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 were allowed into Sunday school (attendance: 216), along with a small press pool of six.

Deacon Clarence Dodson taught forty-one men in a bare-bulbed, cement-floored, unpainted basement room. The President-elect sat in the front row. Children upstairs could be heard singing, “God Is Love.”

Appropriately the lesson was entitled “The Reconciled Life,” with the text Romans 12:21: “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.” The lesson was “very timely,” noted Dodson. “We have the opportunity to show the world the attitude which God’s children should have.”

When the bell sounded, the church was cleared of all non-members except Carter’s Secret Service escorts, one of whom was black. Robert LaFavre, the Baptist Press representative, was allowed to sit in the pastor’s study because he had recently broken his leg.

Article continues below

Outside, about 400 tourists (mostly white, southern Carter fans), reporters and cameramen, and assorted “characters” huddled under umbrellas to await the outcome. There were occasional bursts of songs dear to the South: “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Dixie,” and “Give Me That Old-time Religion.”

It was a friendly crowd with few arguments. One man said, “This proves there is no God.” Another countered, “All it proves is the devil.”

Commented Mozell Sutton, one of five representatives present from the Justice Department’s Community Relations’ Service and himself a black Georgia Baptist from Atlanta: “We’ve come a long way in race relations, but we’ve still got a way to go.”

With nothing better to do, reporters interviewed the “characters.”

A black “Prophet Elijah,” clutching a Scofield Bible and wearing a “JESUS IS LORD” button, announced his coming was “a sign of the last days.”

Imperial Ku Klux Klan wizard Bill Wilkinson, a Baptist from Louisiana, and two other robed Klansmen vowed the Klan was “going to take the offensive to recover the ground we’ve lost.”

Nearby a woman proclaimed herself the Messiah. Out front was parked “Noah’s Ark,” an aging green school bus with a plywood second-story, piloted by a fundamental missionary named “Brother Joseph.”

“It’s like a little Scopes trial,” columnist Lester Kinsolving chortled.vv

Clennon King, the man who started it all, kept claiming he was only “trying to help Jimmy Carter.” A Baptist motel-owner from Virginia, Wilson Chaplain, who said he, his wife, and eight children had all voted for Carter, suggested King start by withdrawing his request for church membership. King finally said he would if he could talk to the President-elect. But when Chaplain got Carter’s press secretary, Jody Powell, King reneged.

At this time a black woman began lecturing the whites around King: “Why do we keep hearing about Reverend King being wrong? Whites should open their churches to all people.”

After almost three hours a smiling Jimmy Carter came out a side door to say he was “completely satisfied” with the votes. “I was proud of my church, God’s church. We voted to keep our pastor, and more important to open the doors of our church to any person to worship. I think now our church will be unified.”

Article continues below

His wife Rosalynn stood beside him, holding her Sunday-school quarterly and green Living Bible. She looked as if she had been crying.

Carter denied trying to cast influence. “I was just one of the church members. They all know that.”

Then Carter’s deacon cousin, Hugh Carter, the church clerk, came to the main door and reported vote counts of the various motions. “We made a momentous decision today,” he said. “We are tremendously pleased.”

From interviews with the clerk and other members, this is what happened in the closed three-hour meeting:

The first motion, introduced by Hugh Carter, was not to consider the deacons’ recommendation that the pastor resign. With Edwards’s strongest support coming from the Carters and the young adults, the motion failed 100 to 96.

The second motion, calling for the church to fire the pastor immediately, failed 107 to 84. About forty of those voting to dump Edwards were inactive members, observers estimated (a number hadn’t been seen in church in years).

The third motion was to set up a “watch-care committee” composed of the pastor and four deacons to “test the sincerity of all persons applying for membership and make recommendations to the church.” This passed unanimously. It was “understood” that race would never be a factor in any case.

The fourth motion, by Jerome Ethredge, was to “open the church to all persons, regardless of race” (in effect nullifying the 1965 rules). Ethredge asked the church to consider the impact on missions. This passed 121 to 66.

Box Score

Plains, Georgia: population, 683. Five churches: white Baptist (Southern Baptist Convention), black Baptist, white United Methodist, black United Methodist, white Lutheran (Lutheran Church in America).

Plains Baptist Church: Organized in 1848 as Lebanon Baptist Church of Christ. Black members left voluntarily during Reconstruction, taking the name “Lebanon” with them. Whites moved into town and changed name to Plains Baptist Church.

Southern Baptist Convention: 34,902 churches with 12.7 million members. Hundreds of churches have black members, and 374 all-black churches have affiliated in recent years, mostly in California, Texas, Illinois, Michigan, New York, and Virginia, with two in Georgia. Walker Knight, editor of the SBC Home Missions magazine, notes a 76 per cent increase in black-church affiliation since 1973. He expects the influx to increase, pointing to a group of forty black churches in Los Angeles, for example, that are interested in signing up.

Article continues below

There were many speeches pro and con but no emotional outbursts. Several deacons, including Hugh Carter, admitted having acted “hastily” in asking the pastor to resign, and sought his forgiveness. Mrs. Hugh Carter called for “everybody who is perfect to please rise and be counted.” No one stood up.

There were other “reconciliations,” along with much hugging, kissing, and crying among members, prompting Mrs. Hugh Carter to tell the pastor, “We’re ready for a revival.”

Jimmy Carter, eight of the twelve deacons, and about one hundred other members returned in the evening to hear Edwards call for “love and support of the deacons” and preach from Isaiah 40:31.

“We’ve soared like eagles,” Edwards said. “We’ve ordained a minister and are sending missionaries to the foreign fields, and we’re sending one of our members to the highest office in the land. Now times are more difficult. We may not be flying, we’re certainly not running, but we’re still on our feet by the mercy of God.”

Among non-members present was a black tourist, Roger Sessoms, 29, of Selma, North Carolina, who termed the evening service “a beautiful thing.” President-elect Carter shook the black’s hand and said, “I’m glad you came.”

“I’m so excited,” the teacher of the young adult women’s class said afterward. “Instead of having to go out as missionaries, we’re having people come to us. I hope we measure up.”

What caused the change in attitudes? “The Holy Spirit, definitely,” declared Sandra Edwards, the pastor’s wife, with others nodding around her. “Thousands prayed and God answered.”

And the future for the pastor and his wife? “If we can have a vital ministry here, we’ll stay,” Edwards declared. “The people feel a sense of mission.” He had said earlier he would resign regardless of the outcome of the vote. He, like others at Plains, had meanwhile had a change of mind.

Countdown To Crisis At Plains

1870s: Free black Baptists voluntarily leave white churches in South to form their own.

Article continues below

1950s: Supreme Court school integration order meets intense opposition in South. Many white Baptist pastors lose pulpits for speaking out on race.

Early 1960s: Church “kneel-ins” sweep across South. First Baptist Church, Atlanta, refuses in April, 1963, to seat a group of blacks, but seven months later hopes to seat “all who come to attend our services.” By 1965, most big-city white churches in Georgia have followed suite; most small-town, rural Baptist churches remain closed to blacks.

1965: Plains Baptist Church, organized in 1848, votes 54 to 7 to bar “Negroes and other civil rights agitators” from services. Deacon Jimmy Carter, then a state Senator, and five members of his family, along with farmer Homer Harris, are the only dissenters. “This is not my house or your house,” Carter says. “I will never vote to kick anyone out.”

July, 1976: Jimmy Carter wins Democratic nomination for Presidency, putting Plains Baptist Church in world spotlight.

Sunday, October 24: Plains pastor Bruce Edwards is reported as preaching church should be opened to all people.

Monday, October 25: Rev. Clennon King, non-denominational black minister, newspaper columnist, political gadfly, and known agitator from Albany, forty miles away, delivers letter to parsonage, saying he will seek church membership.

Tuesday, October 26: Deacons meet secretly and vote to call off next Sunday’s service.

Sunday, October 31: Edwards tells King on church steps that services are cancelled. He explains to media that deacons are enforcing the church’s 1965 resolution, which he opposes. Edwards thinks King is “politically inspired,” but favors allowing him to be received into church membership if “sincere.” That night deacons meet and vote 11 to 1 to ask for Edwards’ “immediate resignation” on grounds his ministry is no longer effective. Carter hears of the incident after attending integrated University Baptist Church in Fort Worth. His “deep belief is that anyone who lives in our community, regardless of race, ought to be admitted.”

Monday, November 1: Republican “black desk” telegrams 400 black ministers, questioning whether Carter can lead the country if he cannot lead his own church.

Tuesday, November 2: Carter wins the presidency.

Wednesday, November 3: At tense, emotional midweek prayer meeting of the church, Edwards says he refuses to resign and asks for congregational vote on November 14. It is understood that if the church votes to retain him, a motion to institute an open-door policy will be introduced.

Article continues below

Sunday, November 7: Carter and Edwards are both away. Carter says that he “can’t resign from the human race because of discrimination and that he can’t quit his church for the same reason. Worship services are held at Plains with a retired Methodist minister preaching, but King is denied admission (he was allowed to attend Sunday School, though).

November 8–13: Carter and Edwards are both back in Plains. Hundreds of letters and calls arrive, most supporting the pastor and an open-door policy. Southern Baptist leaders will not “tell” an autonomous church what to do, but SBC president James L. Sullivan is “greatly disappointed to think any Southern Baptist church would refuse membership” on racial grounds. Between conferences on staff and cabinet appointments, President-elect Carter talks privately with deacons and other members, trying to keep the church from breaking apart. The other side is mustering support, too.

Sunday, November 14: Decision day. With worldwide news coverage, today’s service is probably the most publicized church meeting in history.

“Brother Bruce” From (Plains)

On the Sunday between the deacons’ request for his ouster and the congregation’s vote to retain him, Pastor Bruce Edwards of Plains Baptist Church preached for a pastor friend in Tennessee. With a racial issue simmering in his own church, the nervous friend sidestepped identifying his “celebrity” guest and introduced him as follows:

“Folks, this is Brother Bruce, a good friend of mine. Brother Bruce is from Jacksonville, Florida. Brother Bruce went to New Orleans Seminary, the same school I attended, and we all know that the best theologians come from that school. After the special music Brother Bruce will come and preach for us.”

Edwards laughs as he recalls the introduction. He also chuckles about a recent assignment in his Doctor of Ministries program: review a book entitled Crisis in the Pulpit, and about the placement of the story of the Plains controversy in the Georgia Baptist newspaper—next to a column reporting recent moves of church staff members.

It all helped to break the tension, says Edwards, during a week “of real crisis in my life.”

Thirty and married to his sweetheart (Sandra, 28) from Baptist Student Union days at Norman Baptist College in Georgia, Edwards is a scholarly, mild-mannered man who became the pastor at Plains when he graduated from seminary in January, 1975. He served pastorates in Americus, Georgia, and Mt. Hermon, Louisiana, before and during seminary.

Article continues below

African Assembly: Blessing in Bias?

Planners of the Pan African Christian Leadership Assembly (PACLA) would never have asked for it, but they have received help from an unlikely source. That help for PACLA, which is to be held in Nairobi December 9–20, is a slap in the face from the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC). From its Nairobi headquarters, the AACC’s executive committee issued a statement officially dissociating itself from PACLA.

Earlier, Burgess Carr, AACC general secretary, sent a three-page memo to “member churches and Christian councils and friends of the AACC” to warn them against participating in PACLA. He charged in the August document that he and his staff “found a rather clear bias [in PACLA planning] in favor of the so-called ‘evangelical’ orientation.” He also said that he had not been invited and that he feared the influence of evangelical “organizations outside of Africa” which were supporting PACLA.

Carr, a former member of the World Council of Churches’ staff, has been at the center of controversy within the evangelical community over whether evangelicals should support PACLA. Early drafts of the program listed him as a program participant, and circulation of these drafts caused some leaders of the Association of Evangelicals of Africa and Madagascar (AEAM) to raise questions. After a flurry of correspondence involving Christian leaders on at least four continents Carr’s name disappeared from the program, and the AEAM office (also in Nairobi) put out a brief statement indicating that most questions had been resolved.

Whether the slap from the AACC helps the December assembly with the AEAM constituency remains to be seen, but there were hints in Kenya that Carr had hurt himself in his own constituency by striking out at PACLA. Kenyan Christian leaders, especially Presbyterian general secretary John Gatu, have tried to minimize the conflict between “ecumenical” and “evangelical” forces. Gatu has been a friend of PACLA planners and has encouraged them in their work, but he is also chairman of the AACC. Late drafts of the PACLA program list him as speaker for one of the work groups.

Article continues below

PACLA is an outgrowth of the 1974 International Congress on World Evangelization in Lausanne, but it is not a product of the Lausanne continuation committee. The chairman of the ad hoc planning committee for PACLA, however, is Gottfried Osei-Mensah of Ghana, the Nairobi-based executive secretary of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization. The program chairman is South African Michael Cassidy. John Wilson, a Ugandan on the staff of Cassidy’s African Enterprise mission, is coordinator. Most of those identified with them in the assembly’s planning do not have strong identification with either the AEAM or the AACC.

With over 700 delegates expected at the Kenyatta Conference Center, PACLA sponsors hope to stimulate the development of strategies for evangelizing the entire continent. In selection of the delegates youth has been emphasized, and some 70 per cent are expected to be between twenty and forty. While quotas for many nations had been oversubscribed by early last month, there were still some conspicuous vacant spots on the roster, principally in the French-speaking nations where AEAM-oriented leaders have been cool toward the assembly.

Wilson hopes that by opening day one-third of the anticipated cost of $500,000 will have been raised in Africa, but less than half of the goal had been met by November. Meanwhile, he made extensive contacts in Europe and North America to raise the rest of the budget.

The fact that a large portion of the financing has come from outside Africa has been one of Carr’s main arguments against PACLA. But just after signing the letter transmitting the AACC executive committee’s slap at PACLA Carr left for the United States, where he picked up the $100,000 needed to finish the first phase of his headquarters building program. The money came from the United Methodist Church’s World Division. Earlier, he had received $325,000 from American sources for the building to house his staff of eighty-nine. While about a third of the construction money raised thus far has come from within Africa, the proportion of African revenue for AACC operations is not so high. Carr told reporters in Nairobi during the World Council of Churches meeting a year ago that 80 per cent of operating funds come from overseas.

If nothing else is achieved, PACLA is expected to attract Christian leaders from more African countries (forty-three at last count) than either the AACC or the AEAM can count in its official delegations. PACLA planners have repeatedly assured leaders of both the permanent organizations, however, that PACLA is to be considered a one-time event and no follow-up body is envisioned.

Article continues below

The Separatists: No to ‘Neo’

Are “fundamentalist” and “evangelical” both descriptions of the same kind of Christian? Resolutions passed at the thirty-fifth annual convention of the American Council of Christian Churches (ACCC) indicate the terms’ acceptability in that body so long as neither carries the “neo” prefix. Usefulness of the words also depends on who is using them.

The convention, meeting at the Bible Baptist Church of West Chester, Pennsylvania, went into some detail to say that “evangelical” was a good word when properly used. Delegates, representing several small separatist denominations, warned that the label cannot be applied to those who have “failed to obey the Scriptures in their refusal to separate from apostate fellowships and denominations.” One resolution also warned of “neo-evangelicalism, such as represented in the National Association of Evangelicals.”

Taking an oblique slap at its principal founder, New Jersey pastor-broadcaster, Carl McIntire, the ACCC made a point of being thankful for last June’s World Congress of Fundamentalists in Scotland. McIntire, president of the International Council of Christian Churches, which was not involved in the congress, had criticized it as “neo-fundamentalist.” The ACCC delegates commended those “whose vision, burden, promotion, and support” made possible the June congress. McIntire had been criticized at the meeting in Scotland (see issue of August 6, 1976, page 41) for trying to “discredit a movement he cannot dominate.” (He lost control of the ACCC in 1970 and turned down an invitation to the June congress.)

Without mentioning McIntire’s role in the early years, the delegates said in one of their resolutions that the ACCC was “organized in 1941 to provide a fellowship and united testimony for fundamental churches and denominations which are determined to be true to the verbally inspired inerrant Word of God regardless of the cost.” The document invited “fundamentalists” in the United States “to join us in strengthening the testimony of biblical separation in these last days.”

In other action the council:

• Thanked L. Eugene Mohr, who is returning to the pastorate, for his service as executive secretary for the past three years. His successor at the Valley Forge headquarters is Robert Biscoe, business administrator at the Biblical School of Theology, Hatfield, Pennsylvania.

Article continues below

• Called for establishment of more Christian schools and commended the American Association of Christian Schools “for its rapid growth and its influence for good on our nation’s youth.”

• Expressed “strong indignation” at “the thrust of Sunday School materials produced by the denominations of the National Council of Churches.”

New for NAACP

Benjamin L. Hooks, 51, a black Baptist clergyman, lawyer, and former judge appointed in 1972 to the Federal Communications Commission, will succeed 75-year-old Roy Wilkins next month as executive director of the financially troubled National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.