March 8: The Remarkable Trance of William Tennent

The Remarkable Trance of William Tennent
by Rev. David T. Myers

The third son of the Rev. William Tennent, best known for starting the Log College, was William Tennent, Jr. Born in Ireland in 1705, he, along with the other members of his parent’s family, came to America where the father began a Presbyterian church. Each one of the sons, Gilbert, Charles, William, and John followed their father’s footsteps into the fledgling American Presbyterian church, studying at the famous Log College. As William Tennent Jr began his theological studies under the tutelage of his father and brother Gilbert, the following experience took place. This story is found in a pamphlet located in our PCA History Center, entitled “The Remarkable Trance of Rev. William Tennent” :

“(William) was conversing, one morning, with his brother, in Latin, on the state of his soul, when he fainted and died away. After the usual time he was laid out: and the neighbors were invited to attend the funeral on the next day. In the evening his physician and friend returned from a ride into the country, and was much afflicted at the news of his death. He could not be persuaded that it was certain; and, on being told that one of the persons who had assisted in laying out the body thought he had observed a slight tremor of the flesh under the arm, although the body was cold and stiff, he endeavored to ascertain the fact. He first put his own hand into warm water, to make it as sensitive as possible, and then felt under the arm, near the heart, and affirmed that he felt an unusual warmth, though no one else could. He had the body removed to a warm bed, and insisted that the people who had been invited to the funeral, should be requested not to attend. To this his brother objected as absurd, the eyes being sunk, the lips discolored, and the whole body cold and stiff. However, the doctor finally prevailed, and no hopes were entertained of success except by the doctor, who never left him night nor day.”

The story goes on to state that this went on for three days, when plans again were made to bury his body. The brother, probably Gilbert, felt that it was useless to treat a lifeless corpse, when the following happened.

“At this critical and important moment, the body, to the great astonishment of all present, opened his eyes, gave a dreadful groan, and sank again into apparent death.”

This revival of life and then death experience went on twice more, with the last time “life seem to return with more power, and a complete revival took place, to the great joy of the family and friends, and to the no small astonishment and conviction” of those who had gathered for his funeral.

What was remarkable about the following twelve months of Williams’s life was, while he took about a year to regain his strength, he was totally ignorant of every transaction of his life previous to his sickness. William had to be taught how to read and write, as a child was taught in those days. His knowledge of theology was completely gone, until one day in small degrees, his memory was revived, with a perfect knowledge of the past transactions of his life.

In time, he was asked by his brother and another minister of what he remembered about this experience. He said:

“I found myself in an instant in another state of existence, under the direction of a superior Being, who ordered me to follow him. I was accordingly wafted along, I know not how, till I beheld at a distance an ineffable glory, the impression of which on my mind is impossible to communicate to mortal man. I immediately reflected upon my happy change, and thought ‘well, blessed be God, I am safe at last, notwithstanding all my fears.’ I saw an innumerable host of happy beings surrounding the inexpressible glory, in acts of adoration and joyous worship; but I did not see any bodily shape or representation in the glorious appearance. I heard things unutterable; I heard their songs and hallelujahs of thanksgiving and praise, with unspeakable rapture. I felt joy unutterable and full of glory. I requested permission to join the happy throng, when my conductor tapped me on the shoulder, and said, ‘You must return to the earth.’ This seemed like a sword through my heart. In an instant I recollected seeing my brother standing before me disputing with the doctor.”

Words to Live By:
As you have read this astonishing experience, remember the words of inspired Scripture recounting an earlier and most astonishing experience, as told in 2 Corinthians 12:2 – 4, “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago – whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows – such a man was caught up to the third heaven. And I know how such a man – whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows – was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak.”

Words fail this author, and no doubt many of our readers, to correctly interpret what was thus written. The story we have recounted today was reported by the unknown author of this pamphlet as well as by Archibald Alexander in his book on the history of the Log College.

William Tennent Jr himself, went on after this experience to be ordained as a Presbyterian pastor, and became the pastor of the first Presbyterian Church in Freehold New Jersey, serving that congregation for 43 years before his death on this day, March 8, 1777. He was buried under the floor of the church, now called Old Tennent Presbyterian Church.

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