The Enigmatic Samuel Mercer

Everyone in Bay Roberts, NL, knows that Samuel Mercer (1879-1969), Episcopalian clergyman and world-renowned Orientalist and Egyptologist, was born in their town. The record of his birth is incontestable; he was indeed born in the town on 10 May 1879. And, when he entered Harvard University in 1905, he agreed with the baptismal registry, except that he had expanded his name to Samuel Alfred Browne Mercer. Five years later, when he entered the University of Munich, he seemed to have forgotten both the year and place of his birth! “Ich bin am 10 Mai 1880,” he began his resume, “in Bristol, England geboren.”

Samuel Alfred Browne Mercer with the insignia of the Order of the Trinity

The two errors – 1880 and Bristol – subsequently entered the reference books, and became the gospel – except in Bay Roberts, where he is venerated as a local boy who made big. The prestigious Current Biography went so far as to speculate on how Mercer ended up in Bay Roberts in the first place!

“At an early age,” the book hypothesized, “Samuel Mercer was taken to North America where he spent most of his boyhood and youth in Newfoundland.”

The question is why Mercer instigated the hoax surrounding his birth. It is a question that readily invites investigation. The holder of twelve degrees, the author of twenty-nine books and a linguist who spoke fifteen languages, he may have wanted simply to forget his poverty-stricken childhood in Bay Roberts and, at the same time, lend credibility to his many and varied accomplishments. Bristol, England, may have sounded more stately to him than Bay Roberts, Newfoundland.

A distinctive Newfoundland regional dialect – the north shore of Conception Bay which exhibits a loss of “r” after vowels – completely fooled a reporter for The New York Times in 1952. The journalist was impressed by what he perceived as Mercer’s “native British accent.” And, an expanded name, Samuel Alfred Browne Mercer, may have carried a more scholarly ring than the mundane Samuel.

A subsidiary factor is drawn from Mercer’s A Brief Autobiography, which he wrote in 1958. At seventy-nine years of age, he dated his birth in 1880 and wrote giddily that it was “the year in which Gaston Maspero [1846-1916], the famous French Egyptologist, discovered the inscriptions in the five Sakkara pyramids in Egypt.” In 1952, Mercer had completed a six-year task of translating these hieroglyphics into English. The historical link between his work and Maspero’s find was, in Mercer’s mind, too close to pass up. His claim to have been born the same year as Maspero’s find backfired, though, because the latter did not make his discovery until 1881. Mercer still missed by a year!

This is but one of many hoaxes that have been foisted upon the public. In the case of Samuel Alfred Browne Mercer, an individual of international repute, for personal reasons, threw a veil over the details of his birth. And, he allowed the hoax to persist until a future biographer rechecked the records. This is a clear example of how a hoax can become entrenched in the accepted version of events.

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David Mainse on Eugene Vaters

After reading about the passing of television host and founder of 100 Huntley Street David Mainse at 81 on 25 September 2017, I went to my correspondence file to see whether I had any letters from him.

David Mainse

On 1 August 1988, while researching the life and ministry of Pastor Eugene Vaters (1898-1984), general superintendent of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Newfoundland (1928-62), I asked Mainse for his impressions about the Newfoundland Pentecostal pioneer.

“He was a great blessing to us,” Mainse begins his response, dated 28 August 1988. Featuring Vaters on 100 Huntley Street was, Mainse adds, “like having one of God’s patriarchs as our special guest.

Eugene Vaters

“Eugene Vaters is a man of towering statue, in my experience of ministry. I’ve heard him preach. I’ve visited in his home and I have seen the results firsthand of his apostolic calling in the great success of the Pentecostal Assemblies ministry throughout Newfoundland. He was and continued to be, in my thinking, to the Church a figure of great importance. In the history of our Nation one would have to draw an earthly comparison to [John A.] MacDonald [1815-91) or [George-Étienne] Cartier [1814-73], some of the early Fathers of Confederation. I don’t wish to minimize the importance of political contribution that these men made to nationhood, but the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth is of infinitely greater importance than the work of anyone following a political calling.”

When Vaters’ daughter, Pauline Shaw and her husband Geoffrey were with 100 Huntley Street for several years, “the character of Eugene Vaters was very much a part of their lives,” Mainse writes. “I saw and appreciated his legacy daily during the time.”

When Mainse was in Vaters’ presence, he “sensed an unbending integrity and yet a heart full of compassion and understanding. In short, a man who had, throughout life’s journey, became conformed to the image of Christ.”

Actually, Mainse knew both Eugene Vaters and his wife, Jennie (1895-1986). “Together,” he reminisces, “this couple was a formidable team striking fear into the hearts of the enemy and planting the banner of the cross firmly throughout Newfoundland and Labrador and having a great influence far beyond those shores.”

High praise indeed!