Gilbert Tennent & the First Great Awakening

Whenever I get an e-mail from the Christian History Institute that is pertinent to American history, I like to pass it on. This one deals with the life of Gilbert Tennent, one of the premier preachers of the First Great Awakening. Here’s that account:

Tennent arrived in America from Ireland at the age of fourteen. His father, William, founded a “Log College” to train ministers. Following his father into the ministry, Gilbert was ordained in 1726. He had little success at first. However, following a deep illness, he recovered and preached with a new zeal that brought many conversions.

His fiery faith also placed him at the center of a split in the Presbyterian Church. A friend of evangelist George Whitefield, Tennent hoped to see revival in America. He was convinced the nation’s religious stagnation was the fault of its clergy.  In a scathing sermon preached at Nottingham, he had said, “The reason why congregations have been so dead is, because they have had dead men preaching to them; for I am verily persuaded the generality of preachers talk of an unknown and unfelt Christ.”

That “generality of preachers” complained in return that his meetings were too emotional. Feelings ran high. The Presbyterian synod reproved Tennent. With several other preachers, he withdrew from the association. For almost two decades, the Presbyterians were divided into New Lights and Old Lights.

From 1743 onward, Tennent pastored a church in New Jersey but continued to travel and evangelize, too. Once he held revival services for three months in New England. Thomas Prince, founder of the first religious journal in North America, described the results: “By his arousing and spiritual preaching, deep and pungent convictions were wrought in the minds of many hundreds of persons in that town; and the same effect was produced in several scores, in the neighboring congregations.”

In later years, Tennent’s sermons became milder. He pastored with success at Philadelphia until he was very old. Around 1749, he published a sermon titled Irenicum Ecclesiasticarum (Peace in the Church) and later a pamphlet titled The Pacificator in which he pleaded for a restoration of unity. These helped heal the breach between the Old Lights and the New Lights that his words had done so much to precipitate.

In a sermon preached shortly after Gilbert Tennent’s death, Dr. Samuel Finley, President of Princeton College, said:

He had an habitual, unshaken assurance of his interest in redeeming love, for the space of more than forty years; but, eight days before his death, he got a more clear and affecting sense of it still. And though he lamented that he had done so little for God, and that his life had been comparatively unprofitable, yet he triumphed in the grace of Jesus Christ, who had pardoned all his sins, and said his assurance of salvation was built on the Scriptures, and was more sure than the sun and moon.

It’s important to learn about those who have gone before us. They provide a combination of inspiration and, at times, caution, as we attempt to infuse our culture with the truth of the faith.