Review of A Piety above the Common Standard, by Tony Chute

Anthony L. Chute, A Piety above the Common Standard: Jesse Mercer and Evangelistic Calvinism. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2004, first paperback ed., 2005. 238pp. $25.00, paper.

The concerns of the day could be summarized as follows: disputes over Calvinism, with anti-Calvinists pursuing a divisively vocal course; earnest desire for “a revival that will last all winter;” intense debates about world missions and new methods being used to reach the lost; conflicting opinions on the question of whether persons baptized by others need to be re-baptized; debates over whether theological education breeds pride and liberalism; and divided opinions on the possibility of cooperation with those who disagree. 

As much as this may sound like a description of the contemporary scene, it is a description of the issues of Jesse Mercer’s day. Anthony Chute, who now teaches at California Baptist University, has given us a valuable window into the life and times of Jesse Mercer (1769–1841). This is a book from which every Baptist pastor would benefit and which every seminary student at a Southern Baptist school should be required to read. As will become plain below, this book is a short course on soteriology, missiology, ecclesiology, denominational and associational cooperation, and, of course, history. 

Chute opens his treatment of “Father Mercer” with a preface that whets the reader’s appetite for the rest of the study. He clearly states “The central question” of his book: “In what ways did Jesse Mercer defend missions, education, and cooperative efforts on the basis of a Calvinistic theology” (xi). The first chapter sets the stage with a consideration of pioneer Georgia, the influence of George Whitefield, and Georgia Baptists’ pursuit of religious liberty, in which Silas Mercer, Jesse’s father, played an important role. Chapter two overviews the life and times of Jesse Mercer. Perhaps the most influential Baptist in Georgia at the time, Jesse Mercer owned and edited the The Christian Index, “the oldest continuing weekly religious periodical in the nation” (and which Al Mohler edited before becoming president at SBTS). Mercer was also a major impetus behind ministerial education, with the result that Mercer University was named in his honor, and he was the key figure in the founding of the Georgia Baptist Convention. In addition, Mercer made a significant contribution to worship and Christian devotion through his widely used hymnal, The Cluster of Spiritual Songs, Divine Hymns, and Sacred Poems

Jesse Mercer’s Calvinism is presented in chapter 3. Like all who identify with Calvinism, Mercer was led to his theological position by the Bible, not by any special allegiance to John Calvin. Interestingly, Mercer identified himself more with John Gill than Andrew Fuller. Those who severed the sovereignty of God from human responsibility were doubtful of Mercer’s commitments to his theology because he was so zealous for missions, but the problem was with their refusal to embrace the tension between sovereignty and responsibility, not with any position Mercer held. This chapter is a masterpiece of historical theology. Chute ably summarizes theological positions and persons, showing how the theological contributions of Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Edwards were the lifeblood of the early Baptists in America. Mercer was not one of those theologians who think that God revealed the truths of election and effectual calling for ministers to hide them. Mercer published on these doctrines and insisted repeatedly on his faithful adherence to them. As Chute puts it, “He took sides, and people noticed” (81). 

One of the most helpful features of Chute’s account is the way that he adeptly summarizes the dispute between Primitive Baptists and the Missionary Baptist party led by Jesse Mercer. Both Primitive and Missionary Baptists were Calvinists. Primitive Baptists opposed missionary efforts on the basis of their ecclesiology, arguing that cooperation between churches was unbiblical. Only individual churches should send out missionaries. So, for instance, John Leland, who is well known for his labors for religious liberty (see the recent volume edited by Thomas White, Jason G. Duesing, and Malcolm Yarnell, First Freedom) was “opposed to missions not because of a concern for Calvinistic theology being disregarded but out of [a] desire for simplicity and freedom in both government and religion” (134, Chute cites Tom Nettles, By His Grace and For His Glory, who has shown that Leland did not oppose missions because of his Calvinism). What’s more, Primitive Baptists thought that men such as Luther Rice, who handled the large sums of money gathered from cooperating churches, were corrupt and untrustworthy. Rice, who was friends with Mercer, did have financial troubles, and one committee concluded that he had acted “injudiciously” and wrote: “From various developments it appears that Mr. Rice is a very loose accountant and has imperfect talents for the disbursement of money” (165 n. 10).  

Chute models scholarly humility and fairness as he faithfully presents the arguments of Cyrus White, who—in the face of pleas from Mercer and others that he not pursue a divisive course—published his argument for a general view of the atonement in 1830. Chute summarizes White’s argument, showing it to be a powerful case for the view that “limited atonement was unscriptural and a deterrent to evangelism” (83). Many of White’s points are still heard among us today. In making his argument, however, White contended for the moral government theory of the atonement and opposed the idea of a substitutionary atonement. In response, for the health of the churches, Jesse Mercer published ten letters defending limited atonement in The Christian Index. Mercer’s arguments were welcomed by Calvinistic Missionary Baptists as they proved that the Calvinistic heritage was not being abandoned, and the Georgia Baptist Convention distanced themselves from White’s views by “censuring him in the convention minutes” (90). This account of the dispute between Mercer and White is an excellent summary of the general and limited views of the atonement. Any soteriology class would benefit from reading of the clash of these “two views” in historical context. 

Jesse Mercer believed that revival would arise from pure churches. Thus, church discipline was very important to him. His churches held monthly meetings to address instances of behavioral disorder in the flock (see further Gregory A. Wills, Democratic Religion). Contemporary SBC churches have much to learn from Jesse Mercer on this point, and Chute’s chapter on Mercer and revival is important reading for anyone thinking about ecclesiology. 

Mercer was nothing less than tenacious in his support of missions. Anyone training for pastoral ministry should be required to read Chute’s fifth chapter, which details the way that Jesse Mercer led Baptists to cooperate together to reach the “heathen” with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Those who think that Calvinism is a threat to missions and evangelism should consider this chapter, for “Jesse Mercer steadfastly asserted his fidelity to the Calvinistic perspective of John Gill and still found scriptural warrant to justify his participation in the missionary movement” (158). 

Jesse Mercer believed in theological education, and his humility is a model for all who follow Christ. Mercer, one of the most respected and articulate communicators of Scriptural truth in his generation, wrote, “The Bible is a learned book, and cannot be understood well without much pious knowledge and learning. He who now addresses you regrets that he knows so little of the Bible. After reading and studying it for nearly half a century in some sort, he has to make this humbling confession, that he knows, to his shame, comparatively but little of the Bible” (188, emphasis original). 

Mercer held firmly to his theological positions, and he sought earnestly to promote cooperation and agreement among his fellow Baptists. Seeking cooperation among Primitive and Missionary Baptists, Mercer opposed the decision of Primitive Baptists to require re-baptism of those who came to them from Missionary Baptist Churches (206). His goals were the glory of God, the good of the churches, and the propagation of the gospel.

Every Baptist owes a debt of gratitude to Anthony Chute, a debt we should seek to pay by reading this book. Anthony Chute’s A Piety above the Common Standard belongs on the short list, with Wills’ Democratic Religion and Nettles’ three volumes on The Baptists, of recent books that any student of Baptist history must read. Father Mercer has much to say to his progeny, who would do well to learn from his writings and follow his example in theology, ecclesiology, missiology, and cooperation.

8 Comments

Filed under Bible and Theology, Books, Evangelism and Apologetics, History, Reformation and Revival

8 responses to “Review of A Piety above the Common Standard, by Tony Chute

  1. Jeff Robinson

    Jim,
    Thanks for the insightful review. I also read this book a couple of months ago (in service of my dissertation, which is on one of his successors at the Index, Henry Holcombe Tucker) and will be reviewing it in the future and agree with you that Mercer (my fellow Georgian!) is a model of theological dialogue that contemporary Southern Baptists would do well to study and emulate. Chute does an expert job in making clear this aspect of Mercer’s ministry as an editor and preacher. As a Baptist history student here at your alma mater, I wanted to drop a note of appreciation for your fine work in bringing attention to this book and related issues!
    Faithfully,
    Jeff Robinson
    Louisville, KY

  2. Hey Jim.

    I entirely agree. This is a great book. I reviewed it in the Founders Journal in 2005: http://www.founders.org/FJ60/reviews.html
    Tony, the author, is a good friend as well. He has served us well wiht this book and i hope many will get it and read it.

  3. Jim,

    Thank you for a great review and recommendation. Please keep them coming. I am glad to have you as a friend, yokefellow, and professor at SWBTS. I am going to get this book immediately.

    ECR

  4. Bill Haynes

    Jesse Mercer has been a personal theological hero of mine since around 1987 when I was doing extensive research in Georgia Baptist History for the 150th anniversary of the church I pastored in Stone Mountain. Anthony Chute has done a great favor to all Baptists who truly want to understand their roots — even pre-SBC. I told Dr. Chute that he wrote the book that I wanted to write! But I believe his is better than mine would have been. I commend it to all.

  5. Pingback: Jesse Mercer’s Calvinism « Mercy Swimming

  6. Jason Kates

    My little brother’s middle name is Mercer, in honor of our ancestor….Jesse Mercer. I think I will have to check out this book.

  7. Jim,

    Thanks for reviewing Chute’s book, which should be required reading for anyone interested in SBC history or contemporary theological debates in the Convention. You may also want to check out Jarrett Burch’s book on Mercer’s 19th century Georgia Bapist compatriot, Adiel Sherwood. (Adiel Sherwood: A Baptist Antebellum Pioneer in Georgia, also published by MUP). Mercer and Sherwood almost single-handedly (well, dual-handedly) build the GBC and invented uniquely Southern Baptist denominationalism, all built on a foundation of warmly evangelical Calvinism.

    Nathan

  8. Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

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