It isn’t uncommon for former U.S. President Jimmy Carter to visit Candler during the school year—in fact, this year he has addressed Candler students on campus twice, first in February as a lecturer in the Laney Moral Leadership Program and on December 3 as a guest of the Baptist Studies Program. The 91-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner and Emory University distinguished professor spoke to a group of Baptist students for an hour, sharing highlights from his faith journey and entertaining questions at the end of his talk.

Carter’s appearance was especially meaningful to attendees in light of his announcement this August that he had cancer. During her introduction, Candler’s director of Baptist Studies, Shelby Haggray, thanked Carter for taking time away from his busy schedule to speak to the group. He responded that this gathering was not time away from his busy schedule, but an important part of his busy schedule. He wanted to spend time with the students and was determined to keep the commitment.

A lifelong Baptist, Carter recalled the beginning of his faith formation during his childhood in rural South Georgia, where traditional Baptist tenets such as the separation of church and state and the priesthood of the believer were instilled in him at a young age. When he was four, his family moved from Plains to nearby Archery, “where the vibrant worship was in the African Methodist Episcopal Church,” he said. His experiences in the predominantly black community of Archery were an early influence on his thoughts on race, sharpening an awareness of the systemic injustices blacks suffered daily.

Carter’s faith journey has not been without bumps. He relayed that he “felt abandoned by God” when he lost the Democratic nomination for governor to segregationist Lester Maddox in 1966. His sister, the evangelist Ruth Carter Stapleton, used verses from the book of James to convince him to look at the defeat as something to strengthen his resolve to reach people for Christ. So although he had long been active in missions through the Baptist Brotherhood, he began going on personal mission trips through the Pioneer Missions program of the Southern Baptist Convention.

During these trips, teams of two would visit the homes of the unchurched and witness for Christ. The experience offered lessons in humility and trust; as Carter said, “You do the best you can, and trust the Holy Spirit with the results.”

One of the most important things he learned during this time came courtesy of a Cuban immigrant who was Carter’s partner on a mission trip to Brooklyn, NY. The man was a compelling and successful witness, so Carter asked him his secret to success. “Love God and love the person in front of you at any particular time,” the man responded. Carter said this was a transformative lesson for him, and he’s tried to remember it in his dealings since.

Carter’s journey as a Baptist has had bumps, too. The schism in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), driven by ideological differences between fundamentalists and more moderate proponents—or as Carter calls them, “traditional Baptists”—began while he was in the White House. After his presidency, he hosted two meetings at the Carter Center with SBC leaders to try to repair the split, but the reconciliation efforts failed. When the SBC voted in 2000 to exclude women from leadership positions in the church, Carter left the denomination, pouring energy into the establishment of the New Baptist Covenant, a group focused on establishing unity for Baptists across racial lines.

He remains active in Baptist life and is probably the world’s most famous Sunday school teacher. His class at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains regularly draws capacity crowds from across the nation and world. This fall, he taught his 700th Sunday school lesson to a group comprising 16 denominations and faith traditions, including Muslims, Christians, and Jews.

When asked about challenges the church faces today, Carter pointed to denominational divisiveness. “The division between Christians is the biggest handicap to the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth,” he said. A close second is that Christians are not doing enough individually to espouse our faith. “Christians need to speak out more,” he said. “How wonderful it would be if the teachings of Jesus Christ would prevail in this overwhelmingly Christian nation.”

At the end of his visit, students told Carter they had been praying for him ever since his cancer diagnosis was announced. He thanked them, and then with his trademark grin, announced that a brain scan he’d had earlier that morning at Emory’s Winship Cancer Center showed no sign of cancer. A standing ovation accompanied him as he made his way to the next stop on his busy schedule.

(Photo credits: Bryan Meltz/Emory Photo)