Book Review: Father Mercer: The Story of a Baptist Statesman
Father Mercer: The Story of a Baptist Statesman. By Anthony L. Chute. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2012. 146 pp. $20.00
Reviewed by Ryan West
Over the past decade, Anthony Chute has emerged as a respected church historian, particularly in the area of Baptist Studies. Presently, he serves as the associate dean of the School of Christian Ministries and associate professor of Church History at California Baptist University. Having examined Jesse Mercer for his dissertation, Chute brings a depth of knowledge to this work that supersedes many biographers.
The purpose of the James N. Griffith Series in Baptist Studies is to advance Baptist studies on various levels to various audiences by promoting “the exploration and investigation of Baptist history; publish classics of Baptist literature including letters, diaries, and other writings; offer analyses of Baptist theologies; and examine the role of Baptists in societies and cultures both in the US and abroad.” As part of the Griffith Series, Chute’s biography seeks to tell the story of Jesse Mercer who was a key figure in establishing Baptist thought and culture which may be considered ‘givens’ today. In his official acknowledgments, Chute indicates his interest in Mercer “not as a topic of research but as a fellow pilgrim whose company I think I would have enjoyed had I lived in his day.” Mercer thus serves as an opportunity for personal encouragement for Chute and his readers while also fulfilling the purposes of the Griffith Series.
Father Mercer is divided into two sections. In the first section, Chute provides a relatively short biography of Mercer through a nice division of his early life and ministerial beginnings (“Son of Silas”), his rising role as a leader of southern Baptists (“Father Mercer”), and the fruit of his leadership (“The Old Man”). The second portion is a lengthy one that includes Mercer’s own writings such as sermons, letters to church members, and position articles. In this section, Chute provides a short introduction to each text in which he shows the significance of the material at hand. The end of the book includes a detailed timeline of Mercer’s life as well as a two-page summary of existing literature on Mercer for anyone interested in examining Mercer on a deeper level.
There is much in this work that readers will find helpful. Overall, readers will find Chute’s style of writing to be a pleasant encounter and even masterful at times. His work goes beyond merely reporting historical facts to recreate the felt experience of Mercer and his contemporaries. For example, the audience will feel the anguish of Jesse and Sabrina Mercer after the loss of their two daughters to an early death (17). Consequently, Chute accomplishes one of his objectives of representing Mercer as an ‘ordinary’ pastor by illustrating the struggles of this Baptist forefather. Elsewhere, his evaluation of Mercer’s views on church membership brings to light the weightiness of church covenants, membership, and church discipline (31-34). Contemporary Baptists may find such commitments a bit strange and Chute does an excellent job of helping readers understand the Baptist mentality of Mercer’s day. A few other examples of his quality of writing are his treatments of Baptists on local church autonomy and voluntary association (12-14), religious liberty (15), and denominational exclusivity (27-31).
A second commendable aspect of this work is Chute’s inclusion of primary source writings from Mercer. A potential problem with biographical works is that audiences are left to wonder if the person discussed was truly represented. Chute’s work, however, leaves little room for such doubt. Readers will find the primary sources to be rich in theology and practical exhortations from a man who loved Christ and his purposes. Rather than including a smattering of quotes here and there, including such a large section of material allows one to experience the subject firsthand. One minor question, however, worth noting involves the reasoning behind Chute’s selection of texts in light of the large corpus of Mercer’s writings.
Finally, persons acquainted with Mercer will note Chute’s faithful representation of Mercer’s own convictions. For example, Mercer’s denominational commitments flowed from his fidelity to Scripture as his beginning point (27-31). Elsewhere, this commitment is evident as Chute summarizes Mercer’s motivation for missions (65-68). The use of reason and historical justification were not dismissed, but they always remained subservient to the Bible. This aspect of Mercer’s life became vitally important when defending a position of evangelistic Calvinism against Cyrus White’s Arminianism and the Primitive Baptists’ anti-missionary position (68-82).
Chute’s work does leave room for minor criticisms, the most glaring of which is the lack of citations for his quotes, references, and evaluations. At no point does he provide a reference to the location of the primary source material that he uses. Therefore, readers wanting to explore the subjects addressed are left to the task of finding the primary source on their own. This issue creates several other problems within his work such as his truncated discussion of early Baptist views of soteriology (69-70).
Additionally, the reading audience may get the sense that Chute’s evaluations are overly general at times. Although Chute’s intention is to provide a brief introduction to Mercer, he relies on a good deal of assumed knowledge at times. This issue is concerning in light of his target audience being novice readers who need an introduction to figures such as Mercer and concerns associated with his life. For example, his discussion of Mercer’s denominational distinctions is a quick handling of differences between Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodist, and Baptists on complex issues surrounding the Lord’s Supper, baptism, religious authority, and polity (27-31).
Ultimately, Chute accomplishes his purpose of providing an introduction to both Mercer and Baptist battles of his day. Father Mercer is too simplistic to serve as a classroom text in light of the above criticisms, but it should prove to be a helpful resource nonetheless. Readers at all levels who are unacquainted with Mercer will benefit from meeting this figure who established many current Baptist commitments.
J. Ryan West serves as the Assistant to the Executive Director at the Evangelical Theological Society and as a Junior Fellow at the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies in Louisville, KY. He received a Th.M. in Historical Theology from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and is a Ph.D. Candidate (2012) in Theology and Tradition at the same institution. Before moving to Louisville, he and his wife served as missionaries in India and an inner-city context in the States. He serves as a ministry leader at Sojourn Community Church, where he teaches family ministry courses and leads a weekly small group. His professional memberships include the Evangelical Theological Society, the Baptist History & Heritage Society, and the Fellowship of Baptist Historians. He has a wonderful wife of eleven years and has been blessed with three young children, ages nine and under.