Interest in Jimmy Carter’s Sunday school lessons continues to grow

“This was on a lot of people’s bucket list,”
June 9, 2019 Plains: President Jimmy Carter, 94, the 39th U.S. president and Plains native, opens his Bible to begin the lesson as he returns to Maranatha Baptist Church to teach Sunday School less than a month after falling and breaking his hip on Sunday, June 9, 2019, in Plains.  Curtis Compton/



June 9, 2019 Plains: President Jimmy Carter, 94, the 39th U.S. president and Plains native, opens his Bible to begin the lesson as he returns to Maranatha Baptist Church to teach Sunday School less than a month after falling and breaking his hip on Sunday, June 9, 2019, in Plains. Curtis Compton/

Jimmy Carter gave his last Sunday school lesson several years ago, but Jan Williams still fields emails and calls from people who want to hear the 39th president teach the Word.

For years, Williams has been a familiar face to those who journeyed to Plains and the red-brick Maranatha Baptist Church to hear Carter’s lessons, which usually drew hundreds. Carter taught Sunday school in the church since leaving Washington in the early 1980s. It is something he has done for most of his adult life, including as a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy and even occasionally at First Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. when he was president.

For some, seeing Carter at the recent funeral of his beloved Rosalynn, his wife of 77 years, who died Nov. 19, has renewed interest in hearing his teachings.

“It’s amazing how many people contact the church and ask what Sunday he’s teaching in a certain month,” said the 74-year-old Williams, who serves as the church’s clerk, secretary, piano player and member of the choir. She said even today some people don’t realize Carter, 99, who has been in home hospice since February, is no longer teaching Sunday school.

His niece, Kim Carter Fuller, teaches Sunday school class there now.

When they find out Jimmy Carter is no longer teaching, Williams said “many people burst into tears. ...They cry and weep. They said ‘We kept putting off coming here and I guess we missed out.’”

When Carter was still teaching, there were many weekends when Williams’ husband, George, could be found in the parking lot directing eager visitors. Some arrived Saturday nights and others in the wee hours of Sunday mornings to make sure they got through a Secret Service checkpoint to grab a coveted seat in the sanctuary. And if you arrived too late —which could be as early as 2 a.m. on some Sundays — you might have sit in an overflow room to hear the lesson.

For those who missed Carter teaching or want to hear it again, there are books, audiobooks and CDs of his Sunday School lessons available. Some of the lessons are on YouTube.

There are also collections of his lessons housed at the church, which Williams estimates are in the hundreds, and the Jimmy Carter National Historical Park in Plains. The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta has some audiotapes of Carter teaching Sunday school.

Sarah Rix, the Plains historic site’s museum technician, said the lessons are on video, audio and some transcripts, though not currently accessible to the public.

You can order lessons from Maranatha at

So what made the lessons so popular? For one, they were taught by a former U.S. president, one known for his strong faith and public service. His lessons touched on the Bible and theological questions, but were peppered with practical thought. Many revolved around how to treat others and what you can do the make the world a better place.

Tony Lowden, the Carters’ personal pastor and a former Maranatha pastor, has another reason for their popularity:

June 9, 2019 Plains: Reverend Tony Lowden holds his daughter Tabitha in the sanctuary of Maranatha Baptist Church greeting visitors with President Jimmy Carter after leading the worship service on Sunday, June 9, 2019, in Plains. Curtis Compton/

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“His messages were powerful and always challenged you to take the Word of God outside the walls of the church. He lifted people, and the lessons are part of his legacy.”

Lowden said he’d joke with Carter that people loved to come down to see JC, a private nickname he sometimes called the president. They both agreed that people should come down for the real JC — Jesus Christ.

Lines waiting to get inside the church would often extend into the church’s pecan orchard, like people were making a pilgrimage to Plains and Maranatha. “This was on a lot of people’s bucket list,” Lowden said said. Visitors included people of all political stripes and sometimes included people who weren’t Christian or hadn’t attended church in years — or ever.

In 2017, the Rev. Joseph Howard and his wife, the Rev. Bianca Howard, his in-laws and parents were able to land a front-row seat during Sunday school.

In 2017, the Rev. Joseph Howard, his wife, the Rev. Bianca Howard, his in-laws and parents were able to land a front row seat during Sunday school. (Contributed)

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed

“It was amazing to be in the space,” said Howard.

Carter was very humble, approachable and comfortable, he recalled, treating every stranger like a friend. He might ask where people lived and their answers reflected the reach of his popularity: Alaska, Hawaii, Ohio, Spain and Panama. They came from all over.

He would ask the crowd if there were any pastors or missionaries in the church, their church and denomination. Then he would asked a female minister to pray, as a nod to inclusion in the pulpit.

Howard recalled the lesson was very practical, nothing overly complicated.

The lesson touched on what kind of person did those in the audience want to be. “We have a choice in how we show up in the world,” Howard recalled. “I knew this was something he lived. He was the embodiment of kindness and Christ-like character.”

Leonard Wright Jr., a native of Plains who currently lives in Summerville, S.C., attended a couple of lessons.

Wright, a former Sunday school superintendent for Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston, said Carter was very knowledgeable on Scripture.

There’s a difference, he said, between lecturing and teaching. Carter taught.

“Everything was Scripture-based and you had the opportunity for regular back and forth,” said Wright “Everybody had the opportunity to dialogue with him. It was not just him reading Scripture.”

Sitting in on one of Carter’s Sunday school lessons was also on the bucket list of Jennifer Ayres, a professor of religious education, at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.

While attending church with the former president of the most powerful nation in the world is an attraction, people are not necessarily packing churches to hear just any government leader teach Bible study, she said.

“I think that especially when you’re talking about the education of adults, one thing that is really important is a sense of authenticity,” she said.

“People most likely wanted to be close to someone who had such a spirit of integrity. It’s such a powerful force that makes people want to come, listen and be present.”

Kim Carter Fuller, the former president’s niece, began teaching Sunday school more often after Carter fell and broke his hip in 2019, although he still came in to teach a few times after that.

Fuller, a retired English teacher, said she occasionally uses lessons that her uncle taught “but it’s a different spin on it because I can’t teach like him, obviously. He put his own spin on all of that.” Fuller said he was able to talk about places because he had visited those places when he was president and afterwards working with the Carter Center.

Fuller said her uncle knew the lessons being taught and had the information “at this fingertips.”

She’s not surprised people still come to Maranatha hoping to see her uncle.

Sometimes when they find out he’s not teaching, they turn around and leave. Others stay for the lesson.

She said he often gave her advice. Sometimes he would send her an email after her lessons. He might write, “Here’s a good example of such and such, or show me how to pronounce things because some things in the Bible are hard to pronounce. Or he might say, ‘I don’t agree with how you did that, but if that’s your take...’”

What makes Jimmy Carter a good Sunday school teacher?

“He’s passionate about the Bible and passionate about his faith,” she said. “I think he just thoroughly enjoys the studying of his faith.”