Fundamentalist Baptists Suffer Major Defeat in Georgia

Times Staff Writer

For the first time since it gained control of the national Southern Baptist Convention, the denomination’s powerful fundamentalist camp has been dealt a major setback in its efforts to extend its grip to state Baptist institutions and agencies.

At a three-day meeting of Georgia Baptists that ended Wednesday, moderates beat back an attempted fundamentalist takeover of Mercer University, ousted the fundamentalist president of the state Baptist convention and abolished a controversial review board for the state Baptist newspaper.

“This was a real surprise,” said R. Kirby Godsey, president of Mercer University. “The fundamentalists haven’t lost a major vote, at the state or national level, in eight years. It’s a great day for Baptists.”


Religious Scholars Surprised

The action surprised many scholars of religion also. They viewed it as a sign of growing dissatisfaction with fundamentalists within the Southern Baptist Convention. The convention, with 14.2 million members, is the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

“This may be a very significant turning point,” said Nancy Ammerman, an Emory University sociologist and author of “Bible Believers,” a study of the fundamentalist movement.

Mercer University, which has a total enrollment of 6,000 students at campuses in Macon and Atlanta and is the nation’s second largest Baptist-affiliated school, has been a prime target for a fundamentalist takeover.

Fundamentalists were shocked when the 154-year-old university appeared on Playboy magazine’s list of the nation’s top 10 “party schools” in January. University officials and campus leaders dismissed the Playboy ranking as a “bad joke” perpetrated by students at two other Georgia universities who were polled by the magazine for their choices of top “party schools” in the state.

Upset by R-Rated Films

But that did not appease fundamentalists, already upset by reports of student drunkenness on campus and by the showing of R-rated movies at the university theater.

In a campaign spearheaded by Lee Roberts, a Marietta businessman and influential Southern Baptist layman, fundamentalists sought to gain control of Mercer’s 45-member board of trustees. Among other things, Roberts mailed out a 16-page letter to the parents of every Mercer student in Georgia and to every Southern Baptist pastor in the state, decrying what he called the rampant “debauchery and lewdness” at Mercer.


On Tuesday, however, the state Baptist convention--which drew a record attendance of more than 4,000 delegates, or “messengers,” as they are officially known--rejected a proposal that would have withheld $2 million in convention funding from Mercer until a study committee could research Roberts’ allegations.

Instead, the delegates overwhelmingly adopted a resolution deploring Roberts’ attack on Mercer, and they voted to allow Godsey to present his own response to the allegations in an address from the podium.

College Didn’t Give In

Godsey credited Mercer’s victory to the widespread support for the school among Georgia Baptists and to Mercer’s resolve not to submit to fundamentalist pressures.

“The fundamentalists underestimated us,” he said. “They counted on intimidating the university and stirring up the rank and file against it. But their plans backfired.”

Roberts refused to concede defeat, telling reporters after the vote: “I think Mercer is the big loser today. All Christians will now look at Mercer and ask what was it that they wanted to hide.”

He added, however, that he had no current plans to resume his campaign against Mercer.

By a close 2,109 to 2,058 vote, the convention elected the Rev. James Pitts, pastor of First Baptist Church in Valdosta and a self-described moderate, as state president over fundamentalist incumbent Clark Hutchinson, pastor of Eastside Baptist Church in Marietta.


It was the first time in the 166-year history of the Georgia Baptist Convention that an incumbent president has not been routinely returned to a second one-year term. Hutchinson is Roberts’ pastor and an ally in the campaign against Mercer.

Split Won’t ‘Go Away’

“The division (between fundamentalists and moderates) will not go away just because I was elected president,” Pitts, 57, said after the vote. “But, hopefully, we can get our eyes off our differences and get our eyes on what we can do together.”

In another victory for moderates, convention delegates approved a motion to abolish a review board for the Christian Index, the state Baptist newspaper. The board was created last year to monitor the newspaper after complaints by fundamentalists about its editorial policies.

“Everything that’s happened at this convention should be a message to moderates not to give up the ship,” said Jack Harwell, editor of the Christian Index, who had announced his intention to retire because of restrictions imposed on him by the review board.

After the vote to abolish the board, Harwell told the convention that he would stay on as editor, a job he has held for 21 years.