Thursday, May 2, 2013

Gilbert Tennent & The Reunited Synod of New York & Philadelphia

L. Gordon Tait writes in his biography of John Witherspoon:
'When John Witherspoon arrived in Princeton August 1768 every window in the multipurpose college building, Nassau Hall, was illuminated by candle, the closest the college could come to son et lumière.'
'John Witherspoon' was more then just the accidental genius, his arrival symbolized Princeton's aim for thoughtleadership in colonial America.

The life of Gilbert Tennent, the son of Log College (precursor of Princeton College) founder William Tennent, shows the ideological tensions among Presbyterians during the Great Awakening. It's not hard to grasp how the reunited Synod of New York & Philadelphia in 1758 was a major event in Presbyterian and American history. It resolved the tensions between the two factions (allthough the factions of the Old Side and New Side did not die down).

It explains why Richard Stockton and Benjamin Rush, as Samuel Finley's messengers(?), wanted to have John Witherspoon as successor at Princeton in 1766. John Witherspoon was the ideal figure to maintain momentum created by the 1758 Synod.

But before John Witherspoon arrived, Princeton's incredible thoughtleadership in the Old- and New Side controversy emerges. Nominating Samuel Davies as Princeton's President in 1559 gives us an idea of the Calvinist approach Princeton aimed for:
'As the first non-Anglican minister licensed to preach in Virginia, Samuel Davies advanced the cause of religious and civil liberty in colonial Virginia. Davies' strong religious convictions led him to value the "freeborn mind" and the inalienable "liberty of conscience" that the established Anglican Church in Virginia often failed to respect in the days before independence.'
And to grasp the direct link between 'John Witherspoon's' common sense and the perspicuitas of Scripture we would do well to take into account this aspect of his work:
'A unique aspect of Davies's religious work among the slave population was his attempts at teaching them to read. Differing from Baptist and Methodist evangelists, who based conversion solely on an outpouring of the spirit, Davies believed that no one, regardless of race or social status, can have true religion without both hearing and reading the Word of God'
During a fundraising trip to Great Britain, together with Gilbert Tennent, Samuel Davies preached 60 times, the grandson of Oliver Cromwell gave three guineas to support Princeton. Thomas Talbot Ellis writes:
'Davies' fame as a preacher was so great in London that news reached King George II that a dissenting minister from the colony of Virginia was attracting notice and drawing very crowded audiences. When the king expressed a strong desire to hear him, his chaplain invited Davies to preach in the royal chapel. He is said to have complied and preached before the royal family and many of the nobility. As Davies was preaching, the king was seen speaking at different times to those around him. While the king was speaking, Mr Davies paused and became silent. He then looked in the direction of the king and is said to have exclaimed, 'When the lion roars, the beasts of the forest all tremble; and when King Jesus speaks, the princes of the earth should keep silence'.'
Sermons by Samuel Davies can be found here.

It's clear why Princeton's trustees (Richard Stockton, maybe even Samuel Finley?) wanted John Witherspoon as President: to firmly establish Princeton's thoughtleadership & to solve, through this, the Old Side - New Side Controversy. And he delivered just that:
'Throughout the colonial period, there was no unified Presbyterian Church throughout the American colonies. (This would not be accomplished until 1789 when John Witherspoon successfully organized American Presbyterians into the new Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.'
Gilbert Tennent was named after his mother Catherine Kennedy's father (See also Log College by Archibald Alexander). Gilbert Kennedy had been a distinguished Presbyterian preacher, who having suffered persecution in his own country, exercised his ministry in Holland with great success (A. A.). Kennedy had apparently translated Jonathan Edward's 'Narrative' into the Dutch language. Archibald Alexander argues:
 'it is exceedingly probably that from Gilbert Kennedy, Mr. Tennent imbibed his love of the Presbyterian system.'

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