Tuesday, September 30, 2014

William Tennent, Jr.

Freehold, NJ    Visited August 2012

Only known portrait of William Tennent, Jr.

In the past few years I’ve gotten to know the colorful story of William Tennent, Jr – pastor, patriot and leader in the Great Awakening.  His church near the Jersey Shore is one of the great under-discovered historic sites of the Colonial Era.  That’s where our account will end up. 

William Tennent Jr, was born in Ireland in June 1705, the second son of Presbyterian clergyman William Tennent.  The Elder Tennent moved his family to the American colonies in 1718 and settled them in Neshaminy PA, northeast of Philadelphia.  All four of William Tennent Sr.’s sons showed deep devotion to God at an early age and sensed personal calls to follow their father into pastoral ministry.  With his brothers and some other dedicated young men, William Jr. was educated by his father in a split log building that became known as the Log College (the forerunner of Princeton University). 

Rendering of the Log College

William, Jr. completed his education at the Log College and commenced study for ordination.  However it was during his studies that Tennent experienced one of the most remarkable events you’ll ever hear about.  Its called ‘The Trance’ – an unexplainable descent into such a state of unconsciousness that he was pronounced dead and was fifteen minutes away from being buried before he suddenly and without provocation woke straight up.  He had lost his entire memory but otherwise recovered without any seeming effect of the trauma.  And then, several weeks later, again without any provocation, all of his memories and mental faculties returned.  The verified account of the story was contained in Princeton professor Archibald Alexander’s account of the Tennent family, “The Log College”.  You can read about this amazing experience and its aftermath Here

Cemetery leading up to Old Scott's Church (now Old Tennent)

With his hard fought ordination in hand, William Tennent’s first congregational assignment would come through tragedy.  His brother John had accepted the pastorate at Old Scots Presbyterian Church in Freehold, New Jersey.  However John died unexpectedly two years into his tenure and the Presbytery sent William in as his replacement.  William Tennent began his service at Old Scots in 1732.  It was the only church he would ever pastor. 

Freehold, New Jersey's other favorite son

Tennent came into the ministry around the time of the First Great Awakening.  This revival followed the preaching tour of George Whitefield  from the southern colonies to New England.  In the same way that Jonathan Edwards  provided pastoral affirmation of the revival in New England, the Tennent family promoted the Awakening in the middle colonies.  William Sr. befriended Whitefield and provided opportunities for him to preach and connection to other like-minded ministers.  His son Gilbert took on an itinerant preaching ministry following Whitefield to shore up the work of the revival.  And William Jr’s Old Scotts Church was strategically situated at a midpoint between the middle colonies and New England.  It became a key support point for the Great Awakening throughout the 1730’s and 40’s.  In fact, it is the only church where William Tennent, Jr, Gilbert Tennent, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards and David Brainerd all preached from the church pulpit.

Old Scotts Church
Beyond the awakening, William distinguished himself as a shepherd among his flock.   One early biographer described him as, “a helper of the poor, a friend to the rich, a true and loyal patriot, a peacemaker of unusual tact, and a trusted and revered pastor.”  He was committed to the evangelical proclamation of the Gospel, the new birth, the doctrines of grace, and he readily worked alongside ministers of other traditions who were committed to like-minded ideals.  His long labors and faithful ministry gave him stature throughout the colonies. 

Old Tennent Church (formerly Old Scotts) today

One telling event happened during George Whitefield’s last preaching tour.  The great evangelist was struggling with weariness and discouragement in ministry.  At a gathering of ministers Whitefield mused at his increasing desire to end his race and meet his Savior.  But he was concerned that Reverend Tennent didn’t seem to be sharing this longing for glory.  So he turned to query the elder statesman.

'Well! brother Tennent, you are the oldest man amongst us, do you not rejoice to think that your time is so near at hand, when you will be called home and freed from all the difficulties attending this chequered scene.  Mr. T. bluntly answered, ' I have no wish about it.' Mr. W. pressed him again; and Mr. T. again answered, 'No, sir, it is no pleasure to me at all, and if you knew your duty it would be none to you. I have nothing to do with death; my business is to live as long as I can—as well as I can—and to serve my Lord and Master as faithfully as I can, until he shall think proper to call me home.'

In the pulpit of the Great Awakening

William Tennent was faithful to his word.  He served his people for 43 years.  He promoted the cause of the Gospel in the colonies with all his energies.  And as the American Revolution dawned he stood on the side of liberty.  Less than a year after the fighting broke out, in March 1777, Reverend Tennent was finally called home.  Knowing that he was considered a traitor by the British, the people of Old Scots Church had their beloved pastor buried without markings under the floor of their sanctuary, where he remains to this day.

Standing approximately where Reverend Tennent is buried.  

A little over a year later British and Colonial forces met in battle on land adjacent to Old Scots Church.  The Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778 was the largest engagement of the Revolutionary War and the only pitched battle between the Colonial army led by George Washington and the British regular army during the war.  During the battle Old Scots Church was used as a battlefield hospital.  Washington is reported to have visited wounded soldiers at the church, adding his name to the role of historic Americans who have been in the church. 

Marker on the outside wall of Old Tennent Church

If you are interested in church history or American history in general, Old Scots Church (Now known as Old Tennent Church) is an undiscovered gem.  Beautifully preserved by the congregation and still in use, it is a step back in time, where the Great Awakening and Revolutionary War come together.  I have visited there twice and it is a highlight stop on any tour of the Great Awakening in the Middle Atlantic States.   

Battle of Monmouth map - Old Tennent Church at extreme left

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely fantastic page of information on Tennents esply WTJr.
    Can't wait to visit the area.
    Many many thks. Pastor Grady