Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Mercer, John Edward (1857–1922)

by R. P. Davis

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

John Edward Mercer (1857-1922), by McGuffie, Harcourt & Co, c1910

John Edward Mercer (1857-1922), by McGuffie, Harcourt & Co, c1910

W L Crowther Library, State Library of Tasmania, AUTAS001126073535

John Edward Mercer (1857-1922), Anglican churchman and bishop, was born on 13 February 1857 at Eccleshill, Bradford, Yorkshire, England, son of Rev. Edward Mercer and his wife Mary. Young Edward obtained a scholarship in 1871 to Rossall School, Lancashire, where he was a voracious reader and revelled in sport. In 1876 he went up to Lincoln College, University of Oxford (B.A., 1879; M.A., 1886; D.D., 1902). He was ordained in 1880 and began his ministry with short curacies in the Durham diocesan parishes of Tanfield (1880-82) and Penshaw (1882-83) where he won the approbation of working-class parishioners. On 18 April 1882 he married Josephine Antonia (d.1907), daughter of Rev. William Archdall.

In 1883 Mercer was appointed Rossall School missioner (or school-financed curate) at another working-class parish, Newton Heath, Manchester, where the Mercers had full scope for work among the poor. Open-air services, youth clubs and temperance associations helped to raise local morale. In 1889 he was appointed rector of St Michael's, Angel Meadow, an inner Manchester parish described by Engels in 1844 as a grim victim of the industrial revolution. Mercer himself wrote vividly of the 'grinding poverty', 'besotted drinking' and prostitution which he strove to alleviate. He became a leading member of the Christian Social Union. In 1897 Mercer transferred to the nearby parish of Gorton, another industrialized area where his dash and enthusiasm rapidly developed the religious and social amenities of the parish.

Mercer was appointed fifth Anglican bishop of Tasmania in 1902 and arrived on 1 September. To the mounting fury of upper-class Tasmanians, the robust new bishop was an outspoken social reformer. He provided a cathedral service for the infant Labor Party's first conference in 1903, spoke frequently to Labor gatherings, and conducted missions to remote Bass Strait islands and mining camps. He participated vigorously in the exposure of 'sweating' among Hobart seamstresses, a campaign that helped to obtain Tasmania's first wages boards in 1910. His support of the Workers' Political League and trade unions earned him the title of 'the Socialist Bishop', and led to bitter attacks in the local press. Mercer was a good administrator, encouraging the building of new churches and schools. He was a compelling speaker and published prolifically while in Tasmania. An amateur poet and painter, he supported intellectual and cultural activities and was a keen bushwalker.

Mercer resigned and sailed home from Tasmania on 15 March 1914. After a period at Brighton he was appointed assistant to the bishop of Chester, accepting a residential canonry in September 1916. At Southampton he married on 27 April 1916 Harriet Ethel Bennion, twenty years his junior and a keen church-worker. He retained his enthusiasm for social reform. In 1919 he added the archdeaconry of Macclesfield to his duties and participated vigorously in the Church of England convocation. His death from erysipelas on 28 April 1922 came as a shock. Mercer left no children by either marriage but an adopted daughter Sarah was mentioned in his will of 1916.

Of Mercer's numerous books and pamphlets, the most notable are Social Equality (Sydney, 1905), The Soul of Progress (Melbourne, 1907, Moorhouse lectures), The Science of Life and the Larger Hope (London, 1910), Nature Mysticism (London, 1913), The Mystery of Life (London, 1915) and Why Do We Die? An Essay on Thanatology (London, 1919).

Select Bibliography

  • E. Hudson, The Rossall Mission (priv print, 1911)
  • R. P. Davis, Bishop John Edward Mercer, a Christian Socialist in Tasmania (Hob, 1982)
  • Rossallian, 8 Apr, 16 Oct 1889, 16 June 1922
  • Papers and Proceedings (Tasmanian Historical Research Association), 30 (June 1983), no 2.

Citation details

R. P. Davis, 'Mercer, John Edward (1857–1922)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/mercer-john-edward-7558/text13189, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 21 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2017

John Edward Mercer (1857-1922), by McGuffie, Harcourt & Co, c1910

John Edward Mercer (1857-1922), by McGuffie, Harcourt & Co, c1910

W L Crowther Library, State Library of Tasmania, AUTAS001126073535