ATLANTA, OCT. 23 -- Mercer University's trustees made clear after a special meeting here today that they intend to fight efforts by fundamentalist Baptists to gain control of the 154-year-old Southern Baptist institution in Macon.

"You can't compromise with 'em," groused trustee Griffin B. Bell, attorney general in the Carter administration and a graduate of the university's law school, about attempts to have the Georgia Baptist Convention nominate and elect all 45 members of Mercer's board of trustees. "You give them one thing, and they'll want another."

Bell's "they" refers to politically and religiously conservative Southern Baptists who have won control of the presidencies of the national and Georgia conventions of the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.

Now some fundamentalists are seeking greater influence over Mercer, a venerable southern institution that they regard as a sort of fallen angel afflicted with "heresies," "student drunkenness" and advertisements of questionable morality in the campus newspaper. The campaign is being led by Lee Roberts, a mortgage banker from an Atlanta suburb.

In some respects, the struggle is a battle between a new South of the cities and an older one of the countryside and suburbs.

Roberts' first volley was a 16-page pamphlet, sent recently to Mercer trustees and parents and all Southern Baptist pastors in the state. In it, Roberts accuses Mercer President R. Kirby Godsey of heresy and holds him responsible for "lewdness and lasciviousness in the official . . . . school paper," student drinking and a Playboy magazine article about Mercer.

Roberts illustrated his grievances with two condom ads from the student newspaper and an invitation from the pharmacy and medical schools in Atlanta that indicated a cocktail hour. There were also photographs (to which Roberts applied tape in several places) of two nude Mercer women from a Playboy issue that ranked Mercer as the

ninth best "party school" in the country.

"It's all a smoke screen," said Godsey, a moderate Baptist theologian and philosopher.

"It's a political issue," Godsey said. "If they can control the election of trustees, they can control the curriculum, control what is taught and who teaches it, what textbooks are used and what is published by the university press. We're saying that no theological viewpoint should be permitted to dominate the university."

Roberts believes that Godsey's leadership is inappropriate for a Christian university. "Either the Bible is true, or Dr. Godsey is a Christian," Roberts said, "but these two statements are not compatible."

The main battlefield between the two camps will be next month's annual conference in Savannah of the Georgia Baptist Convention. Like all 50 state conventions, it holds the purse strings.

Roberts has indicated that he will try to persuade the representatives of the state's 3,041 Southern Baptist-affiliated churches to reduce or withhold the group's $2 million annual contribution toward Mercer's $74 million budget if its trustees do not agree that the board should be picked directly by the annual convention.

Under a 54-year-old arrangement, the representatives, known as messengers, now elect nine Mercer trustees a year from three times as many nominees offered

up by the university's 45-member board.

Fifty of 53 Southern Baptist-affiliated colleges have their trustees chosen by state conventions.

Mercer's adherents see it as a rare gem, the only school to award Robert E. Lee an honorary degree and the first Southern Baptist school to desegregate, voluntarily and a year before the law mandated the change.

Mercer was founded in 1833 by pastors in the so-called Charleston tradition of Southern Baptists, who value a formally educated ministry and believe -- in the words of Richard Furman, a Charleston minister for whom Furman University is named -- that sermons "should smell of the {reading} lamp." Such churches tend to the focus on the church's work in the community.

But there is another strain among Southern Baptists, a strain that emphasizes a literal interpretation of the Bible and the belief that being a Southern Baptist is the only path to salvation. Such churches tend to focus on saving individual sinners.

Since Southern Baptists split from northern Baptists over the issue of slavery in 1845, Walter Shurden, dean of the school of Christianity at Mercer, says the two tendencies cooperated on the basis of their shared interest in ministry and missions.

Moderate Southern Baptists tend to be concentrated in larger cities, whose economies have grown dramatically in recent years, Shurden said. Fundamentalists are associated with a rural tradition -- and the problem for Mercer University is that only about 11 percent of Georgia's Southern Baptist churches are in the state's five largest cities.

Individual churches, whose congregations have ultimate authority, have begun taking public positions on the Mercer question.

First Baptist of Atlanta, the state's largest Southern Baptist church, is considering cutting its funding for Mercer. A Mercer trustee who is a member there

said he would make up any money that his church withdraws from


Mercer student organizations have been passing resolutions backing the current administration and calling on Georgia Baptists to turn back the fundamentalists' assault.

Some students have threatened to transfer to other schools if the fundamentalists win.

"I'm hoping that John Q. Baptist will rise up on his historical heels and affirm his historical views on the priesthood of the believer

and religious freedom," Shurden


"There are some basic Baptist beliefs at stake in this battle," he said.

President Godsey said Mercer will remain a Baptist university, but the question is whether its ties with the Georgia Baptist Convention will continue.