President Carter finessed a delicate situation here today, attending services in two churches so as not to offend either taction in the schism that has divided his former congregation.
First the President attended Sunday school at Plains Baptist Church, where he was a member until he moved to Washington in January and joined First Baptist Church.
Then Carter drove five miles into the country to worship at Maranatha Baptist church, where a splinter group from the Plains church has established its own congregation.
The bitter split occurred in June after months of tension that built up during Carter's election campaign and the first months of his presidency. It centered on the Rev. Bruce Edwards, who resigned as pastor of Plains Baptist Church in February after successfully leading an effort to rescind a ban on admission of blacks to membership.
Some 50 members of the Plains congregation charged that Edwards had been forced to resign. He now is pastor of a Baptist church in Hawaii.
This is the President's first visit home since the June split. He has longtime friends in both factions, and he handed the touchy situation with the political prowess he demonstrated last year in seeming to tell factions on all sides of election issues what they wanted to hear.
Emerging from Maranatha church with grandson James Earl Carter IV in his arms, the President had kind words for both congregations.
"They're both good churches . . . I want both of them to grow and flourish. I think they both have a great role to play."
In fact, Carter said the schism may turn out to be a good thing for Plains. Asked if he thought the divided congregation would get back together, he replied, "I doubt that, but that's up to them.I've got my own church in Washington to worry about. But I think it's a healthy thing for the community to have two strong churches."
The President apparently decided on the two-church ploy last night or this morning. Saturday, White House alternate, going to Marantha church officials had said that he planned to today and to Plains Baptist on his next trip home.
Waiting outside the plains baptist church was the man who set the whole drama in motion last fall, the Rev. Clennon, King, a black minister and political gadfly from Albany, Ga.
It was King, the Sunday before last November's election, who showed up at Plains Baptist and demanded admission to the congregation. That set off the fight, led by Carter and Edwards to overturn the church's ban on black members.Although they won, the congregation, including Carter later voted against granting membership to King.
The President and several members of his family attended the 55-minute worship service at tiny Maranatha Baptist Church, a 110-year-old white frame building once used by a Lutheran congregation.
Today was the second birthday of Carter's other grandson, Jason. He was serenaded with "Happy Birthday" by the congregation and dropped two pennies into the collection plate.
Asked to give the benediction, the President prayed for both church groups:
"We all pray, not out of a sense of estrangement or alienation or division or hatred, but out of a sense of love and rededication to Thee. Let all the tensions be alleviated and disharmonies be removed and let there be a genuine search for reconiliation when needed. And those in the Plains Baptist Church, let it not be a sign of weakness in Thy kingdom but the strength of having two churches instead of one."
To complete his morning of church-hopping, Carter stopped on his way home at a reunion of wife Rosalynn's family in Plains United Methodist Fellowship Hall.