All week the clouds kept darkening. To the watching world it was a test of both Jimmy Carter and the largest U.S. denomination. To the church of 415 southern white members it was a crisis greater than any since the Civil War, when only two male members were left for leadership. The members were divided over their pastor and his open-door stand on integrating, but their emotions were also intertwined in a deep-rooted past.

Some members felt put-upon by the demanding press and by pressures to integrate because Plains Baptist is “Jimmy Carter’s church.” “We don’t feel like swapping a church for a President,” one deacon told the Atlanta Constitution.

Member Jerome Ethredge and his wife Joanne, soon to leave for agricultural missionary work among blacks in Togo, Africa, had “about given up hope.” County extension agent Tim Lawson, the only deacon opposed to asking Pastor Bruce Edwards to resign, also felt strongly that “the church doors ought to be open to anyone who really wants to worship.”

Meanwhile, President-elect Jimmy Carter was working behind the scenes for a compromise that would keep the church together but break the racial barrier.

Hundreds of letters and calls poured in pledging prayer. Every day during the final week personnel from Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) offices called to say that they were praying. Then, Saturday afternoon, thirty newly appointed SBC missionaries pushed their way through a crowd of reporters on the parsonage lawn to hold a prayer meeting inside.

Sunday dawned cold, dreary, and rainy. The Secret Service roped off the smooth churchyard to control the gathering crowd (tourists had been carrying away the stones). Members and a few visitors ...

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