They Burned Mercy Brown’s Heart

In Exeter, Rhode Island, January 1892, Mercy Brown was buried.

In March of 1892, her surviving loved ones dug her up, cut out her heart, burned it on a stone, mixed the ashes with water, and gave it to her brother to drink.

Rest in peace? Not so much.

Mercy’s family had been dying of “consumption,” one after the other, and the superstition that ruled the town at that time was that one of them must be of the “undead” and so, had brought the curse of tuberculosis upon them all.

When Mercy was exhumed, the 19-year-old, her body having been somewhat preserved by the frozen New England winter, appeared the least decomposed. This brought about her condemnation as the cause of the curse.

The relatives involved created a disturbing brew from the ashes of her heart and her brother drank it, the hope being that it would cure him and the curse would end.

He died two months later.

So much for that theory.

I don’t believe in coincidence. So, because I am studying mercy, I knew I had to watch the premier broadcast Saturday on our local PBS station about the Mercy Brown story.

The words of the story keep bouncing around in my head because they thought Mercy was dead so they exhumed Mercy and cut out Mercy’s heart but that did not provide the cure.

Humans are so stupid.

Honestly, we just get things wrong all the time!

We’re capable of brilliance, of astonishing acts of heroism, and feats of greatness but we’re just as capable of random acts of idiocy, true lunacy, and pure hateful, selfish evil.

Remember the “one-hit-wonders” of the days of 45 rpm records? On one side, you’d find a song that is still being sung today but the B-side was so hideous, no one could believe it was the same artist. That sums us up in vinyl.

I keep coming back to this quote from King David in 2 Samuel 24:14:

“David said to Gad, “I am in deep distress. Let us fall into the hands of the LORD, for his mercy is great; but do not let me fall into human hands.”

Without God’s spirit, humans don’t trend toward mercy.

We like to think we do and in modern times when people have money, safe homes, and material security, we can often fool ourselves into thinking that we would be merciful to others even without those supports.

But the truth is, when it goes against our self-interest, we’re more likely to cut out mercy’s heart, set it ablaze and drink the ashes than we are to put it into practice.

In Matthew 5, Jesus rankles the Pharisees when His followers break one of the rules of the Sabbath by picking heads of grain to eat. (picking the grains would have constituted work, according to rabbinical law.)

Again, Jesus refers them to this scripture about mercy “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” Matthew 5:7-8

Once more, Jesus indicates that being a student of mercy is the prevention of and the cure for religious blindness.

Lack of mercy is the reason they missed Jesus.

The Pharisees didn’t understand. The truth bounced off their well -guarded minds like a stone skipping on a stagnant pond. At the end of the passage, they leave to plot the death of God.

When the verse jumped out at me, I thought it was a mistake. I understand mercy, don’t I?

But trusting God more than my own assessment of myself, I set out to study mercy and I’m starting to see the danger I was in.


If being a student of mercy can keep me from going blind, if it can keep me from missing Jesus, if it keeps me from condemning the innocent, if it can prevent self-righteousness, if it makes me more like Christ, then I want a heart that bleeds mercy.

Too many of us have exhumed mercy only to cut out its heart.

James warns us “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” James 2:13-14

Mercy rose from the grave. Mercy’s heart beats on. Mercy triumphs.

If they exhume my body and cut out my heart, will they find a heart of mercy, still beating with the blood of Jesus? For His heart, loved ones, is the only cure for all that afflicts us.

Are you ready to become a student of mercy yet?

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    The Conversation

  1. Heather says:

    Good post, Lori. Have you noticed that poor people tend to be more generous than rich? It seems that those who are lacking in one way or another (it doesn’t have to be money-related) are more at-the-ready to give to those who are also lacking. It seems that because they personally know what it means to lack, the know what others need. Kind of like the idea of being able to walk in another’s shoes or see from another’s perspective. We need to remember our own lack of righteousness and our own spiritual neediness so we are always ready to give and to understand what someone else in the same position needs.

  2. Lori, you never cease to astound me with your depths of understanding and communication. Terrific insight.

  3. Heather, I think greed is no respecter of persons. I’ve seen the generous rich and the generous poor. We are all well-off in comparison with some and poor in comparison with others and it’s hard to find a dialog across the divide that doesn’t cause hurt or reveal prejudice. I do agree that remembering we need mercy and are daily recipients of it will help us remember to offer it to others but I have much more to learn about practicing mercy.

  4. Thank you, Marcia. Don’t feel terribly insightful here – more like I’m hanging onto God’s coattails as He leads me deeper into mercy.

  5. Andrea says:

    It is by HIS mercy and in the very grip of HIS grace I am able to do anything…it is all HIM and none of me!