Without question one of the most controversial religious figures of the second half of the 20th century, Jerry Falwell (1933–2007) built a religious empire many have found inspiring, others terrifying; an empire some hold as emblematic of the American spirit and others see as dangerously close to a cult. Always an excellent student (he graduated valedictorian of his high-school class in 1950) and a notorious prankster and rabble-rouser (he was denied his right to deliver the valedictory address because of his involvement in a scheme to defraud the school of lunch money by means of counterfeit tickets), Falwell experienced a radical conversion one Sunday in January 1952 while listening to a broadcast of Charles Fuller's The Old Time Gospel Hour. He went to Park Avenue Baptist Church that night, saw his future wife Macel Pate at the piano, and surrendered his life to Christ. He left Lynchburg College for George Beauchamp Vick's newly established Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri, in the fall of 1952, graduating in 1956. He returned to Lynchburg to find about 100 members of the Park Avenue Church ready to leave and begin a church of their own. Though only 22, Falwell displayed the kind of “independence” he has exhibited ever since by accepting their call as founding pastor despite the warnings of the leaders of the Baptist Bible Fellowship (BBF) that if he accepted the position, he would be essentially “excommunicated” from the fellowship for creating “schism” in the fold.
Determined to show his friends within the BBF that they were wrong about his decision, Falwell worked tirelessly for his new church, the Thomas Road Baptist Church, knocking on 100 doors a day, launching a radio and television ministry within the first year, renovating an old bottling company building, and drawing a first-anniversary attendance of over 850. Throughout the years, he continued to add ministries to the church, including the Elim Home for Alcoholics in 1959, Lynchburg Christian Academy in 1967, Lynchburg Baptist College (now Liberty University) in 1971, a seminary in 1973, and a home for unwed mothers in the early 1980s, to name a few. During these years, attendance at Thomas Road continued to grow, eventually reaching 22,000 members by the mid-1980s, resulting in several building programs and making it one of the largest churches in the United States, with a media ministry that for many years was one of the top three in the nation. As a televangelist Falwell reached his peak in the early 1980s, broadcasting at that time on more than 450 stations and generating an income of over $100 million a year. Liberty University was accredited in 1980 and now claims an enrollment of approximately 60,000 residential and online students.
For the first two decades of his ministry, Falwell was an avowed fundamental independent Baptist preacher, believing in the autonomous local church led by the pastor (not committees or ecclesiastical hierarchies), preaching tenaciously the fundamentals of the Baptist faith, and holding to a strict separatist attitude toward much of American culture, politics, and ecclesiastical liberalism and ecumenism, all the while preaching a message of old-fashioned piety much in line with the conservative politics of the 1960s and early 1970s. Galvanized by the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, Falwell became increasingly political in his television messages. By 1976, he was ready to take to the road for a series of “I Love America” campaigns in over 140 American cities, an effort that created a groundswell of support for the conservative causes he would later make the foundation points of the Moral Majority (founded in 1979). These included his opposition to abortion, gay rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, and pornography, as well as his advocacy of voluntary prayer in schools, free enterprise, a balanced budget, a strong national defense, and support for the nation of Israel. Comprised of conservatives from the ranks of fundamental Independent Baptists, Catholics, Mormons, Jews, Charismatics, and even the nonchurched, the more than two million members of the Moral Majority became a powerful force in the general conservative shift that occurred with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Falwell, as director of the Moral Majority, became a household name and media phenomenon during the 1980s. In late 1986, exhausted from his efforts and convinced that much of the work of the Moral Majority had been accomplished, Falwell decided to leave the political arena and return to the “basics” of his ministries at Thomas Road and Liberty University. He resigned from the Moral Majority shortly thereafter and disbanded the organization completely in 1989.
Falwell, however, would have been controversial had he never entered the political realm. The financial track record of his religious ministries alone would have accomplished that. As a result of his decision to enter the realm of the “electronic church” in 1971, Falwell was forced to raise money far in excess of the normal tithes and offerings of Thomas Road Church. Knowing that a nationwide broadcast cost millions of dollars each week, Falwell needed a rallying cry that practically any Christian could support and a ministry that would virtually never be completed, and he found them in the message of morality advocated by the Moral Majority and the hope for America's future already present in the student body at Liberty University. By tying his Old Time Gospel Hour broadcast to the ongoing success of the school, he found a means of creating a huge pool of money of which he could dispose with little outside interference. Falwell also discovered the other secret to his success during these years: not only would people give to a school in hope of creating a glorious future, but they would also respond to a crisis over past failures. From 1971 onward, Falwell managed to create three or four major crises a year, always involving a staggering debt that had to be paid by a certain date, or doom would fall upon all the ministry (and on the United States as well). Using a direct mail technique second to none among televangelists, Falwell knew how to stir the heartstrings and provoke the kind of response he wanted from his target audience (an older, conservative audience at that time). His eloquent “going out of business” letters were tremendously successful in bringing in upward of $100 million a year by the early 1980s, but strangely ineffective in reducing the actual indebtedness of the ministry.
Not everyone was pleased with Falwell's financial dealings. The Securities and Exchange Commission challenged his first major sale of bonds in the early 1970s as being “fraudulent and deceitful.” Falwell was found not guilty in August 1973 of any “intentional” violation of the law, but his ministry was placed into the hands of a special finance committee for three years as a result of the decision. Unfortunately, Falwell seemed to learn little from the experience, continuing throughout the 1980s to build Liberty University and manipulate the finances of the various ministries. By the late 1980s, though, the well was beginning to run dry. His venture into cable TV with his own Liberty Broadcasting Network and his ill-fated takeover of PTL in 1987 never materialized as he thought and instead weakened his support base and drained his ministries of millions of needed dollars. During this decade, despite some generous gifts to the university, Falwell's ministries accumulated an debt of over $72 million. He tried various consolidation efforts, but none worked. He was eventually forced to use nearly all of his properties as collateral on more loans, even losing some properties to foreclosures. His university nearly lost accreditation in 1993 over insolvency, but Falwell worked out agreements in which some debts would be forgiven and others were to be paid back over time. Falwell continued to work to maintain the accreditation status of the university; accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) was reaffirmed in 2006. In 2009, the university achieved a Level VI accreditation from SACS. This accreditation classification applies to institutions that offer at least four doctoral degrees. Liberty University's Law School received accreditation from the American Bar Association in 2010. University leaders reported in 2007 upon Falwell's death that the school was on solid financial ground.
Falwell was controversial among his own followers as well. With his decision to enter televangelism, he became not only the most visible fundamentalist in the United States, but also a direct competitor for the wallets and affection of countless church members across the nation, many of whose dollars and commitment were desperately needed in their own local congregations. Much resentment developed over Falwell's pleas for support, and as he began to change his message (steadily politicizing it to reach a broad conservative audience, not necessarily a fundamentalist one) and his methods (employing a sophisticated direct-mail machinery and glitzy media image that few local churches could compete with), many fundamentalists became increasingly critical. With Falwell's entrance into politics in the late 1970s, the rift grew, as many now saw him selling out his religious principles for political gain. They also saw his “compromising” efforts at accreditation for Liberty University as well as the ecumenicity of his PTL venture as indicative of his movement away from fundamentalism toward the “new evangelicalism.” Even his own Baptist Bible Fellowship censured him in late 1987 for his involvement with PTL. Falwell was clearly attempting to change the face of fundamentalism as well as its definition. By means of the Moral Majority, Liberty University, his book The Fundamentalist Phenomenon (1981), and his later publication the Fundamentalist Journal (1982–1989), Falwell attempted to redefine fundamentalism along more broadly evangelical lines, emphasizing primarily one's adherence to the historic “five fundamentals” of The Fundamentals and not one's position on separatism. In fact, all of Falwell's efforts during this period reveal an attempt to change the face of fundamentalism by incorporating evangelical attitudes of cooperation, inclusivism, and tolerance while continuing to preach the kind of cultural piety savored by fundamentalists since 1930. He always insisted that he was a fundamentalist with a capital “F,” and the media generally accepted him as the movement's most eloquent spokesman; but to most fundamentalists, he was no longer one of them.
In 1998, Falwell and several members of the Thomas Road Church attended the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) as bona fide voting “messengers” from a congregation that met the necessary financial requirement for membership in the SBC. While the church did not end its connection with the Bible Baptist Fellowship, the action indicated Falwell's affirmation of the conservative directions of the SBC. Many Independent Baptists were critical of Falwell's decision to join the Southern Baptists, since in their view, the denomination continued to fellowship with “liberal” individuals outside the bounds of fundamentalist separatism. These included such persons as Charles Colson, Billy Graham, Adrian Rogers and Jesse Jackson along with organizations such as Promise Keepers and “Freemasons.”
In the aftermath of the destruction of New York's World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, Falwell and Pat Robertson created a small firestorm with their assertion that the terrorist act was possible because God withdrew protection of the United States due, at least in part, to the actions of “pagans,” “abortionists,” “feminists,” “gays and lesbians,” the ACLU, and People for the American Way. Speaking on Robertson's The 700 Club, Falwell ran that list, concluding of the 9/11 event: “You helped this happen.” Criticism was so extensive, even coming from President George W. Bush, that Falwell was forced to (once again) offer a public apology. Religion critic Christopher Hitchens was particularly aggressive in challenging many of Falwell's actions and statements, often referring to him in print as the “reverend” Jerry Falwell.
Falwell died of heart failure on May 15, 2007. He was succeeded as pastor of the Thomas Road Baptist Church by his son Jonathan Falwell. Jerry Falwell Jr. succeeded his father as president of Liberty University.
See also Graham, William Franklin; LGBT Rights.
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1933-2007 US evangelist Born in Lynchburg, Virginia, he studied engineering there, but after a religious conversion graduated from Baptist Bible Coll
American preacher and televangelist. Falwell was born on August 11, 1933 in Lynchburg, Virginia. He is best known as a television evangelist, or...
(fôl'wĕl, –wəl), 1933–2007, American fundamentalist Baptist pastor, b. Lynchburg, Va. A popular preacher and founder of the Thomas Road Baptist Churc