ATLANTA - Friends of the Snellville preacher recently elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention say he's as intense about sports as he is saving souls, frequently talking about one or the other.
And that intensity means the Rev. James G. Merritt won't waiver about leading the 16-million-member denomination back to its rock-ribbed roots, according to people who know the 47-year-old pastor of First Baptist Church of Snellville.
"He is probably one of the truest examples of integrity I have ever met," said a parishioner, Rep. Jeff Williams, R-Snellville. "He refuses to compromise what he believes the Bible says."
The Rev. Merritt has a practice of quizzing visiting speakers about their beliefs before letting them address a Sunday school class or men's group. Though he doesn't share his pulpit with nonclergy, his litmus tests have blocked many well-known figures, even powerful friends of big donors to the church.
Followers describe the Rev. Merritt as courageous, quick-witted and determined. A call to preach prompted him to give up his goal at 21 of becoming a lawyer, but people who know him well say the bright, voracious reader and unyielding debater would have excelled in the courtroom.
And that dogmatism doesn't sit well with everyone.
"I'm certainly not going out there looking for controversy," he said. "(However,) when you stand for truth, absolute truth, in the culture that we live in today, you can't help but be controversial."
When he took over the Snellville church outside Atlanta in 1985, the membership plummeted from 2,000 to 1,000 because of his strident approach, but people who appreciated his style eventually swelled the flock to 10,000.
From time to time, opponents have issued threats, but the Rev. Merritt has never missed a service out of concern for his safety or modified his position. He embodies the tenet of hate the sin and love the sinner, some say.
"He wouldn't be opposed to knowing a homosexual or doing things with homosexuals, but he hates, as God does, the homosexual lifestyle," said Dr. Wes Tanner, his physician and tennis partner. "But the person, he would witness to them."
The Rev. Merritt says he's never written a check or attended a meeting of his church's finance committee. He wears a Swiss Army watch his wife of 24 years gave him and drives a Volvo, not a Rolex or a Mercedes like some televangelists, he notes.
"I've tried to pattern my life after Billy Graham," he said. "Billy Graham said there are two things that will get you in trouble: women and money. And I've tried to be very careful about both."
The Rev. Merritt says his goals are to nurture his fellow preachers, teaching them the leadership skills necessary to growing their congregations.
Reach Walter C. Jones at (404) 589-8424.