NEW ORLEANS, JUNE 12 -- The Southern Baptist Convention today chose a fundamentalist president in a bitterly contested election that many moderate church members said would set the course for the nation's largest Protestant denomination for a generation to come.
The election of Rev. Morris Chapman of Wichita Falls, Tex., the 12th consecutive fundamentalist to head the church, sets the stage for completing a "course correction" of the denomination's agencies and colleges that fundamentalists say is bringing the convention closer to God.
Chapman won 57.6 percent of the votes cast by more than 38,241 delegates to the annual meeting here of the 14.9-million member denomination. The moderate candidate, Daniel Vestal, pastor of the Dunwoody Baptist Church in suburban Atlanta, received 42.3 percent of the votes.
Presidents are elected for one-year terms but traditionally are reelected to a second term and serve a total of two years.
The move by fundamentalists into positions of power within the denomination beginning in 1979 has resulted in a purge of leaders whose views of the Baptist faith do not reflect their own. Faculty members at some of the convention's six seminaries have resigned. Fewer missionary candidates have signed up. Churches are contributing less to the convention's coffers.
Because of the fundamentalists' dominance of the denomination's leading institutions, "the course is clearly set for the indefinite future," said Stan Hastey, executive director of the Southern Baptist Alliance, a Washington lobby that supports and finances moderate Baptist causes.
"Essentially the struggle is over," he said.
Some Southern Baptists suggest a split may eventually occur within the denomination. But others predict that most Southern Baptists will remain but form moderate institutions, such as divinity schools, outside the denomination's national organization.
In the last decade, the fundamentalists have gained increasing strength through their emphasis on a strict interpretation of the Bible. Moderate church members generally believe there is more room for biblical interpretation.
"The Southern Baptists are a people of the Book and our belief in the inspired, infallible inerrant word of God must be perpetuated through the institutional life of our beloved convention," Chapman said at a news conference after the vote.
In another key action, the convention voted to drastically reduce the denomination's involvement in the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, the multi-denominational lobby on religious-liberty issues that has been a longtime target of fundamentalists because of its opposition to school prayer and other causes of the religious right.