Tennent, William (1673–1746), presbyterian minister in America, was a son of John Tennent, a merchant in Edinburgh, and his wife Sarah Hume, and is believed to have been born in Mid Calder, West Lothian, Scotland, the family's ancestral home. The young man was well educated: he graduated MA (1695) from the University of Edinburgh. Little is known of his early career; he seems to have been chaplain to the duchess of Hamilton, and may have gone to the north of Ireland in a similar capacity; the Hamiltons had huge estates and great influence there. He must have been ordained by a presbytery in Scotland, since in 1701 he was accepted as a minister by the general synod of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland; however, he was ordained in 1704 into the ministry of the Church of Ireland. Though he spent seventeen years in Ireland, he was apparently never beneficed; his children were baptised in several different locations in Ulster. James Logan (qv), whose mother and Tennent's mother were related, advised him to emigrate to Pennsylvania, and the family travelled along with the first major exodus of Ulster people to New England in 1718. He applied to the presbyterian synod of Philadelphia to be accepted by them as a minister. His petition very earnestly disavowed his anglican allegiance on theological grounds, but not surprisingly, synod took some time to be convinced of his sincerity. He was briefly a minister in New York, and then from 1726 in two congregations in Pennsylvania, one of which was at Neshaminy, twenty miles (32 km) north of Philadelphia, and in 1728 Logan gave him a land grant and £5 towards building a house.
Tennent continued the education of his own sons in Neshaminy and began to train others, following the pattern of similar establishments in Ireland, where dissenters, excluded from TCD, were often educated by presbyterian ministers in country districts. A building to house the school was erected apparently in 1735; despite its modest size and construction (critics sneered at it as ‘the Log College’), the foundation of Tennent's school has been described as ‘the most important event in colonial presbyterianism’ (Trinterud, 63). It was important for several reasons: firstly, its very existence controverted the monopoly of Scottish universities and the handful of American institutions acceptable to the church authorities in training ministers; and secondly, Tennent's example was followed in various parts of the colonies by the men who had been his students. Presbyterian academies thus came to have a widespread, if not very long-lasting, educational dominance.
According to a monument erected on the site of the Log College, more than sixty schools and colleges, some subsequently very important, owe their origin, directly or indirectly, to Tennent's example. Samuel Blair (1712–51), his brother John Blair (1720–71), Samuel Finley (qv), and Charles Beatty (1715–72) were four of the twenty or so graduates of the Log College, and Alexander Craighead (qv) may also have been there for a time. Thirdly, William Tennent in his Log College prepared the ground for the leadership of his four minister sons, Gilbert Tennent (qv), William Tennent (qv), and John and Charles Tennent, in what became known as ‘the great awakening’, a revival of religious life and belief among colonial protestants. The evangelical George Whitefield visited him, and compared his ministry in Neshaminy and the college to Goliath's sword. The ‘new side’ held that the experience of a personal salvation was as essential for the ministry as for their hearers, and the Tennents, notable for their charismatic preaching and leadership, spread the message to their network of relatives and former fellow pupils. ‘Old side’ opponents focused on the kind of education that the Tennents had experienced, and in the late 1730s controversy broke out about whether such men should be ordained if they had not had further training in the universities of Scotland.
This was one of the disagreements that caused the split in American presbyterianism in 1741. By that time, Tennent had become infirm, and from 1742 no longer taught in his academy; it closed after Tennent's death on 6 May 1746. His marriage in 1702 to Catherine, daughter of Gilbert Kennedy (qv), linked Tennent to several important dynasties of presbyterian ministers and influential laymen in Ireland, and undoubtedly also in America. They had four sons and a daughter, all Irish-born.