In 1741, a Colonial minister confronted the established clergy with this piercing question; â€˜Do you a minister of Christ; know Christ in your own heart?â€™ He would go on to infuse new life into the pulpits of colonial America, challenging ministers to move from dead orthodoxy to living reality.
Gilbert Tennent was born on February 5th, 1703, in Northern Ireland. Gilbert’s father, William Tennent, came to the colonies in 1718 and gained recognition as a gifted Presbyterian pastor and teacher. Concerned about the growing number of Presbyterians and the lack of competent pastors, William Tennent established a small school for training ministers in a log cabin on the farm he owned in Bucks County. During the following decade, many Presbyterian ministers were educated in this â€˜Log College,â€™ which became the forerunner of Princeton Seminary.
Gilbert Tennent attended his fathers log college and went on to Yale where he earned his masters degree and was licensed to preach in 1725. He accepted a call in 1726 to establish a new Presbyterian Church near New Brunswick in central New Jersey.
Although well educated for his pastoral role, it would be a life-threatening illness that would draw Tennent into a deeper spirituality. In 1728, the young minister became extremely ill and was confronted with his own lack of spiritual fervor. He writes, â€˜I was .. exceedingly grieved I had done so little for God .. I therefore prayed to God that He would be pleased to give me one and a half years more .. (as) I was determined to promote His kingdom with all my might ..â€™
Tennentâ€™s prayer was answered and with his health restored, he became a firebrand for revival. He was consumed with preaching passionate warnings of the judgment of God and earnest invitations to trust in His salvific grace. From 1736 through the 1740’s, his ministry would coincide with others, like Edwards and Whitefield, in the general Great Awakening of the mid-eighteenth century. He frequently preached three times a day and his itinerant tour would take him outside of New Jersey to Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine and Connecticut.
He also developed a strong concern for many colonial preachers that he considered were not real Christians and thus, â€˜wolves in sheepâ€™s clothing.â€™ This culminated in his famous sermon given at Nottingham, Pennsylvania, which was later published as, ‘The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry.’ â€˜I am verily persuaded,â€™ he wrote, â€˜that the generality of preachers talk of an unknown and unfelt Christ; and the reason why congregations have been so dead is because they have had dead men preaching to them.â€™
â€™What poor guides are natural ministers to those who are under spiritual trouble?â€™ he writes, â€˜They either slight such distress altogether and call it â€œmelancholy,â€ or â€œmadness,â€ or daub those that are under it with untempered mortar.â€™ â€˜They comfort people before they convince them; sow before they plow: and are busy in raising a fabric before they lay a foundation. These foolish builders strengthen men’s carnal security by their soft, selfish, cowardly discourses. They have not the courage or honesty to thrust the nail of terror into the sleeping souls!â€™
Tennent called on the colonial church to, â€˜mourn over those who are destitute of faithful ministers and sympathize with them.â€™ â€˜Our bowels should be moved,â€™ he wrote, â€˜with the most compassionate tenderness over those dear fainting souls that are as sheep having no Shepherd.â€™ He went on to encourage true minister of Christ to stand firm in their calling despite those who, â€˜growl .. and reproach .. knowing that suffering is the lot of Christâ€™s followers, and that spiritual benefits infinitely overbalance all temporal difficulties.â€™
He would lead a movement of Presbyterian ministers called â€˜New Lights,â€™ which pressed for traditional puritan piety to be infused with deep, individual spirituality and passionate preaching concerning sin and the need to experience a â€˜new birth.â€™
In 1 Tim 1:5 the apostle Paul warns his young disciple against hypocrisy stating â€˜the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.â€™
As Christians, we all hold some position of spiritual leadership, whether in the home, in the church or at our place of work. With this great privilege comes the responsibility of authenticity, that we preach Christ to others because we have known His resurrected power and our lives have been changed by Him. Often times, the greatest danger to the promotion of genuine Christianity is not from external forces, but comes from those within the church whose claim to Christ is unauthentic and unfruitful.
As a fellow minister who heard Gilbert Tennent preach once said, “He convinced me more and more that we can preach the gospel of Christ no further than we have experienced the power of it in our own hearts.”
Alexander, The Log College
Biography of William Tennent
Gilbert Tennent: American Awakener
Tracy, The Great Awakening
Smithers, Gilbert Tennent