February 1703 A.D. Gilbert
Tennant Born—Presbyterian Revivalist,
Irish Wildcat & Sectarian
On this day, March 8, 1740,
Gilbert Tennent preached a sermon that warned of a deadly danger. But his words
miffed many established clergymen in the American colonies. The result was a
split in the Presbyterian church.
Gilbert Tennent had arrived in America as a young
boy. His father, William Tennent, founded the so-called "Log College"
to train backwoods ministers. Gilbert became a zealous evangelical preacher
himself and was ordained in 1726. Thomas Prince, founder of the first religious
journal of North America, wrote, "From the terrible and deep convictions
he had passed through in his own soul, he seemed to have such a lively view of
the Divine Majesty, the spirituality, purity, extensiveness, and strictness of
His law; with His glorious holiness, and displeasure at sin, His justice, truth
and power in punishing the damned..." that he preached with a power
lacking in others.
A friend of evangelist George
Whitefield, Tennent promoted spiritual revival in New Jersey and New England.
Some clergymen thought that his services were too emotional. They spoke out
Tennent saw a quite different
danger. "For I am verily persuaded the generality of preachers talk of an
unknown and unfelt Christ; and the reason why congregations have been so dead
is, because they have had dead men preaching to them."
That March 8, Tennent took as
his text Mark 6:34, "And Jesus, when he came out, saw much people, and was
moved with compassion towards them, because they were as sheep not having a
shepherd." According to George Whitefield, Tennent was impressed that he
should preach about Nicodemus coming to Christ. Didn't the crowds of Jesus' day
have religious leaders? Indeed they did. So why did Jesus see the people as
sheep without a shepherd? Because, like Nicodemus, those leaders were natural
men. They were neither born of God nor filled with his Spirit.
In the same way, the churchgoers
of New England were like sheep without shepherds. Too many of their pastors
lacked personal knowledge of Christ.
"To trust the care of our
souls to those who have little or no care for their own, to those who are both
unskillful and unfaithful, is contrary to the common practice of considerate
mankind, relating to the affairs of their bodies and estates; and would
signify, that we set light by our souls, and did not care what became of them.
For if the blind lead the blind, will they not both fall into the ditch?"
Tennent's remarks outraged
Presbyterians. A synod reproved him. Tennent and other New Brunswick preachers
promptly withdrew from the association. For seventeen years, the Presbyterians
were divided into New Lights and Old Lights. But near the end of his life, Gilbert
Tennent made overtures to reunite the factions.
Anderson, Courtney, et al. Heroic
Colonial Christians; edited with an introduction by Russell T. Hitt.
Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1966.
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. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.
Gaustad, Edwin S., comp. Religious
Issues in American History. New York: Harper & Row, 1968.
Heimert, Alan. comp. The Great Awakening: documents
illustrating the crisis and its consequences, edited by Alan
Heimert and Perry Miller. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967.
Hicks, John D. et al. A History of American Democracy.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966; p. 53.
Reid, Tom. "Gilbert Tennent."
Last updated May,
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