February 5: Rev. Gilbert Tennent

He Was A Double Agent.

Rev. Gilbert Tennent [5 February 1703 – 23 July 1764]Born on this day, February 5, in 1703, Gilbert Tennent prepared for the ministry in the famous Log College established by his father William. Closely allied with the revival work of George Whitefield, the Tennent family were intimately involved in the first Great Awakening, which began in the 1730′s and continued up until about 1743. This revival and its religious fervor in turn played a key role in a division of the Presbyterian Church that ran from 1741 to 1758. One faction in the split, termed the New Side, favored the revival, while the opposing Old Side was generally against it. Other issues were also party to the split, but most historians point to Gilbert Tennent’s controversial sermon, “The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry” as the breaking point that brought about the split.

Seventeen years later, by the grace of God, the split was mended and the Presbyterian Church restored to unity. Thomas Murphy, in his work, The Presbytery of the Log College, discusses how Gilbert Tennnent, the man who almost single-handedly precipitated the split, was equally credited with mending the tear:

“The schism between the Synods of Philadelphia and New York was healed in the year 1758. How was the event brought about? In the minds of reflecting and godly men there was from the beginning a conviction that the separation should never have occurred. That conviction manifested itself at first in unofficial propositions for reunion, afterward in formal overtures for reunion. The Presbytery of New York, which was not present in the Synod at the time of the disruption, was particularly active in these negotiations for reconciliation. But Gilbert Tennent, the leading spirit of the disruption and the strongest man in the Church, became the chief agent in healing the breach. In fact, he had never intended that there should be a separation, but only that what he considered a wrong should be rectified. At length he became the champion for bringing the body together again. ‘He was among the first to seek a reconciliation and reunion of the parties. To promote this object he wrote and published a pamphlet entitled The Pacificator, in which he reasons strongly in favor of peace and union.’ These various efforts were successful, and the happy goal was accomplished.

“The terms on which the two parties were reunited were simply on the basis of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. The words of the agreement between them were: ‘Both Synods having always approved and received the Westminster Confession of Faith, and Larger and Shorter Catechisms, as an orthodox and excellent system of Christian doctrine, founded on the Word of God, we do still receive the same as the confession of our faith, and also adhere to the plan of worship, government, and discipline, contained in the Westminster Directory, strictly enjoining it on all our members and probationers for the ministry that they preach and teach according to the form of sound words in said Confession and Catechisms, and avoid and oppose all errors contrary thereto.’—Records, p. 286.

“The spirit in which they came together is worthy of lasting remembrance. It is seen in this agreement: ‘All complaints and differences shall be mutually forgiven and buried in perpetual oblivion; the Synods shall unite as two contiguous bodies of Christians agreed in principle as though they had never been concerned with one another before, nor had any differences; and now join the Synods and Presbyteries upon such scriptural and rational terms as may secure peace and good order, tend to heal our broken churches and advance religion hereafter.’

Words to Live By : The Right Way to Mend Fences

Thomas Murphy concluded his comments with these words:

“Equally memorable were the piety and brotherly love by which they were actuated, as seen in the formal agreements into which they entered with each other: ‘We judge that this is a proper occasion to manifest our sincere intention, unitedly to exert ourselves to fulfill the ministry we have received of the Lord Jesus. Accordingly, we unanimously declare our serious and fixed resolution, by divine aid, to take heed to ourselves that our hearts be upright, our discourse edifying, and our lives exemplary for purity and godliness; to take heed to our doctrine, that it be not only orthodox but evangelical and spiritual, tending to awaken the secure to a suitable concern for their salvation, and to instruct and encourage sincere Christians; thus commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God; to cultivate peace and harmony among ourselves, and strengthen each other’s hands in promoting the knowledge of divine truth and diffusing the savor of piety among our people.’—Records, p. 288. Such men must have been very deeply imbued with the Spirit of Christ.”

[excerpted from Presbytery of the Log College, by Thomas Murphy, p. 174-176]

Image source: Engraved portrait by David Edwin [1776-1841], as published inThe Assembly’s Missionary Magazine, or Evangelical Intelligencer, vol. 1, no. 5 (May 1805), facing page [209]. Image scanned by the staff of the PCA Historical Center.

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