Lifelong Georgia resident Billington McCarter Sanders was one of the most prominent clergymen residing in the Peach State in the early 19th century. A Baptist minister for over thirty years, Sanders is still remembered today as having been the first principal of the Mercer Institute (now Mercer University), helping to guide the school along during its infancy. While prominent in religious and education circles, Sanders also had fleeting involvement in politics, being a representative to the Georgia State Assembly for one term beginning in 1817.
The eldest child born to Columbia County, Georgia residents Ephraim and Nancy Sanders, Billington M. Sanders was born in that county on December 2, 1789. Before reaching the age of ten young Billington was left parent-less and following their passing was taken into the home of Mr. Ambrose Jones and his family. Sanders began his schooling in the Kiokee Seminary and was later described by an acquaintance as a student who was "apt to learn, high tempered, a little proud and quite spirited." He continued his education at the Franklin College in Athens, Georgia and in 1808 enrolled at the South Carolina College, from which he graduated the following year.
Shortly after his graduation Sanders began a teaching career in Columbia County, Georgia and continued in this vocation for a period of about two years. He would operate a plantation in that county for nearly two decades and married his first wife, Martha Lamar, in 1812. The couple would have a total of nine children over the course of their ten-year marriage, and following her death in 1822 remarried to Cynthia Holliday (1804-1887), with whom he would have a further thirteen children. In all, Billington Sanders fathered a total of 22 children during his lifetime, nine of whom would survive him upon his death in 1854.
In 1817 Billington Sanders was elected as one of Columbia County's representatives to the Georgia State Assembly, where he would serve for one term. Despite ably representing his district in the state house, Sanders' time in the legislature left him with a disdain for politics, and was later recorded as stating to then Governor William Rabun that "This is no place for a Christian, and I shall never come here again." True to his word, Sanders never again served in the legislature, but would serve as a "Judge of the Inferior Court" for several years.
A few years following his legislative service Sanders began service as clerk of the Union Church at Warren County, Georgia, and during his time in that post felt called to the ministry, and was licensed to preach in Warren County around 1823. Sander was officially ordained two years later and would serve as a pastor at several Baptist churches, including those at Williams Creek, Pine Grove, Shiloh, Greensboro and Powelton, Georgia.
During the mid 1820s, Sanders resided in a large log cabin in Penfield, Georgia, devoting one room in said cabin to a "place of worship." Around 1831 the Baptist Convention of Georgia began laying the groundwork for a "classical and theological seminary" near Penfield, and Billington Sanders was sought out to serve as its principal. The Mercer Institute, as the school was then referred to, was officially established in 1833 and during his several years as school head also doubled as a financial agent and teacher. The guiding hand of Billington Sanders saw Mercer Institute through its early years of existence, and after the school was granted its university charter in 1837 he was elected as college president. Sanders continued to serve as president until his resignation in 1839 but would be affiliated with Mercer for the remainder of his life, serving as the secretary and treasurer of the Mercer University Board of Trustees.
From the National Cyclopedia of American Biography, 1896.
In the latter portion of his life, Sanders continued to be active in church work, serving as the moderator of the Georgia Baptist Association for nearly a decade and was clerk of that same body for seven years. For six years Sanders held the presidency of the Georgia Baptist Convention as well as being a delegate to the Southern Baptist Convention on numerous occasions.
The final years of Sanders' life saw him plagued by ill health, including attacks of vertigo and a "general prostration of his system." In the last four months of his life, Sanders was confined to his home in Penfield, dying there on March 12, 1854 at age 64. He was survived by his wife and children and was interred at the Penfield Cemetery in Penfield, Greene County, Georgia. One should also note that Sanders' middle name is sometimes given as "McCarthy". This is presumed to be a spelling error, as period literature gives the spelling as "McCarter", as does his biography in "Who Was Who In America" and the Georgia Biographical Dictionary.