When I was undergoing my ministerial training a professor spoke favorably of a book written by Archibald Alexander, entitled “The Log College.” He noted that the book was out of print, the last printing being put out by Banner of Truth 1968. The book seemed to me, then, unattainable. Solid Ground Christian Books did come out with a paper back printing in 2008. I did a brief search on the title and to my surprise secured two hard back copies of the ’68 printing. What I would like to do now is introduce my readers to the book. We will do that by examining the author, the milieu in which the events of the book occurred, and then the book itself.
Who was Archibald Alexander? He was born in 1777 and died 1851. Alexander was a Christian who practiced his faith in the Presbyterian Church. He was a scholar of renown, having been the founding professor at Princeton Theological Seminary and teaching there for 37 years. He lived during the time when many of the participants of the Great Awakening were still alive. This link would prove helpful as he gained perspective and material from them for the writing of his book entitled, “The Log College.” We should also note that he was a descendant of that Puritan theology and living which characterized the beginnings of religious experience in America.
This brings us to our second question. What were the times in which the events of this book took place? Alexander writes about a group of men who ministered during and briefly after the Great Awakening. New England was experiencing deadness in her churches. Pastors read their theologically polished messages to their spiritually secure audiences. It seemed that everything was rote for those who professed Christ. Into this vacuum walked a few preachers who were full of spiritual zeal. They let their pent up passion loose on the unsuspecting carnal believers of the day. God used this very preaching to rock the New England world.
These were also tumultuous times within the church. The Presbyterians were divided on what to make of the revival. Was this mere nonsense or was it a genuine work of God? Two sides were appropriately labeled: Old Light and New Light. This division manifested itself in other denomination too. For instance, the Congregational churches were also split along these lines. We have then an intense revival happening with explosive results; an external dynamic. We also have intense divisions in North American Christendom: an internal dynamic.
Let us now move to considering the book. We will do this by first examining evidences of Alexander’s objectivity. This, I hope, will help you the reader trust him as a historian. It will also help us interpret the events on which he is writing. Secondly, we will consider the men themselves on which he gives biographical sketches. The phrase “Biographical Sketches of William Tennent & his students together with an account of the revivals under their ministries” is the long subtitle Alexander gives. This sentence captures the content of the book rather well.
Alexander notes on page 10 that his book is written to satisfy questions regarding the first Presbyterian institution of higher learning. How did it come to be? He carefully notes that such a history if not accompanied by “boasting” and “vainglory” would be a helpful exercise. Alexander’s balanced approach is evident in his treatment of the faults of Gilbert Tennent, of whom we will hear more later. Tennent was one of the preachers of the revival which swept the New England area. Alexander notes that his zeal and harshness led him to say disparaging things about good men. This spirit led to a division within the Synod. Our author does not refrain from censuring Tennent’s divisiveness saying “he made a grand mistake” (35). He also noted, “He [Tennent] could not read the hearts of his opponents.” In these matters Alexander demonstrates that while praising Tennent he cannot then overlook his grievous faults.
Alexander’s treatment of William Tennent Jr. also leaves us satisfied with his seeming objectivity. William Tennent Jr. was an intensely spiritual man who sometimes attributed circumstances to supernatural causes which might best be explained according to “ordinary principles” (133). Strangely enough, William Tennent woke up one morning to find a few toes missing. While Tennent attributed this to be a work of the “prince of darkness” (136), Alexander argues that Tennent may have been a “somnambulist” which we know as a sleepwalker. The discussion as to the cause of the missing toes may well leave the reader in a state of hilarity. Possible causes include: some domestic animal, a dog, a hungry and voracious rat, a mad cat, a sharp instrument, and of course sleep walking (136).
Let us move on now to consider the three men of whom Alexander writes. We begin with William Tennent Sr. He was born in Ireland, probably educated at Trinity College, belonged to the Episcopal Church, and married a minister’s daughter (14). The young couple moved to America in 1716. From this union came four sons. In America Tennent began pastoring in Bucks county PA.
Ministerial training was very important to the colonists living in America. However, it was also difficult to get a quality ministerial education in those days. With Harvard in Cambridge, MA and Yale in New Haven, CT distance was a problem. Tennent couldn’t send his sons away for training and since he himself was trained he taught them at home. Alexander writes, “he erected the building [log college] which has already been described; which though humble and even despicable in its external appearance, was an institution of unspeakable importance to the Presbyterian Church in this country” (17). It was in this building that William Tennent Sr. taught his sons and other young men about the glories of God. This building was also the beginning of Princeton College.
In this log college Tennent did more than just convey a biblical education. He was a man of fervent devotion to God. This aroma came off him and into his students. It also impressed a visiting evangelist named George Whitfield. Whitfield describes him as “one of the ancient patriarchs” (19). Tennent’s warm devotion and personal zeal for the Lord was unusual for his day. During this time ministers spoke to their people in an uninteresting manner. The style was formal and devoid of religious fervor. Some argued that it was even unnecessary for ministers to be converted. What William Tennent gave his students was something rare and precious; scholarship and fervor.
We consider now his oldest son, Gilbert Tennent. He was born in Ireland and came over with his parents when about fourteen years of age. It was during this time that he struggled with his salvation. His doubts were finally laid to rest as Christ confirmed his salvation. During this time and subsequent his father taught him at home. He was ordained in 1726 and served as a minister of Christ for the remainder of his days.
Gilbert Tennent was a man of conviction and passion. He spoke earnestly when he preached. His style was sincere and persuasive. His ministry in the pulpit was well received. His logic was clear and penetrating as was his soul’s desire for the Lord. He could also be judgmental and harsh. This would be one of his primary faults.
Tennent rightly surmised that the clergy and the people of his day were indifferent to spiritual things, carnal, and generally asleep. He preached hard and did so with great results. He preached the torments and agonies of hell. The people did awake from their slumber beneath the onslaught of this man’s white hot passion. However, it was his sermon “The Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry” that set off a firestorm. This was a direct challenge to the existing clergy in the Presbyterian denomination. This was just one sermon taken from a life bent against the norms of his day. Alexander remarks about Tennent, “He could not read the hearts of his opponents, and, therefore, had no authority to pronounce a sentence of condemnation on them” (35). He was instrumental in the fracturing of the Synod due to his spirit. He also played a critical role in bringing the Synod back together following a seventeen year split.
His primary contribution along with George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards was in preaching the Great Awakening. He toured as an evangelist and was instrumental in bringing the dead back to life. His sermons were greatly used by God because he hated compromise and earnestly desired God’s glory.
We consider now William Tennent Jr. The account of this man is strange indeed. We know little of his early days. Like his older brother Gilbert, he was born in Ireland. At age thirteen came to America with his parents (98). We do know that he was a diligent student and trained well for the ministry. While preparing for his examination as a minister he studied so hard that his health began to rapidly deteriorate. We read, “He was conversing one morning with his brother in Latin on the state of his soul when he fainted and died away” (99). His body was cold, lifeless, and emancipated. He was laid out on a board for others to see and his funeral was planned for the following day.
A young doctor friend argued that William was not dead, he just seemed to be. He engaged William’s older brother Gilbert in heated conversation on the matter. Gilbert Tennent insisted on a funeral and after some delay the doctor relaxed his case. On the day of the funeral the doctor argued for an hour delay, then another delay, and finally one more. When they were about to bury him he woke up! He had no memory and didn’t know who he was. So, they began to teach him how to read and write again. Gradually he learned his lessons. Then one day his head hurt and all his previous memory returned.
How do we account for this strange turn of events? William Tennent Jr. actually gave an account himself. According to his own testimony, he had an encounter with the Lord. Upon his fainting he entered into “another state of existence” (101). A superior being led him along where he “beheld at a distance an ineffable glory” and “I saw an innumerable host of happy beings surrounding the inexpressible glory, in acts of adoration and joyous worship”(101).
Alexander has no categories for this and attributes the experience to a dream or “natural principles” (132). We may well take issue with this misplaced categorization. Why could the Lord not take someone to inestimable heights? Whatever one may think about this, Tennent’s own testimony seems remarkably clear on his experience.
There are other stories in this remarkable book which we cannot here relay. What may we take away from this story? God used the faithfulness of one man to not only train his sons and other pupils but to lay the groundwork for a theological institution. We need not overlook the smallness of present duties. Faithfulness to the call and diligence in the implementation of that call are paramount to God.
We also note that William Tennent Sr. took ownership of the education of his sons. He taught them well, pouring evangelical piety and scholarship into them. We know nothing of him from his own writings since we have none. What we know of him is taken from the stamp he left on his posterity. His sons were ministers of the highest order and we must conclude that their father was a good dad.
Finally, let’s not despise a “small” work. Work is work and all our work is rendered to an almighty God to whom only the best is worthy. From a human vantage point, Tennent’s work seems small. He labored before the Lord, though, and rendered it back to him. God does regard the faithful labors of his own as pleasing in his sight when accompanied by a humble heart. Truly, obscurity is a manmade category and not one known to God. We cannot help but praise God who delights in elevating the small and overlooking the proud!