On this day, March 8, 1740, Gilbert Tennent preached a sermon that warned of a deadly danger. But his words miffed many established clergymen in the American colonies. The result was a split in the Presbyterian church.
Gilbert Tennent had arrived in America as a young boy. His father, William Tennent, founded the so-called "Log College" to train backwoods ministers. Gilbert became a zealous evangelical preacher himself and was ordained in 1726. Thomas Prince, founder of the first religious journal of North America, wrote, "From the terrible and deep convictions he had passed through in his own soul, he seemed to have such a lively view of the Divine Majesty, the spirituality, purity, extensiveness, and strictness of His law; with His glorious holiness, and displeasure at sin, His justice, truth and power in punishing the damned..." that he preached with a power lacking in others.
A friend of evangelist George Whitefield, Tennent promoted spiritual revival in New Jersey and New England. Some clergymen thought that his services were too emotional. They spoke out against him.
Tennent saw a quite different danger. "For I am verily persuaded 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."
That March 8, Tennent took as his text Mark 6:34, "And Jesus, when he came out, saw much people, and was moved with compassion towards them, because they were as sheep not having a shepherd." According to George Whitefield, Tennent was impressed that he should preach about Nicodemus coming to Christ. Didn't the crowds of Jesus' day have religious leaders? Indeed they did. So why did Jesus see the people as sheep without a shepherd? Because, like Nicodemus, those leaders were natural men. They were neither born of God nor filled with his Spirit.
In the same way, the churchgoers of New England were like sheep without shepherds. Too many of their pastors lacked personal knowledge of Christ.
"To trust the care of our souls to those who have little or no care for their own, to those who are both unskillful and unfaithful, is contrary to the common practice of considerate mankind, relating to the affairs of their bodies and estates; and would signify, that we set light by our souls, and did not care what became of them. For if the blind lead the blind, will they not both fall into the ditch?"
Tennent's remarks outraged Presbyterians. A synod reproved him. Tennent and other New Brunswick preachers promptly withdrew from the association. For seventeen years, the Presbyterians were divided into New Lights and Old Lights. But near the end of his life, Gilbert Tennent made overtures to reunite the factions.
- Anderson, Courtney, et al. Heroic Colonial Christians; edited with an introduction by Russell T. Hitt. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1966.
- Coalter, Milton J. 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.
- Gaustad, Edwin S., comp. Religious Issues in American History. New York: Harper & Row, 1968.
- Heimert, Alan. comp. The Great Awakening: documents illustrating the crisis and its consequences, edited by Alan Heimert and Perry Miller. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967.
- Hicks, John D. et al. A History of American Democracy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966; p. 53.
- Reid, Tom. "Gilbert Tennent." http://www.evangelical-times.org/Articles/Feb03/feb03a03.htm
Last updated May, 2006.