Hans Zeiger

February 12, 2006

Eighteenth Century Theology

Prof. Westblade



The Greatest Awakening: William Tennent



Beyond the outskirts of Freehold, New Jersey stands an old wood-frame Presbyterian Church, once the center of the Great Awakening in the Raritan Valley. Built in 1751, the Freehold Church is one of the oldest Presbyterian church houses in the nation.[1] One historian calls the Freehold Presbyterian congregation “the largest and most important of [colonial New Jersey’s] Scottish churches.”[2] Before the present building was constructed, young John Tennent was called to be pastor in 1729 and he began preaching revival. When John died just three years later, an actual revival was in the works, and to John’s brother William was entrusted, by grace, its completion. When Jonathan Edwards wrote his Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in 1736, it was clear that the early Tennent revivals in New Jersey had cumulated a burgeoning “shower of divine blessing.”[3]

            William Tennent’s biographer is Elias Boudinot, the first president of the United States under the Articles of Confederation. Boudinot’s biography, penned in 1806, is a character study more than a work of purely historical scholarship, and thus it tells a part of history that is far more real and intimate than the morally sanitized themes spoken of by modern historians of the period. “Example speaks louder than precept,” begins Boudinot, “and living practical religion has a much greater effect on mankind than argument or eloquence. Hence, the lives of pious men become the most important sources of instruction and warning to posterity; while their exemplary conduct affords the best commentary on the religion they professed.” Biographical study is more than an exercise of facts, Boudinot seems to say; it is an indispensable aspect of devotional faith. Of men “remarkably favored of God with unusual degrees of light and knowledge,” then, there is a particular duty to write biographies.[4]

            Few, even among students of the Great Awakening, know much of William Tennent, Jr. He was not a self-promoter or a prolific writer. He was mostly content to work and preach and pray among the members of his own congregation. And his older brother, the thunderous itinerant Gilbert Tennent inevitably overshadows him in records of the Great Awakening. When William Tennent Jr. is referenced, it is usually a credit to his membership in the powerful Tennent family of preachers and teachers.

            Boudinot was aware that William Tennent’s legacy was not the craft of leaflets and book sales.

Worldly men, who are emulous to transmit their names to following ages, take care to leave such materials for the future historians as may secure the celebrity which they seek. But the humble follower of Jesus, whose sole aim is the glory of God in the welfare of immortal souls, goes on from day to day as seeing Him who is invisible, careful to approve himself only to the Searcher of hearts, regardless of worldly fame or distinction, and leaving it to his heavenly Father to reward him openly in the day of final account.[5]


That William Tennent Jr. is a lesser known figure of the Great Awakening should not diminish our efforts to study his example. In fact, the investigation of more modest lights during the Great Awakening is a task as important as the study of the reputedly great ones. The culture in which the Awakening occurred was not one devoid of religion. According to Michael J. Crawford, “New Englanders thought of revivals as the product of a special and temporary shower of grace on a community that had lived long under sound preaching.”[6] Though the Awakening, especially the preaching of George Whitefield, may have done much to unsettle the ideas of revival from its context in local New England communities, it is clear that much of the spiritual fervor in the earliest days of the Awakening was commenced in local, established churches. The local congregation is the proper place to begin the study of the Awakening.

            A study of William Tennent’s own role in the Great Awakening must commence with his own personal awakening. He was born in Armagh, Ireland, the second son of the highly-educated Presbyterian minister William Tennent Sr., in 1705. The Tennent family immigrated to New Jersey in a wave of Scotch-Irish Presbyterians in 1718, and at home William Sr. educated his sons along with Samuel Blair for the ministry.[7] Eventually, William Sr. would turn his home schooling operation into a small private Presbyterian college that detractors dubbed “Log College.” In 1728, William and his brother John went to New Brunswick to study and prepare for ordination under their older brother Gilbert. But soon after commencing their stay with Gilbert, both John and William became ill, apparently the result of studying too hard. John’s illness precipitated a heightened conviction for sin and a spiritual struggle for assurance.[8]

            William’s health declined rapidly, and life appeared to have left his body. His heartbeat was gone, and his flesh was the color of death. Gilbert began planning for the funeral and burial. Then a doctor who came to the house noticed a slight tremor in William’s hand. He insisted that Gilbert hold off on funeral plans, and for three days, the doctor stood by the corpse. When Gilbert walked in on the doctor applying ointment to William’s dry tongue on the third day, he became angry and ordered the procession of the funeral. Just then, according to Boudinot, “the body to the great alarm and astonishment of all present opened its eyes, gave a dreadful groan and sunk again into apparent death. This put an end to all thoughts of burying him, and every effort was again employed in hopes of bringing about a speedy resuscitation.” That day, he revived and died or fell comatose once more. Finally, he resurrected a third time and didn’t leave this world again until 1777.[9]

            Tennent spent six weeks in physical recovery from his sickness, and an entire year passed before he could regain his memory and intellect as it had been before his encounter with death. Even then, his ears continued to ring with the sounds of eternity’s other side. When asked many years later what exactly he had experienced during three days of death, he replied:

I found my fever increase, and I became weaker and weaker, until all at once I found myself in heaven, as I thought. I saw no shape as to the Deity, but glory all unutterable! … I can say, as St. Paul did, I heard and I saw things all unutterable; I saw a great multitude before this glory, apparently in the height of bliss, singing most melodiously. I was transported with my own situation, viewing all my troubles ended and my rest and glory begun, and was about to join the great and happy multitude, when one came to me, looked me full in the face, laid his hand upon my shoulder and said, ‘You must go back.’ These words went through me; nothing could have shocked me more; I cried out, Lord, must I go back?[10]


            How, having gone to heaven and returned to this world, would a man live? Such a case study is the life of William Tennent.   

            Upon emergence from death, Tennent remained overwhelmed by the glory of God. “All the kingdoms of the earth were in my sight as nothing and vanity,” he said, “and so great were my ideas of heavenly glory, that nothing which did not in some measure relate to it could command my serious attention.”[11] Boudinot writes of Tennent’s indifference to the world; “His inattention to the things of this world was so great,” that a servant took care of his temporal concerns. But the servant failed, and a friend suggested that Tennent find a wife. The friend arranged the marriage, since Tennent “knew not how to go about it,” and within a week William Tennent was married.[12]

            Three sons came of the Tennent marriage—John, William, and Gilbert—and while walking with 3-year old John after church one day Tennent was convicted for his carelessness, and he repented.

Ever afterwards, he prudently attended to the temporal business of life, still, however, in perfect subordination to the great things of eternity; and became fully convinced that God was to be faithfully served, as well by discharging relative duties in his love and fear, as by the more immediate acts of devotion.[13]


            For forty-three years, Tennent maintained his pastoral devotion. When John Tennent died in 1733, William took over the charge of Freehold Presbyterian Church. The culmination of the mounting revival occurred around that time. One morning, under the cloud of temptation and spiritual oppression, Tennent was unable to prepare for church, and he struggled through the service until prayer. He cried out, “Lord, have mercy upon me.” Thirty in the congregation were saved that day; Tennent called it his “harvest day.”[14]

            Soon thereafter, Tennent underwent another mystical spiritual experience during the half-hour period between morning and afternoon church services. While walking in the woods meditating, “he fell, almost lifeless, to the ground,” in contemplation of God’s majesty and glory. He cried out for relief from the burden. “He could not but abhor himself as a weak and despicable worm, and seemed to be overcome with astonishment, that a creature so unworthy and insufficient had ever dared to attempt the instruction of his fellow-men in the nature and attributes of so glorious a Being.” Upon finding him in the woods, the elders carried him back to the church. He climbed the pulpit on hands and knees and movingly spoke and prayed.[15]

To the Scots-Irish Presbyterians, revival, like conversion, was a prolonged process. It required the slow and patient development of a doctrinal foundation for faith. While George Whitefield would travel from one town to the next in a matter of days, Scottish evangelists and Log College graduates like Samuel Finley, John Rowland, and even Gilbert Tennent would spend months at a time developing relationships with a local community before moving on.[16] It became the work of the local pastor to nurture the spiritual concern and understanding of his congregation.

Therefore, Tennent’s ministry consisted of two important elements: Bible-based preaching and intensive family counseling. An adherent of Calvinist covenant theology, Tennent knew the value of the family structure for relaying and preserving the Christian covenant. Of family counseling, Boudinot writes, “More good can be done in a congregation by this domestic mode of instruction than any one can imagine who has not made the trial.”[17]

By closely watching over and nurturing the faith of his congregants, Tennent was able to solidify his own authority, an authority rooted particularly in the Scot Presbyterian tradition. Though the Awakening was largely an ecumenical movement, its origins, argues Ned Landsman, were highly ethnic. “The immediate impact of the Awakening [at Freehold] was to reinforce the ethnic identity of the Scottish parishioners under the leadership of a Scottish minister.”[18] In the long-term, however, Tennent’s ministry had the effect of expanding beyond the Scottish constituency, and even some Quakers and Episcopalians joined the Freehold church.[19] By 1745, Freehold Presbyterian had over 100 full members and perhaps 300 constituents.[20]

As the Freehold congregation matured spiritually, Tennent wrote several accounts of the divine process. Like his father and brothers, he was a New Side Presbyterian; he advocated a broad revivalism.[21] The Tennents supported Whitefield wholeheartedly.[22] To Whitefield, Tennent wrote in 1739, “The Christians in my Congregation are also quickened, some by hearing you, and others by their speaking of you. Some are awaken’d, so as I hope they will never rest until they come to Christ.”[23] And indeed, by 1744, Tennent wrote in a letter to Rev. Prince of Boston that the Awakening had affected a sweet harmony “in exalting, free, special, and sovereign grace, through the Redeemer Jesus Christ, being willing to glory only in the Lord.”[24]

Tennent was a convinced postmillennialist, commending the Great Awakening as a period of soul harvest that would help to usher in the return of Christ. Jonathan Edwards noted of Tennent and his interest in the spread of the Gospel that he was “a minister who seemed to have such things at heart.”[25] In his attestation of Rev. David Brainerd’s journals in 1746, Tennent wrote of the Indians to whom Brainerd ministered that their spiritual change was

…so great that none could effect it but he who worketh all Things after the good pleasure of his own Will. And I would humbly hope, that this is only the first Fruits of a much greater Harvest to be brought in from among the Indians by HIM who has promised to give his Son the Heathen for his Inheritance and the eternal Ends of the Earth for his Possession.[26]


Similar in its Providential splendor to Tennent’s perception was a small revival at the College of New Jersey in February and March of 1757, the year before Jonathan Edwards would come to assume his short-lived term as president of the college. Gilbert Tennent wrote in his Sermons on Important Subjects that the revival was not the product of “the ordinary Means of Preaching, or promoted by any alarming Methods.” Rather, some letters and books on “The Necessity and Excellency of internal Religion” were taken up and read by a number of students at the same time as one particular student came to a saving faith in Christ.[27] After observing the awakening at the college, William Tennent wrote in a letter to Gilbert that he had seen “as astonishing a display of God’s power and grace as I ever beheld or heard of in the conviction of sinners.”[28]

As an evangelist, Tennent believed in forming personal relationships and friendly rapport before proceeding to the Gospel.

A boy in his congregation was a highly talented horseman, and Tennent desired to form a bond with the boy. Yet the youth was stubborn and he would slip out the back when Tennent came on family visitations. So one day while riding his horse, Tennent saw the boy riding in the distance, and he sped up to catch him. It soon became a race, and Tennent caught up. Striking up conversation about horses, Tennent easily won the boy’s friendship, and he began to disciple him. Before long, the boy was a member of the Freehold Presbyterian Church.[29]

In his evangelism, as in everything else, Tennent was intensely practical and commonsensical. On a boat with a religious man and two non-religious men, Tennent spoke casually with the non-religious men about politics. The religious man asked the Tennent to “spiritualize that,” but he replied, “Spiritualize that! You don’t know what you are talking about.” Said the man, “Why, sir, there is no harm in talking religion, is there?” And Tennent, deferring to his evangelical mission, said, “Yes, there is a great deal of harm in it; and it is such good folks as you that always lug religion in by head and shoulders, whether it is proper or not, that hurt the cause. If you want to talk religion, you know where I live, and I know where you live, and you may call at my house, or I will call at yours, and I will talk religion with you till you are tired; but this is not time to talk religion; we are talking politics.”[30] Later, Tennent was able to bring up the topic of faith in his conversation.

Tennent knew a hypocrite when he saw one, whether inside or outside of the church. Invited to guest preach in a church during a fast for a drought, Tennent ascended the pulpit to condemn the hypocrisy of those in attendance who may have been indulging the outward motions of religion without inward devotion.[31] While in town one day, he stopped on the other side of a street from a tavern as a drunk man stumbled out to meet his acquaintance. “Mr. Tennent,” said the man, “I believe you do not know me; why, you converted me a few months ago.” Fired back the preacher, “Ah! My friend, it’s like some of my bungling work. If the Spirit of God had converted you, we should not have seen you in this situation.”[32]

However, Tennent avoided controversial subjects and disagreements unless required to become involved. He was widely respected as a peacemaker, and he was called to settle several church disputes.[33] One of his more widely distributed sermon pamphlets was on Matthew 5:22-24 and the importance of harmony amongst Christian brothers.[34] Though Tennent was a student of theology, he wasn’t fond of theological wranglings. When some young ministers at his house began debating whether faith or repentance was the primary element in conversion, Tennent sat silent until asked his opinion. Pointing out the window at his church elder, plowing his fields in the distance, Tennent gave the simple answer that the pious farmer would give: “He would say that he cared not which came first, but that he had got them both. Now, my friends, be careful that you have both a true faith and a sincere repentance, and do not be greatly troubled which comes first.”[35]

There were several incidences in which Tennent spoke up for the truth of God’s word and the integrity of His institutions in the midst of disputes. One of the most important examples involved the independence of the College of New Jersey, which, it seems, was an academic forerunner to Hillsdale College in the practice of refusing government intervention. Tennent himself was the sole advocate for independence, as others on the Board of Trustees were initially supportive of Governor William Franklin’s plan to place the college under greater provincial power in exchange for government funding. Upon hearing the proposal, Tennent said, “Brethren! Are you mad? I say, brethren, are you mad? Rather than accept the offer of the President, I would set fire to the College edifice at its four corners, and run away in the light of the flames.”[36] After that, the other trustees had nothing more to say, and the proposal was dead.

Boudinot writes that Tennent “possessed an integrity of soul, and a soundness of judgment, which did actually secure him an unlimited confidence from all who knew him.”[37]

That is not to say, however, that Tennent enjoyed a peerless reputation. The entire Tennent family was set back by a scandal in which William Tennent was implicated in 1741. On June 15 of that year the evangelist John Rowland was tried as a horse thief, and he was acquitted on the testimony of Tennent and two others who claimed to have been sitting in a church service led by Rowland when the alleged thievery occurred. Yet charges of perjury were brought against Tennent and his fellow witnesses; one witness was convicted of perjury, but Tennent pled innocent. Unable to tell whether he was telling the truth at his March 1742 trial, the jury set a new trial in June. By then, no witnesses were willing to defend Tennent, and his attorneys suggested using a legal loophole.[38] Tennent replied, “I know my own innocence, and that God whose I am, and whom I serve, will never suffer me to fall by these snares of the devil, or by the wicked machinations of his agents or servants. Therefore, gentlemen, go on to the trial.”[39] So he went, and along the way he was met by a couple claiming to have had a dream calling them to defend him. As well, the prosecutors changed their minds at the last minute, and the jury found Tennent not guilty.

Though confident in preparation for the trial, Tennent’s strength left him en route home from the trial. He thus learned the importance of relying on God once His special graces during a trial had passed.[40]

Tennent was further tried with the death of two sons. The first son was found to be unregenerate, and Tennent fell under a spirit of prayer for his son. The son became ill, and just before dying he was convicted of his sins and saved. The second son died in the West Indies, and Tennent discovered the news while mediating a church dispute in New York. He finished his business, and returned home calmly, writing to a friend in March 1776, “He who gave me the honorable epithet of a father has, in his wise and unerring providence, written me childless. My son is dead.” Attempts at raising his son had fallen “infinitely short of what God has done for him,” Tennent wrote. “He has, therefore, the best right to him. Should then, were it in our power, obstruct his taking full possession of his own property.”[41]

Tennent’s faith in the sovereign purpose of God was consistent. On George Whitefield’s final tour of the colonies, Tennent went to dinner with Whitefield and several other preachers. After dinner, conversation turned to the weariness of life, and the ministers agreed that it was desirable to finish their work and be off to heaven. Tennent being the oldest remained silent on the question and was asked his opinion. “I have no wish about it,” he replied. “No sir, it is no pleasure to me at all, and if you knew your duty it would be none to you. I have nothing to do with death; my business is to live as long s I can—as well as I can—and to serve my Lord and Master as faithfully as I can, until he shall think proper to call me home.” Tennent then asked Whitefield whether it would be proper for a servant or an employee to grow weary and lax on the job.[42]

Tennent died in 1777. Three years later, the longest battle of the American Revolution was fought just beyond the Freehold Churchyard. Of this battle comes the story of Rev. James Caldwell, the influential pastor of the Elizabethtown Presbyterian Church and the chaplain of the New Jersey Brigade. Just two weeks prior, Caldwell’s wife had been killed. As the British descended on Springfield, the patriots soon depleted their cannon wadding. Chaplain Caldwell ran into the Freehold Presbyterian Church and loaded his pockets and arms with Watts’ Psalms and Hymns. As he distributed the hymnals to the artillerymen, he shouted, “Now boys, give them Watts!”[43]

            Though most of Springfield was destroyed, the church still stands. The British, who began the battle looking victorious, were forced to cancel their march through New Jersey. God used William Tennent’s church to save the American cause and the revolution was won.



[1] Frank L. Greenagel, “Oldest churches and meeting houses in New Jersey,” New Jersey Churchscape, No. 55, January 2006, <http://www.njchurchscape.com/Index-Jan06.html> 12 February 2006

[2] Ned Landsman, “Revivalism and Nativism in the Middle Colonies: The Great Awakening and the Scots Community in East New Jersey.” American Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 2 (Summer, 1982), 150

[3] Jonathan Edwards, A faithful narrative of the surprising work of God. 6 November 1736 <http://www.jonathanedwards.com/text/Narrative.htm> 13 February 2006

[4] Elias Boudinot, “Memoir of the Rev. William Tennent, Jr.” in Archibald Alexander, The Log College: biographical sketches of William Tennent and his students, together with an account of the revivals under their ministries. (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1851), 110

[5] Boudinot, 111

[6] Michael J. Crawford, Seasons of Grace: Colonial New England’s Revival Tradition in its British Context. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991)

[7] Milton J. Coalter, Jr. 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), 174

[8] Coalter, 38-39

[9] Boudinot, 113-114

[10] Boudinot, 117

[11] Boudinot, 115

[12] Boudinot, 119-120

[13] Boudinot, 121

[14] Boudinot, 124

[15] Boudinot, 125

[16] Landsman, 158

[17] Boudinot, 126

[18] Landsman, 151

[19] Landsman, 161-162

[20] Landsman, 157

[21] Cedric B. Cowing, The Great Awakening and the American Revolution: Colonial Thought in the 18th Century. (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1971), 73

[22] Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield. Vol. 1 (Westchester, IL: Cornerstone Books, 1979), 441

[23] Andrew Bradford, ed. “Three Letters to the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield.” (Philadelphia: Andrew Bradford, 1739) microform 4354

[24] William Tennent, letter to Rev. Mr. Prince of Boston, 14 October 1744 in Alexander, 261

[25] Edwards, A Faithful Narrative.

[26] David Brainerd, Mr. Brainerd’s Journal Among the Indians. (Philadelphia: W. Bradford, 1746), 250

[27] Coalter, 151

[28] William Tennent, Letter to Gilbert Tennent, 27 February 1757, in Alexander, 251

[29] Alexander, 154-155

[30] Alexander, 157

[31] Boudinot, 122

[32] Alexander, 155

[33] Boudinot, 126

[34] William Tennent, “A sermon upon Matthew v. 23, 24.” (New York, NY: James Parker, 1769) microform 11491

[35] Boudinot, 112

[36] Alexander, 154

[37] Boudinot, 111

[38] Coalter, 91-92

[39] Boudinot, 131

[40] Boudinot, 131-132

[41] Boudinot, 139

[42] Boudinot, 139-141

[43] W.P. Breed, Presbyterians and the Revolution. (Decatur, MS: Issacharian Press, 1993), 24