Gilbert Tennent 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 and became one of the leaders of the Great Awakening of religious feeling in Colonial America, along with Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield.
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.
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 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.
Tennent was in part responsible for this disunion also.
When Whitefield departed after preaching in Massachusetts in 1740, leaving scores of new converts and newly awakened communities behind him, Tennent immediately followed, preaching in some 20 of the same towns before the revival fever had time to cool.
In 1743, when the revivals were no longer front-page news, Tennent left New Brunswick and accepted a call to a newly organized Presbyterian church in Philadelphia made up largely of Whitefield’s friends and sympathizers.
Tennent’s success was moderate and his record free of any return to the excesses of his earlier ministry.
After his father’s death in 1746 and the consequent closing of the Log College, he was helpful in founding the College of New Jersey (now Princeton).
He was one of a committee who went to England in 1753 to solicit funds for the college, and after it was founded he became one of the trustees.
He died on July 23, 1764, in Philadelphia. Tennent served high purposes, without counting the cost.