Getty/Hulton Archive/Michael Brennan

Getty/Hulton Archive/Michael Brennan

Southwest Georgia is Baptist country. The back roads heading south out of Columbus are bracketed by red soil, scruffy pines, and clapboard buildings sporting names like Shiloh Marion Baptist Church, Zion Hill Baptist Church, Piney Grove Missionary Baptist Church, and Greater Good Hope Baptist Church. “Love Jesus No Matter What,” one roadside sign reads, and another: “Only Jesus Saves.” Outside of Preston, Georgia, still another sign implores, “Take Jesus for Your Saviour,” and the Preston Baptist Church has posted each of the Ten Commandments on a chain-link fence for the edification of travelers passing through town.

Just before crossing from Webster into Sumter County, signs on Georgia Highway 27 point toward Archery, the boyhood home of Jimmy Carter, and then the road eases into Plains, where it becomes Church Street. The business district, not much more than a block long, lies just beyond the railroad tracks, across the street from the former Seaboard Coast Line Railroad Depot that served as campaign headquarters for Carter’s improbable run for the presidency in 1976 and now as a museum commemorating that campaign.

Plains, Georgia, is no longer the hub of excitement that it was in the summer of 1976, when legions of journalists and thousands of tourists descended to learn more about the Democratic nominee for president. Then, Lillian Carter held court at the train station, and Billy Carter threw back a few beers and entertained visitors with quips like, “I’ve got a mother who joined the Peace Corps and went to India when she was 68. I’ve got a sister who races motorcycles and another sister who’s a Holy Roller preacher. I’ve got a brother who says he wants to be President of the United States.” Then, pausing for dramatic effect, “I’m the only sane one in the family.”

Plains, with a population of only 766 souls, nevertheless has two Baptist churches, the large white clapboard Plains Baptist Church and the newer, brick building, Maranatha Baptist Church, on the north edge of town, just past the thirteen-foot sculpture of a smiling peanut, which TIME magazine described as “the strangest monument ever to an American President.” The Carter clan voted years ago to integrate Plains Baptist, but they were joined by only one other member. While Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter lived in Washington, a dissident group formed Maranatha Baptist Church shortly after Carter’s inauguration. The Carters attended both churches during their visits to Plains, but when they moved home following the 1980 election, they cast their lot with racial inclusivity and joined Maranatha on January 25, 1981, the first Sunday after Carter left the White House.

At Maranatha Baptist Church, a couple of squad cars sat at the foot of the driveway, and farther along a bomb-sniffing dog circled every vehicle before it was allowed to continue to the parking lot. By eight-thirty, ninety minutes before Sunday school, visitors began to queue up outside the front door. Inside, past the Secret Service agents waving security wands, Jan Williams, church member and retired schoolteacher—Amy Carter was one of her students—instructed visitors about protocol. On the weeks when Jimmy Carter teaches, she warned, photographs of the Sunday-school teacher are allowed only before the lesson begins. The thirty-ninth president of the United States wants no applause. “The applause you give him,” she said, “is how you take the lesson and apply it to your life.”

When I first began seriously to consider writing a biography of Carter, his aides informed me that he generally talks with authors only when their projects are nearing completion—an understandable policy that shielded the former president from scholarly fishing expeditions. During my lunch with Carter in 2009, while I was a visiting professor at Emory, he welcomed my interest and instructed his aides to facilitate any request I had. Still, I sought to honor his general preference to weigh in at the end of the project—both to avoid troubling him and because I wanted no suspicion that this was in any way an authorized biography. By the time I headed to Plains, therefore, my research was finished and I had completed a draft of the entire manuscript. I was there to tie up a few loose ends. The aides had given me the option of meeting Carter in Atlanta, but I wanted to see him in Plains, specifically on one of the weekends he taught Sunday school—which is generally any Sunday when he is home and not traveling.

Jimmy Carter, notorious for punctuality, materialized precisely at ten o’clock, wearing a dark sport coat, a light- blue shirt, and a bolo tie. This was lesson number 613 he has given at Maranatha Baptist Church, Carter told us; he has the lessons numbered on his computer. (He’s also notorious for quantification.) Having taught Sunday school since he was a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy, Carter clearly enjoys the classroom; even while president, he taught fourteen times at First Baptist Church in Washington.

Carter took the morning lesson from the New Testament book of Hebrews, the gist of which, he said, was “the Son of God explaining the character of God.” Carter’s take on the epistle was decidedly Protestant. “One of the things I have always been taught since I was a child was the priesthood of the believer,” he said, a reference to Martin Luther’s quarrel with the Roman Catholic Church, which had inserted a priestly caste between God and ordinary believers. Carter used this occasion once again to criticize the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, one of the effects of which was an “exaltation” of the clergy, which he believed was contrary to the teachings of scripture. “As we approach the rest of our life,” Carter said, “we can be reassured and have hope because we have a direct relationship with God Almighty.”

Carter, who tends to teach in syllogisms, was less interested in theological exposition than application. Our duty as believers, he said, is “to emulate, or copy, the life of our savior.” Leaders who call themselves Christians, even political leaders, have an obligation to emulate Jesus, who was, Carter reminded us, the Prince of Peace.

The former president, who had looked every bit his eighty-eight years at the beginning of the lesson, seemed to gather energy as he warmed to his topic. He lamented that the United States has a reputation around the world as the most warlike nation on earth, and he noted that for most of the past seventy years we have been at war. “We have an obligation to promote peace,” he insisted, “and justice.” The United States has more people in prison than any nation on earth, he said, seven times the number when he left the White House in 1981. “I personally believe that Jesus Christ would be against the death penalty,” Carter said, referring his auditors to the woman caught in adultery, the incident where Jesus invited any of the woman’s accusers who were without sin to cast the first stone.

Carter rarely signs autographs, but he and Rosalynn pose with visitors for photographs following the morning worship service, which begins at eleven. The “catch” for tourists is that if they want, as Jan Williams says, to “make a picture,” they must stay for church. It’s a clever ploy, and it’s difficult to escape the impression that Carter’s celebrity is keeping Maranatha afloat. Williams said that the church has 130 members, but only about thirty are active; most of those, she added, are older than she. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to us,” she confessed. The financial report in the morning bulletin put the matter starkly. The weekly needs of the congregation were $1,375, and the receipts from the previous Sunday, not one of Carter’s teaching Sundays, totaled only $697.

Williams had directed me to sit in the third row on what Episcopalians call the epistle, or right, side of the church. What I didn’t know, until a couple of minutes before eleven, is that this was the Carters’ pew. The president greeted me cordially, albeit in hushed tones, and Rosalynn and I exchanged pleasantries. Soon, with the help of a twelve-voice choir, we were all belting out such Baptist standards as “To God Be the Glory,” “My Faith Has Found a Resting Place,” and “Faith Is the Victory.”

Jeffrey Summers, the pastor, a genial man barely a third the age of his most famous congregant, preached a sermon entitled “Finding Faith.” Members of the choir by now had taken their places in the congregation. A Secret Service agent sat nearby, his restless eyes darting all around the sanctuary. “Faith is all around us,” the preacher said, “we just have to embrace it.” At five minutes before noon, the former president discreetly checked his watch, and as if on cue, Summers segued into the altar call. We sang “’Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus,” the pastor stepped in front of the altar and beckoned, but no one was saved.

In the course of our interview in the pastor’s study, after church and photographs on the side lawn, Carter declared himself “honored” to be numbered among such progressive evangelicals as Charles Grandison Finney and William Jennings Bryan. Mark Hatfield, he said, “was a kind of hero of mine.” Carter characterized Hatfield as “a genuinely devout believer in Christ who sought to put Christ’s teachings into practice.” Carter also acknowledged that his own defeat in 1980 followed by Hatfield’s retirement from the Senate in 1997 had left a void, at least among elected officials. Carter lamented the “new definition” of evangelicalism that had taken hold, one associated with “rightwing Christianity.” He recalled hearing about Jerry Falwell “giving me a hard time” in 1976, but his was just a lonely voice at the time; Falwell and his associates, however, “had remarkable success in four years in making that a driving force in American political history.” When did the president have a sense of the gathering storm as he prepared for reelection? Carter remembered that his sister, Ruth Carter Stapleton, “told me that there was a stirring of animosity toward me because of some of the moderate positions I had taken on human rights and so forth and that they thought I had betrayed their own definition of Christianity. But I didn’t really see it as a serious thing until the altercation arose in the Southern Baptist Convention.” After the conservative takeover in 1979, he said, he began to recognize the ramifications of the evangelical shift away from progressive evangelicalism.

“I think the application of Christian faith to human beings is a crucial part of faith,” Carter said, and he expressed confidence that he had taken the New Testament seriously throughout the course of his various careers, including his time as president. During Sunday school, Carter had told the class that, by his own reckoning, the seventy-one years of his adult life could be broken down to eleven years in the Navy, seventeen as a farmer, twelve in politics, and thirty-one as a professor and head of the Carter Center. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate told me that he harbored no regrets, and that he wanted to be remembered for peace and human rights. “Some people let the past consume them,” Carter had said during one of his Sunday-school lessons nearly a decade earlier. But the former president has consistently looked forward rather than backward.

“The totality of my life has been enhanced,” Carter said, by losing the presidency in 1980. He scratched his chin thoughtfully and then flashed the famous Jimmy Carter grin. He described the years since he left the White House as the best of his life, but he acknowledged that “a lot of that is attributable to the fact that I was president— my knowledge of things and my access to leaders.” His main regret about not serving a second term was not being able to “consummate” the Camp David accords, “by giving the Palestinians their rights and by forming two nations,” and he continued to regard both of those steps as essential for peace. “I think I could have done that and some other things if I’d been president.” Still, he added, that he probably would not have started the Carter Center had he remained in the White House for a second term.

Jimmy Carter professed not to be worried about the judgment of history. I remarked that he sounded gracious about his defeat in 1980, that his tone betrayed no bitterness. “Well, there’s nothing I can do about it,” Carter replied with a smile. “You have to roll with the punches and make the best of what I’ve got.” Rosalynn, he said, was much more heartbroken and angry than he was. “I had to think of all the reasons that were positive to try to convince her not to be so despondent,” he added. “And so I think that’s why I was able to look at the bright side of things.”

Carter takes justifiable pride in another career that he didn’t list in Sunday school, that of author. He has written more than two dozen books, all but one (his campaign autobiography) since leaving Washington. Toward the end of our conversation, he insisted that I have a copy of his devotional book (adapted from his Sunday-school lessons), Through the Year with Jimmy Carter: 366 Daily Meditations from the 39th President.

“Why don’t you come with me now?” he said at the conclusion of the interview. As instructed, I jumped into my rental car and followed the two-vehicle Secret Service convoy as it roared out of the church driveway and into town. The president had one brief stop to make, a meet-and-greet with supporters of Habitat for Humanity who were visiting Plains that weekend, and then on to the Carter home. Agents in the trailing Secret Service vehicle didn’t want to admit me past the metal gates and into the compound—“Can I help you?” one asked pointedly—but Carter had already emerged from the other vehicle and waved me in.

Rosalynn and I resumed our conversation while Jimmy Carter disappeared into the house. She pointed with pride to the expanse of pink roses embroidered into a fence in front of their home, all from a single bush that her husband had given her for Mother’s Day many years earlier. By now, in early June, the heat of a south Georgia summer had settled in, and the roses had begun to wilt. But they were still lovely.

“I couldn’t find a new copy,” Carter said as he handed me the book, so he had cadged Rosalynn’s copy from the nightstand. “I figured I could get you another book,” he said with a tentative smile as he glanced in her direction. “You’re on page seventy.” Rosalynn Carter’s bookmark was still in my copy of Through the Year with Jimmy Carter—on page seventy, the meditation entitled “Patience in Love.”

Both of the Carters apologized that previous commitments that afternoon precluded spending more time with me. They were off to another engagement. “Spend a little time here in Plains before you leave,” Carter urged me as he waved goodbye.

Randall Balmer is the chair of the religion department at Dartmouth College. 

Adapted from Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter by Randall Balmer. Available from Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2014.