"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 (and) the Sir Galahad among the Baptists of Georgia."
- Lucian Lamar Knight
Jesse Mercer, for whom Mercer University is named, was born in North Carolina. But sometime in the late 18th-century, after his minister-father, Silas Mercer, moved his family to the backcountry of Georgia to begin 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 the recognized leader of the Georgia Baptist Convention. During his fifth decade of life, Mercer presided over the ordination of Columbia County native, Billington Sanders, who would found a college in his honor.
But when I read the following incident in the memoirs of Georgia Gov. George Gilmer, I started to laugh. What nerve, or at least what lack of respect for one's peers. Disagreeing with your political opponent is no reason to link his actions to the judgment of Almighty God, is it? Then again, the more I learn about political behavior throughout recorded history, the less laughing I do.
Almost from the beginning of Georgia's transition from colony to statehood, all leaders of the new government were chosen from one of two sparring political groups. Often their views were remarkably similar, but at the time you'd have to say their closest counterparts were the Hatfields and the McCoys. Our two sides were known as the Clarkites and the Crawfordites, based on one's allegiance either to the celebrated Gen. John Clark, or 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 duty of the Legislature to choose his successor. (Governors were not chosen by popular vote in Georgia until 1825.) Rabun was a Crawfordite who had narrowly beaten obvious Clarkite, John Clark, the election before. Therefore, Clark's friends "were very active in the use of means to secure his success."
With the Legislature almost evenly divided between the opposing camps, claims of voting 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. The forger, Gilmer claims, "Was a thorough partisan of Clark's and as great a knave as ever went unhung." But the ploy worked. Clark became governor, and his forging friend was re-elected to the Legislature.
Following Clark's hasty inauguration, the celebrated preacher and Rabun friend, Jesse Mercer, was asked to preach the deceased governor's funeral sermon. Clark's suspicion that "the ceremony was intended to do him harm" was probably correct.
Still, 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 which ones were Clarkites and who was allied with Crawford.
As Gilmer concludes, "From gross insult to the chief magistrate of the state, to a resolution asking Mercer for a copy of his sermon for publication, that scene showed the wide range of manners and opinions of the times."
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?
Whatever emotion we adopt, may we take time between now and the next election - and the next, and the next - to become informed about each candidate for public office and exercise our now individual right to choose our leaders, lest by our inaction or inattention, Georgia, our nation or our county has reason to tremble.
Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to seabara at aol.com.
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