Monday, July 24, 2017

Jesse Mercer and Limited Atonement

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.


peter lumpkins said...

Hi Robert. I think your questions pertaining to Allen's conclusion are certainly justifiable and should be taken seriously. Nor do I see that enough dirt has been shoveled to demonstrate Mercer's full conversion to Fullerism. But it's ironic that since Mercer thought only a "shade" of difference existed between the two views, and the "shade" but mere "speculation" why the fuss? Even so, few Reformed either then or now follow Mercer on that point. As for Mercer on Cyrus White, I'm thinking he completely botched it. From what I can tell, White was NO Arminian. His little tract against which Mercer wrote 10 letters reads more like New Divinity not Arminian. White also affirmed Personal, particular Election. He sounds very much like Timothy Dwight and Jonathan Maxey. Nor did White's church confess Arminian doctrine. Nor was the Chattahoochee Assoc Arminian--at least during Mercer time. Rather they only denied Limited Atonement. This should caution us a bit in taking Mercers testimony strictly literally when he says he's not changed his beliefs. One final note: I think you're much too harsh on Allen by accusing him of being "shady" and exploiting history with polemical motives. No call for that. Dr Allen could be in error just like you began suggesting. But making mistakes and being shady are two entirely different things. We all fall into the former, we've all made historical blunders. But the latter strikes at character. Allen may be mistaken about Mercer. From what I've thus far read, I'm not yet convinced about Mercer. But Allen does not merit the character flaw, shady. Lord bless. With that, I am...Peter

R. L. Vaughn said...

Hi, Peter. Thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts. It is always good to know that someone is reading, and also have some pushback to clarify my thinking and writing.

First, I wondered why you think that I think David Allen is “shady”. Then I saw that my statement – We shouldn’t shade Baptist history for polemic purposes – could be construed that way. I used “shade” partly as a play on words related to the Mercer statement about a “mere shade” of difference, but I see it gives a wrong impression. I do think what Brother Allen has written about Jesse Mercer’s change in view on the atonement obscures or confuses. I do think there is polemics involved in his book – that is, it is related to the controversy within the Southern Baptist Convention over Calvinist, the atonement, etc., and that David Allen is a partisan on one side of this controversy and has a desire to promote his view. But I don’t think that Brother Allen is deliberately exploiting history for polemical purposes, or that his intent is to deceive about the matter. I just think he got it wrong – or at least doesn’t have sufficient evidence to prove that he got it right – and that his biases (as for all of us) are a factor in how he interpreted this part of the history of the atonement. I also believe that since it appears he may not have researched this as carefully as he should have, we have reason to apply skepticism to some of his other historical interpretations that may appear in the book. I don’t have the book – because it is expensive and I don’t have 800-something worth pages of interest in the extent of the atonement (my greater interest is in history). I became aware of certain parts of it through discussing it with David Brumbelow on SBC Voices, which was very interesting. So, to clarify and agree with you, I believe David Allen may be mistaken about Mercer, but I do not question his personal integrity.

R. L. Vaughn said...

On the question of Mercer, White, et al., I would admit to have a tendency of bias for Mercer, all things considered. My father’s family came right out of the same area of Georgia as Mercer, and were part of the same group of churches in the Georgia Baptist Association (although I did notice in some church minutes that Mercer didn’t show up for a deacon ordination he was invited, and I notice that of all the preachers they chose to name their children after, Mercer was not one of them ;-) ). We also had some of the Mercer family settle here in our county (descendants of his brother or uncle, I think). I think of their church as the “Mercer” church. (There is probably not an inkling of Calvinism among them, but they know and respect the name Jesse Mercer, nevertheless). All that rambling to explain where some of my bias my lie, though I am trying to find some more biographical information on Cyrus White. My g-g-grandfather’s mother was a White, but we know nothing of who her family was. You may be correct that Mercer botched the views of Cyrus White. I have not been able to access White’s A Scriptural View of the Atonement, so I can’t speak directly to White’s views. Others such as Adiel Sherwood and David Benedict spoke of White’s views as Arminian, but that does not make it so. (And some use Arminian very very loosely.)

In The Baptist Memorial and Monthly Chronicle, Volume 1 (R. Babcock, Jr. and J. O. Choules, Editors, New York, NY: John R. Bigelow, March 1842 pp. 77-78) this group is dubbed White-ites, “composed of the followers of Rev. Cyrus White, who was once a preacher of some reputation amongst the Baptists of Georgia. He embraced Arminian sentiments…” The author goes on to say, though, “The one party, anxious to expose the heresy of the other, would put a construction upon the word which the speaker never designed they should have. The other, too proud to disclaim the uncourteous imputations, would evade them...So it happened with Cyrus White. Had he never been opposed with violence, it is not probably that ever would have become a schismatic.” [I suspect this is written by Adiel Sherwood, and that he has in mind the opposition to White in the Flint River and Ocmulgee Associations, rather than such as written by Mercer.] According to the piece, the Chattahoochee United attempted to open correspondence with the Free Will Baptists of North Carolina – which to me suggests they may have embraced some Arminian sentiments. In 1840 they noted in the minutes they received no answer from the Free Will Baptists of NC, and made an effort to open correspondence with Concord, Mt. Zion and Duck [River] in Tennessee. These associations were, at the time of their splits from the main body of Baptists, charged with Arminianism (see History of Middle Tennessee Baptists, by Grime, for example). I had a friend (now deceased) in the Mt. Zion and they were not what I would consider Arminian at the later time I got to know them. They held/hold total depravity, general atonement and eternal security. “Origins of Free Will Baptists in Georgia” in The Journal of Baptist Studies 6 (2014), if accurate, indicates a slow movement of the White-ites toward becoming Free Will Baptists. For White himself, it looks his main difference from the larger body of Georgia Baptists was that he held and preached a general or (hypothetical) universal provision in which the blessings of salvation are freely offered to all by the gospel. I’m not sure, though, why Mercer getting some of White’s beliefs wrong “should caution us a bit in taking Mercer’s testimony strictly literally when he says he’s not changed his beliefs.” Seems like even though Mercer didn’t understand White there is no reason to think he didn’t understand his own views. Perhaps you can clarify.

R. L. Vaughn said...

Not sure this is particularly agreeing with you, but “why the fuss” is certainly a legitimate question. I also wondered, as you can see in my next post, why some people would be so enthused that Mercer or others held a modified view of the atonement, as if it made them nearly Traditionalist!

Sorry for writing a “book” in response. Perhaps you can wade through and find something useful!

peter lumpkins said...


First, I appreciate your clarification on Allen. Thank you.

As for taking Mercer strictly literal that he's not changed his mind or belief, I think his virtually unilateral claim that a "mere shade" of difference existed between Gill & Fuller on the atonement indicates a tendency of ignoring significant distinctions of a belief system, and therefore could affect his own judgement about his. If he was correct, and no substantial difference existed between Gillites and Fullerites, then why spill so much ink defending Gill's understanding of limited atonement? In essence, Mercer would have already been preaching Fullerism, and the GBA would have actually confessed it. None of this makes sense to me.

Moreover, Mercer claimed White was misinterpreting Fuller to substantiate his supposed "Arminianism" scheme in White's book. But White's little book (tract is more like it) never mentions Fuller in it. Instead it's a short treatment of the usual texts non-Calvinists employ to prove what White called "unlimited atonement" based upon what appears to be a governmental backdrop, the same theological backdrop New Divinity Baptists like Jonathan Maxcey employed in the 1790s to argue general atonement. Mercer's 10 letters against White's 20 page tract was nothing short of theological overkill, a nuclear bomb, so to speak, against what, a "mere shade" of difference? Again from my perspective, there's something unstated and/or undetected going on here deserving more exploration.

I'm familiar with the article on "Whiteites," and that others who referred to White, Bethlehem church, and the Chattahoochee Assoc as Arminian. The problem is, none of them offer any more evidence than Mercer does that White, et al embraced Arminianism. They simply assert it.

The evidence we can observe, however, speaks against their descriptions.For example, White wrote,

/// If I have understood Election correctly, it means the sovereign right of God to choose whom he will...All men do most freely most willingly reject the gospel, and forever will, until the enmity of their heart is slain and their stubborn wills subdued by sovereign grace. This application of the grace of God is made by him to whom he will; his people are made willing in the day of his power, and this is Election (p.18, Scriptural View). ///

White sounds absolutely nothing like the Arminian he's made out to be. Nor, as I indicated earlier, was the Chattahoochee Assoc begun on Arminian principles. Rather while its founding confession explicitly denies Limited Atonement, it also explicitly affirms perseverance of the saints. From my perspective, rather than Mercer, one is tempted more--or at least equally so--to take H. Holcombe at face value when he said of the similar controversy in Alabama,"What is called Calvinism with some, is denominated Arminianism with others" (Holcombe, History, 1841, p.50).

I'm fascinated by these documents indicating our deep, rich theological heritage as Southern Baptists. Neither Calvinists nor non-Calvinists hold a monopoly on it. Even so, Allen's work makes a valuable contribution to Southern Baptists and especially so today since an overwhelming number of young scholars confidently embrace Tom Nettles' notion he persuasively presents in his magnum opus, By His Grace, For His Glory. Allen balances that notion out somewhat. I hope to balance it out some more with my present research project.

Lord bless, Robert.

With that, I am...

Unknown said...

Peter, thanks for your further comments and clarifications. I understand what you are getting at re Mercer's change of views.

It is interesting that Mercer wrote so much in reply to White. IIRC, the letters were first published in the Christian Index before being put in book form. Perhaps some of this might be explained by Mercer tending to be wordy. Some of this may be damage control. Cyrus White was undoubtedly a popular and effective minister who was gaining a hearing with the Baptists of Georgia. He was probably well-known. I believe he was one of the ministers (with Mercer) involved in organizing the General Convention in 1822. Also in the backdrop of this one might consider the missions/anti-missions controversy. Mercer would have the unenviable position of being theologically similar to associations like Ocmulgee and Flint River, who vigorously opposed White and were "anti-mission," while he was methodologically closer to Cyrus White. Seems like John Crowley may have discussed Mercer's theology in his Primitive Baptists of the Wiregrass South. John often has an unique and (dryly) humorous perspective.

I think to some extent we have to consider those who called others Calvinist and Arminian and so on -- just because that is part of the historical record -- but on the other hand I have learned the terms often have little useful value describing the actual theological position of someone who is being debated against.

Do you have any knowledge of how to contact the Georgia Free Will Baptist Historical Society? I've discovered that they reprinted White's booklet in 2010 and would be glad to find that copies are still available.

Thanks again. Have a blessed evening.

peter lumpkins said...


I think you're right about White's popularity. The GBA would not have secured him as a "staff" evangelist if he lacked pulpit skills. And his church was one of the leading churches in baptisms and growth. You're also correct about his involvement in forming the association. He was a "founding" member. I suspect White and Mercer were very close friends--at least before the schism. If I'm not mistaken, while Mercer mentioned in the 1st letter he was correcting White as a friend, he nonetheless called White a "heretic," which undoubtedly hurt their friendship, not to mention Mercer's subsequent crusade to exclude White, et al from his association.

You correctly mentioned above that White's newly established Chattahoochee Assoc sought correspondence with Free Will Baptists in NC. My gut tells me that's about all he could do since he (and they) was (were) virtually ostracized from Georgia life. It must be remembered, however, that early Free Will Baptists, like early followers of Arminius in general, had not credalized "falling from grace" but that the doctrine evolved over time Hence, it does not follow that because White sought correspondence with Free Will Baptists, his action proved he was "Arminian" or that he denied perseverance of the saints. In Chattahoochee's doctrinal abstract, Article 8 in their confession briefly and in full says, "8. We believe that Saints will persevere in Grace to the end of their lives" (Minutes of the Chattahoochee United Baptist Association, 1848, p. 4). Assuming this represents White's theology as well, this perhaps does not reflect well on Mercer. If White, et al were not developed Arminians, but only denied Limited Atonement in the New Divinity sense of other New Divinity Baptists like Jonathan Maxcy, W.B. Johnson, J. Mims, A.M. Poindexter, among many others who considered themselves Edwardian Calvinists, we not only find Mercer on the wrong side of history, Mercer also theologically hung an innocent Baptist man, Cyrus White. On a lighter but still puzzling, ironic note, Mercer appears on the one hand to have exhausted everything in his arsenal of influence to sabotage White's relationship with Georgia Baptists even though White was a non-negotiable ally of missions and missions organizations, while at the very same time on the other hand, Mercer coddled, cozy-ed, plead with and begged the hyper-Calvinist, anti-missions Baptists to please not leave the associations but to stay connected with Georgia Associations. At this juncture, was he placing more value on 5-point Calvinism than co-operation in missions? That he'd rather have hyper-Calvinistic, anti-missionary Baptists cooperating in Georgia than "Arminian" gospel preachers? It's hard to say, but it's not to much to suggest that it certainly appears that way.

---part 2 follows

peter lumpkins said...

Part 2

Anyways, White being a founding member of the association, those who surmise White was once a strict Calvinist are most probably correct. Though I cannot demonstrate this with actual documents presently, I'm guessing that when Jonathan Maxcy took over the presidency of USC in 1804, for the next two decades, he made a powerful impact all over the south with his New Divinity views on the atonement, a general atonement based upon the governmental theory rather than strictly penal substitution and the Owenic pecuniary emphasis upon the traditional "commercial transaction" taught by Gill and explicitly inherited by the Mercers and subsequently most GBA Baptists at the time. Greg Wills alludes to this in a paper in SBTS' journal of theology (don't recall the title now, but if you want it, I'll find it). If I am correct, it makes a lot of sense how Mercer could have confused White's New Divinity theology and rejection of Limited Atonement with Arminianism and its rejection of Limited Atonement. Much of this presently must remain hypothetical since it's based upon partial but not sufficient evidence to conclude. As you say, we have contemporary (almost) witnesses who agree in dubbing White, et al "Arminian" thus collaborating Mercer, and so cannot legitimately rule their assessment prima facie out--unless we propose adequate reason for doing so. I hope to have enough documented substantiation for the hypothesis by the time my chapter is due.

An original copy of White's Scriptural View of the Atonement is a hard catch. Below is a link to a transcripted copy of a transcripted copy of Georgia Free Will Baptist's reprint . I would not trust it for technical research documentation because one would need to consult the original (for my money, I would not use the Free Will reprint for technical research validation since not only could they have erred in transmission, they could have edited parts out for publishing format, length, et al purposes). However, though this copy is three times removed from the original, it can certainly one give a sense, relatively speaking, of White's argument.

Sorry to go on so long. Take care.

With that, I am...

Unknown said...

Just a few random comments, that can be taken for what they are worth.

Re the Free Will Baptists in North Carolina, I would think that apostasy would have been a doctrine developed among them by 1840 -- not that all necessarily believed it. Jeremiah Walker had introduced among Georgia Baptists circa 1790, so I wouldn't think it strange that NC Free Wills would have held it in 1840. To be clear, this is just a guess based on general knowledge and not something in my memory banks. I've read Dodd and Davidson on FWB history, but have no specific memory of the beliefs of NC FWBs in this time frame. Often the FWBs in the South appear to be a people looking for their history which arose at times from defection from other Baptists.

That said, I think we must accept Chattahoochee's own expression of their beliefs -- and their opinion likely is a reflection of White's (I'd think). If we accept their own expression of their beliefs, then the likely conclusions are that Chattahoochee is just reaching out to NC FWBs to see if they can fellowship, holding the general provision in common, and, if they knew the FWBs held apostasy, the most we could surmise is not that Chattahoochee held it, but that they might have been willing to overlook it if they could otherwise find fellowship with these folks. The Tennessee associations previously mentioned, as far as I know, never embraced apostasy but agreed with, and still do, White's view of the atonement.

You ask of Mercer, "That he'd rather have hyper-Calvinistic, anti-missionary Baptists cooperating in Georgia than 'Arminian' gospel preachers?" My guess would be yes, though 'hyper-Calvinistic' is not likely how he would have viewed them. It seems to me that Mercer's own theology would have required him to view those Calvinists who opposed cooperative missions as orthodox (and the missions question a matter of methodology), while rejecting the views of White, et al as unorthodox regarding soteriology. Interestingly, though, the folks on the Primitive side didn't think Mercer's views on missions were orthodox (at least ecclesiology) and quite often scored him as wrong. (Seems my memory says one indicated he thought Mercer had gotten senile.) On a different matter altogether, in your research have you seen any rise of postmillennialism among the Georgia missionary Baptists of that period? In later editions of his Cluster, Mercer has a hymn section called "The Dawning of the Latter-Day Glory," which seems postmillennial to me. See Two Important Southern Hymn Books for some context on that.

I'm not very familiar with Jonathan Maxcy, but you are probably right about his impact across the South, at least among the educated classes. I would tend to think that the leaning to general provision among some Separate Baptists had a greater impact on the average church member who was more familiar with the Bible than systematic theology.

Thanks for the pdf "third-hand" transcription of White's booklet! It will do fine for my purposes, since I'm just trying to get the gist of his thinking from his own words. I take it from your comments that the FWB historical society reprint is a transcription rather than a photographic reprint. I'm still working on tracking it down. I have made contact with their archivist and am waiting for an answer.

Unknown said...

I referred above to Mercer writing so much in reply to White. It might be worthwhile to put here for readers part of Mercer's apology for writing the response, which is that some were implicating him in agreement with Cyrus White.

" the Ocmulgee Association last fall, [Mercer] was requested to deliver a discourse on the atonement; but he declined...this course was construed, rather into evidence of defection, and soon it was reported, through that section, that he had apostitised from the faith of his denomination, and was, at least, in connection with Cyrus White and B. H. Willson (who were accused of propagating arminian sentiments) and of even being their abettor...'You know brother Mercer, that Willson frequently asserted in the association that he had not departed from the faith--but believed as you did. If this be the truth, then the inference is fair, when we say, you believe as Willson does: and we are well assured here than Willson believes as White does; and White's faith we have in print.'...On reading Mr. White's views of the atonement, and finding them far different than he had anticipated, and from what he conceived to be correct; [Mercer] thought it proper to write the following letters, not only to shew that his was not in sentiments with Mr. W. as had been suggested, but also [to show Andrew Fuller had been misrepresented, rlv]." (Ten Letters, pp. i-ii)

Also, my memory was incorrect about Mercer's letters being first published in the Christian Index before being put in book form. Actually, according to the Index, they published from the pamphlet after it has been printed.

peter lumpkins said...

Thanks for the interesting discussion Robert. Your familiarity with the period is a breath of fresh air since few on blogs unfortunately have a serious deficiency when it comes to SB history. Thanks also for the mini-bio on White. I'll keep my eyes open for docs you may find helpful.

As for the link I sent you look on the bottom of the doc and you'll see the Facebook page from which i got the doc. It was transcribed by a FWB pastor in Georgia who says he transcribed it from the FWB reprint. I contacted him via FB and he replied. Perhaps he will reply to any inquires you send as well. Take care...

R. L. Vaughn said...

Thanks again, and thanks for pointing out the link at the bottom of the PDF. I suppose I would have eventually noticed it, but had not yet.

If I notice or find something I think you might be interested in, I'll try to remember to let you know. Also, let us know about your research when you have completed it!