Review: Father Mercer
Anthony L. Chute. Father Mercer: The Story of a Baptist Statesman. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2011. 146 pp. ISBN 978-0-88146-262-3.
Mention Jesse Mercer’s name to someone from Georgia and reactions may vary from puzzled looks to acknowledging nods. Mention Mercer’s name to a Georgia Baptist and you are apt to receive a much different reaction. Anthony L. Chute’s Father Mercer: The Story of a Baptist Statesman chronicles the life of one of the state’s most influential ministers and the early republic’s quintessential Baptists.
Mercer’s story is familiar, thanks largely to Chute’s earlier work A Piety Above the Common Standard: Jesse Mercer and Evangelical Calvinism (2004). The son of Silas Mercer, a respected eighteenth-century Baptist minister, Jesse Mercer (1769–1841) followed in his father’s footsteps. He played a crucial role in rallying the state’s Baptists to support missions in the early nineteenth century. His peers recognized his leadership abilities and tapped him to be the president of the Georgia Baptist Convention, a position he held from 1822 until 1841. In addition to missions, Mercer used his talents and position to advance sunday schools, temperance, and education. In fact, Mercer was so influential in educational matters that when Georgia’s Baptists organized a school to train young ministers in 1833, they named it the Mercer Institute. Later, when the institute became a university the trustees retained Mercer’s name, hence Mercer University.
While they articulate similar themes, Father Mercer differs from A Piety Above the Common Standard in several respects. At 146 pages, Father Mercer is brief: one may think of it as a general-audience companion to A Piety Above the Common Standard. Father Mercer has neither footnotes nor endnotes. Hardcore academics may carp that Chute failed to follow citation protocol, but the author is clearly aiming at two distinct audiences and ultimately provides interested readers with the best of two different worlds. On one hand, those searching for a thorough, more technically nuanced biography of Jesse Mercer will profit by reading A Piety Above a Common Standard. On the other hand, interested readers, especially lay people and non-professional historians, will benefit from Father Mercer. Chute obviously wanted to produce a short, readable volume that “humanized” Mercer, Tthough one might wish that he had included more of Mercer’s correspondence.
It is hardly novel for authors to produce short editions of larger works. Such slimmer books allow greater access to a broader readership. Still, trying to reach two different audiences with similar material is a bold move. But Father Mercer is such an easy read that it is suitable for the most general audience. Chute attempted to assess Mercer favorably without turning him into a superhero. The volume is a success on all counts.