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Gilbert Tennent Preaches "The Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry" - Timeline Event

Founder

Gilbert Tennent

Time Period

03-08-1740

Description

Gilbert Tennent took offense at the Synod of 1737’s attempt to discredit "Log College" degrees, from which Tennent had graduated and was founded by his father. Had Tennent not been grandfathered in, his own ordination would have been invalidated under the new synod rules.

The synod also had banned itinerancy, so on March 8, 1740 Tennent defied the synod by preaching in another presbytery without permission. His sermon, "The Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry," blasted his opponents as unregenerate Pharisees, who practice cold and heartless religion. Tennent was a proponent of the "New Side" Presbyterian faction. He believed that true religion was heart religion. In contrast, "Old Side" Presbyterians thought that the New Siders were theologically loose and excessively emotional.

Tennent’s fiery sermon elicited criticism from “Old Side” Presbyterians and widened the split between Old Side and New Side Presbyterians, which officially occurred in 1741.

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Narrative

Gilbert Tennent took offense at the attempt by the Presbyterian Synod of 1737 to discredit degrees earned at the "Log College" from which Tennent had graduated and was founded by his father. Had Tennent not been grandfathered in, his own ordination would have been invalidated under the new synod rules.

The synod also had banned itinerancy, so on March 8, 1740 Tennent defied the synod by preaching in another presbytery without permission. His sermon, "The Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry," blasted his opponents as unregenerate Pharisees. Tennent was a proponent of the "New Side" Presbyterian faction. He believed that true religion was heart religion. Mere intellectual assent to doctrinal truth was not sufficient; inner piety was the path to fruitful union with Christ. "Old Side" Presbyterians thought that the New Siders played fast and loose with theology and were prone to excessive displays of emotion.

In one notable section of the sermon, Tennent declared that "when the Life of Piety comes near their [Old Side] Quarters, they rise up in Arms against it, consult, contrive and combine in their Conclaves against it, as a common Enemy, that discovers and condemns their Craft and Hypocrisie." These fighting words drew an Old Side response. One critic fired back, describing "one Tennent, a minister impudent and saucy; and told them [lay Presbyterians] all they were damned, damned, damned! This charmed them; and, in the dreadfulest winter I ever saw, people wallowed in the snow night and day for the benefit of his beastly braying."

Tennent's sermon widened the split between Old Side and New Side Presbyterians. At the Synod of 1740, Tennent led the New Side faction in rejecting some compromise solutions to the conflict. The formal division of the denomination happened a year later. Tennent's sermon illustrates the controversy that followed in the wake of the First Great Awakening. It was only logical -- if not necessarily stated as strongly as it was by Tennent -- that when preachers like Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield condemned cold, heartless religion that they would alienate many American Christians, who felt neither cold nor heartless.

In 1749, Tennent apologized for his abusive rhetoric during the controversy. In a sermon titled "Irenicum Ecclesiasticum," Tennent conceded that it was "cruel and censorius Judging, to condemn the States of those we know not; and to condemn positively and openly the spiritual States of such as are sound in fundamental Doctrines, and regular in Life." Subsequently, Tennent supported reunion of the two Presbyterian factions, which was accomplished in 1758.

Religious Groups

Presbyterian-Reformed Family: Other ARDA Links
Presbyterian-Reformed Family: Religious Family Tree

Biographies

Tennent, Gilbert

Related Dictionary Terms

Alienation, Christianity, Denomination, Doctrine, Minister, Preacher, Sermon, Theology

Photographs

The Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry, title page- Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division
The Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry, title page- Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division

Gilbert Tennent portrait- Internet Archive- from Sermons and Essays by the Tennents and their Contemporaries
Gilbert Tennent portrait- Internet Archive- from Sermons and Essays by the Tennents and their Contemporaries

Book/Journal Source(s)

Hart, D.G. and John R. Muether, 2007. Seeking a Better Country: 300 Years of American Presbyterianism P & R Publishing, Phillipsburg, NJ.

Web Source(s)

https://college.cengage.com/history/ayers_primary_sources/danger_unconverted_ministry.htm
A full transcript of Tennent's sermon.

Web Page Contributor

Paul Matzko
Affiliated with: Pennsylvania State University, Ph.D. in History

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