Saturday, August 25, 2012

William Tennent Sr.

Warminster, PA      Visited August 2012

This is the only known portrait of William
Tennent, Sr.  Kind of scary, but
probably just poorly done.

This blog tends focus on the well known and celebrated in history. But occasionally I want to include lesser known figures – either because their stories are worth telling or their contribution has been tragically overlooked. This post fits both criteria.

William Tennent Sr. is a footnote of American History – a locally prominent minister in the outlying areas of colonial Philadelphia. But his role in shaping the religious underpinnings of our national identity is profound and his story is an inspiring example of a man willing to live in obscurity for the glory of God.

William Tennent was born in Scotland in 1673 and educated into the ministry at the University of Edinburgh. He brought his family to the American Colonies in 1718 and settled in Pennsylvania, eventually taking the pastorate of a small rural Presbyterian church in Warminster, PA. Tennent self-educated all four of his sons, each of whom professed an early desire to enter the ministry. At that time ministers desiring ordination were required to receive formal education either in Europe or at one of the New England colleges. Neither option was possible for the Tennents. William also became concerned about the theological liberalism that characterized the formally trained ministers in his area. So he decided to take it upon himself to do the work. He had a small wood timber building constructed next to his home and this one room structure became his ‘Log College’.

An illustrated rendering of the Log College. It was used as a pig pen after the school
closed and then burned down later on. Nothing remains of the structure.

Tennent instructing a student
at the Log College
Through his ministerial contacts he attracted bright, serious-minded young men who wanted to be trained for Gospel ministry. From 1726 till Tennent’s death in 1746 the little building turned out small bands of Gospel preaching ministers whose impact profoundly shaped the religious and social landscape of the emerging United States. Over fifty colleges and universities across the country can trace their roots in some way back to the Tennent’s vision for educating preachers of the Gospel. The most prominent of these is Princeton University, its early leadership stocked with men whose education occurred not in the great universities but in the one room schoolhouse known as the Log College.

William Tennent’s relationship with George Whitefield played a prominent part in the Great Awakening in the Middle Atlantic Colonies. Whitefield considered Philadelphia a key base on his Colonial preaching tours. Tennant and Whitefield developed a friendship across denominational lines (Whitefield was Anglican and Tennent was Presbyterian) when Tennent went to Philadelphia in 1739 to hear Whitefield preach. Whitefield found deep kinship with the elder Tennent, whom he affectionately described as ‘that old grey haired disciple’. Whitefield twice preached in the field in front of Tennent’s church, drawing three thousand listeners one time and five thousand the next – an astounding number of people for an area that was considered virtually wilderness at the time.

Historic marker for the Log College
along Warminster Road

William Tennent Sr. ministered faithfully to the ripe old age of 73 in 1746. His church has remained a Gospel light in southeastern Pennsylvania until this day. All four of William Sr’s sons went into Gospel ministry. Two of them, Gilbert and William Jr became major players in the Great Awakening and will be the subjects of future posts. The elder Tennent is buried in the church cemetery of Neshaminy Presbyterian Church. On his tombstone is inscribed a most appropriate epitaph. Translated from the Latin is says,

He built better than he knew

Your Blogger at William Tennent's grave in the cemetery of
Neshaminy-Warwick Presbyterian Church.  The original
cover slab is in the church.  George Whitefield preached to
thousands on two occasions right behind where I'm standing

I had the chance to visit William Tennent’s grave with a group of friends and fellow ministers from several Sovereign Grace churches. Among the crew piling into a rented van were assorted pastors, interns, lay leaders, a church planting resident, a couple of guys headed to the next Pastors College class, a seminary student, an international Christian relief worker (my brother John) and an African pastor. Besides the Tennent sites in Warminster we also traveled to Freehold NJ to see William Jr’s church and then to Princeton Cemetery where several Log College grads (as well as Jonathan Edwards and other future blog subjects) are buried.

Our roving Great Awakening band of brothers at the Log
College Monument in Warminster, PA.