Jesse Mercer @ Penfield — Mercer University

by Stephen Brown

Freshman Mercer students make a pilgrimage to this site each year. This is Mr. Brown’s speech delivered to them at the cemetery.

So here we are, on a crisp Fall afternoon, standing together in a cemetery.  Halloween is a little over a week away.  Our modern association with Halloween and cemeteries conjures up images of ghosts and zombies.  Countless horror movie scenes have taken place in cemeteries.  Because of this, cemeteries often bring to mind thoughts of death and loss.  Cemeteries were never intended to be a place that primarily represents death.  They were intended to be, and still remain so, a place for peace and rest.  In the 19th century, cemeteries like Rose Hill in Macon were designed as parks – a place where the living could go and relax and reflect upon life.  We’re here to reflect on good things, so try to relax as we do this today.

I want you to think of a date – a date that’s easy for you to recall and holds some special significance for you, and perhaps for others in your life as well.  It is likely that you have thought of your birthday.  For most of us, we are not only willing to share our birthday with others, but we are also happy to celebrate the anniversary of our existence.  How we celebrate is dependent upon several factors – traditions, friends, family, and where we are in the span of life. It is a day in which we are most likely to ask ourselves “I wonder what this next year will be like for me?” Part of our celebration is the anticipation of new challenges and experiences for the coming year – growing a year older and wiser. Developmental psychologists report that it is only as we reach milestone birthdays, such as turning 30 or 40 that we may pause to reflect on what we’ve done or accomplished in our lives thus far. It’s that moment when we take a look back before we look ahead and ask ourselves, “how am I doing so far?”

So what does tall of his have to do with standing in an unfamiliar cemetery in rural Georgia? Birthdays are a celebration of life thus far and more life to come.  But for today, we’re standing in a place where we celebrate and honor lifetimes; Lifetimes that were long and some tragically short. On just about every grave marker, there is a birthdate and a date of death – a combination of numbers that in no way reflects the quality of life, but rather, signifies the beginning and the end.   In many cases, there are carefully chosen words that describe the person’s character and their significant contributions during their lifetime.  We’re specifically here to honor some of Mercer’s earliest and more recent leaders who have demonstrated their character by the contributions they have made to the institution we are all a part of.

Before we honor those individuals, I’d like to give you a little background about this place. When you think of designing or creating a community, you think about what needs to be built – a school, a church, a store, a post office, a playground, a hospital, a town hall, and of course, homes.  But no one really thinks about building a cemetery as part of the planning process.  A cemetery is an important part of a community, not because it’s the place for the people who die, but because it is a place of history.  It’s a genealogical museum.  It’s a place where families and friends connect with their heritage.  Many times, it’s a place where the blanks are filled in from the past; where stories are completed or verified.

Penfield community existed because of Mercer.  There was nothing but open land prior to the establishment of Mercer Institute in the 1830s.  A community grew around the school.  When the university decided to move to Macon in 1871, the chapel you saw as you drove onto the campus was given to the residents of Penfield to serve as a Baptist church. The remainder of the buildings and grounds were also given to the community, except for this four acres of land that was to serve as the community’s cemetery.  Even though Mercer was leaving the Penfield community to relocate in Macon, many of its residents had established roots and remained in the community and worked primarily in the cotton industry.  Many of the families represented in the cemetery came to Penfield because of Mercer.

The cemetery, officially named Penfield Cemetery of Mercer University, serves “as a burying ground for the long-time residents of Penfield and Mercerians who because of their service to the institution might properly be buried here.”  According to rules and regulations established by the Board of Trustees, only a long-time resident of Penfield, Georgia, or a former long-time resident of Penfield, Georgia, or a long-time employee of Mercer University may be buried in the cemetery.   In other words, this is a special place for special people.

At this time, we pause to focus on some of those people who are a part of Mercer’s heritage.  They span generations – some started it all and others have continued to grow and enrich what we know as a vibrant learning community that reaches out to the state and the world, to make a difference.

It all began with Jesse Mercer.  He was born in North Carolina on December 16, 1769, the eldest of a family of eight children.  His father, Silas Mercer, moved the family to Wilkes County Georgia, not far from here.  At age 19, Jesse married his first wife, Sabrina.  Not uncommon in those days, Jesse was never formally educated.  He did not attend school and never attended college.  He received individual tutoring from older ministers.  He was honored with a Doctorate of Divinity degree from Brown University later in his life.   While perhaps he was never regarded as an educator, he was a highly respected and influential minister who valued education.  He served his first church as pastor for over 20 years.  He was not only a successful minister, he was also a writer and publisher.   According to biographers, there was a great lack of satisfactory hymn books for churches in those days, so Jesse compiled a book, which he called “Mercer’s Cluster.” Jesse also purchased a newspaper known as the Christian Index from a publisher in Philadelphia and moved it to Georgia.  That publication is still in existence today.   Jesse’s wife, Sabrina, passed away in 1826 after almost 50 years of marriage.  In 1827, Jesse married a second time, to a widow named Nancy Simons.  Her first husband, was a wealthy businessman.  It was the inherited wealth of Jesse Mercer’s second wife that allowed him to contribute close to the sum of $40,000 to Mercer.   With all that Jesse Mercer had done to support the concept of a Baptist school for men, the school was named in his honor.  He was never President, but served as the first chairman of the Board of Trustees.  He was 64 when Mercer Institute began in 1833 and was later named Mercer University in 1837.   His second wife passed away in May of 1841 and he died four months later at the age of 71.   You’ll notice that his first wife is buried here next to him.  At the request of the Georgia Baptist History Commission and top leadership from Mercer University, following his death, the grave of Jesse’s first wife was relocated from Anderson County South Carolina to be buried here, next to him.  Nancy, Jesse’s second wife, is buried in Washington, Georgia, where he lived his last years and was pastor of a church there.

Jesse Mercer grave

We also honor and remember Billington Sanders, the first president of Mercer University.   He attended Franklin College in Athens, but eventually graduated from college in South Carolina.  His wife, Cynthia Holliday Sanders, known to all as “Old Miss” assisted in establishing the Christian character of the school by serving as a surrogate mother to students. Twenty-six of the thirty-nine original students lived in the Sanders’ home.  That home still stands today on the edge of this campus.  He served as president from 1833 to 1840.

Spright Dowell served as the University’s president for twenty-five years from 1928-1953.  Prior to coming to Mercer, he had served for seven years as the president of what would become Auburn University.  A leadership award is presented each year by Omicron Delta Kappa in his name.  Dowell was responsible for the construction of Mary Erin Porter hall, the university’s first female residence hall.  He also authored A History of Mercer University.

George Connell was the University’s 21st president serving from 1953-1959.  The Student Center bears his name.  He was also responsible for the construction of several academic buildings and a significant increase in the university’s endowment funds.

James McAfee is the most recent Mercer leader to be buried here at Penfield in 2004.  He was not an educator, but a highly successful entrepreneur whose wealth was a result of his leadership in the healthcare management industry.  He, like Jesse Mercer, valued the role of education in society.  Also, like Jesse, he served as Chairman of the Board of Trustees.  His vision and faith combined with his generosity led to the establishment of the McAfee School of Theology in 1994 which is located on the Atlanta campus.

So these are the people we honor today who have left their legacy – they have made significant contributions to this community called Mercer – contributions that have spanned generations and will last beyond a lifetime.  I hope some of blanks have been filled in and some of the dots have been connected.  I hope this experience will provide you with two things – a greater understanding of Mercer’s past – and a clear call for you to be not only part of the present, but to consider how you will be a part of her future.  What will you say at the end of your Mercer experience as you look back and look ahead at the same time?

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