Politics Magazine

Lord Have Mercer

Posted on the 02 May 2014 by Steveawiggins @stawiggins

Samuel Alfred Browne Mercer was an Assyriologist who failed to establish an academic legacy.  I quickly learned, when consulting his The Tell El-Amarna Tablets that his work was considered inferior, and that it would not have been published, had it not been for his wealthy wife.  Not a very ringing endorsement for a guy who wrote a grammar of Assyrian.  It was a little odd, then, when in the library at Nashotah House when Mr. Tolan was clearing out shelf space, that he asked me if I would like a copy of Mercer’s autobiography.  The library had two and, well, needed more shelf space.  I thanked him for the slim volume and took it home to read.  The little book is self-published, and it had been typed with a sans serif font, something rare for a published volume in those days.  It had been annotated by hand, I presume by the author.  And it told a most interesting story.
Mercer, I was to learn, had been a student at Nashotah House.  Now, in my days at the seminary the internet had not yet made it that far into the backwoods of Wisconsin.  We eventually did get a dial-up connection and we thought we were so twenty-first century.  In any case, Nashotah House, when it finally established a website, did nothing so vainglorious as to list noted alumni or faculty.  The only two I ever heard praised were Gustaf Unonius and Michael Ramsey, the former for being the first graduate, and the latter as an adjunct instructor (and, incidentally, the Archbishop of Canterbury).  Samuel A. B. Mercer, as he styled himself, would not likely have raised even a unibrow.  He had written a couple of books on a learned topic, but had failed to impress.  Reading his life story was somewhat intimate, however.  He tells of riding on the top of a train in Russia to get from city to city with little money, and of visiting Ethiopia where, it seems, he was convinced the Ark of the Covenant might just be.  Had I not studied Akkadian and read about Assyriology, I might not have ever come across his name.  We were, however, touching at an odd juncture.
Not even rating a Wikipedia article, Mercer disappears into obscurity after his informal accounting of his life.  He apparently had a wealthy wife (home life is not the focus of his brief story), and a lasting desire to spend time in Kush.  Although it has been years since I’ve read his story, I recall that he did have a life of adventure and a little intrigue.  Maybe we were spiritual kin after all, for we each tried and failed to make an impression on an ivory tower world where those who tarry too long at Nashotah are deemed among the least important of academics.  After all, even the relatively comprehensive list of institutions of higher education on the University of Texas website (and Texas and Nashotah have a lasting connection) fails to mention the seminary.  Its little library, nevertheless, does hold evidence of a lost life-story or two.


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