How do we know what the Log College looked like?

(If the author links in this post are broken, please visit our Free PDF Library and click on the author’s page directly.)

After the closing of the Log College in 1746, there was a gap in the historical memory of what the actual building used by William Tennent, Sr. to teach the next generation of American Presbyterian ministers looked like. Mary Tennent explains:

Until the close of the 19th century, it was thought that no likeness of the school existed. The sole reference to its appearance occurred in George Whitefield’s journal dated 1739 when he visited Neshaminy, that it was built of logs and was “twenty feet long and nearly as broad.” Around 1889, Dr. Thomas Murphy while engaged in writing a history of the “Log College Presbytery” (New Brunswick) learned otherwise through a rather unusual circumstance. (Light in the Darkness: The Story of William Tennent, Sr. and The Log College, p. 35)

We turn now to Murphy’s own account, published in The Presbytery of the Log College; or, The Cradle of the Presbyterian Church in America (1889), pp. 484-486, along with the first known visual representation of the original Log College.

In the journal of the Rev. George Whitefield record is found which states that the Log College was a structure built of logs, and that its dimensions were twenty by eighteen feet. Beyond this simple notice and the name it has ever borne, the appearance of the building has thus far been a mystery. No picture, or description even, has been supposed to be in existence. This makes the discovery of what is the frontispiece of this volume an event the value of which only the antiquary can appreciate. It is a discovery for which the author is indebted to Dr. W. S. Steen, a gentleman well known in San Francisco, Cal., member of the Calvary Presbyterian church of that city and for years superintendent of one of its Sabbath-schools, also an eminent mineralogist and assayer.

While engaged in geological and kindred pursuits at the Yuba mines, in California, he made the acquaintance of a man named Wilson, a pious and intelligent miner, in whom he became greatly interested. Both being natives of Pennsylvania and members of the Presbyterian Church, they would seek refuge on the Sabbath in the forest from the noise and profanity of the mine, and there study the Bible. On these days Wilson related his previous history. He was of pious ancestry in Eastern Pennsylvania. A grandfather had importuned him to study for the ministry of the Church of his forefathers, and among other inducements had presented him with a Bible in which there was a picture of "the first college established in this country for the training of young men for the Presbyterian ministry." It looked as if it had been an illustration from an old pamphlet or had been sketched by some bright youth of the institution. The building was small and rude, of logs, and located in Eastern Pennsylvania among the Presbyterians. On this picture, as a reminder of their faroff home, the two had gazed times without number. Dr. Steen came to have it so fixed in his imagination and memory that he could recall it with the utmost vividness. Failing by correspondence to find either Wilson or the Bible, at the author's solicitation he described the picture so exactly that the designer had no difficulty in reproducing it with the utmost accuracy. Of this the doctor has given the accompanying certificate, with the liberty of making it public:

"I do hereby certify that the accompanying engraving is an exact reproduction of ‘a picture of the first college building in this country for the education of young men for the ministry of the Presbyterian Church in Eastern Pennsylvania, and which was constructed of logs,' which I very frequently saw in the Bible of a pious miner of the Yuba mines of California, and which he had received as an heirloom from a grandfather whose ancestral home was in that region of the State.

"W. S. Steen,
"San Francisco, Cal."

In addition to this certificate, there are three corroborative circumstances which leave no question but that we have here an actual likeness of the original Log-College building: (1) The picture is so unique with its two tiers of windows, so unlike the traditional log house, that the building evidently had some special purpose; (2) The grounds around the building, as seen in the larger original picture, are precisely like the existing grounds around the site of the Log College; (3) In the original picture was the form of a man standing in front of the door, which in the position, dress and mode of wearing the hair bore an unmistakable likeness to the existing pictures of William Tennent. All these peculiarities Dr. Steen described before he had seen the likeness of Tennent or knew anything else about the Log College.

There can, therefore, be scarcely a doubt but that in this picture we have a correct representation of the original Log-College building, and so a treasure of the greatest value.

Log College.jpg

Thus, from the pen of Thomas Murphy we have the story of how this famous picture of the Log College was re-discovered in the late 19th century. It fires the imagination even today to think about how such a humble log cabin school left such a valuable spiritual legacy. We are thankful for the providence of God in the re-discovery of this illustration, but even more for the spiritual blessing to the church which it represents.