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Gilbert Tennent, Established “Dissenter”

  • Janet F. Fishburn (a1)

Gilbert Tennent (1703–1764), an “Ulster Scot” born the same year as John Wesley, is usually remembered as a leader of revivals during the “Great Awakening” in the middle-colonies. John Witherspoon (1723–1794), a “champion of orthodoxy” from Edinburgh called to be the President of the College of New Jersey, is usually treated as a “founding father” of the Presbyterian Church in the United States. However, many events leading up to the first General Assembly in 1788 reflect the influence of Gilbert Tennet, the moderator of the newly re-united Synods of Philadelphia and New York in 1758.

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1. See Coalter, Milton J. Jr, Gilbert Tennent, Son Thunder(New York, 1986), pp. 1011. I agree with him that Tennent has been overlooked as a major formative figure in American religion. I also agree that Leonard Trinterud is wrong in concluding that Gilbert Tennent was “no pietist.” I disagree that Tennent's piety was deeply influenced by the Dutch Reformed conversionist preaching and theology of Theodorus Jacobus Freylinghusen. I am arguing that it is important to remember that Tennent was an Ulster Scot and that his experience with sacramental seasons was formative for his theology and ecclesiology.

2. Reid, James Seaton, History of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, 3 vols. (Belfast: William Mullen, 1867) 1:433. Even if the figures are exagerated, the events were of great significance to Ulster Scots.

3. Ibid., 1:411–412.

4. This information comes from “A Pastoral Letter to the Synod of the Carolinas” written in 1789. The letter was written about a proposed addition to the Westminster Directory of Worship intended to discourage continuation of the sacramental season in the colonies. The writers ask if a three-day celebration is really necessary to “the right administration of the ordinance.” The letter adds considerable information to present knowledge about sacramental seasons in the colonies: it is in the archives of the University of North Carolina. For more information, see my essay “Pennsylvania ‘Awakenings,’ Sacramental Seasons, and Ministry” in Clendenin, Daniel B. and Buschart, W. David, eds., Scholarship, Sacraments and Service: Historical Studies in the Protestant Tradition (Lewiston, N.Y., 1990), pp. 5988.

5. Schmidt, Leigh Eric, Holy Fairs: Scottish Communions and American Revivals in the Early Modem Period, (Princeton, 1990) pp. 184192.

6. “William Tennent's Sacramental Sermon,” in Pears, Thomas C. Jr and Klett, Guy S., eds., A Documentary History of William Tennent and the Log College (Department of History, Presbyterian Historical Society, 1940), pp. 7678.

7. Brock, William A., Scotus Americanus, (Edinburgh, 1982), p. 101. Brock reports that when the new denomination was formed in 1788 only the Synod of the Carolinas consisted primarily of Scottish settlers.

8. Pears, and Klett, , eds. A Documentary History, p. 156.

9. Coalter, , Gilbert Tennent, p. 93 and p. 157. I agree with Coalter's account of the Conjunct Presbytery (p. 83). It is impossible to fully reconstruct these events from the records available, but it is plausible to me that the Tennents were forced out. Historians who regard this event as a “schism” usually say that the Tennents withdrew.

10. Ibid., pp. 121–122.

11. Two Hundred Years of the Evangel, 1743–1943 (Private Publication, 1943), p. 10. Although the interpretation of history in congregational histories is questionable, they are a good source for formal records and anecdotes that can illuminate the more formal study of history. This book is in the Speer Library Collection, Princeton, New Jersey.

12. Cherry, Conrad, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards: A Reappraisal (New York, 1966), pp. 5051.

13. See Schmidt, , Holy Fairs, pp. 134–135, on the importance of devotional reading and self-examination as preparation for sacramental occasions.

14. Old, Hughes Oliphant, “Gilbert Tennent and the Preaching of Piety in Colonial America: Newly Discovered Tennent Manuscripts in Speer Library,” The Princeton Seminary Bulletin 10, New Series (1989): 134.

15. Ibid., 10: 136.

16. Although the most detailed description of a sacramental season in the colonies comes from the session records of the Presbyterian Church in Boothbay, Maine, Boothbay is an exeption, not the rule, in New England sacramental practices. For this service, see Ramsey, David A. and Koedel, R. Craig, “The Communion Season—an 18th Century Model,” Journal of Presbyterian History 54 (1976): 203216.

17. In Beadle, E. R., The Old and the New, 1743–1876: The Second Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia: Its Beginning and Increase (Philadelphia: The Ladies Association, 1876), the author describes the Lord's Supper as served at tables set in the aisles of the sanctuary in the years following the Revolution (p. 34). This practice may date back to the time of Gilbert Tennent, since Beadle also reports that Tennent presented “two silver goblets” for the communion service (p. 67). Pewter flagons and goblets were usually used when serving the sacrament at a field communion.

18. Ned, Landsman, “Revivalism and Nativism in the Middle Colonies: The Great Awakening and The Scots Community in East New Jersey,” American Quarterly 34 (Summer, 1982): 164.

19. Coalter, , Gilbert Tennant, p. xii.

20. Ibid., p. 19. Tennent may have learned this four part typology from Freylinghuysen, but he incorporated it into his theology and practice of ministry because it was consistent with his prior experience and theology learned from his father.

21. Stoever, William K. B., ‘A Faire and Easie Way to Heaven’: Covenant Theology and Antinomianism in Early Massachusetts (Middletown, 1978), p. 188. The irony of this observation is evident in Stoever's title!

22. Coalter, , Gilbert Tennent, p. 122.

23. Beadle, , The Old and The New, p. 24.

24. Landsman, , “Revivalism,” p. 159.

25. Schmidt, , Holy Fairs, p. 54.

26. Coalter, , Gilbert Tennent, p. 122.

27. Pears, and Klett, , eds. A Documentary History, p. 110.

28. Ibid., p. 161.

29. Ibid.

30. Ibid., p. 160.

31. Tennent, Gilbert, “The Duty of Self-Examination,” preached at New Brunswick “before the Celebration of the Lord's Supper,” on the first Sabbath in August, 1737 (p. 135). From the Speer Library Collection.

32. Pears, and Klett, , eds., A Documentary History, p. 163.

33. Ibid., pp. 92–94.

34. Webster, Richard, A History of the Presbyterian Church in America, From Its Origins until the Year 1760 (Philadelphia: Wilson, 1856), p. 166.Schmidt, , Holy Fairs, pp. 8388. This corroborates Schmidt's impression that the Lord's Supper and confirmation were more important than infant baptism because of the influence of the sacramental season in the Scottish tradition.

35. Wallace, Helen Bruce, Historic Paxton, Her Days and Ways, 1722–1913 (Privately Printed, 1913), pp. 75, 31. From the Speer Library Collection.

36. Ibid., pp. 92–98. Although no proper Calvinist would say that the sacrament of communion is a converting ordinance, in practice, the New Side invitation to saint and sinner alike treats the Lord's Supper as a converting ordinance. This was the stated position of John Wesley. In practice, Old Side fencing of the tables was intended to disbar, or excommunicate, only church members (or saints) from communing unworthily. This is more like the closed communions of the New England Puritans who regarded the supper as a means of sanctifying grace, but not a means of converting grace.

37. Tennent, , “Ordination Sermon of Reverend John Elder, preached at Paxtang, December 21, 1738.” The sermon is on pp. 229236 in McAlarney, Mathias Wilson, History of the Sesqui-Centennial of Paxtang Church (Harrisburg, 1890), available in the Speer Library Collection.

38. Old, , “Gilbert Tennent,” p. 137. Old seems to assume that the quote refers only to the elect. Since it was preached as a sacramental sermon, it is quite likely that Tennent was inviting the unregenerate, as well as the “faithful” to the table. From the Speer Library Collection.

39. Tennent, Gilbert, “The Unsearchable Riches of Christ,” preached at New Brunswick “before the Celebration of the Lord's Supper,” the first Sabbath in 08, 1737, (pp. 9–15). From the Speer Library Collection.

40. McAlarney, , History of the Sesqui-Centennial of Paxtang Church, p. 232.

41. Klett, Guy Soulliard, Presbyterians in Colonial Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, 1937), p. 156.

42. Cherry, , The Theology of Jonathan Edwards, pp. 61–66.

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Church History
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