Pilgrims travel to Plains to hear nation’s oldest living president, Jimmy Carter

Pilgrims travel to Plains to hear nation’s oldest living president, Jimmy Carter

Plains, Ga., isn’t Rome or Canterbury, but it’s been a pilgrimage site, nonetheless, attracting multitudes to Georgia peanut country over the years.

Since 1981, people from across the continent and around the globe have flocked to the hometown of James Earl “Jimmy” Carter, the nation’s most famous Sunday School teacher as well as its former commander-in-chief.

Carter’s teaching at Maranatha Baptist Church continued well into his 90s, though it was curtailed in recent years due to covid-19 and his own health challenges.

On Feb. 18, it was announced that Carter, 98, was entering hospice care.

“When I found out, I literally sat in my car and cried because I was so sad,” says Bailey Gambill, a University of Arkansas at Little Rock law school student who made the trek in March 2017.

Accompanied by Hannah Cabe of Fort Smith and Bethany Meadows of Little Rock, the trio listened to one of Carter’s books on tape as they headed toward the Peach State.

A longtime resident had advised them to show up at church around 5 a.m., advice they heeded.

“We were one of the first few in line. We got to sit in the third row center pew. We were right up there,” Gambill says. “It was very cool to sit right up next to the oldest living president.”

“The experience was amazing,” Meadows says. Upon her return, she wrote Carter a letter, thanking him for “spreading Christ’s love.”

He wrote her back, thanking her for her letter and telling her, “Come back to see us!”

Garland County resident Steve Campbell, his wife, Christy, and their son, Hudson, made a similar journey in July 2018, arriving at Maranatha shortly after 3 a.m. to claim a seat.

It was worth traveling all that way to spend time with a former president, he says.

“Here’s a former leader of the free world, and if you choose to go through the process of getting there and being there, then you could sit in his presence and just listen to him talk, and that was a humbling and just an extraordinary experience for me and my family,” he says.

Afterward, “the president and Mrs. Carter shook hands and spoke to each one of us. They were very cordial,” he says.

As a candidate, Carter, the first U.S. president to describe himself as a born-again Christian, talked freely about his faith. Since leaving the White House, he has continued to share the gospel.

At his church, 140 miles southwest of Atlanta, the 39th president has been a regular presence, teaching the Bible and, in the pre-covid era, occasionally mowing the grass. Carter, Plains’ favorite son and its leading tourist attraction, didn’t charge for the lessons, and he never turned anyone away.

Over the years, many Arkansans made the journey to Maranatha. (Maranatha is an Aramaic term, sometimes translated as “the Lord is coming.”)

Thomas B. Slater, a professor emeritus at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology, even preached there twice in late 2013 and early 2014, filling the pulpit while the congregation was between pastors.

“Once you get in and sit down, it’s basically like any other Southern church. People were friendly. Welcoming. There weren’t any professional musicians there. There were just regular people who belong to the church to start the Sunday School class and to start worship,” he says.

Jan Williams, a former fourth-grade teacher who taught Carter’s daughter, Amy, would frequently lay down the ground rules ahead of time, reminding visitors to be polite and encouraging them to avoid making any sudden movements.

The Secret Service agents have guns, and they “don’t believe in paddling or timeouts,” she told the crowd one Sunday.

Cellphones were supposed to be silenced. Cameras could be used during the opening moments, but once the conversation turned to matters of faith, photographs were forbidden.

Typically, Carter would greet the crowd and then ask: “Do we have any visitors?”

People would respond by calling out their home states.

In between Sunday School and morning worship, Carter would visit with the guest ministers. Following the final benediction, he and his wife, former first lady Rosalyn Carter, would remain and pose for pictures.

Carter and Plains, population 785, have been synonymous since the peanut farmer and former Georgia governor ran for president in 1976.

Initially, he was a member of Plains Baptist Church, an all-white Southern Baptist congregation. But disagreements over race roiled the congregation in 1976, and in 1977, it split.

Roughly 50 supporters of integration broke away to form what eventually became Maranatha Baptist Church.

From its inception, the congregation welcomed all, regardless of skin color or place of birth.

After losing his 1980 re-election bid, Carter returned with his wife to their hometown, and they transferred their membership to Maranatha.

Carter, who had taught Sunday School earlier in life, resumed teaching once he settled in.

Given his travels, he was frequently away.

In the pre-internet days, tourists made the journey and crossed their fingers, hoping he would be present. Eventually, travelers could determine his teaching schedule by visiting the congregation’s website.

Ray Higgins, former pastor of Second Baptist Church in downtown Little Rock, attended Maranatha in 2016.

After hearing that Higgins was an Arkansas minister, Carter called on him to deliver a brief invocation.

“When I ended my prayer, President Carter said, ‘Amen,’ and so did the audience,'” Higgins says.

After the Sunday service, the Carters posed for pictures.

“When it was my turn, I walked up the Carters. He was smiling,” Higgins recalls. “I said, ‘May Christ continue to bless you.’ He responded, ‘Thank you. We are already blessed.'”

  photo  The sun breaks the horizon as guests line up in 2019 to attend a Sunday School class being taught by former President Jimmy Carter at Maranatha Baptist Church, in Plains, Ga. Visitors arrived before dawn in hopes of getting a seat inside. (AP/John Amis)
  photo  (Left to right) Hannah Cabe, Bethany Meadows and Bailey Gambill stand in front of the Plains, Ga., welcome sign during their March 2017 road trip to former President Jimmy Carter’s hometown. Born years after the end of Carter’s time in the White House, they were nonetheless eager to attend his Sunday School class at Maranatha Baptist Church. (Courtesy photo)
  photo  Ray Higgins, a pastor and former executive director of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Arkansas, had his picture taken with Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter after attending Sunday School at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga. (Courtesy photo)