All Presbyterians have been refreshed by these Neshaminy watering holes because of Tennent’s concern for both the life of the mind and of the heart.
Tennent — a Scot, a graduate of the University of Edinburgh (1695) and an Anglican minister — left Scotland for Ireland and the Anglican Church for the Presbyterian. In 1718 he and spouse, Catherine, daughter of a “dissenting” minister, sailed with four young sons and their sister to the New World to gain greater “liberty of conscience.”
He was received into the Synod of Philadelphia after renouncing his Anglican connections, accepting the Westminster Confession and catechisms and delivering an “eloquent Latin oration,” impressing the body with his erudition. After a pastorate on Long Island, he settled in Bucks County, where he gathered a congregation beside Neshaminy Creek in the Pennsylvania wilderness. It is reported that he built an impressive church house of hewn stone.
While other contemporaries continued to think that only Scottish-trained persons were really educated, Tennent saw a need. He built a cabin and established what some contemptuously dubbed the “Log College.” There he educated his sons and other young men for the ministry so desperately needed to serve the thousands of Presbyterian migrants to America. With some students living with his family, and others in the cabin’s attic, Tennent taught his frontier students Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and biblical, theological and pastoral studies from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Shortly he sent seven or eight ministers of Christ to preach and teach — including his four sons. They in turn established their own congregations and schools. In 1746, the “Log College” shut down. It was succeeded by the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University, on the founding board of which four of Tennent’s graduates sat, including a son, Gilbert. All carried his concern for the life of the mind. Princeton joined Harvard, Yale and William and Mary in training colonial leadership.
The senior Tennent also nourished students with Spirit-filled learning. He and his graduates supported what has been called by some America’s first “Great Awakening.” In 1739, Tennent invited the great 24-year-old British preacher, George Whitefield, to Neshaminy.
Whitefield’s eloquence and effectiveness were already legendary. According to a curious Benjamin Franklin, the revivalist’s voice could reach a crowd of 30,000 people. Others commented that he could reduce his hearers to tears by the way he pronounced “Mesopotamia.”
At Neshaminy he preached first to 3,000, and later to 2,000 people with gracious results. He blessed the Tennents, comparing them to the biblical Elizabeth and Zacharias. The Tennents shared soul-deep concern for those who suffered from troubled minds, melancholy and despair in their wilderness lives. They had, according to Whitefield, bred up “gracious youths” and sent them out as worthy “ministers of Jesus.”
The evangelist moved the Tennents and their followers. Other Presbyterians were suspicious of an unhealthy “enthusiasm,” as it was called, aroused by the great preacher. The revival in which Tennent’s graduates participated aggravated a division in the church between New Siders, who favored revivals, and Old Siders, who stood firmly for doctrinal stability as well as decency and order.
Undaunted, Tennent’s son, Gilbert — labeled “Son of Thunder” — stirred Presbyterian turmoil and helped cause the first division in the denomination. Believing in the necessity of “new birth,” as well as learning, he preached in 1740 an inflammatory sermon entitled, “The Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry” (Mark 6:34). He accused, broadside, his professional colleagues of being “Pharisee-Teachers,” “hypocrites,” “unprofitable” ministers because they were “unconverted” themselves.
Old Siders distanced themselves from the emotional extravagances of the New Side, which exposed an “epidemical distemper” causing weeping, screaming and “epileptic-like fits” among their hearers. The two sides separated (1741) into the New York (New Side) Synod and the Philadelphia (Old Side) Synod. The Old Side seemed to “wither,” as it was put, while the New Side flourished, in part because of the continual flow of Scotch-Irish Presbyterians during this period to areas into which they sent their evangelists.
Neither side was happy about the division, and efforts were made to heal the breach. After being called to a New Side White-fieldian congregation in the City of Brotherly Love, even Gilbert Tennent repented. He encouraged reconciliation in his tract, “Irenicum Ecclesiasticum, or a Humble Impartial Essay upon the Peace of Jerusalem” (1745). Finally, in 1758 the two sides reunited to form, somewhat cautiously, the Synod of New York and Philadelphia.
The “Plan of Union” included the reaffirmation of the Westminster standards and a confirmation of the gracious work of “God’s Holy Spirit,” which sometimes did result in unusual “bodily commotions.” However, the new body condemned extreme and delusive behavior. The two sides also agreed that all candidates for the ministry must give “competent satisfaction” as to “learning” and also an “experiential acquaintance with religion.”
The pioneer Tennent’s contribution to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) lives on as we continue to drink and refresh ourselves at the two drinking places of Neshaminy — the life of the mind and the life of the heart. Son Gilbert also came to realize that the unity of the body of Christ is one of the fruits of the Spirit. That Spirit calls Christian sisters and brothers to worship, work and witness together in peace.
These aspects of a fulfilling Christian life are still emphasized in our Book of Confessions and the Book of Order. Reaffirming them in our life together, we join the Neshaminy congregation’s 275th birthday celebration.
The Neshaminy-Warwick church will holds its anniversary homecoming on June 10.
James H. Smylie is professor emeritus of church history at Union Seminary-PSCE.