Peace And Purity Provided By Authority: John Thomson’s Defense Of Presbyterian Church Polity (Part 5): Problems With Itinerants And Education

In addition to the previous decade of controversy surrounding the Adopting Act, during the Synod of 1738, Thomson submitted a proposal to Synod, which was approved with a great majority, that students who had a private education, meaning not having studied at a college “approved by public authority,” must be subject to an examination by a committee of Synod to determine if they were sufficiently knowledgeable in “several branches of philosophy and divinity and the languages.”115 These examinations were to be in lieu of a college degree and individuals were required to undergo these examinations prior to pursuing licensure or ordination.116 The impetuses stated for this proposal in the minutes were the lack of educational institutions in the colonies and the difficulty that faced those who desired to enter the ministry, but were unable to afford an education at a school in the colonies or abroad. Prior to this, Lewes Presbytery had overturned the Synod to “require either a European or a New England diploma for all candidates for the ministry.”117 Wallace points out that Thomson did not do this to object to the Log College, but only to hold it accountable, for it did not reject the education of the Log College itself. 118

This overture was in response to the construction and influence of the Log College established in Pennsylvania in 1727 by William Tennent Sr. It was named “Log College” because it was “a school named for the simple log building in which students met and received training for pastoral work.”119 Unfortunately, at this time in the colonies, there were few options for ministers to receive training. They could either travel abroad to the Scottish universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh or they could stay in the colonies and attend Harvard or Yale. One of the items that Thomson was most passionate about in his efforts in Synod was the education of the ministry. In 1739, Thomson presented an overture to Synod to erect a school for which he was on the board of trustees. His desire was to see a school erected by the Synod, available to all.120 The nature of what was necessary for a pastor’s education became problematic, “The founding of the Log College raised directly the question of what constituted European or American schools, or that of a college without a solid reputation in either the liberal arts or divinity.”121 Also, the Log College was “a private rather than a church undertaking, being under the control of neither the Presbytery nor the Synod.”122 With formation of the New Brunswick Presbytery, the Log College would be a place of education for its ministers where they could safely educate their own ministers to their own liking. This problem of education would eventually raise questions of how a minister should be educated, who had the authority to determine this, and who could require examinations of their learning.

During that same Synod, an overture was made that some regulation was needed to “prevent irregularities” by ministers preaching in vacant congregations without the approval of their respective presbyteries.123 Synod determined that no minister should preach in a congregation if they were asked not to because it would likely “procure divisions and disorders in such congregations.”124 These irregularities were the symptoms of a slowly growing movement within the Presbytery of New Brunswick where Gilbert Tennent had joined his brother William. Various ministers, such as John Cross, Samuel Blair and Eleazer Wales came to study under the ministry of Gilbert Tennent at the Log College and were considered the ones who “spearheaded the revival movement.”125 This period is largely known in secondary literature as the period of the “Great Awakening” because the spiritual situation prior to the awakenings was largely agreed upon as one of decline, “The nature and necessity of the new-birth were little known or thought of; the necessity of a conviction of sin and misery, by the Holy Spirit opening and applying the law to the conscience, in order to have a saving closure with Christ, was hardly known at all to most.”126 Itinerant preaching functioned as a means of revival.

Scholarship is varied on the exact influences that compelled the Tennent family to revivalism. Hart describes the Tennent family as “a strain of Presbyterian devotion, infused from Northern Ireland, that was more informal and subjective, owing to the particular difficulties presented to Northern Irish Presbyterianism at the hands of the Anglican establishment.”127 Another explanation was that Gilbert Tennent had received his education from Yale where he received an “introspective piety that he learned from the Puritans.”128 In New England, a similar movement was underway with the ministry of George Whitefield, an Anglican Itinerant minister, and Jonathan Edwards. Under the ministry of Jonathan Edwards and other Congregationalists ministers, an emphasis on sermons directed towards the awakening of souls was underway.129 Edwards noted hearing about “remarkable works of God’s Spirit in New Jersey” by the hands of Theodore Frelinghuysen and Gilbert Tennent.130 From 1739 to 1741, George Whitefield traveled to America from Great Britian and preached in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. George Marsden described Whitefield as “a new modern type, the young rebel against authority. An Anglican, he had made his name by defying Anglican parish authority. Opposing the pretensions of the hierarchy and dismissing the weight of social tradition, he had gone to the people for his authority.”131

In addition, he was also influenced by “the Dutch pietism of the nearby Reformed minister, Theodore Frelinghuysen, who sought greater zeal from his flock and new conversions by preaching ‘the terrors of the law.’”132 Wallace argues that difference between the revivals taking place in New England among the Congregationalists and the revivals taking place among the Presbyterians was influence of Theodore Frelinghuysen on Tennnent.133 He echoes Coalter that Frelinghuysen’s “abrasive belligerence” influenced Tennent “particularly in his homiletic techniques of the ‘terrors of the Lord,’ and a systematic searching of men’s hearts to undercut their slumbers.”134 Tennent also emphasized “would-be believers to undergo an immediate and powerful experience of grace.”135 The Log College was where Tennent was able to instill this method into those training under his ministry. These influences and Tennent’s concern can be seen by looking back to his overture in 1734 for a call to closer examination of the spiritual state of candidates for ministry. This raised questions about the necessary components of what made a candidate for the ministry suitable, namely the “ability to recount an experience of divine grace.”136

Hodge described the characteristics of the revivals as “a deep conviction of sin, arising from clear apprehensions of the extent and spirituality of the divine law. This conviction consisted in an humbling sense both of guilt and corruption.”137 The method of itinerant preaching and the more sporadic experiential aspects of revivalism were not always desirable and raised concerns by those outside of the Presbytery of New Brunswick. Dickinson in a letter on Sept. 4, 1740 wrote about the “irregular heats” that took place in revival meetings. He said that if there were any, that they were promptly taken care of, “Only two or three occurrences of that nature took place, and they were easily and speedily regulated.”138

Contrary to what has been often asserted about the Old Side, that they were “anti-revivalists,” Thomson was in favor of the revivals, “In fact he agreed that the revival had had good effects when it stirred up a great many people ‘to more serious thoughts about their soul’s concerns than ever before.’ This he said was ‘a thing truly to be rejoiced in, and many, it is said, are much reformed in several particulars of moral practice, which also is just matter for satisfaction.”139 What he disagreed with was its excess and especially the various occurrences that were markedly not Presbyterian.

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115. Guy S. Klett, ed., Minutes of the Presbyterian Church in America: 1706-1788, 157.
116. . Ibid.
117. . Peter Wallace, “Old Light on the New Side: John Thomson and Gilbert Tennent on the Great Awakening,” Peter Wallace, [accessed June 6, 2010].
118. . Ibid.
119. . D. G. Hart, Seeking a Better Country, 38.
120. . John Goodwin Herndon, John Thomson, 29.
121. . D. G. Hart, Seeking a Better Country, 38.
122. . John Goodwin Herndon, John Thomson, 37.
123. . Guy S. Klett, ed., Minutes of the Presbyterian Church in America: 1706-1788, 153.
124. . Ibid.
125. . Peter Wallace, “Old Light on the New Side: John Thomson and Gilbert Tennent on the Great Awakening,” Peter Wallace, [accessed June 6, 2010].
126. . Charles Hodge, The Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church (Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1839), 2:16.
127. . D. G. Hart, Seeking a Better Country, 39.
128. . Peter Wallace, “Old Light on the New Side: John Thomson and Gilbert Tennent on the Great Awakening,” Peter Wallace, [accessed June 6, 2010].
129. . See George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003) for a thorough biography of Jonathan Edwards’ life and the revivals of New Haven.
130. . George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 162-163.
131. . George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 210.
132. . D. G. Hart, “Old Side/New Side Schism and Reunion,” in S. Donald Fortson III, ed., Colonial Presbyterianism: Old Faith in a New Land (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2007), 163.
133. . Wallace gives a good outline of the various views of what influenced Tennent’s revivalism, of which there are many. Peter Wallace, “Old Light on the New Side: John Thomson and Gilbert Tennent on the Great Awakening,” Peter Wallace, [accessed June 6, 2010].
134. . Peter Wallace, “Old Light on the New Side: John Thomson and Gilbert Tennent on the Great Awakening,” Peter Wallace, [accessed June 6, 2010].
135. . D. G. Hart, The Lost Soul of American Protestantism (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), 35.
136. . Ibid.
137. . Charles Hodge, The Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church, 2:27.
138. . Ibid., 2:32.
139. . Thomson quoted in John Goodwin Herndon, John Thomson: Presbyterian Constitutionalist Minister of the Word of God Educational Leader and Church Builder (Lancaster: The Lancaster Press, 1943), 36.