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Born in Ireland in 1703, Gilbert Tennent was the son of minister William Tennent Sr. When Gilbert was fifteen, his family moved from Ireland to Pennsylvania. Gilbert received an excellent education from his father, who later established a school for ministers.
After wrestling over salvation in his teens, Tennent was converted in 1723, when he was twenty. Three years later he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister and began pastoring a church in New Brunswick, New Jersey. There he met Theodorus Frelinghuysen, a Dutch Reformed minister whose preaching emphasized holy living and conversion. Those emphases echoed those of Gilbert’s father, and Tennent and Frelinhuysen formed a profitable partnership, often preaching in each other’s churches and traveling throughout New Jersey and nearby colonies. Tennent was a stirring, enthusiastic preacher, and his sermons led many to experience conversion.
In 1739 Tennent met George Whitefield, a traveling evangelist from England, with whom he shared a zeal for revival. Tennent traveled with Whitefield, introducing him to other ministers in the Middle Colonies and helping to make Whitefield’s preaching tour a success. When Whitefield returned to England, Tennent preached for several months in New England. These tours did much to unite a series of scattered, local revivals into the Great Awakening.
Not every minister shared Tennent’s zeal; many opposed both the revival and Tennent’s emphasis on personal conversion. Both sides of the debate preached and published on the question. Tennent’s contribution was his sermon titled The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry (1740). Tennent was unsparing in the sermon, calling opposing ministers “Pharisee-teachers” who had “no experience of a spe¬cial work of the Holy Ghost upon their own souls” and comparing them to Satan transformed into an angel of light. Tennent argued that ministers who had not experienced conversion could not preach the gospel, and that Christians who had been converted were free to leave their churches and seek other ministers. Tennent had a point: many ministers had not experienced a new birth. But the sermon did much to harden those who questioned the methods of the revivalists into opponents of the Awakening. And by permitting lay people to question the spirituality of the clergy, Tennent’s sermon undermined the authority of both Awakening and non-Awakening ministers alike.
In the midst of that controversy, Tennent and other supporters of the Awakening were expelled from the Presbyterian Synod of Philadelphia by Old Side ministers who opposed the Awakening. But Tennant and other New Side ministers formed a new Synod of New York in 1745 and carried on their work.
In 1743 Tennent became the pastor of a church in Philadelphia, where he remained for the rest of his ministry. Later he became a sponsor of the College of New Jersey (which became Princeton University) and traveled to England to raise funds for it. Though Tennent was involved in the schism among Presbyterians in the Middle Colonies, he also helped reconcile them after the passions of the Great Awakening had subsided. By 1758 the Philadelphia and New York synods had reconciled, and Tennent was elected their first moderator. He died in 1762 in Philadelphia.