I recently noticed a blog poster refer to The Extent of the Atonement: A Historical and Critical Review by David L. Allen. He pointed out that in it Allen said that Jesse Mercer (1760-1841) “himself shifted from his original commitment to limited atonement to the unlimited position.” (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016). He references Memoir of Elder Jesse Mercer by C. D. Mallary (pp. 290, 297-303). It appears important to “Traditional Southern Baptists” to show that their Baptist heroes moved away from Calvinism and toward “Traditionalism”. I nevertheless believe that Dr. Allen is in error. We shouldn’t shade Baptist history for polemic purposes.
Jesse Mercer’s Ten Letters Addressed to the Rev. Cyrus White demonstrate well his allegiance to the doctrines of predestination, unconditional election, and the limited atonement. In a letter of Mercer which David Allen quotes other parts, Jesse Mercer wrote, “But for the sake of those who may not have given themselves the trouble to read heretofore; or who may not have noticed it, I repeat that I have undergone no fundamental change in faith from my forefathers. I believe now, and always preach in perfect accordance with the faith adopted by the Georgia Association, and from her (so far as I am informed) the other associations in the state.” (Memoirs, pp. 200-201) “The faith adopted by the Georgia Association” includes “4th. We believe in the everlasting love of God to his people, and the eternal election of a definite number of the human race, to grace and glory; And that there was a covenant of grace or redemption made between the Father and the Son, before the world began, in which their salvation is secure, and that they in particular are redeemed.” (History of the Georgia Baptist Association, Jesse Mercer, Washington, GA: 1838, p. 30) According to Mallary, the above mentioned letter in which Jesse Mercer claims to have not changed his views was published in the Christian Index in 1836. If so, considering Mercer died in 1841, any changes to his view of the atonement must have occurred in the last five years of his life.
The reference on page 290 Allen gives as proof that Mercer had changed his views must be excluded. It is the only place (as far as I can tell) that uses the phrase “limited atonement” in the Memoirs. It may seem to the casual reader to argue against limited atonement, but Dr. Allen misunderstands the broader context. This is from Mercer’s letter answering Cyrus White, and his objecting to White’s definition and explanation of limited atonement. These letters were written (I think) in 1829 and published in 1830, and then Mercer clearly stood in favor of the limited atonement. For example, “If the doctrine of eternal, person, and unconditional election be a truth, that of a special design of the death of Christ must necessarily follow…The above passages must be allowed to speak only of a part of mankind. This part of mankind must be styled the chosen of God, given of the Father &c. either because of their actually being believers, or because it was foreseen that they would believe, or as we suppose, because God eternally proposed in himself that they should believe and be saved. It cannot be on account of the first; seeing they were chosen before the foundation of the world, and given to Christ prior to their believing in him. It cannot be on account of the second; because, then, what he had done for us must have been according to some good in us, and not according to his own purpose and grace given us in Christ Jesus, before the world began. It would also be contrary to all those scriptures recited above, which represent our being chosen and given of the Father, as the cause of faith and holiness…The above are some of the reasons which induce me to think there was a certain, absolute, and, consequently, limited design to the death in the death of Christ, securing the salvation of all those, and only those, who are finally saved.” (Letters, pp. 15-16.)
The reference in Memoirs on pages 297-303 is from a discourse titled “The Excellency of the Knowledge of Christ Jesus the Lord,” published in the Southern Baptist Preacher in 1839. This may meet the criteria for a time frame for a change of thinking by Mercer on the subject of the atonement. It does seem to move toward Fuller and away from Gill – although in the discourse Mercer says there is only a “mere shade” of difference between Fuller and Gill and that difference “is only speculative” (p. 294). Since Dr. Allen did not check the context of the other quote from Memoirs, I am afraid he also did not check this context. The context of the entire discourse needs to be inspected to make an accurate judgment.
David Allen’s book looks interesting, but the history must be viewed with some degree of skepticism when it is subjected to and presented for polemic purposes.