The Log College
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Next to Jonathan Edwards, the leading American preacher of the Great Awakening was Gilbert Tennent of Pennsylvania. Tennent was a man of unusual abilities, but part of the credit for his accomplishments—humanly speaking—must go to the unusual education that he, his brothers, and several others received from Gilbert’s father, William Tennent, Sr. Their “log college” may not have been an Ivy League school, but it certainly was—as George Whitefield called it—a “school of the prophets.”
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William Tennent, Sr., middle-aged Scotch-Irishman, sailed from Northern Ireland to America about 1718 with his wife and children. Soon after landing at Philadelphia, he settled into his life-pastorate, the Neshaminy Presbyterian Church in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. It was here that Mr. Tennent resolved to establish a school to educate his four sons for the ministry. Nine additional students brought the original enrollment to thirteen. Before then, no young man could enter the Presbyterian ministry without traveling to New England or even to Scotland for his education.
During the first few months, the students boarded at nearby farms or lived in the Tennent household where Mrs. Tennent tried to give them the necessary “mothering.” Tennent soon erected a humble log building within a few steps of his parsonage. Some of this small group of dedicated young men moved into the crude attic above the single classroom and cooked their meals in the open fireplace. The students’ day began in prayer at 5:00 A.M. and concluded with bedtime at 9:00 P.M., after a full day of class instruction. They attended the Neshaminy church on Sundays. Like every good work, however, the little college had its enemies. Critics who had grown accustomed to the European universities’ handsome stone edifices contemptuously referred to Mr. Tennent’s school as the “Log College.”
William Tennent, Sr.—making the most of the facilities at his disposal—was a well read theologian, educated at Edinburgh University, as well as a warm and faithful teacher. He was a Greek and Hebrew scholar and could write and speak Latin with perfect ease. Most important, however, he was a pastor of unusual ability and a man of genuine piety and evangelistic zeal. His little “school of the prophets” as the English evangelist George Whitefield called it, marked an epoch in the history of ministerial training in America.
When the English evangelist George Whitefield first visited Philadelphia, in 1739, Mr. Tennent traveled twenty miles to the city to enjoy his fellowship. The entry in Mr. Whitefield’s diary describes the occasion: “At my return home [from visiting a family] was much comforted by the coming of one Mr. Tennent, an old gray-headed disciple and servant of Jesus Christ [who] keeps an Academy about twenty miles from Philadelphia, and has been blessed with four gracious sons.”
On his return from New York, Whitefield visited Neshaminy where he preached to about three thousand people gathered in the “meeting house yard.” The Spirit of the Lord blessed the service with a “great melting down” in the hearts of the people. Whitefield, on this occasion, penned a description of the old Tennent school: “The place wherein the young men study now is in contempt called the college. It is a Log-House, about twenty feet long, and near as many broad.”
All of the thirteen original Log College students became pioneers of Christian education in America, and a number of these young preachers founded educational institutions. A monument at the site of the Log College lists fifty-one colleges which stemmed from this little school. William Tennent, Sr., died in 1746 at the age of seventy-three. The following year the log building closed with the opening of its successor—the College of New Jersey (later named Princeton University).
Dr. Archibald Alexander later observed that a major advantage which the Log College students possessed was that “the spirit of piety seems to have been nourished in that institution with assiduous care. . . . They had, we have reason to believe, the teaching of the Holy Spirit.” The major factor which contributed to the school’s success in those years was that William Tennent, Sr.’s sons stood faithful to “the cause” for which he himself had so faithfully given his life.
Gilbert Tennent (1703–1764)
Gilbert, the eldest son, came with his family from Ireland when he was fourteen years old. After his log-college training, he tutored at the school for about a year. Struggling for perfect assurance about God’s call into the ministry, he studied medicine for a while. Finally, he settled the matter once for all—Gilbert Tennent knew that he must preach the gospel. Yale University conferred an honorary Master of Arts degree upon him in 1725, the same year that the Presbyterian church licensed him to preach. After preaching for a while in Newcastle, Delaware, Gilbert settled into the pastorate at New Brunswick, New Jersey, and received ordination in 1727.
For at least six months after his coming to New Brunswick, the young pastor did not see a single conversion to Christ. Already distressed and discouraged, he became deathly ill. It was during this crisis that Gilbert promised God that if He would allow him six more months, he would “stand upon the stage of the world, as it were, and plead more faithfully for his cause, and take more earnest pains for the salvation of souls.”
Gilbert Tennent kept his promise. The Lord God transformed his health and his ministry, and the preacher ministered with a new sense of urgency. About 1739 at Nottingham, Pennsylvania, he preached one of America’s most famous sermons—"The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry." He used Mark 6:34 as his text. Gilbert feared that many pastors—even in that day—were failing to declare the whole counsel of God and that some had never experienced saving grace.
In 1740 George Whitefield persuaded Gilbert to make a preaching tour as far as Boston, to water the good seed which Whitefield himself had sown. Preaching almost every day for three months, Tennent witnessed a spiritual “shaking among the dry bones.” Local Boston pastors rejoiced that literally hundreds of concerned souls came to them during this short time to find salvation or assurance. One pastor declared that more had come to him in one week than during his entire twenty-four-year ministry. Gilbert never kept a written account of the number of conversions under his ministry: “I cannot offer any precise conjecture,” he remarks, “and shall therefore leave it to be determined at the judgment-day.”
In 1743, after sixteen years in his New Brunswick pastorate, Gilbert answered God’s call to Philadelphia to serve as pastor of a new work which a dedicated group of Whitefield’s converts was establishing.
He considered himself the father of his people, whom he counseled, warned, and reproved with all the tenderness and solicitude of a father’s heart. Dr. Samuel Finley said of Gilbert, “Above other things, the purity of the ministry was his care; and. . . he zealously urged every scriptural method, by which carnal and earthly-minded men might be kept from entering into it.”
Gilbert Tennent died at the age of sixty-one almost forty years after that despairing day on which he had begged God for just six more months to preach. Those who heard him never forgot that preaching. “Hypocrites must either soon be converted or enraged,” wrote George Whitefield of Gilbert’s message.
John Tennent (1706–1732)
John, the third son of William Tennent Sr., was twelve when his family came to America. After receiving his training at his father’s Log College, he accepted the call to become a pastor of a church near Freehold, in Monmouth County, New Jersey. After a brief but fruitful ministry, John died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-five. His brother Gilbert said of him, “He gained more poor sinners to Christ in that little compass of time . . . , about three and half years, than many in the space of twenty, thirty, forty, or fifty years.”
William Tennent, Jr. (1705–1777)
William Tennent, Jr.—born in Ireland—arrived in America with his family when he was thirteen. Early in life, William revealed an uncommon thirst for knowledge. He graduated from his father’s Log College, then traveled to New Brunswick to study under his brother Gilbert.
During the laborious preparation for his ministerial examination, at the age of nineteen, William fell sick. He lapsed into a “remarkable trance,” which lasted three days. His relatives, thinking that he was dead, were at the point of burying him, when he revived—breaking up his own funeral. William regained his health after about a year, but he had lost all previous learning, including the ability to read and write. After a time, however, his knowledge began rapidly to return.
Upon his brother John’s death, William accepted the call to succeed him as pastor of the Old Tennent Church. Students at the College of New Jersey often walked twenty miles to hear him preach. As a trustee of the college, William Tennent, Jr., always kept a watchful eye over the school’s spiritual well-being. He once arrived late at a board meeting, to hear his colleagues favorably discussing a proposition from the governor of New Jersey which would revise the college’s charter, to place the school under “state” control in exchange for a monetary benefit. After a while, Mr. Tennent rose to his feet and said, “Brethren! are you mad? I say, brethren, are you mad? Rather than accept the offer . . . , I would set fire to the College edifice at its four corners, and run away in the light of the flames.” Needless to say, the trustees ended the bargaining.
William faithfully served until his death in 1777. Dr. Elias Boudinot said of him, “His people loved him as a father; revered him as the pastor and bishop of their souls; obeyed him as their instructor; and delighted in his company and private conversation as of a friend and brother.”
Suggestions for Further Reading
Archibald Alexander. The Log College. 1851. Reprint. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1968.
This article is taken from Faith of Our Fathers: Scenes from American Church History, which is published by BJU Press. Buy the book to read other articles about Christian men and women.
© 1991 BJU Press. All rights reserved. Used by permission.