Oct 6, 2008

Jesse Mercer

"Jesse Mercer (1769-1841) was one of the most important Baptists in the American south in the years before the Southern Baptist Convention was formed in 1845. He was the son of Silas Mercer, a leading Baptist pastor in his own right. Mercer, along with Richard Furman of South Carolina, was a leading advocate for Christian higher education. He was also a tireless promoter of missions, a prolific hymn writer and compiler, a pioneer in religious journalism, and a denomination’s statesman. He was also recognized as a leader in secular circles: In 1798, though still a young minister, Mercer was named a delegate to Georgia’s Constitutional Convention, where he was asked to write the section in the state’s constitution guaranteeing religious liberty to all citizens of the state.

Throughout his career, Mercer was a avid proponent of missions. His missions advocacy took on two forms. First, Mercer argued for the legitimacy for missions over against the hyper-Calvinists of his day. During Mercer’s lifetime, many Baptists in the south were embracing such doctrines as eternal justification and refusing to preach the gospel “promiscuously” to all people, regardless of the presumed status of someone’s election. Most of the hyper-Calvinists, convinced they represented the apostolic faith, called themselves primitive Baptists. Mercer, though himself a strict Calvinist, argued against the extremes of hyper-Calvinism and argued for personal evangelism, church planting, and foreign missions. He was also a proponent of revival, having witnessed first-hand the Georgia manifestation of the Second Great Awakening in the 1820’s. He read widely the revival works of both Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney, though he accepted the claims of neither without some criticism, particularly in the case of Finney. In a very real sense Mercer represented a healthy combination of the so-called “Charleston” and “Sandy Creek” traditions in pre-1845 southern Baptist history.

Mercer not only argued for the legitimacy of missions, but also for cooperation in missions. Primitives and other “anti-mission” Baptists argued against the legitimacy of mission boards, Sunday Schools, colleges, and other “innovations” they believed deviated from the New Testament pattern. The anti-mission Baptists were especially opposed to Luther Rice’s fundraising on behalf of the Triennial Convention. Mercer, like most other Baptists, argued for cooperation in missionary (and educational) endeavors. In fact, Mercer served four terms as a delegate to the Triennial Convention from 1817-1835. But besides his involvement in the Trienniel Convention, Mercer took the lead in establishing a means for Georgia Baptists to cooperate in missionary and educational enterprises. To that end, in 1822 Mercer helped found the Georgia Baptist Convention, which was the second Baptist state convention started in the south. Mercer served as the first president of the GBC, an office he held from 1822 until his death in 1841.

In 1833, Mercer became the editor of The Christian Index, now the official state paper of the Georgia Baptist Convention. The Index was first published in Washington, having been established there by Luther Rice in 1818 under than name The Latter-Day Luminary. Following several relocations and name changes, Mercer acquired the periodical and relocated it to Georgia, where it has remained ever since. The Christian Index, under its various names, is the oldest continuously-published religious periodical in America. Mercer used the pages of his paper to promote ministerial education and to contend for missions against the Primitive Baptists and other detractors.


"One of the most helpful features of Chute’s account is the way that he adeptly summarizes the dispute between Primitive Baptists and the Missionary Baptist party led by Jesse Mercer. Both Primitive and Missionary Baptists were Calvinists. Primitive Baptists opposed missionary efforts on the basis of their ecclesiology, arguing that cooperation between churches was unbiblical. Only individual churches should send out missionaries. So, for instance, John Leland, who is well known for his labors for religious liberty (see the recent volume edited by Thomas White, Jason G. Duesing, and Malcolm Yarnell, First Freedom) was “opposed to missions not because of a concern for Calvinistic theology being disregarded but out of [a] desire for simplicity and freedom in both government and religion” (134, Chute cites Tom Nettles, By His Grace and For His Glory, who has shown that Leland did not oppose missions because of his Calvinism). What’s more, Primitive Baptists thought that men such as Luther Rice, who handled the large sums of money gathered from cooperating churches, were corrupt and untrustworthy. Rice, who was friends with Mercer, did have financial troubles, and one committee concluded that he had acted “injudiciously” and wrote: “From various developments it appears that Mr. Rice is a very loose accountant and has imperfect talents for the disbursement of money” (165 n. 10).

Mercer was nothing less than tenacious in his support of missions. Anyone training for pastoral ministry should be required to read Chute’s fifth chapter, which details the way that Jesse Mercer led Baptists to cooperate together to reach the “heathen” with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Those who think that Calvinism is a threat to missions and evangelism should consider this chapter, for “Jesse Mercer steadfastly asserted his fidelity to the Calvinistic perspective of John Gill and still found scriptural warrant to justify his participation in the missionary movement” (158).

Mercer held firmly to his theological positions, and he sought earnestly to promote cooperation and agreement among his fellow Baptists. Seeking cooperation among Primitive and Missionary Baptists, Mercer opposed the decision of Primitive Baptists to require re-baptism of those who came to them from Missionary Baptist Churches (206). His goals were the glory of God, the good of the churches, and the propagation of the gospel." (
Jim Hamilton)


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