IN 1965 the deacons of the Plains Baptist Church - Jimmy Carter's church - voted to bar from its membership "Negroes and any other civil rights agitators." Carter and his family opposed the resolution, but to no avail.
Eleven years later - and one week before the 1976 presidential election - that near-forgotten resolution catapulted the Plains Baptist Church and its young minister, 30-year-old Rev. Bruce Edwards, into the national spotlight. That was the moment a black minister from Albany, Ga., the Rev. Clennon King, chose to integrate the church, but was barred when parishioners invoked the '65 resolution.
Despite efforts by Carter and Edwards, the bar of King stood and the bitter fallout from the incident eventually split the congregation and forced Edwards to resign.
Today Bruce Edwards is about as far away from Plains and publicity as he can get. Last July, after one more effort to rehire him in Plains failed, Edwards move his wife and two children (one is an adopted half-Polynesian boy) to the Makakilo Baptist Church in Makakilo, Hawaii, population 5,000.
Edwards says he loves his post as pastor for the racially mixed congregation of 100. But as he speaks on a recent trans-Pacific phone call, it is clear that Plains, Ga., is still very much on his mind.
"The thing that disturbed me most about the whole thing," says Edwards, "is that it thrust the black-white issue into the foreground of my life. I am a spokesman for God, not civil rights. If I say something about civil rights it must come from a theological standpoint, not a political one. I am not a politician."
Of course, when you're a Baptist minister in Georgia who happens to have a parishioner named Jimmy Carter, religion turns into politics. Which, Edwards says, is what happened when the Rev. King came to him a week before the presidential election seeking admission to the Plains Baptist Church.
"In my opinion, King's move was very carefully, very skillfully planned ahead of time as a political move. It was meant all along to take advantage of racial attitudes in Plains and hurt Jimmy Carter.
"When King first came to me I talked with him and told him I would be willing to help him join our church. But I pointed out that his chance of acceptance would improve if he waited one week, until after the election.
"He refused. And I can only tell you that the Republican committee had telephones ready to go as soon as King walked in the church."
Nevertheless, Edwards and Carter backed King, especially after the old '65 resolution was dusted off and trotted out by the deacons. Edwards says when he took the position at the church he didn't know the resolution existed.
Following Carter's election, the president joined with Edwards to overturn the '65 resolution even though King's application was eventually turned down by the church. However, sentiment still ran strong and in February at a church meeting ostensibly called for other purposes Edwards got the ax.
"I did not expect to be fired," Edwards recalls. "There was no advance notice; no charges brought against me. A special church meeting had been called after services and suddenlly in walked a whole lot of people I had never seen before."
As Edwards explains it, two weeks before the meeting the church rolls had mysteriously disappeared. On the rolls were the names of 400 parishioners, even though the regular congregation numbered only about 200. But that day in Plains, the church was filled with people who, although technically members, hadn't set foot in the door for years.
"An hour into the meeting I turned to my wife and said, 'It's over. We might as well resign.' They had won."
Even now Edwards will not characterize Plains as racist. "There is a group that is," he says carefully. "And they have a great deal of influence on the community."
When the pro-Carter/Edwards forces eventually split to form their own new church - the Maranatha Baptist - Edwards declined on offer to lead the new congregation. "I didn't want the church to be viewed as pro-Edwards or pro-Carter."
Edwards chose the Hawaii assignment because "it was a relatively new church. Not steeped in tradition."
Yet even Hawaii didn't keep the Rev. King away.
"Just before I came here," says Edwards, "King arrived at my new church. He tried to claim I was the one who kept him out of the Plains Baptist Church."
But when Edwards arrived in Hawaii himself, he was met at the airport by 60 parishioners in a solid display of support.
Although Carter and Edwards have not been in touch lately, Edwards is still very much in the Carter camp.
"A lot of people were critical of Carter during that time in Plains, but his Christian faith is a very personal thing. I didn't want to see that exploited."
Edwards, who said he was fighting the flu, insists he is not bitter about the Plains experience.
In fact, perhaps predictably, he confessed he is working on a book about it for Simon and Schuster. Due out his year.
"I'm convinced it had to happen eventually in Plains," muses Edwards. "And I felt I did the right thing under the circumstances. And anything God is involved in has to have some good in it.
"Besides, it caused a whole lot of people to get hold of themselves. Including my own family - my wife and I are a lot closer having been through it together."
And, he adds, laughing, at least the whole trauma did get him to Hawaii and a new life where, he notes, "if I wasn't stick like I am today, I wouldn't be talking to you at all. I'd be going swimming."