Every pastor has prayed, “Lord, send a revival!” Gilbert Tennent (1703—1764) was one of the first pastors on American soil to have this prayer answered.
Little did he know that revival fire ignited by the Holy Spirit in his church would become part of the raging fire we know as the First Great Awakening. After experiencing revival within his own New Jersey congregation, the Lord used Tennent to carry the revival to other areas throughout the colonies. He was especially effective in the Middle Colonies of Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey.
As a graduate of his father’s famed Log College, an apprentice of Dutch Reformed Pietist Theodore Frelinghuysen, and an associate of leading revivalist George Whitefield, Tennent possessed an extensive sphere of influence.1 Before the American Revolution, Tennent published more than any other clergyman in the middle colonies, and during the Awakening, “he maintained close relations with numerous New England ministers and practically all of the major middle colony awakeners.”2
Tennent’s preaching ministry had an expansive reach. Seen in his earliest works, Tennent’s preaching was “unusual”3 and “popular and attractive with all classes of hearers.”4 The reasons for this popularity were numerous. Alexander notes that Tennent “possessed uncommon advantages as a preacher” that included a taller-than-common and well-proportioned stature, a venerable appearance, a clear and commanding voice, and an exceedingly earnest and impressive manner in the pulpit.5
Despite his uncommon advantages, the historical record makes clear that many people, supporters and opponents, were sometimes unimpressed with Tennent’s abilities as a preacher. Opponents such as Timothy Cutler, an Anglican missionary in Boston, recalled Tennent was a noisy monster. Likewise, revival opponent Charles Chauncy described Tennent as “an awkward Imitator of Mr. [George] Whitefield, and too often turned off his Hearers with mere Stuff, which he uttered with a Spirit more bitter and uncharitable than you can easily imagine.”6 One might expect Tennent’s opponents to say such things. However, Jonathan Parsons, a New England pastor and promoter of revival, was also rather unimpressed with Tennent’s abilities. Parsons recalled the revivalist’s visit to his church during Tennent’s New England tour: “Mr. Tennent…preached two Sermons among us: The first…seem’d to be very dull; and, I tho’t, several Times, he wou’d have had nothing, almost to say.”7
The difference in Parson’s perception and that of revival opponents was Parsons also noted the unique work of God through Tennent. Though at times his sermons may have been “very dull,” people were converted, and the effects of the sermon lingered for days. Parsons also noted, “It was not wholly in vain: one of our Communion was convicted of Sin…The next Morning he preached again…to a very attentive and deeply affected Auditory. Many that I heard lamented their own Folly immediately after Sermon, spake as one wou’d expect those to do that had the Arrows of Conviction shot deep into their Hearts.”8
Thomas Prince Sr. of Boston echoed Parson’s assessment when he reported Tennent “did not…at first come up to my Expectations; but, afterwards, exceeded it…his Preaching was as searching and moving as ever I heard.”9
Though sometimes unimpressive externally, Tennent’s messages were, no doubt, impressive internally. F.L. Chapell notes:
“A curious fact of his preaching was that in many places his sermons did not seem to produce any immediate marked result in the way of sudden awakenings or conversions, which were then so common. But in a few days after he was gone, those who had listened to him would be struck under conviction. And a blessed work would be the result.”10
Hearers may have forgotten the messenger, but they could not forget the message. While in New Brunswick, Tennent had come to understand conversion as the chief purpose of preaching and “to be brought about by preaching the terrors which awaited those who were unconverted and then by applying the balm of the gospel.”11 Still, his preaching was more than a carefully executed technique to gain results.12
As farmer, warrior and surgeon, Tennent worked to prepare the souls of his listeners for the work of the Holy Spirit. His preaching apparently was much different than what the anonymous poet and others experienced elsewhere; Tennent stood out among professors, formalists and other religious leaders, defeating them with the Word of God and winning numerous souls to Christ.
Such was the experience of young Samuel Hopkins in March 1741 at Yale College in New Haven. Recounting the major awakening of spiritual concern Tennent affected among the students, Hopkins declared, “When I heard Mr. Tennent, I thought he was the greatest and best man, and the best preacher, that I had ever seen or heard. His words were to me, ‘like apples of gold in pictures of silver.'”13 Tennent biographer Milton Coalter concluded:
“Similar plaudits were recorded by ministers in most of the towns on Tennent’s itinerary. In those places where Whitefield had preceded Tennent, the New Jersey pastor was credited with bringing home the Awakening message with a force greater than that witnessed during Whitefield’s stay, and in regions untouched by the Anglican evangelist’s ministry, Tennent was recognized as the source of a resurging religious piety.”14
Tennent was effective as a preacher and contributed to the Awakening’s successful penetration of culture and transformation of lives within the American colonies.
Though his methodology may have been similar to Whitefield’s—though not so nearly beloved—it was his homiletical theology that set him apart. Tennent himself realized as much. A female admirer once asked Tennent “what there was in the matter of manner of his addresses…that produced such a wonderful and irresistible effect.” The question was obviously one of homiletical methodology.
However, Tennent replied with a response of homiletical theology specifically of the role of God in preaching. “Madam,” he said, “I had very little to do with it. I did not preach better than common and perhaps not so well: for I was often much fatigued with traveling, and had little time to collect or arrange my thoughts.15 But I went into the pulpit and spoke as well as I could, and God taught the people.”16 As the poet had penned:
“I’ll hear the Call the lovely Tennent brings,
Because I know it’s from the King of Kings.”17
Would that listeners of all preachers be able to say the same.
1 Each of these were significant forces in the Awakening in general and the Middle Colonies particularly. See Archibald Alexander, Biographical Sketches of the Founder and Principal Alumni of the Log College (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1851), and Maxson, The Great Awakening in the Middle Colonies.
2 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), xvi.
3 Clarence Edward Macartney, Sons of Thunder: Pulpit Power of the Past (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1929), 193).
4 Alexander, Biographical Sketches, 27.
6 Charles Chauncey, A Letter from a Gentleman in Boston, to Mr. George Wishart…Concerning the State of Religon in New-England (1742), 7-8; quoted in Coalter, 74.
7 Jonathan Parsons, “Account of the Revival at Lyme,” The Christian History for 1744, pp. 133-136; in Alan Heimert and Perry Miller, eds., The Great Awakening: Documents Illustrating the Crisis and Its Consequences (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1967), 196.
9 Tennent quoted in Coalter, 74.
10 F.L. Chapell, The Great Awakening of 1740 (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1903), 85.
11 Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, vol. 5, Moderatism, Pietism, and Awakening (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 107.
12 Malcolm McDow and Alvin L. Reid, Firefall: How God Has Shaped History Through Revivals (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1997), 209.
13 Quoted in Coalter, 75.
14 Ibid., 75.
15 See Chauncey’s criticism above.
16 “Biography [of]…Gilbert Tennent” Evangelical Intelligencer 3 (1807-1808): 244-245; quoted in Coalter, 75.
17 “Tennent’s Preaching,” Heimert and Miller, 193.