Gilbert Tennent (1703–64) was a Presbyterian minister in Pennsylvania was, with Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield a leader of the First Great Awakening. Tennent was the most uncompromising spirit of the of "New Side" or pro-revival Presbyterians, leading it to a schism that lasted from 1741 to 1758. He sought a rejuvenation of lay spiritual life by emphasizing heartfelt conversion and pious action over theological formulas and ecclesiastical polity.
His father William Tennent was born in Ireland to a Scottish family and graduated from the University of Edinburgh, then the daughter a prominent Scotch Presbyterian. Gilbert was born and raised in Ireland, where he was home schooled by his father. In 1718 the family emigrated to Philadelphia. Nearby the father build the "Log College", which trained many Presbyterian minister; Gilbert around 1725 was an assistant there.
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 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 1739-40, 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 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.
Tennent's sermon, "The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry" (1741) 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.
- Coalter, Milton J. Gilbert Tennent, Son of Thunder: A Case Study of Continental Pietism's Impact on the First Great Awakening in the Middle Colonies (1986) excerpt and text search
- Fishburn, Janet F. "Gilbert Tennent, Established 'Dissenter.'" Church History 1994 63(1): 31-49. 0009-6407
- Tennent, "On the Danger of an Unconverted Ministry"
- James W. Fraser, "The Great Awakening and New Patterns of Presbyterian Theological Education." Journal of Presbyterian History 1982 60(3): 189-208. 0022-3883
- James B. Bennett, "'Love To Christ': Gilbert Tennent, Presbyterian Reunion, and a Sacramental Sermon". American Presbyterians 1993 71(2): 77-89. 0886-5159