Mercer’s Heritage and the Pilgrimage to Penfield
Mercer University is an institution of higher learning established at Penfield, Georgia, in 1833 by Baptists in Georgia. The University relocated to Macon in 1871 and expanded in 1972 when Atlanta Baptist College merged with the University, creating what is now the Cecil B. Day Graduate and Professional Campus.
Since its founding, certain core principles have defined the learning experience at Mercer, including a commitment to intellectual and religious freedom and encouraging faculty and students to lead virtuous, meaningful and responsible lives. As a university that welcomes students from a variety of nationalities, ethnic groups, and traditions, Mercer values diversity by recognizing the dignity and worth of every person.
Hundreds of students – including the freshman class – celebrate this heritage with a pilgrimage each fall to the place where Mercer was born – the Penfield campus in rural Greene County. There they find the original university chapel, the foundation of the first University academic building, and a cemetery that includes the gravesites of Jesse Mercer, as well as a number of University presidents, trustees, and institutional leaders.
Pilgrimage activities include a picnic, fireworks, student presentations and historical re-enactments on the grounds of the original campus.
Jesse Mercer’s Statue
Jesse Mercer was among the most influential of the University’s founders. A statue of Jesse Mercer, sitting on a park bench, is situated at the center of the University’s campus in Macon. The same statue is also found at the center of the Atlanta campus.
Mercer first-year students, to mark the beginning of their academic careers at the University, process across campus led by bagpipes, past the statue of Jesse Mercer, with Mercer faculty lining the sidewalk, into Willingham Auditorium for Convocation. By tradition, it is considered good luck for Mercer freshmen to rub Jesse Mercer’s head as they process by the statue.
To mark the conclusion of their academic careers at the University, seniors process back across campus, once again led by bagpipes, past the statue of Jesse Mercer, with Mercer faculty lining the sidewalk, into Willingham Auditorium for Baccalaureate on the eve of graduation. Mercer seniors again rub the head of Jesse Mercer, this time seeking good luck in their futures beyond Mercer.
Climbing the Tower
The spires of the Godsey Administration Building on the Macon campus have been the most significant symbol of the University since Mercer moved from Penfield to Macon in 1871. The tower in the tallest of these spires was featured in a well-known novel authored by Mercer graduate Dr. Ferrol Sams and titled The Whisper of the River. The novel features a fictional student named Porter Osborne at the fictional Willingham University.
The novel is a largely biographical account of the author’s years as a Mercer student in the late 1930s and early 1940s, with Porter Osborne representing Ferrol Sams and Willingham University representing Mercer. The novel describes Osborne’s coming of age, including a number of experiences in the tower. Incoming freshmen are encouraged to read The Whisper of the River in the summer before arriving on campus and to submit an essay reflecting on the book’s meaning as they embark on their college career.
This tradition of first-year students climbing the tower goes back for over 100 years, with alumni from years past signing their names to the walls, door frames, floors, ceilings, banisters, and pillars along the way up to the tower itself, where more signatures may be found. Ferrol Sams' autograph is located on the Kappa Alpha Order wall.
Since moving from the spring to the fall semester in 2008, Homecoming is quickly becoming a popular tradition at Mercer. Homecoming Week begins with a variety of student events and culminates over the weekend with a pep rally and fireworks and alumni and friends events on Friday, special events such as the Athletic Hall of Fame induction, and the annual Homecoming football game on Saturday.
This annual event is hosted by the Student Government Association. Each year a prominent Mercerian is invited back to the University to share how Mercer has influenced his/her life. Founders’ Day began in 1891, 20 years after the University moved from Penfield to Macon. At that time, Founders’ Day was a celebration centered on Jesse Mercer’s birthday. Mercer’s two competing literary societies, Phi Delta and Ciceronian, each brought in a speaker to honor the heritage of Mercer and its founder. Founders' Day remained a significant annual event for Mercer for the next 40 or 50 years and had different formats during this period, ranging from political events attended by state governors to all-day historic celebrations. While this tradition remained strong during the early- to mid-1900s, interest began to wane in the 1950s and 1960s. By the end of the 1960s, the tradition had been completely removed from the University calendar. The Student Government Association revived the tradition in the mid 1990s.
Christmas Tree Lighting
This festive tradition is hosted by the Student Government Association and annually draws more than 500 students – as well as faculty, staff and their children – to the grounds outside Willingham Hall. The Mercer Singers lead the audience in carols, the University Minister offers a Christmas meditation, and a faculty member entertains the assembly with a traditional Christmas reading. The event culminates with the lighting of the Mercer Christmas Tree and the serving of cookies and hot chocolate.
Mascot and School Colors
Prior to 1924, Mercer’s nickname was the Baptists. By popular vote of the student body, Mercer’s mascot officially became the Bears, although the University’s athletes drew that label decades earlier. According to the late Steadman Vincent Sanford, a Mercer graduate and former chancellor of the University of Georgia (and for whom the University of Georgia football stadium is named), the “Bears” reference originated in the first football game played between Mercer and Georgia. In those days, athletes wore long hair and sported handlebar mustaches. As a brawny Mercer lineman charged down Old Herty Field in Athens, where the game was played in 1892, a bemused spectator asked, “Whence cometh that bear?” The name stuck. In a 1949 contest sponsored by The Cluster, Mercer’s campus newspaper, students voted to give the bear mascot a name. The winning entry was Toby. Students assigned the name Tot to Toby’s “lady friend.” Today you will see Toby and Tot roaming the University Center arena at Mercer athletic events.
Mercer’s school colors are orange and black.
Mercer Alma Mater
On the city's western border,
Reared against the sky,
Proudly stands our Alma Mater
As the years roll by.
Forward ever be thy watchword,
Conquer and prevail.
Hail to thee, O Alma Mater!
Mercer, hail, all hail.
Cherished by thy sons and daughters,
Mem'ries sweet shall throng,
Round our hearts, O Alma Mater,
As we sing our song.
Mercer Fight Song
Hail to thee, the best school in the land!
Come all ye loyal sons and daughters,
Ring out the victory song!
United all each foe we'll conquer
The battle now will not be long.
The Orange and Black is
Like a sign high in the sky!
That leads us on in triumph,
For Mercer we will live and die!
In basketball, we'll place her name ahead of all the rest.
In scholarship, when put to the test, she is the very best!
Hail to thee, Mercer University!
Hail to thee, Mercer University!
Hail to thee, the best school in the land!