Mercer University is a comprehensive university with major campuses in Macon and Atlanta and regional academic centers in Douglas County, Eastman, Henry County, and Macon. A private institution founded on Baptist principles, Mercer offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in liberal learning and professional disciplines and is the second largest Baptist-affiliated institution in the world
The university is composed of ten colleges and schools: the College of Liberal Arts, which includes the school’s renowned Department of Music; the Eugene W. Stetson School of Business and Economics; the School of Engineering; the Tift College of Education; the Georgia Baptist College of Nursing; the College of Continuing and Professional Studies; the Walter F. George School of Law; the Southern School of Pharmacy; the School of Medicine; and the James and Carolyn McAfee School of Theology.
Antebellum Years in Penfield
Mercer Institute opened with thirty-nine students on January 14, 1833, as a manual-labor school seven miles north of Greensboro in Greene County. With a bequest from Savannah jeweler Josiah Penfield and a matching gift from the Georgia Baptist Convention, Mercer’s first trustees purchased 450 acres of farmland for the prospective school. Soon after, the board acquired an adjoining tract of fourteen and a half acres.
When the convention met in 1833, treasurer Adiel Sherwood reported an investment of $1,935 for the institute. Most of that amount went into a building fund for the school, used in part to deepen the well and erect two log cabins to house some of the students. Baptist minister Jesse Mercer, a long-term leader of the convention, was instrumental in the school’s founding, and before the year ended, he had provided a third of the amount needed to purchase an adjacent tract of 500 acres. Mercer also served as the first chairman of the school’s board of trustees.
As the first agency sponsored by the convention, the institute was founded to educate young men for the ministry, although most were nonministerial students. Billington Sanders served as Mercer’s first president, from 1833 to 1850. His wife, Cynthia Holliday Sanders, assisted in establishing the Christian character of the school by serving as a surrogate mother to students. Twenty-six of the thirty-nine original students lived in the Sanders’ home.
In 1837 a portion of the campus was divided into building lots and sold to establish a village, subsequently named Penfield in honor of the school’s first benefactor. The state legislature granted a charter amendment in December of that year, elevating the institute to university status. The legislature also approved an amendment to the act of incorporation formalizing the relationship between the Georgia Baptist Convention and the university. Mercer University graduated its first class, of three students, in 1841.
In its early years Mercer University’s academic program was based on three divisions: classical, theology, and “preparatory.” Competence in Greek and Latin were required for entrance to the university. Manual labor, an essential feature of the institution from the beginning, was discontinued in 1844. The theology department disbanded in 1859 when the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary opened in Greenville, South Carolina, and recruited Mercer’s theology professor William Williams.
In 1859, 135 students were enrolled at Mercer. The catalog from that year boasts a library of 5,000 books and a complex of nine buildings, including a Classic Revival chapel built in 1846. The buildings were “situated within the bounds of a large campus, still covered with the native forest growth, which is carefully protected and cultivated,” according to the 1859-60 Mercer catalog.
The Move to Macon
Mercer was the only college in Georgia that remained in session throughout the Civil War (1861-65). After the war, agitation increased to remove the university from its remote rural setting, and a number of cities, including Macon, made generous offers to house Mercer. At the conclusion of a heated, divisive, and protracted controversy that was appealed to the Supreme Court of Georgia (although the case was dropped before being heard), the Georgia Baptist Convention voted to move Mercer University from Penfield to Macon in 1871. The law school opened two years later. Just after the turn of the century, there was an unsuccessful campaign to move the Mercer campus to Atlanta. The controversy ended when city officials made a serious, but unsuccessful, effort to move the state capital to Macon. In 1912 Macon citizens pledged additional support to the university.
President Rufus Weaver greatly expanded the university’s programs during his administration, from 1918 to 1927, by adding schools of commerce, journalism, and theology (“Mercer Seminary”). Spright Dowell, Weaver’s successor, greatly reduced the offerings by reestablishing the priority of the liberal arts college. Dowell, who served from 1928 to 1953, also kept the university solvent during the Great Depression through financial astringency.
In 1939 thirteen strident ministerial students charged four professors and a student laboratory assistant with heresy. One of the accusing students was John M. Birch, whose name was later attached to the anticommunist movement of the cold war era. The students, encouraged by some local pastors, gave legally sworn affidavits, the majority of which focused on Professor John D. Freeman of the Christianity department. Others charged were professors Josiah Crudup, John D. Allen, and W. T. Smalley, as well as lab assistant James Wallace.
The backdrop of the conflict stemmed from late-nineteenth-century clashes between science and biblical literalism. In the 1920s a fundamentalist movement developed among Southern Baptists that led to the adoption of a confessional statement in 1925. The Mercer Thirteen latched on to that confessional statement and denounced the teaching of evolution at Mercer. In the end, the four professors were warned to “stick with their disciplines, to maintain Baptist orthodoxy, and to be sure and articulate their positions in the classroom lucidly,” according to a Mercer professor who wrote a 1996 history of the event.
The thirteen students met with hostility from other students, who, in one of several such incidents, attacked the car of one of the accusing students. Freeman, who was seventy-five-years old at the time of the trial, resigned his position about five months after the investigation and died nearly four years later. Seemingly not much changed at Mercer after the “trials.” Many of the students remained aligned with the fundamentalists, and the college continued to function under the banner of academic freedom.
The Modern Era
President Rufus Harris, who served from 1960 to 1979, expanded the university and initiated plans for the medical college in Macon. R. Kirby Godsey, president from 1979 to 2006, restructured the university through central administration governance and increased and diversified the fields of study offered to Mercer students.
During the 2004-5 school year, Mercer enrolled more than 7,300 students from forty-four states and sixty-one foreign countries. More than 80 percent of the student body is from Georgia. William D. Underwood, legal scholar and former interim president of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, became president and CEO of Mercer on July 1, 2006.
The Georgia Baptist Convention, at the recommendation of its executive committee, voted to break its formal ties with Mercer University during its 2005 meeting in Columbus. Citing doctrinal differences, the full convention ratified the action through a second vote at its 2006 meeting in Duluth. The convention continues to support the university through an annual contribution of $3.5 million, which is distributed as scholarships to Baptist students, who comprise more than 53 percent of Mercer’s student body.
Each year from 1989 to 2006, Mercer was chosen by U.S. News and World Report as one of the nation’s leaders in higher education. In 2005 the Princeton Review selected Mercer both for inclusion in its guidebook The Best 361 Colleges in North America and as a “College with a Conscience,” a title granted to 81 schools that engage students in service learning. After experiencing a downturn in enrollment in 2006, Mercer enjoyed a record enrollment of 7,573 students in the fall of 2008.
The university continues to be guided by the historic principles of religious and intellectual freedom, while affirming values inherited from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Academically, Mercer continues to expand its national reputation as a dynamic and comprehensive center of undergraduate, graduate, and professional education.