Gilbert Tennent’s Contributions to the First Great Awakening (3 of 4)

Though Gilbert Tennent is outshined by such men as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, his contributions to the Great Awakening were no less significant. Alexander writes, “Indeed, all must acknowledge, that among the friends and promoters of the revival he stood pre-eminent.” [1] Whereas Edwards ministered mainly in the New England colonies and Whitefield traveled throughout the colonies, Tennent ministered in the middle colonies: New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. All of them ministered during a time of moral and spiritual decline, and all of them issued a clarion call for sinners to repent, pastors to lead and churches and denominations to purify themselves. The result – by God’s grace – was a special “awakening” as the Holy Spirit stirred the slumbering masses and drew many to Christ.

Tennent was a crucial human catalyst to the beginning of the Great Awakening.

1. He contributed to the Awakening’s beginning through his pulpit ministry.

Historian Robert Hastings Nichols points to Tennent’s preaching as “one of the causes of the Great Awakening in America.” [2] Church historian B. K. Kuiper concurs:

“[T]hrough the warm evangelical preaching of Gilbert Tennent and the graduates of the Log College, a revival got under way which in course of time ran like a forest fire among the Presbyterians from Long Island to Virginia.” [3]

Most notably, Tennent’s ministry provided the “spark” that ignited the revival fires during a series of meetings in Staten Island in 1728. In Tennent’s own words, the people were

“generally affected about the State of their Souls; and some to that Degree, that they fell upon their Knees in the Time of the Sermon, in order to pray to God for pardoning Mercy: Many went Home from that Sermon; and then the general Inquiry was, what shall I do to be saved?” [4]

Thus, the special working of the Spirit of God was evident and would continue: revival!

Earle E. Cairns effectively summarizes the contributions of many men at the revival’s outset:

“The Great Awakening had its beginning in the preaching of Theodore Frelinghuysen to his Dutch Reformed congregations in New Jersey in 1726. The revival stimulated earnest moral and spiritual life among the people. Frelinghuysen’s work influenced the Presbyterian pastors, Gilbert Tennent and William Tennent, Jr., so that they became fiery evangels of revival among the Scotch-Irish of the Middle colonies. Whitefield thus found the groundwork for revival soundly laid when he came to the Middle colonies in 1739….The revival fires that had started among the Calvinistic Dutch Reformed and Presbyterians of the Middle colonies soon spread to Congregationalist New England through the efforts of Jonathan Edwards.” [5]

2. He contributed to the Awakening’s beginning through his influence.

It was Tennent who introduced Whitefield to the pulpits of churches in New York and New Jersey. The fact that the younger Whitefield had Tennent’s endorsement was at times the only factor that gained him a hearing.

It was also Tennent who was the spearhead of a group of dissenters within his denomination, referred to in various publications as “New Light” Presbyterians,” “New Side” Presbyterians, “New Brunswick” Presbyterians (based on the location of Tennent’s church) and even “evangelical” Presbyterians. [6] As such, he is remembered as “the chief spokesman for supporters of the Great Awakening.” [7]

3. He contributed to the Awakening’s beginning through his publishing ministry.

Coalter writes, “Before the Revolution, Tennent published more than any other clergyman of the middle colonies.” [8] Much of Tennent’s writing was a defense of the revival movement from those who were antagonistic to it, especially within his own Presbyterian denomination. He would later regret the harsh tone of some of his works, but essentially stood by the content.

Tennent was an active leader during the continuation of the Great Awakening.

1. He followed up on the work of Whitefield in New England (1740-41).

At Whitefield’s bidding, Tennent revisited the areas where revival had struck under Whitefield’s preaching. The response was at times even more striking under Tennent’s preaching. [9]

2. He worked on behalf of the College of New Jersey.

As stated earlier, Tennent traveled to Great Britain in an effort to raise funds for the College of New Jersey. Murray writes,

“The idea of a fund-raising mission had been urged by George Whitefield on his American brethren as early as 1748 and on hearing news of the Synod’s decision he immediately wrote: ‘I am glad Mr. Tennent is coming with Mr. Davies, if they come with their old fire I trust they will be able to do wonders.’” [10]

Tennent was a saddened critic of the abuses which effectively ended the Great Awakening.

Notice that Tennent was not a critic of the revival itself, but of its perversion. From Tennent’s experiences, it seems that there were several factors which contributed to end this special visitation form God’s Spirit:

1. Political battles within the denomination

Much of this was fought before the public eye via pamphlets and newspapers.

2. Manipulation and excesses by would-be revivalists.

3. Compromise with theological error.

4. Distraction from spiritual needs by political needs (the French and Indian War). [11]

How prone men are to distort even the best gifts of God! Yet, Alexander’s words on this matter are instructive:

“In all great revivals, where the people are under strong excitement, there will be some things which the judicious must regret; and, no doubt, there were many such things in this great and extensive awakening; but it was a dangerous mistake to repudiate the whole work on account of some irregularities.” [12]


[1] Alexander, Biographical Sketches, 37.

[2] Robert Hastings Nichols, The Growth of the Christian Church (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1941), 257.

[3] Kuiper, 419.

[4] Coalter, 40.

[5] Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1954), 400-401

[6] Murray, 14.

[7] “Tennant, Gilbert” in Concise Dictionary of Christianity in America , Daniel G. Reid, ed., (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 336.

[8] Coalter, xvi.

[9] Ibid., 75.

[10] Murray, 13-14. It is possible that “if they come with their old fire” is a comment regarding the change of focus evident in Tennent’s later ministry.

[11] Coalter, 152.

[12] Alexander, Biographical Sketches, 37.

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3 Responses

  1. […] 3. Gilbert Tennent’s Contributions to the First Great Awakening […]

  2. Great website. I am researching the religious history of SI, espiecially concerning revival. This was great to learn about!!
    franceslaresca@yahoo.com

  3. Doug, Thought you might find this interesting after I learned who he was…

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