Jesse Mercer was a prominent Baptist pastor, philanthropist, and publisher. He focused much of his efforts toward promoting cooperation among Baptists in antebellum Georgia, particularly for the support of religious benevolence and ministerial education. Mercer University in Macon is named for him.
Mercer was born in Halifax County, North Carolina, on December 16, 1769. He migrated to Georgia with his family when he was a child. Mercer converted to Christianity in July 1787, and his minister father, Silas Mercer, baptized him into the membership of Phillips Mill Baptist Church in Wilkes County. Less than a year later, the young Mercer married Sabrina Chivers. After Mercer’s ordination as a Baptist minister in 1789, the Presbyterian pastor John Springer provided him with several years of ministerial education at Springer’s home near Washington, Georgia. Mercer’s first pastorate was at Hutton’s Fork Baptist Church in Wilkes County, where he lived for most of his life. He would eventually pastor seven churches in Greene, Hancock, Oglethorpe, Putnam, and Wilkes counties. Mercer served several of these congregations at the same time, and the average length of his stay at each pastorate was more than twenty-one years.
Mercer extended his influence as a Baptist minister through his participation in several state and national organizations, denominational and otherwise. As a delegate to Georgia’s constitutional convention in 1798, he helped to defeat a proposal that would have made ministers ineligible to hold public office in Georgia. The convention’s delegates also gave Mercer the responsibility for writing the section of Georgia’s constitution guaranteeing religious liberty to the state’s citizens. Mercer made a run for the state senate in 1816 but was unsuccessful.
In 1784 delegates from various churches formed the General Association of Georgia Baptists, the state’s first Baptist association, and Mercer eventually became one of its most prominent leaders. Mercer served as the organization’s clerk for twenty-one years and as its moderator for twenty-three years. He also wrote its history in 1838. When Baptists organized the Georgia Baptist Convention in 1822, Mercer chaired a committee to draft a constitution and became the organization’s first president. He continued to serve as president until his death in 1841. From 1817 to 1835 Mercer also served four times as a delegate to the Triennial Convention, an early national Baptist body.
In addition to writing a history of the first Baptist association in Georgia, Mercer contributed to the religious life of Baptists through other publishing efforts. Many Baptist churches lacked hymnals, so Mercer compiled and published a volume in 1810 entitled The Cluster of Spiritual Songs, Divine Hymns, and Sacred Poems. Mercer eventually published seven editions of this hymnal, and 33,000 copies were distributed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, alone by 1829. In 1833 he purchased the Christian Index, a Washington, D.C., newspaper begun approximately a decade earlier as the Columbian Star. He later moved the newspaper to Washington, Georgia, and then to Penfield, giving it as a gift to the Georgia Baptist Convention in 1840. Mercer also financed and published the short-lived Temperance Banner, the South’s first newspaper designed to expose the dangers of alcohol abuse.
Mercer became a strong advocate of education for pastors, despite the fact that some of the state’s Baptists opposed denominational efforts to support ministerial training and religious benevolence. When his father died in 1796, Mercer became the principal of Salem Academy in Wilkes County. This school, originally founded and operated by his father, was the first educational institution established under Baptist auspices in Georgia. Mercer later became a trustee and supporter of Columbian College (later George Washington University) in Washington, D.C., for many years. He is most recognized, however, for helping to found and support the school that bears his name—Mercer University.
Jesse Mercer and the school’s founders did not initially intend to offer a collegiate education when they opened Mercer Institute in Penfield in 1833. However, Mercer was later inspired by the state’s Presbyterians, who founded Oglethorpe University in 1835, and he pushed his fellow Baptists to support a “Southern Baptist College.” The original plans for an entirely separate school largely failed, but the interest in creating a Baptist college eventually culminated in Mercer Institute’s becoming Mercer University late in 1837. Jesse Mercer served as the first president of its board of trustees. Aided by the wealth of Nancy Simons, a widow who became his second wife in 1827, Mercer personally contributed one-third of the school’s total endowment by 1840. He bequeathed most of his large estate to the institution after his death, and at least six other educational, mission, and benevolence organizations gained portions of the rest of his assets.
Mercer died in 1841 at the home of the Reverend James Carter in Butts County. He was buried in Penfield near the original site of Mercer University.