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William Tennent was probably born in Scotland, though he may have been born in Ireland. He earned an MA from the University of Edinburgh in 1695 and was later ordained as a Presbyterian minister. In 1701 he moved to Northern Ireland to serve as a minister. After a few years, Tennent left the Presbyterian church to join the Church of Ireland—the Irish version of the established Church of England.
In 1718 Tennent, his wife Katherine, and their five children moved from Ireland to the British colonies in North America. There he again became a Presbyterian. Tennent ministered for a few years in New York and then secured a permanent position as pastor of two churches in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Like many frontier clergymen, he split his time between multiple churches in order to minister to scattered settlers.
Tennent made his most important contribution as an educator. Having already taught his sons, in 1735 he bought land and established a school for ministers in Neshaminy, Pennsylvania. Some derided the school as a “Log College,” but Tennent provided a fine ministerial education. Tennent was following the tradition of Presbyterians in Northern Ireland who, because non-Anglicans were barred from the universities, had long run their own schools for ministers. Tennent’s Log College was influential in that it provided a model for later institutions, including similar log colleges and the College of New Jersey (later Princeton). But perhaps more important, Tennent’s school became a training ground for the ministers who would preach the revivals that made up the Great Awakening. From Tennent’s preaching and teaching they learned to emphasize personal conversion—an inner work of grace in the heart—a doctrine they would preach during the Awakening.
The Log College and Tennent’s teaching about conversion engaged him in controversy with other Presbyterians, called Old Sides, who objected to his emphasis on conversion and who thought that his college did not prepare students to a high enough educational standard. Tennent and other New Side ministers like his son, Gilbert Tennent, split from these Old Sides in 1741 during the Awakening. Tennent died a few years later, at the height of the colonial revivals.