Tennent, William (1705–77), presbyterian minister in America, was born in 1705 on either 3 June or 3 January 1705, in Ireland, possibly in Co. Armagh, but more likely in Co. Antrim, second son among four sons and a daughter of William Tennent (qv) and his wife Catherine, daughter of Gilbert Kennedy (qv). All four sons – of whom Gilbert Tennent (qv) was the eldest – became ministers. The family emigrated to America, possibly in 1716 but more likely in 1718, along with the first important emigration from Co. Londonderry to New England. William was educated by his father in what became known as the ‘Log College’ at Neshaminy, Pennsylvania, a first attempt to provide in America the kind of education required for ministry in the church. Overwork and religious fears broke his health, and in a state of emaciation and fever, while conversing in Latin with his brother about his soul, he fell down as if dead, and could not be revived by any means. The funeral was arranged, and only the importunities of his close friend, a doctor, saved him on two successive days from being buried. The assembled mourners were startled by a groan from the apparently lifeless body, and he eventually recovered, though he suffered long-lasting effects from the cataleptic trance, and had to relearn everything that he had once known. Years later, he was unable to describe accurately his near-death experiences, but the events were widely reported at the time, and an account by the celebrated Elias Boudinot (published in 1806 and several times reprinted) became very famous. Tennent stated that he had been in the presence of God; the groan which marked his return to life had arisen from his heartbreak at being told by a ‘superior being’ that he had to leave the ineffably beautiful scenes of praise and joy.
John Tennent (1707–32), a younger brother of William, had been since 1730 minister of a congregation in Freehold, New Jersey, where his piety and preaching had brought about what is regarded as the first instance in the mid-Atlantic region of the revival of religion known as ‘the great awakening’. The graduates of the Log College, especially Gilbert Tennent, along with the itinerant evangelist George Whitefield, were for many years after 1729 instrumental throughout the colonies in producing emotional conversions and in seeking to increase religious fervour by fostering lay spirituality. After John Tennent's death of tuberculosis (23 April 1732) his bereft congregation chose William Tennent as their minister, and he was ordained in Freehold on 25 October 1733.
Earthly concerns held little interest for Tennent after his life-changing trance; he neglected the congregational farm, and got into debt. A friend suggested he should marry a rich widow, Catherine Noble (née Van Brugh); the minister went to New York to examine her suitability; in the first few minutes of their first meeting he told the lady that since neither his time nor his inclination would allow him to use much ceremony, he would return on the following Monday to marry her and take her back to New Jersey. After some understandable hesitation on her part, they were married 23 August 1738. Around the same time, he was accused by opponents of perjury when his testimony resulted in the acquittal of a fellow minister who had been accused of theft; Tennent could produce no witnesses to clear his name, and conviction appeared inescapable till he was accosted on his way to court by two people from Maryland, who had been either hosts or servants in a house where the ministers had stayed. A dream three times repeated, which they had both had, warned them to travel to Trenton, New Jersey, where they were needed to help the Rev. Tennent; the alibi they provided ensured that the sermon Tennent had prepared to deliver while standing in the stocks was not required. Another well-authenticated story about Tennent records his waking with excruciating pain in one foot to discover that several toes were missing, having been cut off. At the time it was regarded as a supernatural occurrence, perhaps an attack by the devil.
Tennent strongly supported the New Side in religion, preaching the need for revived religious life, and he is credited with strong support for America's political liberties, and is said to have been influential in encouraging revolutionary ideas. He died in Freehold, 8 March 1777; the congregation in 1920 adopted the name Old Tennent church, and the meeting house that was built in William Tennent's time is an important historical site in New Jersey. William Tennent and his wife (who lived till 1786) had three daughters who died as children, and three sons who died as young men. The eldest, John Van Brugh Tennent (1739–70) was a pioneer of obstetrics in America. He was first professor of midwifery at King's College, New York, later Columbia University. He died of yellow fever in the West Indies. William Tennent (1740–77) was a very influential congregationalist minister in South Carolina, who was also a prominent politician in the state. He is credited with bringing about the disestablishment of the colonial anglican church in South Carolina in 1777, and with preparing his hearers for some of the radical political developments of the revolution. He died of ‘slow fever’, which may have been typhoid. The third son, Gilbert Tennent (1742–70) also a doctor, was infected while inoculating patients against smallpox, but experienced a notable deathbed conversion.