William Tennent Jnr died on March 8, 1777. He had been born 71 years earlier, on June 3, 1705; the second son of William Tennent Snr, in the county of Armagh, in Ireland. When William had just turned 13 he arrived with his family in America.
William Snr was a fiery evangelist who trained his sons to be men of God. He founded the famous “Log College“, the first Presbyterian theological institution in America. (It was later to develop into Princeton University).
Here William Jnr and his three brothers were trained for the ministry, despite official opposition. Oldest brother, Gilbert, led his younger siblings to faith and they each became famous for their preaching. Brother John endured a near-death experience that crystallized his conversion and gave great zeal to his evangelistic efforts at Freehold, New Jersey. Under John’s passionate preaching, people would fall to their knees pleading for God’s mercy or sob uncontrollably. Some were carried from John’s meetings in a dead faint.
At the time of John’s conversion William Jnr was also very ill. William had been so intent on passing the requisite examinations by the Presbytery that his health suffered. He became like a living skeleton. One morning, while talking with his brother Gilbert, William died. He was checked for signs of life and finally laid out for burial.
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When the young doctor friend who had been attending William arrived to find him dead the young doctor was sure that there were the faintest signs of life, but no-one else could detect them. Thus it was that an argument ensued between Gilbert and the doctor that delayed the burial for three days. Just when the doctor had stalled as long as he could and William was about to be interred the “dead” man opened his eyes and groaned before falling back into a dead sleep again. His body was cold and hard, his lips discoloured and eyes sunken. But plans to bury him were put aside.
In due course William recovered, but it was a long process. He had no memory of anything prior to his “death” and could no longer read or write, or speak Latin, which he had used fluently before. Gradually his memories returned and he regained his full recollection and prior learning.
However, he also admitted to a glorious ‘after-death‘ experience. “I was accordingly wafted along, I know not how, till I beheld at a distance an ineffable glory, the impression of which on my mind it is impossible to communicate to mortal man. I immediately reflected on my happy change, and thought, Well, blessed be God! … I saw an innumerable host of happy beings surrounding the inexpressible glory, in acts of adoration and joyous worship; but I did not see any bodily shape or representation in the glorious appearance. I heard things unutterable. I heard their songs and hallelujahs of thanksgiving and praise, with unspeakable rapture. I felt joy unutterable and full of glory.”
William was told he had to return to life, which greatly disappointed him. He woke to hear Gilbert and the doctor arguing and fainted with sorrow at missing the glories of heaven. Heaven’s sounds stayed with him every waking moment for more than three years.
When he took up preaching for John’s Freehold revival, then leading it after John’s death in 1732, he had great effect as a preacher. His near-death experience fired the imagination of his audiences and gave great authority to his words.
Visions and wonderful encounters with God and His Word occurred several times in William’s life. He had a vision of Christ while praying the woods and was carried back to the night meeting by the church elders, where he preached powerfully. Another time he had revelation of the scriptures and saw God’s divinity as he had never seen it before. Thirty souls were converted when next he preached.
One of the strangest experiences is when he awoke in the middle of the night “to discover that several toes of his foot had been cut off as if by some sharp instrument…” The missing digits were nowhere to be found. William Jnr was convinced that the devil himself was responsible. Others have suggested rats … or even an accident during sleepwalking.
William and Gilbert had profound impact on the Presbyterian churches in their Philadelphia Synod, promoting pursuit of sound conversion, strong faith and effective ministry. In the revival meetings which they were devoted to they avoided anything that was not soundly in line with Biblical doctrine, while allowing for visions, trances and revelations as long as they affirmed the truth, and did not draw one away from it.
And as we common in Presbyterian revivals, as seen in the Cambuslang Revival in Scotland, people would gather for Sacramental gatherings which ran for several days and which sought to affirm a person’s conviction of salvation, which was then celebrated by the taking of the Communion. In 1744 William used Sacramental gatherings in Hopewell and Maidenhead, in order to create a new church. Another biographical note regarding William is that he was a friend of the poor.
Rev William Tennent Jnr died in New Jersey at the age of 72.
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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com