Whatever happened to William Tennent, Jr.?

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Few figures in Reformed and Presbyterian history have had a greater cloud of mystery shrouding them than William Tennent, Jr. His first biographer, Elias Boudinot IV, wrote of him: We have never known a man in modern times concerning whom so many extraordinary things are related.” Frank R. Symmes adds: “His biography is of surpassing interest, a fascinating story of the unusual and extraordinary in spiritual life.” The son of the founder of the original Log College of Neshaminy, Pennsylvania, which was the seed that grew into the College of New Jersey (Princeton), he was trained for the ministry and then sent to New Brunswick, New Jersey for further training and theological exams under his brother Gilbert, who was already serving as a minister of the gospel.

While there, the toll of his intense studies affected his physical and emotional health greatly, so much so that his body wasted away and doubts of his salvation assailed him. In that condition, and he fainted. To all appearances he was in fact dead, and Gilbert with great sadness began the process of arranging for his funeral. A doctor arrived and thought he detected a slight tremor in one arm, but even a day later, no further sign of life was detected. Yet the doctor continued with efforts to revive him, delaying the scheduled funeral, until while Gilbert and the assembly who had gathered had grown impatient thinking the doctor’s efforts were useless, suddenly, William with a groan opened his eyes, and then relapsed into unconsciousness. This happened again and again until after a time he revived fully, though was bedridden for a year following. He experienced almost complete amnesia, which was discovered when his sister Eleanor found that he did not know what the Bible was. He had to be re-taught everything, although after more time, as he regained strength, the memory of his past life eventually returned to him.

Something else was learned of his experience. As he related it to both Elias Boudinot and separately to Dr. John Woodhull, while he was unconscious, he experienced a trance.

This was the substance of his recital: suddenly he found himself in another state of existence, with an innumerable throng of heavenly beings surrounding him, singing hallelujahs with unspeakable rapture. He was unable to define any shapes to these celestial beings, aware only of their adoration and the aura of glory enfolding them. His entire being was so pervaded with their rapture that he longed to join them, comforted by the thought that he had been redeemed and permitted to enter heaven. But at this point the guide who had led him thither told him that he must return to earth. The thought pierced his soul like a sword and at that instant he awoke to hear the doctor and Gilbert arguing above him. The three days had seemed but a few moments in length, but for three years afterward the echoes of that celestial music rang ceaselessly in his ears (Mary A. Tennent, Light in Darkness: The Life of William Tennent, Sr. and The Log College, pp. 104-105).

So William thus narrowly escaped being buried alive, and eventually was ordained to the ministry, and lived a full life until sickness and death overtook him in 1777. The story of his trance was widely discussed, with some understanding it in natural and others in supernatural terms.

Boudinot wrote: “The pious and candid reader is left to his own reflection on the very extraordinary occurrence. The facts have been stated and they are unquestionable. The writer will only ask whether it is contrary to the revealed truth or to reason to believe that in every age of the world, instances like that here recorded have occurred to furnish living testimony to the reality of the invisible world, and the infinite importance of eternal concerns” (Life of the Rev. William Tennent, p. 24).

Archibald Alexander did not view the trance as anything more than what could be “accounted for on natural principles.” Although there was other event in William’s life that led Alexander to conclude that God does still interpose in human affairs by means of dreams - a man and his wife who came from Maryland to Trenton, New Jersey after having both experienced the same dream whereby they were called to come to the aid of a Mr. Tennent who was in great distress. In fact, at the time they found him in Trenton he was facing a false charge of perjury for having served as a witness for the defense of a fellow minister accused of robbery under a case of mistaken identity. The arrival of the man and his wife from Maryland, who had previous contact with him, was helpful in establishing an alibi for William during his trial, and led to a verdict on “not guilty” on William’s behalf. It was a remarkable end to a troublesome situation (Biographical Sketches of the Founder, and Principal Alumni of the Log College, pp. 192-200, 222-231).

Back to William’s trace, Mary Tennent, writing in 1971, says: “Of course the simple explanation is that after a long and devastating illness, in a state of exhaustion and weakness, he sank into a coma from which he was at length aroused by the continuous efforts of his friend, the doctor. The vivid dream occurring during the few moments of returning consciousness was the natural result of his last conscious anxiety concerning his soul, while the tremendous surge of happiness at seeing and hearing the angelic choir was but a subconscious wish fulfillment” (Light in the Darkness: The Story of William Tennent, Sr. and The Log College, p. 105).

Many other fascinating anecdotes are recorded about William by Boudinot and Alexander. One that is mentioned by the latter, but not the former. One night he awoke from his sleep with intense pain in one foot. It seems that several of his toes had been cleanly amputated, although the toes were not to be found, nor was there any bloody trail or blade was found. There was simply no explanation for the event, which left him minus several toes. Whether he was a sleepwalker who had an accident or whether something else natural or supernatural occurred, we have no way of knowing.

This is just one of many extraordinary events in the life of an extraordinary man. The biographies consulted above are worth perusing to learn more about this remarkable figure and his place in church history.

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A Visit to the South Carolina Lowcountry

Charleston, South Carolina is a city famous, among other things, for its historic churches. A walking tour of the city, especially along Meeting Street, offers the opportunity to travel through time as it were and explore places of worship and graveyards that continue to testify to the faith of our forefathers.

This writer had such an opportunity recently and was privileged to visit such churches in Charleston and the surrounding vicinity. A trip to Elmwood Cemetery, Columbia, SC, was part of the experience as well, where John Lafayette Girardeau, James Henley Thornwell and George Andrew Blackburn were laid to rest between 100 and 150 years ago.

Having consulted several resources beforehand — Erskine Clarke, Our Southern Zion: A History of Calvinism in the South Carolina Low Country, 1690-1990; Charles E. Raynal, Johns Island Presbyterian Church: Its People and Its Community From Colonial Beginnings to the Twenty-First Century; George Howe, History of the Presbyterian Church in South Carolina; and Joanne Calhoun, The Circular Church: Three Centuries of Charleston History — I made my way first to the Johns Island Presbyterian Church (founded in 1710, its building dates to 1719 — three hundred years ago now). As with many of the churches I toured, the graveyard is an ever-present Memento mori. Next on the tour was the James Island Presbyterian Church (founded in 1706). Both of these churches were established by Archibald Stobo, a Presbyterian pioneer who also founded the first presbytery in the Western Hemisphere, as well as in the southern United States. He established other churches in the area which I do hope to visit on a future tour.

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In Charleston proper, my walking tour began with a visit to the Unitarian Church, which began its existence in 1774 as the Archdale Street Meeting House, founded by Dissenters who branched off from what we know now as the Circular Congregational Church, originally a mixed Independent and Presbyterian Church, itself founded in 1685. William Tennent III (grandson of the founder of the original Log College) is buried on the grounds of the Unitarian Church, though he was no Unitarian. The fan vault ceiling is modeled after the one at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge.

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Next, was the First Scots Presbyterian Church on Meeting Street (founded in 1731). It was another breakaway from the Circular Congregational Church, by a decidedly Presbyterian group. George Buist is buried in the church graveyard.

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Further along Meeting Street is the Circular Congregational Church, a remarkable architectural and spiritual landmark, where I paid my respects at the graves of David Ramsay and Benjamin Morgan Palmer (1781-1847).

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After this, I visited the Second Presbyterian Church of Charleston (founded in 1811), where I was given a tour of the sanctuary and the graveyard (Thomas Smyth and John Bailey Adger are laid to rest there).

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Also on my tour I worshiped at the Independent Presbyterian Church of Savannah, Georgia (founded in 1755). At each stop along the way, I was reminded that the past is not dead, and American Presbyterians are not irrelevant. The old Presbyterian history of the South Carolina lowcountry is very much alive for those with eyes to see.