“She knows many will not fully understand the spiritual base on which they operate, but there’s a confidence that the world will not forget their emphasis on personal integrity, human rights, and justice for all people. That’s Rosalynn.”

This description of Rosalynn Smith Carter, in the book Rosalynn: Friend and First Lady by Edna Langford and Linda Maddox (1980, Revell,) is widely shared by those who knew her at home, in church or on the world stage.

Mrs. Carter, who died on November 19, 2023, at age 96 following a publicly acknowledged diagnosis of dementia, spent many decades of her life advocating for mental health, caregiving, human rights, conflict resolution and early childhood immunization through The Carter Center based in Atlanta.

Born August 18, 1927, in Plains, Ga., she married another native of the small southwest Georgia town — Jimmy Carter — in the local Methodist church her family had long attended. Their shared lives would take them worldwide through military service, the U.S. presidency and their significant post-presidency work. 

Becoming a Baptist after marriage, Mrs. Carter was an active church lay leader in less visible roles than her husband’s teaching of well-attended Bible study classes at the First Baptist Church in the City of Washington and then for many years at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains.

In 2006, the Plains church ordained her as a deacon. In an interview with Baptists Today (now Nurturing Faith Journal) she spoke about the Sunday evening ordination service and her new role.

“It was a wonderful experience,” said Mrs. Carter. “I’m just kind of overwhelmed about being elected a deacon at the church.”

Always known for her caretaking, Mrs. Carter was enthusiastic about that aspect of deacon ministry — as well as the ongoing organizational health of the church. 

“I’m looking forward to being more involved in the affairs of the church, the decision making,” said Mrs. Carter. “We have a great church and a wonderful ministry.”

Mrs. Carter said since her election as a deacon she had been studying the Bible about the role of servant leadership. Women like Phoebe, she noted, were called to places of service in the early church.

Nell Ariail, whose late husband Dan was a longtime pastor at Maranatha, has enjoyed a close friendship with the Carters.

“Rosalynn has done special things for me,” Nell recalled in a recent interview. She told of the gifts — including a dress and necklace from China — that would come from Mrs. Carter’s travels. “They’ve both been very good to us.”

The Ariails joined the Carters in Oslo, Norway, in 2002 when their fellow church member and former president was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Acknowledging Nell’s important role in the church, Mrs. Carter once told her: “Our church has two first ladies.”

Building houses with Habitat for Humanity International is well known from the Carters’ lifelong service to others. For more than 30 years they gave a week of their time annually to lead Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Projects, enlisting thousands of other volunteers to build hundreds of houses.

Yet, perhaps Mrs. Carter’s deep interest in and advocacy for mental health is her greatest legacy. 

In an interview with then Baptists Today in the October 1999 issue, she shared how questions about the availability of mental health services surfaced decades ago when her husband was first running for governor of Georgia. 

“Mentally ill people have been discriminated against and the stigma has been devastating, so they don’t have very much self-esteem and they don’t feel like people care about them,” she said in the interview. “So for them to know that God loves them is very helpful.”

Yet she adds: “When the mentally ill feel that the people in a congregation truly understand and care, it helps these individuals feel like worthy people.”

Known for a lifelong love of butterflies, Mrs. Carter has celebrated recent birthdays quietly — including releasing more of the beautiful and beneficial creatures into her garden. 

Her interest in addressing the decline of Monarch butterflies also led to the creation of the Rosalynn Carter Butterfly Trail in Plains.

Rosalynn Smith Carter will long be remembered for her love and care of all creatures, great and small.

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