next several days will at least give you an introduction. The topics will be as follows: 1. Gilbert Tennent’s Personal and Ministerial Life […]

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