As a child growing up in Hot Springs, Ark., Bill Clinton would dress himself in his Sunday finest and head off, alone, to praise God at Park Place Baptist Church.

He used to read Bible passages over the loudspeaker in school. At Georgetown University, Clinton's writings so impressed a philosophy professor that the teacher once asked the president to consider becoming a Jesuit.The professor, Otto Hentz, was shocked when Clinton told him he wasn't a Catholic.

Clinton has always been deeply influenced and comforted by his Christian roots, and it is within that strongly Southern Baptist heritage that he is - again - seeking redemption and spiritual renewal.

Several Southern Baptist minsters interviewed Friday said that his extraordinary, contrite speech Friday at the National Prayer Breakfast meeting was exactly appropriate within the world of Christianity that has shaped the president. For the first time, Clinton publicly asked forgiveness from his family and from Monica Lewinsky, the White House intern with whom he had a sexual affair.

"In my experience in pastoral counseling, when people deal with wrongdoing in their lives, in many instances their first statement is rather defensive and shows a sense of denial," said the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, a Southern Baptist minister and executive director of The Interfaith Alliance, a moderate Christian organization in Washington. "But after days go by, and they interact with what they've done they become more contrite, more emotional and exhibit more of an air of sincerity. It takes a tremendous amount of humility and honesty to say, `I have sinned.' "

In some more conservative Southern Baptist congregations, Clinton's admission of marital infidelity would likely bring some form of censure, including being placed on probation.

In fact, Clinton's home church, Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark., has come under fire for failing to "disfellow" or expel the president for his affair.

But another important tenet in Southern Baptist doctrine - indeed, in all of Christianity - is the notion of grace and the importance of forgiveness. Ministers from various denominations said the president would have every right to expect this from church.