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The History of the "Old Scots" Church of Freehold
Rev. John Tennent, 1730-1732


From the scenes of discord and contention in the later years of the unfruitful ministry of Morgan, it is \vith a sense of glad relief that we turn to the character and labor of the succeeding pastor, the Rev. John Tennent, who in the short period of his service with the church effected a spiritual work which was not only one of deep and lasting benefit to the congregation of Freehold, but was the harbinger and first fruits of the wonderful era of “The Great Awakening.”

Rev. John Tennent was the third son of Rev. William Tennent, the founder of the “Log College,” and the younger brother of Rev. Gilbert Tennent and Rev. William Tennent, jr.; the latter succeeding him in the ministry at Freehold. He was born in county Armagh, Ireland, November 12th, 1707, the year after his father had been ordained to the priesthood of the Established Church by the Bishop of Down. In his eleventh year he came with his father and brothers to America, his oldest brother, Gilbert, being converted while on shipboard. The same year, dissenting from the orders, discipline, and false doctrines connived at in the Irish established church, Rev. Mr. Tennent, sr., was received into membership by the “Reverend Synod, held at Philadelphia, the 17th day of September, 1718.” Mr. Tennent preached at Eastchester, Bedford, and other places in Westchester county, N.Y., following Morgan’s labors on the same fields twenty years before, until, in 1726, he removed to the historic spot at Neshaminy, Penn., that will ever be connected with his name and fame. In the rude “Log College,” the school of the prophets of the Revival days, he trained his four sons for the gospel ministry, and provided many other candidates for the sacred calling with such practical and spiritual equipment for service, that the impress of his personality, and the work of his pupils were dominant factors in the Presbyterianism of the succeeding generation.

Apart from his share in the changes in his father’s life, little is known of the early days of John Tennent. An account of his conversion, which occurred in his youth, was published after his death by his brother Gilbert. His convictions were exceedingly deep and pungent, being terrible for the space of four days and nights, after which, being enabled to embrace Christ, his joys and consolations were as remarkable, as had been his anguish and sorrow on account of his sin.

After his education at the "Log College,” he was licensed to preach by the Presbytery of New Castle, September, 18th, 1729, subscribing to the following declaration:

“I do own the Westminster Confession of Faith, before God and these witnesses, together with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, with the Directory thereto annexed, to be the confession of my faith, and rule of faith and manners, according to the word of God.”

On the following day, the Synod of Philadelphia passed the important “Adopting Act,” approving the Westminster standards “as being in all the essential and necessary articles, good forms of sound words and systems of Christian doctrine.” Mr. John Tennent began his work as a preacher as a supply at Brandywine, Middletown, New Castle, and Middle and Tower Octorara.

The Freehold church, at the time of the retirement of Rev. Joseph Morgan, was in a deplorable condition. In a letter to Rev. Thomas Prince, of Boston, dated Oct. 11th, 1744, William Tennent, jr., drew the following picture of the state of the church: The major part of the congregation could not be said to have so much as a name to live. Family prayer was unpractised by all, a very few excepted. Ignorance so overshadowed their minds, that the doctrine of the new birth, when clearly explained and powerfully pressed upon them, as absolute^ necessary to salvation by that faithful preacher of God’s word, Mr. Theodorus Jacobus Frelinghuysen, a low Dutch minister, and some other Bnglish ministers, who were occasionally here] was made a common game of, so that not only the preachers but professors of that truth were called, in derision, “New born,” and looked upon as holders forth of some new and false doctrine; and indeed their practice was as bad as their principles, viz.: "loose and profane.” This statement, with its careful exclusion of reference to Mr. Morgan and his preaching, gives a painful view of the result of his ministry. Coldness and unfruitfulness were however by no means qualities peculiar to the Freehold church in that period. It was a generation of skepticism, of formalism and of ecclesiastical controversies. Morgan’s preaching and ministry was but the reflection of the condition of the church throughout the colonies and in Great Britain. Tennent further said to Mr. Prince, “In this miserable, hopeless, and helpless condition they lay, and few among them had either eyes to see or hearts to bewail their woful and wretched circumstances.” A statement probably sufficiently strong to cover the facts. He adds, significantly that the people “were so divided among themselves, that it appeared improbable they would ever agree in the settlement of another Pastor.” The dry, bookish, controversial essays of Morgan, on Predestination, or Baptism, with possibly veiled allusions to Astrology or water engines, surely were not calculated to renew the hearts of his hearers, and would also tend to cause the division in the congregation which was intimated in the answer of Synod to the charges preferred against Mr. Morgan in 1728. Other indications of a division among the people may be noted in the application for the granting of a permit, under George I, in 1727, for the erection of a new church upon “White Hill,” which resulted in the present “Tennent” church building. The fact that the deed for the possession of the “Old Scots” ground was obtained in this same year, 1727, would seem to show the existence of two parties, one favoring the retention of the church at the former site, the other, the firmer Scotch party, headed by Ker, Craig and Rhea, proposing to remove to the western position, about which many of the sturdiest Scotch settlers had already clustered in their plantations.

At this critical time in the church’s history, distressed at the contentions and seeking a pastor who might heal them, Walter Ker left his farm in the midst of harvest, and journeyed to Neshaminy, to endeavor to persuade Air. John Tennent to return with him immediately and take charge of the congregation. At first Mr. Tennent positively refused even to visit Freehold. Mr. Ker, leaving him with sadness, told him with much solemnity, that he felt sure Mr. Tennent would soon come to a very different conclusion. Scarcely had Mr. Ker left when Mr. Tennent sent after him, saying he would come. It is said that the congregation, interested in Mr. Ker’s mission, gathered in his crops for him, and the following year, amid wide-spread blasting and loss, Ker was able to provide seed for many who were destitute.

Even after Mr. Tennent had made this promise he expressed to his brother William’s great regret that he had consented even to visit a people who seemed to be given up of God for their abuse of privileges. On his first visit to Freehold, probably in the close of the year 1729, he remained only four or five Sabbaths, but his preaching was so blessed in awakening and arousing the people, that on his return home, he told his brother that he was persuaded Christ had a large harvest of souls to be gathered in Freehold, and that though they were a poor, broken, divided people, yet if they called him, he would go though he should be obliged to beg his bread.

The earliest records of the Tennent church now extant are minutes of congregational actions in the year 1730. After agreeing as to site of the new meeting house, it is voted “ also that the Revd. Mr. John Tennent year Begin the 15th day of April last past, viz., 1730.”

Seven months later Mr. Tennent was ordained as may- be seen from the following extract from the records of the Tennent church.

“A true copy by me, John Henderson, Clerk, Tuesday, November 19th, 1730. There the Presbytry, or a committee of the same, met at the Scots Meeting house, aucLafter fasting and prayer, and strict examination and full approbation, Did ordain the Rev. Mr. John Tennent. The Ministerial charge in this congregation, William Tennent, Jonethan Dickinson, Joseph Morgan and Gilbert Tennent. The names of the committee for the congregation was Walter Kerr, Robert Cumming, John Henderson, Robert Newell, Wilson, George Walker, Timothy Lloyde and Charles Gordon.”

The ministry of John Tennent was attended from the first with extraordinary tokens of divine power. “The place of worship,” wrote his brother William to Mr. Prince, “was usually crowded with people of all ranks and orders, as well as professions, and they seemed to hear generally as for their lives. A solemn awe of God’s majesty possessed many so that they behaved themselves as at his bar, while in his house. Many tears were usually shed when he preached, and sometimes the body of the congregation was moved and affected. I can say, and let the Lord alone have the glory of it, that I have seen both minister and people wet with their tears as with a bedewing rain. It was no uncommon thing to see persons, in the time of hearing, sobbing as if their hearts would break, but without and public outcry; and some have been carried out of the assembly, [being overcome] as if they had been dead.”

This brief and brilliant ministry of John Tennent at Freehold was as the morning star of the dawning spiritual light that was now to spread throughout the church of America and England. While he was preaching with such intensity of awakening power, Whitefield was a lad in his mother’s tavern at Gloucester and the “ Holy Club ” at Oxford was just being formed. Edwards did not until five years later see the effect of his tremendous proclamations upon the awe-struck audiences at Northampton, and not until seven years after John Tennent’s death did John Wesle3r follow White-field’s bold lead in the practice of the open-air preaching which was the actual beginning of the English revivals. kk The earliest manifestation of the presence of the Hoty Spirit, in our portion of the church, during this period, was at Freehold, N. J., under the ministry of the Rev. John Tennent.”

Under the ardor of his intense and emotional labors his strength was quickly exhausted, and within one year from the time of his ordination he was unable longer to proclaim the message of the gospel to which he devoted all the energy of his enthusiastic and consecrated life. Calling for his brother William’s assistance in the work among a congregation which was rapidty increasing and needing most constant oversight, John Tennent lingered through the winter of 1730-31, in a state of happiness and peace, which turned into glowing ecstacy before his death. "A few moments before he expired,” said his brother Gilbert, "he broke out in the following rapturous expressions: Farewell my brother—farewell father and mother—farewell world, with all thy vain delights—welcome God of father—welcome sweet Ford Jesus—welcome death, welcome eternity— Amen.’ In a low voice he added, "Lord Jesus, come Lord Jesus,’ and so he fell asleep in Christ.”

In the Tennent church record is this simple and affecting statement:

“Lord’s day, April 23, 1732. The Revd. & Dear Mr. John Tennent Departed this Life between 8 & 9 of the clock in The morning, and was Burried on The Tuesday following, a mournful Providence & cause of great Humility To This poor congregation, To be bereaved of the flour of youth, The most Laborious, successful, well qualifide Pastor This age aforeded, but a youth of 24 years, 5 months & 11 days of age.”

His remains lie in the “Old Scots” graveyard, about eight paces southwest of John Boyd’s stone. A sandstone tablet, some six feet by three, in a perfect state of preservation, lies flat above the grave, sinking already in the yielding turf. Upon it is an inscription prepared, it is said, by Jonathan Dickinson; and though there be little poetic merit in the epitaph, it shows the estimate placed on Mr. Tennent by one of the leading men of the age in which he lived. The inscription is as follows:

Here lyes what was mortal of
the Revrd, Mr. JOHN TKNNENT
Nat, Nou. 12. 1707 Obijt April 23 032
Who quick grew old in Learning Vertne Grace
Quick finish’d well yielded to Death Embrace
Whose mouldred Dust this Cabinet contains
Whose soul triumphant with bright Seraph relish
Waiting the time all Heaven brig Concave flame
And by last Trump repairs this rnnd Frame
Cur praematuram mortemque queram acerba
Mor matura venit cum boua Vita fnit.

The only productions we have from the pen of John Tennent are the two sermons published in London by his brother Gilbert “with an explanatory Address to Saints and Sinners.” The sermons are on “The Nature of Regeneration opened and its absolute Necessity in order to Salvation demonstrated,” and on “The Nature of Adoption with its consequent Privileges explained.” “From these sermons and from the testimony of both his brothers, Gilbert and William, and from the accounts which have come down to us, and especially from the extraordinary success which attended his brief ministry, we have every reason to conclude, that in piety, talents, and preaching ability, he was quite equal to either of his brothers, and probably, as a preacher, superior to either of them; and had he lived would probably have surpassed either of them in his usefulness to the Church of God. According to tradition his zeal was ardent, his style beautiful, with a remarkable fluency of expression, and luxuriance and aptness of illustration, while a peculiar tenderness, compassion, and pathos, breathed in all he said, even while denouncing the terrors of the law against the secure and impenitent. The people of his charge were greatly attached to him, and deeply mourned and lamented his death; and his memory is even yet fragrant in Freehold, among the descendants of those who sat under his ministry.”


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