Tennent, Gilbert (1703–64), presbyterian minister in America, was born 5 February 1703 in Vinecash, Co. Armagh, near Portadown, eldest son among four sons and a daughter of William Tennent (qv) (d. 1746), and his wife Catherine, daughter of Gilbert Kennedy primus (qv). The younger sons included William Tennent (qv) (d. 1777). William Tennent sen. was at the time of his son's birth a presbyterian minister who was without a congregation. In 1718, along with relatives and other co-religionists in what is regarded as the first successful concerted migration from Ulster to north America, the Tennents travelled to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Gilbert was educated by his father in Ireland and America; a conversion experience in 1723 paved the way for his career in the ministry of the presbyterian church, though he had originally planned to become a doctor. He was licensed by the Philadelphia presbytery in May 1725, in the same year that he received an MA from Yale college, granted despite the fact that he had not formally attended college lectures. He accepted a call to Newcastle, Delaware, in December 1725, but was rebuked by synod when he left after only a few weeks. He assisted his father in his famous ‘Log College’ school at Neshaminy until he was ordained in New Brunswick congregation, New Jersey (1726).
His brother John Tennent (d. 1732), minister from 1730 of a congregation at Freehold, New Jersey, encouraged a revival of religious sentiment in his congregation, a revival that continued under William Tennent jun. Gilbert Tennent at first despaired of the state of grace in his own congregation, but with support from his father, brothers, and a Dutch pastor, Theodorus Frelinghuysen, he developed his ministry and preaching skills and began to see encouraging results among his hearers. The Tennents and the other graduates of the Log College increasingly came to believe that the religious life of individuals and of the community would only develop properly through personal conviction of sin, an awakening to God's grace, and a conversion experience validated by lasting and meaningful amelioration of behaviour and witness. Such was the level of personal involvement in the work known as ‘the great awakening’ that supporters of what came to be called the ‘New Side’ or ‘New Light’, often younger men, were happy to risk the censure of church authorities and the displeasure of colleagues by preaching unbidden in areas under the jurisdiction of ministers whom they regarded as less spiritually awakened. The revivalists were placed in a separate presbytery of New Brunswick in 1738, but this did not prevent them from sallying forth into other congregations and presbyteries if they felt it was requisite, even after an intrusions act was passed in 1739 in an effort to prevent unsanctioned incursions and divisive preaching and criticism. Tennent's fervour and eloquence were displayed to great effect when he joined the celebrated young English evangelist, George Whitefield, on a preaching tour in New England (1740). Tennent's joy in the work helped him forget his grief at the death of his first wife that same year. Her name is unknown; there were no children.
Tennent was preeminent among those involved in the revival in New Jersey and Pennsylvania; his appearance in the pulpit with unpowdered hair, and wearing generally a simple belted greatcoat, was particularly impressive. In March 1740 he made his most notorious attack on opponents whom he claimed had not experienced the work of the Holy Spirit, when he preached a sermon at Nottingham, Pennsylvania, on the ‘Danger of an unconverted ministry’. His impassioned attack on ‘Pharisee-teachers’, and his declaration that hearers had the right to leave congregations they found unsatisfactory, did not endear him to ministers who were in sympathy with the Old Side. The Tennents and their supporters were also strongly in favour of the kind of education provided in the colonies, in such establishments as the Log College, so long as the Holy Spirit could be seen to be involved, whereas opponents felt that only the long-established universities of the mother country, or Harvard and Yale in New England, could produce ministers of suitable academic standing. A split between New and Old Sides took place in 1741, when ejected New Side ministers, following Tennent's lead, joined the New York synod. The schism lasted until 1758 and was the first serious division in the American presbyterian church.
In 1743 Tennent accepted a call to a city congregation in Philadelphia, originally a non-denominational body founded because of Whitefield's preaching, which, after a split caused by the advent of the Moravian sect in the area, became the Second Presbyterian congregation. As a result of the split Tennent had to seek support from the wider community to finance the second church building. In this new setting he gradually adopted less controversial behaviour and began to find merit in the orthodoxies of his opponents. The onset of middle age may have diminished his radicalism, while he was increasingly concerned about the physical manifestations and other uncontrolled enthusiasm sometimes associated with revivalism and with Whitefield's preaching. After the Moravians, a sect noted for pietistic and emotional outpourings, arrived in America in 1741, he published a work criticising aspects of Moravian doctrine, especially their non-Calvinist promise of universal salvation. Ironically, he found the Moravians as disruptive in his own congregation as he and his supporters had been in former times in those of Old Side opponents. Some former adherents accused him of back-sliding, but Tennent increasingly sought to find common ground with the Old Side, even with his most notable opponent, John Thomson (1690?–1753), also from the north of Ireland. In 1749, in his Irenicum ecclesiasticum, he praised Thomson's influential work, The government of the church of Christ . . . (1741), and admitted that he now realised that early Christians had not dared to judge the state of grace of their fellow communicants. He also published sermons bearing the significant titles The danger of spiritual pride (1745) and The necessity of studying to be quiet and doing our own business (1744). Tennent so successfully exercised his leadership in the synod of New York that in 1758 it reunited with the synod of Philadelphia and he was elected the first moderator of the united synod.
New Light emphasis on the importance of local education for presbyterian ministers led Gilbert Tennent to support the establishment of a state-supported College of New Jersey, which would be directed by presbyterian ministers. In 1746 he was made a trustee, and from May 1753 to 1755 Tennent travelled in Great Britain with a colleague from Virginia, collecting several hundred pounds for the new college. His last few years in Philadelphia were made unhappy by the dissension in his congregation over whether he should retire in favour of an assistant, whose extemporaneous preaching made him more popular with the people; Tennent had begun to deliver sermons from notes when he moved to Philadelphia. He died on 23 July 1764; his death was announced two months later in his native Ulster, with the note that he had endured a ‘tedious illness’ (Belfast News Letter, 28 Sept. 1764).
Gilbert Tennent married secondly (9 February 1741), at Somerset, New Jersey, Cornelia Clarkson (née Bancker de Pyster), a widow with several children. She was of Dutch ancestry, ten years older than Tennent, and died in 1753. Before 1762 Tennent married another widow, Sarah Spofford, who had one daughter by her first husband, a Royal Navy captain. With Tennent, she had three children; one of the two daughters was given the name of Tennent's second wife, Cornelia.