“Jesse Mercer became the most influential minister of his day in Georgia … He was not a scholar or a ‘hair-lifter’ in the pulpit (like Daniel Marshall), but he was nevertheless a man of peculiar power ... the Sir Galahad among the Baptists of Georgia.” – Historian Lucian Lamar Knight
Jesse Mercer, for whom Mercer University is named, was born in North Carolina. But near the end of the 18th century, after his minister-father Silas Mercer moved the family to Georgia and began serving churches here, the elder Mercer baptized 17-year-old Jesse into the membership of Kiokee Baptist Church in Appling.
Soon the son began a life-long career in his father’s footsteps, pastoring churches and becoming a recognized leader in the Georgia Baptist Convention. Coincidentally, in another few years Mercer presided over the ordination of Columbia County native, Billington Sanders, the man who later would found a college in his honor.
But when I read the following incident about the noted theologian, I was surprised. What nerve, or at least what lack of respect for one’s peers. Disagreeing with someone over a political issue is no reason to link your opponent’s actions or opinions to the judgment of Almighty God, or is it? The more I learn about political behavior of the past, or witness in the present day, the less surprised I become.
Almost from the beginning of Georgia’s transition from colony to statehood, most leaders were chosen from one of two sparring political groups. Often their views were remarkably similar, but at the time you would likely say their closest counterparts were the Hatfields and the McCoys. The two sides were known as the Clarkites and the Crawfordites, based on one’s allegiance either to the son of Revolutionary War General Elijah Clarke, John Clark – who dropped “the pretentious e” from the family name – or to the respected, Columbia County-reared, William Crawford. And therein lies the following tale:
When Gov. William Rabun died in office in 1819, it was the Legislature’s duty to choose his successor. Rabun was a Crawfordite who narrowly beat obvious Clarkite, John Clark, the election before. Therefore, this time around, Clark’s friends “were very active in the use of means to secure his success.”
With the Legislature almost evenly divided between the two camps, claims of voter fraud and the ineligibility of one of the representatives to be part of the selection process became almost more important than the governorship itself.
Affidavits “proving” fraud were presented, but, after the voting, found to be forgeries. According to the memoirs of George Gilmer, another Georgia Governor, “The forger was a thorough partisan of Clark’s and as great a knave as ever went unhung.” But the ploy worked. Clark became governor.
Following Clark’s hasty inauguration, who but the celebrated preacher and Rabun friend, Jesse Mercer, was chosen to preach the deceased governor’s funeral sermon. Clark’s suspicion that “the ceremony was intended to do him harm” was probably correct.With great pomp, the new governor, the old preacher and members of the Legislature walked into the service together, where the Rev. Mercer did his finest preaching, enforcing Bible doctrine – and perhaps a little of his own – with great zeal.
“When the Lord taketh away a good and righteous ruler,” Mercer intoned, “He does it on account of the sins of the people, and He will punish them by putting wicked rulers over them in that man’s place. Georgia, therefore, has reason to tremble.”
By observing the smiles and frowns among the assembled, one could tell with considerable accuracy who were the Clarkites and who was allied with Crawford. Shall we laugh because “it’s all politics as usual,” or cry because the balance of historical evidence – and the fate of disobedient nations – would seem to be on the zealous preacher’s side?
The lesson for us between now and the next election is to become well informed about each candidate for public office, and then to exercise our now individual right to choose those leaders lest, by our inaction or inattention, Georgia, our nation, or our local county has reason to tremble.
(Note: The founders and first presidents of all three 19th-century Georgia universities – Mercer, Emory and UGA – were from Columbia County.)
Barbara Seaborn is a local free-lance writer and the author of “As Long as the Rivers Run: Highlights from Columbia County’s Past.” E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.