The storied history of a Walker L. Knight devotional

How lines from a Woman’s Missionary Union conference ended up in a historic speech by President Jimmy Carter

by Ken Sehested

This tale is the unlikely story of a single, five-word sentence, a fragment of a much longer prose poem.

It was first uttered during what many would consider a parochial backwater event: the April 1971 annual meeting of the Florida Baptist Convention Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU).

Several lines from that poem, including the pivotal sentence, was later quoted by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter during his March 26, 1979 speech at the historic Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty signing at the White House.

Years later that poem portion would be produced as a large poster, seen hanging on walls on three different continents, and has long since entered the international vocabulary of advocates of all sorts pursuing justice, peace, and human rights.

The key sentence?

“Peace, like war, is waged.”

This December represents the 50th anniversary of the initial publication of Walker’s phrase, embedded in the poem’s text.

Then directing the editorial services department of the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board (HMB), Walker wrote the poem for a series of devotionals at the April 1971 Florida WMU gathering, at the request of Carolyn Weatherford, who later became synonymous with missions education as director of national WMU.

When Everett Hullum, Walker’s associate editor of Home Missions magazine, read the manuscript, he insisted that the entire piece be printed. It debuted as an 18-page spread, accompanied by a series of striking photographs, in the December 1972 issue.

The storyline of how some of that text ended up in Carter’s historic speech is circuitous.

It began when John Nichol, pastor of Oakhurst Baptist Church (OBC) in Decatur, Ga., used several lines from the poem in a sermon he guest preached at First Baptist Church, Vienna, Ga., where his friend Rev. Robert Maddox was pastor.

Maddox was already an acquaintance of Jimmy Carter, a farmer and active church member in nearby Plains who had done some guest preaching in churches in the area. Twice, in the summers of 1967 and ’68, when Maddox was on vacation, Carter filled his pulpit.

Fast forward several years, after completing a Ph.D. at Emory University in Atlanta, Maddox was called as pastor of First Baptist Church in Calhoun, Ga., where one of the Carter’s sons was a member.

One Sunday Rosalynn Carter, the president’s spouse, visited the church. Maddox invited her to lunch, and she agreed. This was in September 1978, during the 12 days of strenuous diplomacy happening at Camp David, the presidential retreat, when the president was hosting Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in talks aimed at creating a peace treaty between the two countries. Ms. Carter shared what little she knew—and of the high stakes at risk in this diplomatic initiative.

Previously, in May of 1978, one of Carter’s aides whom Maddox had known in Vienna called to say the president would be speaking to the Southern Baptist Brotherhood Commission, saying that none of the speechwriters knew the context, asking if Maddox would consider working up a draft. Maddox jumped at the chance. Afterward Maddox wrote to the president to offer his services as a speechwriter, but was declined.

The Camp David Accords represented an agreement in principle. Afterwards, Begin and Sadat returned to their respective countries to sell its details to their respective governments. That’s when things began to fall apart, necessitating President Carter’s diplomatic shuttling between the two countries. Finally, in March 1979 Carter announced that final agreement had been reached.

Upon hearing the news, Maddox, on his own initiative, decided to write a speech for Carter for the treaty signing ceremony at the White House. He remembered that phrase from Walker’s poem—“Peace, like war, is waged”—and inserted it, along with several other lines, and sent it to Rosalynn Carter’s press secretary.

Carter ended up using what Maddox wrote, including these lines:

“It has been said, and I quote, ‘Peace has one thing in common with its enemy, with the fiend it battles, with war; peace is active, not passive; peace is doing, not waiting; peace is aggressive—attacking; peace plans its strategy and encircles the enemy; peace marshals its forces and storms the gates; peace gathers its weapons and pierces the defense; peace, like war, is waged.’”

Though Walker was not identified as the author, a White House aide specifically asked Maddox for attribution of the quote.

A few days later, while Maddox was in Florida, an aide to the president called, urging him to find a TV—Carter was about to give the speech.

In May of that year, Maddox was hired by the Carter Administration, first as a speechwriter, then as a special religious liaison for the president.

Many who knew Walker often used the word “integrity” to describe his character. One of his associates remarked to a new staff hire, “there is no guile in Walker Knight.”

Such virtue does not show up overnight. It was be nurtured—clarified, trusted, repeatedly practiced—over time. Though it’s hard to identify one particular occasion when this temperament crystalized.

Quite possibly it was an experience recounted by his close friend, John Nichol, Oakhurst Baptist Church’s former pastor. At Walker’s memorial service in December 2019, Nichol, commented that “You have to go back to the time when as a teenager he made his first major trip out of Henderson County, Kentucky, with a group of teenagers from his church, to attend Training Union Week at the Baptist Assembly in Ridgecrest, N.C.

“One evening the preacher for that week focused on one of the beatitudes: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled. “Dr. Johnson said that the verse could also be translated ‘Blessed are those who want to see things set right, for they will help accomplish it.’”

Wanting to see things set right, Walker wrote in his Memoirs, served as lifelong point of orientation. It’s what would steel his resolve to speak out on matters of racial justice, on questions of economic inequality, on support of women in ministry, along with numerous other human rights matters.

By the time he assumed his role as editor of the HMB’s Home Missions magazine (later renamed Missions USA), he joined his journalism skills to his theological vision and his editorial courage. He soon learned there would be a cost to such integrity.

Subsequent generations have hard time imagining the red hot emotions around Jim Crow culture and the revolt of the Civil Rights Movement.

One for instance: In the fall of ’71, James Sullivan, the director of the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board, halted distribution of a Training Union Quarterly (study material for teens)—140,000 copies, plus another 18,000 “leaders’ guides”—because of a photo of a Black teen talking with two white girls, along with a small portion of text. All those copies were destroyed and new copies, with substitute material, were printed.

Sullivan explained that he did so to avoid “misunderstandings. . . It could have been construed as improper promotion . . . of integration in churches, which is an individual church matter under Baptist polity.”

Walker recalled several occasion when the executive of the Home Mission Board (HMB) called him in, holding up the latest issue of Home Missions, and asking “what does this have to do with home missions?”

Walker responded that mission stories could only be interpreted in their social context. At the time, few if any in SBC life were using the language of “liberation” theology. But there it was. He was already practicing what Congressman John Lewis would later urge: “Get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

By the early ‘80s, the SBC’s fundamentalist coalition’s bare-knuckled, publicly announced intent to take over the SBC. Walker could see the writing on the wall. At age 59, Walker and his beloved Nell agreed that he would resign from the HMB, take a 50% cut in pay, and, with support from a group of moderate-progressive pastors, started an independent Baptist publication. The first issue of SBC Today (later renamed Baptists Today and then again, Nurturing Faith) was issued in April 1983.

No single phrase has been more important to my own formation than Walker’s line, peace, like war, is waged. Peace is not simply a sentiment, but an active practice. Peace is not like peace-and-quiet, because peacemakers sometimes stir trouble. Peace, as Dr. King incisively noted, is not the absence of conflict but the presence of justice.

A broad consensus among New Testament scholars agree that Jesus’ call to love enemies is the radiant center of the Gospel, the hub in which many spokes unite. The capacity to love enemies (which is not the same as liking them) springs from God’s unilaterally disarming initiative in Jesus. Grace is the lubricant which loosens the grip of fear on our living, allowing us to live lives of extravagant love. Our penitential posture, opening ourselves to God’s love, is the very thing that makes us forgiving people, for “The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little” (Luke 7:47).

The disarming of the heart and the disarming of the nations are intertwined.

Peace, like war, is waged. As Walker put it, originally to those WMU attendants: “Peace plans its strategy and encircles the enemy. / Peace marshals its forces and storms the gates. / Peace gathers its weapons and pierces the defense . . . / But Christ has turned it all around: / the weapons of peace are love, joy, goodness, longsuffering; / the arms of peace are justice, truth, patience, prayer; / the strategy of peace brings safety, welfare, happiness; / the forces of peace are the sons and daughters of God.”

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