Jesse Mercer responded to Cyrus White with a series of letters published under the title Ten Letters Addressed to the Rev. Cyrus White, in Reference to his Scriptural View of the Atonement (Washington, GA: News Office, 1830). His “apology” is dated June 15, 1830 (The first letter is dated May 7, 1830).[i] Mercer says White had “gone to general provision and free-will ability.” Part of Mercer’s reason for writing the response was that some were implicating him as being in agreement with Cyrus White. “...at 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].”[ii]
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) those who followed the atonement viewpoint of Cyrus White were 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, “Both parties evidently ran into extremes...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 probable that he ever would have become a schismatic.”[iii]
It has been common, from Mercer to those who follow, to cite Cyrus White as an Arminian.[iv] No doubt the term Arminian is often used as a loose “catch-all” phrase. But according to theological understanding, Cyrus White was no Arminian. While he embraced the “full” or general atonement, which differs from a strict 5-point Calvinism, there is no evidence brought forth of which I am aware that White embraced other Arminian points, such as conditional election or the possibility of falling from grace.[v] In his atonement booklet, White writes, “If I have understood Election, it means the sovereign right of God to choose whom he will...And such is the enormity of the human heart, it will not submit to GOD’s government and grace. 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...None will be saved but those to whom an application of the atonement is made.” (p. 22).
In contrast to Mercer and others who follow his view of White’s theology, Peter Lumpkins pointed out to me that there is a similarity of the view to White to the New Divinity views on the atonement of Jonathan Edwards and Timothy Dwight. Jonathan Maxcy, a Baptist minister, “took over the presidency of [the University of South Carolina] 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.”
[i] Since they are letters, I wonder out loud whether Jesse Mercer may have sent these to Cyrus White before they were printed. These were also printed in The Christian Index, August 28, 1830: “We have received a pamphlet of near 50 pages containing ten letters addressed to the Rev. Cyrus White, by the Rev. Jesse Mercer, of Georgia, on the Atonement” (W. T. Brantly, The Columbian Star and Christian Index, 1830). Brantly wrote, “…if brother White chooses to reply…we shall feel bound to print his reply.” I am not aware that White ever replied via the Index.
[iii] “Origins of Free Will Baptists in Georgia” in The Journal of Baptist Studies (Volume 6, June, 2014), if accurate, indicates a slow movement of the White-ites toward becoming Free Will Baptists. For White himself, it appears his main difference from the larger body of Georgia Baptists was that he held and preached a general provision in which the blessings of salvation are freely offered to all by the gospel.
[iv] By both those who wish to oppose him as an Arminian, and those who wish to embrace him as an Arminian. (Mercer, p. i, mentions Arminian in reference to White’s view.)
[v] Chattahoochee United Baptist Association’s doctrinal abstract, Article 8 states, “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) thanks for Peter Lumpkins for this information.