Founded in 1836, Emory University is a private research institution that has long championed human rights, health care and social justice. Dating from 1931, the church is the work of Philip T. Schutze, whose firm designed numerous private homes, public buildings and schools in the Atlanta area. Inspired by the churches of Christopher Wren, it is in the neoclassic style and features a domed steeple rising above a colonnaded porch. The interior is bright and spacious, with pews facing a stage-like area where communion table, lectern, pulpit and choir seating are located.
Rather than describe the church’s activities, I will instead note briefly the life of Rosalynn Carter. The wife of former President Jimmy Carter, Rosalynn Carter enjoyed a long and fruitful connection with Emory University. She was actively involved in social and humanitarian causes, focusing on mental health awareness and caregiving issues. She played a key role in her husband's administration, advising on policy matters. Post-White House, she continued her advocacy work, co-founding with her husband the Carter Center, which is closely associated with Emory University and which engages in various activities to advance human rights and alleviate suffering. Mrs Carter, who had been diagnosed with dementia and had entered hospice care, died on November 19 at age 96.
Emory University is located in the Druid Hills neighborhood, slightly to the northeast of downtown Atlanta. Druid Hills is one of Atlanta’s most affluent quarters. A planned community, it was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, whose legacy includes New York’s Central Park and countless other parks and interconnecting parkways throughout the United States and Canada. As would be expected, the neighborhood is dominated by the various buildings that comprise the university. The region features several parks and other green areas that contribute to its bucolic atmosphere.
The pastor of Glenn Memorial Church gave the call to worship and invocation, followed by opening remarks by the Carters’ personal pastor, who also gave the closing benediction. The clergy wore black Geneva gowns and either a white or black stole. One wore a white stole over her military dress uniform. James Earl Carter III welcomed attendees, and Amy Carter presented a reading. One grandson and three of the Carters’ great-grandchildren read scripture passages. Eulogies were spoken by a longtime aide and friend, a noted public television journalist, and another grandson.
What was the name of the service?Tribute Service for Rosalynn Carter.
How full was the building?
The church’s capacity is listed at 1,400 and it was completely full, including the balcony. In attendance were President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, former President Bill Clinton, former President Jimmy Carter, the Governor of Georgia, the Mayor of Atlanta, the President of Emory University, several members of Congress, and other elected officials. There was much speculation as to whether President Carter would attend, as at age 99 he is in very poor health and has himself been in hospice care for the past several months. Also in attendance were the present First Lady, the present Second Gentleman, and all still-living former First Ladies, including one whose presence was frankly something of a surprise.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Not being at leisure to travel to Atlanta, and the service at any rate being by invitation only, I watched the live broadcast on the website of Atlanta’s public television station. The only welcome I received was that given the in-person congregation.
Was your pew comfortable?
My desk chair was its usual comfortable self. It didn’t look like the pews were cushioned, but they seemed comfortable enough – at least I didn’t notice any fidgeting among the congregation. The Presidents and First Ladies sat on red upholstered chairs that had been placed in front of the first row of pews. President Carter sat in a reclining wheelchair and was covered by a blanket.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I tuned in about a half hour early, and the church was already full save for the seats reserved for dignitaries. The musicians performed various instrumental and choral numbers. Toward the end it was only the organist, filling the time with twiddly bits. The congregation sat quietly. The dignitaries did not begin to enter and take their seats until 1.20pm. I for one was beginning to grow weary of listening to the organist’s good 45 minutes or more of twiddly bits. If it were me, I would have stopped playing, as I used to do when I played the organ at weddings and the bride was unreasonably late. Outside, Mrs Carter’s casket was removed from the hearse and brought into the church by an honor guard of Marines as the pianist played that old chestnut ‘Jesus, Jesus, Jesus – There Is Something About That Name’, and the choir sang ‘America the Beautiful’, accompanied by a brass quartet.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘I welcome you to this place in this hour as we praise God and give thanks for the life of Rosalynn Carter.’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
It looked as though a service booklet had been provided, but it wasn’t available for download. There was also a hymnal in the pews – I assume it was the United Methodist Hymnal.
What musical instruments were played?
A string quartet of musicians from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Brass Quartet provided pre-service music. During the service, a noted pianist who was always a favorite of the Carters played one number, and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chamber Chorus sang, as did two noted Country and Western songsters who were personal friends of the Carters. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Director of Choruses played some selections on the organ.
Did anything distract you?
Call me naughty, but I couldn’t help wondering if any of the congregation or musicians, having been required to sit for so long and given the delay at getting things underway, had to use the facilities – and if they had wisely taken the precaution of wearing absorbent undergarments. And one of the choristers, a young bearded curly-haired gentleman, proved to be more than a slight distraction to old Miss Amanda.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
As stiff-upper-lip as we were led to believe it would be. After the opening greeting and prayer, the various eulogies were separated by alternating prayers, hymns, and readings from scripture. I would call it a hymn sandwich if it were not such a solemn occasion. I was a little surprised that the scripture readings all consisted of only a single verse. After the concluding song (see below) and before he spoke the benediction, the Carters’ pastor gave some concluding remarks and reminded the congregation to remain in place until after the dignitaries had left the church.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
Altogether the eulogies took an hour, but from that must be subtracted the prayers, hymns, and readings.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 — Everyone spoke clearly and from the heart.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
I could not begin to summarize all of the eulogies that the various speakers gave. Suffice it to say that they all spoke of moments from Mrs Carter’s life that had given them pleasure or inspiration, giving rise to laughter at times from the congregation. Some of their remarks were applauded. One observation made by a speaker was especially memorable: ‘She knew what comes back when you give your love away.’
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
It was heavenly to hear all those old standby hymns – all favorites of Mrs Carter – sung so beautifully by musicians who knew their stuff: ‘Blessed Assurance,’ ‘Morning Has Broken,’ ‘Great Is Thy Faithfulness,’ ‘What Wondrous Love Is This’ (especially well done – it had me in tears). The service concluded with the choir and congregation singing ‘Let There Be Peace On Earth’ – another song that gave rise to tears.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Call me whatever name you’d like, but I could not help wondering what sort of tribute (if any) would be given at the funeral of the First Lady whose presence was a surprise, or of that of her husband.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
As the guest pianist played a concluding number, the Marine honor guard carried Mrs Carter’s casket out of the church. None of the dignitaries left until President Carter had been taken out. As for me – I can hardly look lost in my own apartment, and I’m glad to be able to say that the service ended in time for me to enjoy the Tuesday afternoon ice cream that is served in my building’s social room.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
This time of year (as Arizona does not observe Daylight Saving Time) there is a two hour difference between Arizona and Georgia. So it was 11.00 here when the service began at 1.00 in Atlanta. I confess to eating a sandwich as the service began. And the ice cream was delicious!
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
I don’t envision a trip to Atlanta, but even if that were to happen I probably wouldn’t find myself attending a service at Glenn Memorial Church, as beautiful a building as it is, and as wonderful a worship experience as this was.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Seeing President Carter in his wheelchair, and the remark that Mrs Carter knew what comes back when you give your love away.