Baptist History Homepage

Early Georgia Baptist Minister
Annals of the American Baptist Pulpit, 1860

      The paternal great-grandfather of Jesse Mercer, emigrated from Scotland to Virginia, about the close of the seventeenth century. His son, the grandfather of Jesse, removed from Virginia to North Carolina, and thence to what is now Wilkes County, Ga. Silas, the father of Jesse, was born in North Carolina, February, 1745. He was educated in the Episcopal Church, and was taught to regard its Liturgy and forms with the utmost reverence; but, as he grew up, his mind underwent a gradual change, and finally reposed in the system of doctrine and discipline held by the Baptists. He was immersed in the year 1775; and, before he left the stream, ascended a log, and delivered an exhortation to the spectators. Shortly after this, he received a formal license to preach. When the Revolutionary War came on, he fled for safety to Halifax County in his native State; and, during a six years' residence there, he preached upon an average offener than once a day. At the close of the War, he returned to his former residence in Georgia, where he continued his pious and useful labours during the rest of his life. He died in the fifty-second year of his age. Besides several smaller pieces, he wrote a pamphlet of sixty-eight pages, entitled "Tyranny exposed, and True Liberty discovered."

      JESSE MERCER was born in Halifax County, N. C., December 16, 1769, being the eldest of eight children. He was a remarkably bright, amiable and conscientious boy; and, though he showed a good deal of quiet humour, and was very far from manifesting the spirit of a recluse, he had no relish for anything coarse, or boisterous, or irreverent. His early opportunities for education were very limited; and it is doubtful whether he had ever been sent to school, previous to the return of his father to Georgia from North Carolina. From early childhood, he was the subject of serious impressions; and, from the age of about fourteen or fifteen till he had reached his eighteenth year, there was no intermission of his anxiety in respect to his salvation. Of the change which at length passed upon him, he has left the following account: —

"While on the verge of despair, I was walking alone along a narrow path in the woods, poring over my helpless case, and saying to myself — Wo is me! Wo, wo is me! for I am undone forever! I would I were a boast of the field ! At length, I found
* Memoirs by Dr. Mallary.
[p. 284]
myself standing, with my eyes steadfastly fixed on a small oak that grew by the pathside, and earnestly wishing that I could be like the little oak when it died and crumbled to dust. At that moment, light broke into my soul, and I believed in Christ for myself, and not another, and went on my way rejoicing."
      He made a relation of his experience to the Phillips' Mill Church, on the 7th of July, 1787, arid was immediately after baptized by his father, being then in his eighteenth year.

      Shortly after he connected himself with the church, he began to feel an earnest desire to address his fellow-men in respect to their immortal interests; and his first efforts in this way, which were of an hortatory kind, were characterized by so much judgment and feeling as to give promise, in the view of those who witnessed them, of extensive usefulness in the Church. He soon began to preach, and, though the exact time when he received a formal license cannot now be ascertained, yet it is known that he preached to great acceptance, and had the entire approbation of his brethren generally.

      On the 31st of January, 1788, being then in his nineteenth year, he was married to Sabrina, daughter of Joel Olivers, and, at the time of their marriage, step-daughter of Oftnial Weaver, of Wilkes County. Though she was poor in this world's goods, she was distinguished for prudence, industry, and piety, and was every way fitted to be a helper to him in his work. Such a helper she proved to be during a period of nearly forty years.

      On the 7th of November, 1789, he was solemnly set apart by ordination to the work of the ministry, his father being one of the officiating ministers; and, notwithstanding his extreme youth, he received a call about the same time to take the pastoral charge of the church called Hutton's Fork, (now Sardis,) in Wilkes County. He accepted the call, and continued there in the faithful discharge of his duties, more than twenty years. He was now very diligent in the cultivation of his mind, and availed himself of an opportunity to study the learned languages, under the instruction of the Rev. Mr. Springer, a Presbyterian clergyman, with whom he formed an intimate and enduring friendship. He subsequently prosecuted his studies still further at an Academy that was established in his father's neighbourhood, whither he returned after an absence of two years, in order to avail himself of its advantages. His academic course, after all, was rather limited, though it laid a foundation for more extended improvements in after life.

      In 1793, the field of Mr. Mercer's labours was enlarged by his acceptance of the Pastorship of the Church at Indian Creek, (or Bethany.) in Oglethorpe County, to the vicinity of which he removed in the ensuing winter. But, in 1796, his father having died in August of that year, he returned to the place where his father had resided, for the purpose of administering on the estate, and otherwise assisting the bereaved family. At the same time, he became the Preceptor of the Salem Academy. He also succeeded his father in the charge of the Phillips' Mill, Powelton, and Bethesda Churches, to all of which he was highly acceptable. He continued at his father's place for several years, until he had settled the business of the estate ; and then removed to the Fork of the Little River in Green County, where he settled on a small farm, which, however, he did

[p. 285]
not allow to interfere with his ministerial duties. About this time, he directed the studies of several young men in their preparation for the ministry; but his services in this way were rendered gratuitously.

      The field occupied by Mr. Mercer between the years 1796 and 1827 was one of the most important in the State of Georgia, — the churches which he served being in the midst of a dense population, ;md embracing a considerable amount of intelligence and refinement. The Sardis Church, originally called Hutton's Fork, — the first of which he had the charge, he left in 1817. With the Phillips' Mill Church he retained his connection till 1835; with the church at Bethesda until 1827 ; and with the Powelton church till 1826. Of this latter church Governor Rabun was, for many years, a distinguished member. In 1818, a church was constituted in Eatonton, Putnam County, of which Mr. Mercer took charge in January, 1820, and continued its Pastor till the close of 1826. In 1824, the Baptist State Convention (then denominated the General Association) held its sessions at Eatonton, on which occasion Mr. Mercer preached a Missionary Sermon, that was followed by a very liberal collection from the congregation. His connection with these several churches was the means of quickening them to a higher sense of Christian obligation, of building them up in faith and holiness, and, in nearly every case, of adding largely to their numbers. In addition to his stated labours, he performed much occasional service in other places, and rarely, if ever, made a journey, which he did not render directly subservient to the general interests of religion and the prosperity of some particular church. One means of usefulness which he highly valued, was keeping on hand an assortment of religious books, which he carried with him on his numerous preaching tours, and disposed of among his brethren, as he had opportunity.

      Finding a great want of Hymn Books for the use of the rapidly increasing churches, he compiled a small work called "The Cluster." It had passed through three editions before 1817, and has been published several times since. It has had a wide circulation in Georgia, and several of the adjacent States.

      Mr. Mercer took a deep interest in the civil affairs of the country, and did not hesitate to speak, or write, or act, in relation to them, as he thought his duty required; though he never suffered himself to be entangled in the strife of polities. In 1798, he was a member of the Convention which was held to amend the State Constitution. About the year 1816, he was a candidate for the office of Senator in the State Legislature; but, fortunately, (as he himself afterwards thought,) was unsuccessful. In 1833, it was proposed by some of bis friends that he should be brought forward as a candidate for Governor; and he was subsequently named as a suitable person to be chosen one of the Presidential Electors; but, in each case, he peremptorily declined the honour. In the year last named, certain amendments to the State Constitution had been agreed upon by a Convention appointed by the Legislature, and were submitted to the people for approval or rejection. Mr. Mercer, being greatly dissatisfied with the amendments, published the reasons of his dissent from them, for which he was censured with some degree of severity. He, however, justified himself on the ground of a strong conviction of duty ; and maintained that, though a

[p. 286]
minister has no right to meddle with the every day politics of the country, he has a right to be heard on great constitutional questions as truly as any other man.

      In 1826, Mr. Mercer attended the General Convention in Philadelphia, and did not return till the month of September. When he had reached Andersonville, Pendleton District, S. C., his wife, who accompanied him, was seized with a violent fever, and died after a few days' confinement, in the fifty-fifth year of her age. Though he felt the loss most deeply, he submitted to it with an humble and trusting resignation. She was the mother of two children.

      At the close of 1826, or early in 1827, Mr. Mercer took up his residence in Washington, Wilkes County, under circumstances highly creditable to his disinterestedness. When he had determined to give up most of the churches with which he was connected, and provide for himself a more settled residence, he was earnestly requested, by a committee appointed for the purpose, to make his permanent settlement among the people at Powelton, and assured that competent provision should be made for his support. But, notwithstanding his worldly interest, and especially his strong personal attachments, would have iucliued him to listen to their proposal, so strong was his conviction that there was an important work which he was called to perform in Washington, that he felt constrained to return a negative answer to the Powelton brethren, and to plant himself in what seemed in many respects the more unpromising field. He had, for nearly forty years, been in the habit of preaching at Washington, generally on week days, about once a month. There were a few scattered Baptists in the village and the surrounding country; but not enough to justify the organization of a church, until 1827. At the close of that year, a church was constituted, and in January, 1828, Mr. Mercer became its Pastor. He continued in this relation till the close of life. The church grew rapidly in numbers, liberality, and zeal, under his ministry, until it became, in proportion to its numerical strength, one of the most effective churches in the State.

      On the 11th of December, 1827, Mr. Mercer was united in marriage to Mrs. Nancy Simmons, widow of Capt. A. Simmons, and then residing in Washington. By this marriage he obtained a considerable addition to his worldly property, while he gained a companion of great Christian liberality and worth, and every way suited to be a fellow-helper in carrying out the objects for which he lived.

      In 1833, the Christian Index, a religious periodical, which had for some years been edited by the Rev. W. T. Brantly, at Philadelphia, was transferred to Mr. Mercer. This brought him into a new sphere of labour and responsibility, and occasioned him considerable pecuniary loss; while he felt himself less at home than in almost any other position he had occupied. Though his habits were not decidedly literary, and he could scarcely be considered a highly accomplished writer, he conducted the work with excellent judgment, and rendered it specially useful as a means of defending and sustaining the benevolent operations of the day.

      In 1835, he was honoured with the degree of Doctor of Divinity, from Brown University.

[p. 287]
      For a long series of years, his name and influence were identified with most of the prominent operations of the Georgia Association. He was present at its formation in 1784; shortly after his connection with the Church, he appeared as its delegate; aud, from that time till 1839, when he was prevented by illness, he never failed to be present at its annual meetings. From 1795 till 181G, he generally officiated as Clerk of the Body — at the session of the last named year, he was chosen Moderator, and held the office, by re-election, till 1839.

      He had an important connection with another Association of a more general character, known as the "Baptist Convention of the State of Georgia ;" which, from a small beginning in 1822, gradually grew into a great benevolent institution, which has accomplished, in Various ways, a mighty amount of good. Of this Convention Dr. Mercer was regularly chosen Moderator, till the session of 1841, when his impaired health and domestic afflictions prevented his attendance.

      Dr. Mercer lost no opportunity of manifesting his interest in the cause of education. When the project of establishing a College in the District of Columbia was first started, he was disposed to give to it all his influence. His name was enrolled among the original Trustees of the institution; and, amidst its protracted embarrassments, his zeal for the promotion of its interests never faltered. In 1834, he delivered a Sermon before the Convention, entitled "Knowledge indispensable to a minister of God," which contained a vigorous argument in favour of an educated ministry, and which was afterwards published and extensively circulated.

      He was no less devoted to the cause of Missions than of Education. In May, 1815, when the "Powelton Baptist Society for Foreign Missions" was formed, he became its President. In 1810, was formed "The Mission Board of the Georgia Association," of which Dr. Mercer was always a member, and, from 1830 to 1841, was uniformly its President. His pecuniary contributions to missionary objects were regulated by a high standard of Christian liberality.

      Though he was occasionally the subject of bodily infirmity, yet, during his long ministry, he was rarely obliged to suspend his labours for any considerable time. But, at length, neither he nor his friends could resist the conviction that the infirmities of age were gathering upon him. At the annual session of the Georgia Association in 1839, he was prevented from being present by a severe illness; and, though he was able, after a few weeks, to resume, in some degree, his accustomed labours, he never afterwards recovered the point of health from which he had fallen. In May, 1841, he was afflicted by the death of his wife, who had some time before been stricken down by palsy. Early in June following, he preached his last sermon, with uncommon freedom and unction. Towards the close of the month, he went, in great feebleness, to Penfield, with a view of spending a few weeks with his friends, and attending the College Commencement, and the annual meeting of the Board of Trustees. He remained in Penfield till the beginning of August, and then journeyed on to the Indian Springs in Butts County, hoping to derive some benefit from the water. For a few days, there seemed tobe some slight improvement of his health, but the force of his disease remained unbroken. On the last

[p. 288]
Sabbath in August, he attended public service at the Springs, and, in the evening of the same day, accompanied a friend to his residence, some eight miles distant, with an intention of prosecuting his journey as far as Walton, Monroe County, where some of his relatives resided. It turned out that he went to the house of this friend (Mr. Carter, a brother minister) to die. He languished till the 6th of September, and then, in a state of perfect calmness, and in full possession of his reason, sunk into the arms of death. His remains were taken to Penfield, and interred in the public burying ground. The Funeral Sermon was preached at Washington, by Elder C. F. Sturgis, who had, for a time, been associated with him in the pastoral charge of the church. His death called forth many public demonstrations of affectionate respect and deep sorrow.

      The following is a list of Dr. Mercer's principal writings: — A Circular Letter of the Georgia Association, 1801. A Circular Letter on Discipline, 1806. A Circular Letter on the Invalidity of Pedobaptist Administration of Ordinances, 1811. A Circular Letter on Various Christian Duties, 1816. A Discourse on the Death of Governor Rabun, 1819. A Circular of the Georgia Association, on the Unity and Dependance of the Churches, 1822. An Exposition of the First Seventeen Verses of the Twelfth Chapter of Revelation, 1825. A Dissertation on the Prerequisites to Ordination, 1829. Scripture Meaning of Ordination, 1830. Ten Letters on the Atonement, 1830. A Circular Letter of the Baptist State Convention, 1831. Resemblances and Differences between Church Authority and that of an Association, 1833. An Essay on the Lord's Supper, 1833. A Sermon entitled "Knowledge indispensable to a Minister of God," 1834. A History of the Georgia Association, 1836. A Review of a certain Report on Church and Associational Difficulties, 1837. A Sermon on the Importance of Ministerial Union, 1838. A Sermon on the Excellency of the Knowledge of Christ, 1839. An Essay entitled "The Cause of Missionary Societies, the Cause of God," 1839. An Essay on Forgiveness of Sins, 1841. "Hear what the Spirit sailh to the Churches," three Nos., 1841.


From the Rev. Adiel Sherwood, D. D.
Cape Girardeau Mo., June 8, 1853.

      My dear Sir: My acquaintance with Dr. Mercer began in February, 1819, and our interviews, lasting three and four days generally at Associations, meetings of the Executive Committee of the State Convention, and others of a religious character, were some six to a dozen in almost every year till 1841, — a period of over twenty years. We frequently lodged at the same house, and occupied the same bed. We also made long tours of preaching together, and in 1823 visited the Mission Station at Valley Towns, N. C., — absent over a month. He wrote me over fifty letters. So far as I recollect, we never disagreed on the subjects discussed in our religious bodies, except that he regarded me too zealous in urging incipient measures towards the University which now bears his name, and on the Temperance question. The Doctors, excellent in administering calomel, had advised him to take a little brandy for a chronic complaint, and, though he took very small doses occasionally, was so conscientious that he would not subscribe to the pledge, yet really a friend to the cause. But he threw their prescriptions overboard, — was in better health, and established a Temperance paper.

[p. 289]
      In his youth he was tall, slender and awkward, but when about fifty was moderately corpulent, weighing over two hundred pounds, having, by much intercourse with society, softened the manners contracted in border neighbourhoods and in times of war. There was something commanding in his appearance. When in the pulpit, arguing some favourite point, he was truly dignified; for he was at home, and seemed like a king on his throne. Mingling with the people, his bearing was marked by kindliness on his part, and by great respect on that of those around him. You felt that you were in the presence of a great man. Some men of intellect, and some of mere wealth, regard themselves as a head and shoulders above all others — not so Jesse Mercer: he seemed not aware of any superiority. Íe had no tact nor taste for popular favour, though he was a useful member of the Convention which revised the Constitution in '98. He was urged to be a candidate for Governor, but would not listen to the proposal, regarding the ministerial office more honourable than that of President of the United States.

      The prominent trait in his pulpit performances was originality — originating thoughts of weighty import in his own way, that made an indelible impression, — an impression that continues to this day, after the lapse of so many years: not quaint and odd, but full of force and power, and sometimes with great eloquence. He did not understand the Logic of the Schools, but he went behind their rules, and not uiifrequciitly convinced and overpowered by his new views and ponderous arguments. His manner was not graceful but forcible. But you forgot his manner in the rich intellectual feast served up for you, as does the hungry man the oaken table or trencher that holds his meal. In some of his rich discourses, you conceived of a boy from an eminence throwing large bars of gold all around, without much regularity or order; but they fell with power because of their intrinsic weight.

      He used to lament over his poor qualilications as a Pastor in, his visits: he could not suggest topics for discourse, and so curry on conversation as to render his calls agreeable and useful.

      There was great punctuality in meeting his appointments, and in his engagements in secular concerns. He refused to aid in ordaining men who were involved in debt, regarding it as an obstacle in the path of usefulness and a stumbling-block. His honesty and integrity were above suspicion. The ministry was not a mere profession, — it was his meat and drink to proclaim the glad tidings, whether he was compensated or not: necessity was laid upon him to preach the Gospel.

      Some regarded him hyper-Calvinistic in his system of doctrine, but he loved Fuller more than Calvin, and followed the Bible more than either. His liberality in contributing to all objects that were presented, whether connected with his own denomination or not, was proved almost daily for many of his later years. He aided the Presbyterians in Washington in their school with a princely donation. His house was the home of ministers and pious persons of all denominations.

      A public life of over half a century, — (for he was ordained prior to his twentieth year,) a life of great circumspection, and piety, and usefulness, free from stain, with great and commanding talents, could not fail to win the confidence and respect of those to whom he was known; and there was not a county in the State where he was not known and respected. He had some adversaries, it is true, in the latter part of his life; and some relations by marriage interested in his estate; but these could not weaken the confidence with which he held tens of thousands. Some drew the sage inference that his meek and quiet spirit were assumed to gain popularity; but such reports carried their own refutation. Without fear of the charge of partiality, it may be safely said that there was no minister in the State, who was more highly

[p. 290]
respected by all Christian persuasions, and none whose death was more deeply deplored.

      This feeble tribute to his memory and exalted character has been written under peculiarly hurried circumstances, and with a mind wandering on other pressing engagements. Justice is not done him; but I will not longer hold you in suspense.

Very respectfully yours,

[From William B. Sprague, D. D., editor, Annals of the American Baptist Pulpit, Volume VI, 1860, pp. 283-290. Document from Google Books. — jrd]

Jesse Mercer Index
Baptist Biographies
Baptist History Homepage