This is the fifth article in the series on great preachers of the past. In this installment we will take a brief look into the life of Jerry Lamon Falwell, Sr. (1933 – 2007). Dr. Falwell was an affable, visionary, passionate pastor who uncompromisingly lifted high the banner of righteousness in a society tending toward corruption. This series is provided so young pastors and laypersons can learn about some of the great churchmen of the past and so no one dare forget the faithful heralds of the truth upon whose shoulders we stand.
LYNCHBURG, VA — This is a biographical profile of Jerry Lamon Falwell, Sr. of Lynchburg, VA. Falwell, Thomas Road Baptist Church, and Liberty University were all in the Independent Baptist camp for years. But his biography is not only one of vision, leadership, and success, but one of transformation – the transformation from being an independent Baptist to becoming a Southern Baptist.
Jerry L. Falwell, Sr. was a powerful evangelical leader, a formidable force on America’s political landscape, the founder of a great church and university, but most of all a devout follower of Jesus Christ and winner of souls.
Falwell was born in the Fairview Heights region of Lynchburg, VA on August 11, 1933. His grandfather was an adamant atheist; his father, a cynical agnostic who hated preachers and ran a moonshine operation during Prohibition. His mother, however, was a devout Christian who fervently prayed for her family.
At Falwell’s memorial service former Southern Baptist Convention President Jerry Vines stated, “Early on in his life as a teenage boy he had the advantage of a godly, praying mother and on Sunday mornings she would tune the radio to The Old Fashioned Revival Hour with Dr. Charles E. Fuller.
‘God’s will for him to preach’
“Dr. Falwell said that she knew that they were so lazy that they wouldn’t get up out of bed to turn it off, so they heard him preach every Sunday morning; and it was through those kind of influences that at the Park Avenue Baptist Church as an 18-year-old boy he received the Lord Jesus Christ as his personal Savior and was converted.” (Jerry Falwell’s salvation experience occurred on Jan. 20, 1952.)
Vines continued, “Early on he knew that it was God’s will for him to preach the Gospel. He made a statement in regards to that call to preach the Gospel. He wrote, ‘My heart was burning to serve Christ. I knew nothing would ever be the same again.’”
He turned down an offer to play professional baseball and transferred from Lynchburg College to Baptist Bible College in Springfield, MO to prepare himself to be a Gospel preacher. He developed an uncompromising allegiance to the Word of God.
Upon graduating from the Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Falwell returned to his hometown in the mountains of Virginia to start a church.
Liberty begins with Donald Duck
According to the history of Thomas Road Baptist Church, 35 adults and their families gathered in Mountain View Elementary School in Lynchburg on June 17, 1956 for the church’s first worship service. Following that first Sunday the aggressive and energetic young Falwell and several of his leaders began the search for a place to house their new church.
They located a building formerly used by the Donald Duck Bottling Company. In order to prepare the building for worship and Bible study one of their first projects was to scrub the cola off the brick walls.
Within weeks of the church’s launch date Falwell started a radio ministry. Six months later, they began videotaping the Old Time Gospel Hour in a local television station.
The church’s history chronicles its growth thusly, “By 1958, the church had moved into a new sanctuary to accommodate the ever-growing church attendance. In 1957, they established Elim Home, a retreat for men addicted to alcohol, located on 165-acre farm just outside of Lynchburg.”
By 1968, the congregation moved into its third auditorium on Thomas Road, which seated 1,000 people. The following year, the two-story Spurgeon Building was completed, offering temporary relief for the overcrowded Sunday School.
“By 1968, the average attendance passed the 2,000 level, and the Carter Building was constructed to hold some of the overflowing Sunday School crowd. The following year, ground was broken for two educational buildings and for a new 3,000-seat sanctuary.”
By 2006, in order to meet the congregation’s spiraling growth, Thomas Road completed a 6,000-seat sanctuary, a far cry from the sticky Donald Duck Bottling Company building that the church had acquired a half century earlier. The senior Falwell filled the pulpit for less than a year before his untimely death.
From academy to university
In 1967 Thomas Road founded Lynchburg Christian Academy, followed by Lynchburg Baptist College in 1971. The school became Liberty Baptist College in 1976 before transitioning to Liberty University in 1984. Falwell wanted the enrollment of Liberty University to grow to 50,000 students. His vision entailed the university becoming to evangelicals what Notre Dame is to Catholics and Brigham Young to Mormons.
By the 1970s, Thomas Road became nationally known as one of the fastest-growing churches in America with 22,000 members. Currently, Liberty University holds an enrollment of 15,000 resident students and 110,000 students including online courses.
The infamous Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion on demand in the United States in January 1973 drove Falwell into becoming a political activist. Before the decade had come to a conclusion, the Lynchburg pastor had founded the Moral Majority, a conservative lobbying group.
He declared, “If we lose our moral bearings, we shall surely collapse.” One of the group’s greatest victories came a year later when Ronald Reagan was elected president.
According to Legacy.com, “Falwell credited the Moral Majority with getting millions of conservative voters registered, aiding the Reagan’s victory and giving Republicans control of the Senate.
“When he stepped down as the president of the Moral Majority in 1987 Falwell commented, ‘I shudder to think where the country would be right now if the religious right had not evolved.’”
In conflict with culture
Falwell, as a champion of righteousness, waged a crusade against homosexuality and reprimanded the addition of LGBT-friendly Metropolitan Community Church into the World Council of Churches.
He told CBS News, “The issue of marriage is simply an eternal one. That is, one man married to one woman. To endorse [same-sex] marriage is to say to the society, to the culture, that what is wrong both biblically, theologically, and sociologically is OK in America.”
He fought against abortion and pornography. He emphasized the importance of the Judeo-Christian ethic in American life.
Biblical Discernment Ministries quoted an issue of Falwell’s Fundamentalist journal in which 18 full pages were devoted to extolling the virtues of the Southern Baptist Convention. “In the Sword of the Lord, Falwell is quoted as saying: ‘Forty percent of the Liberty University student body comes from SBC churches. More SBC pastors speak here at Thomas Road Baptist Church and Liberty University than from any other fellowship of churches, and I personally speak for more SBC churches than any other one movement.”
In late 1992, Falwell said that he thought more cooperative meetings were ahead for Independent Baptists and Southern Baptists. He said, “I would say we’re a couple of years away, but I don’t think there’s any question that we’re headed toward some major mergers that will probably surprise a lot of people.”
Joining Southern Baptists
Thomas Road gained a place in Southern Baptist life by becoming a part of the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia and giving to the mission causes of the state convention and the national convention prior to the 1998 SBC annual meeting in Salt Lake City. Falwell and several of his members attended the Utah convention and voted as messengers.
On Nov. 15, 1999 The Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia voted unanimously to recognize Liberty University as a fully cooperating institution affiliated with the SBCV.
Franklin Graham of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and founder and CEO of Samaritan’s Purse, said, “People have asked me, ‘Do you agree with Jerry Falwell?’ Every time he opened the Bible I agreed with Jerry Falwell.”
Dr. Edward Blackwelder, who provides leadership for Liberty Chaplain Ministries, said, “Dr. Falwell practiced what he preached and never failed to be available when needed. This man of God spoke when others, even fellow Christians, remained silent and was willing to face the consequences. A watered down, feel good religion was not his approach to preaching God’s Word and I am thankful that I learned so much from him.”
Not everyone mourned the death of Jerry Falwell, Sr. Anderson Cooper, CNN’s news anchor, interviewed Christopher Hitchens, the infamous atheist who authored god is not Great – How Religion Poisons Everything, at the time of Dr. Falwell’s death and asked, “I am not sure you believe in heaven, but if you do, do you believe Jerry Falwell is in it?’
Hitchens answered, “No, and I also pity that there is not a hell for him to go to.”
Don Platt said, “A man’s greatness can be measured by his enemies. And Jesus said, ‘Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you’ (Matthew 5:11-12).
More than a national figure
Although he became a national figure, his passion was being a pastor and a Christian educator. He often stated that his heartbeat was to “train young Champions for Christ” in every walk of life. At Falwell’s memorial service Vines explained that at that time three million people had been won to faith in Christ through Jerry Falwell Ministries.
Falwell passed away on the morning of May 15, 2007 at the age of 73. He was married for 49 years to Macel Pate Falwell, who died in 2015 at the age of 82. Their three children are: Jerry Jr., president of Liberty University; Jonathan, senior pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church; and Jeannie, a surgeon. They had eight grandchildren.
CNN.com reported, “The Rev. Jerry Falwell, the television minister whose 1979 founding of the Moral Majority galvanized American religious conservatives into a political force, died Tuesday, May 15, 2007, at 12:40 p.m. He was found unconscious and without a pulse in his office at Liberty University. Paramedics tried to revive him at his office and in route to the hospital, but efforts to resuscitate him were unsuccessful.”
Ron Godwin, the school’s executive vice president, had breakfast with Falwell just hours before his death and stated, “He seemed to be in good spirits.” Godwin further indicated they had talked about the future and that although Falwell hoped to continue to provide leadership for the church and university for some years to come, he also had planned for a smooth transition and that his two sons would carry on his ministry.
The future of Falwell
From all accounts, for the past decade Jonathan Falwell has served as the pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church with great effectiveness and the church continues to grow in an amazing way. Currently, Thomas Road Baptist Church has an average Sunday attendance of approximately 9,000 and over the years has helped plant 11, 372 churches worldwide.
Jerry, Jr. became president of Liberty University and the school is flourishing in every way. The university continues to develop “champions for Christ” and is experiencing exponential growth.
The Falwells’ children have become amazingly successful and their father’s legacy will live long through each of their lives as well as the lives of their grandchildren and succeeding generations.