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The First Family Picks a Church and Finds An Unusual Southern Baptist Preacher in the Pulpit

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For the Rev. Charles Arthur Trentham of Knoxville, Tenn., his career as a leading Southern Baptist clergyman seemed possibly at an end. In 1973, after he and his wife of 30 years, Helen, had separated, she went to Reno for a divorce. He remained at the First Baptist Church of Knoxville for 11 months and then married Nancy Smart, 43, a divorcée who was a soloist in his choir.

Most of the 35,000 Southern Baptist churches in the U.S. would have found the Rev. Trentham unacceptable as their pastor. An exception was the cosmopolitan First Baptist Church of Washington, D.C. (which is affiliated with both the Southern Baptists and the more liberal American Baptist Convention). The church offered him its pulpit in November 1973, and he became pastor within a few days of his remarriage.

“I felt there was a new ministry and a new beginning in Washington,” Trentham says of the $37,000 post. As it turned out, there has been a good deal more. In the past few weeks the 175-year-old First Baptist has become “the President’s church” and the Rev. Trentham Jimmy Carter’s preacher.

After the Carter family joined, Attorney General Griffin Bell and his wife followed. Attendance has tripled. Two Sundays ago, when Amy Carter was baptized, 1,400 people jammed into the church six blocks from the White House. In a ritual practiced by Christians since John baptized Jesus, the 9-year-old Amy was immersed for an instant in water. Afterward she went to a room behind the altar, where Mrs. Carter was waiting with fresh clothes and a hair dryer borrowed from the church.

The First Family’s 57-year-old pastor combines personal warmth, religious conservatism and scholarship. The author of four books, he gave one of them to Amy—Daring Discipleship, “which tells what membership in the church means.”

Neither the First Baptist Church nor Trentham is a stranger to Presidents. Harry Truman worshiped there, and his pew stands in the minister’s study. And as a civil rights activist, Trentham was named to an 18-member Commission on Religion and Race in 1963 by President Kennedy.

Trentham, the son of a Knoxville merchant, decided on the ministry “when I was 12, right after my baptism.” After seminary in Fort Worth and several pulpits, Trentham returned to Knoxville and stayed for 21 years.

He is close-mouthed about his first marriage. “I’m like Betty Ford,” he says. “I’m divorced, but I prefer not to talk about it.” (His first wife is remarried; one of their sons is a doctor, the other a lawyer.) Trentham is candid, however, about the change in his life that leaving Knoxville meant. “I used to be able to pick up the telephone and get people jobs, or admitted to college or the hospital,” he recalls. “I’m not known here as I was there.”

That obscurity is ending. Now all the world will be listening to what he tells the President on Sunday morning. Carter takes his churchgoing quite seriously. Recently when he flew off to inspect the frigid Northeast and missed services, he called Trentham to explain, “Pastor, I want you to know only a great emergency will take me out of church.” (For security reasons, the Secret Service is pleased with Carter’s selection. With its balconies and pillars, agents told Trentham his church is the safest in Washington.)

Trentham is determined not to lecture the Administration. “I have resolved to keep my sermons from being newsworthy,” he declares, and adds as a note of caution, “The closer a preacher gets to power, the more he may lose his sensitivity as a prophet, a man of God and servant of the Word.”