Falwell, Megachurch Pastor Who Organized Religious Right, Dead at 73
Jerry Falwell, a preacher, political activist, and founder of Liberty University, died Tuesday. He was 73.
Falwell was found unconscious in his Liberty University office and pronounced dead an hour later at Lynchburg General Hospital. The preacher, who had a history of cardiovascular problems, died of heart failure.
Falwell focused his energy at the beginning and end of his career on Thomas Road Baptist Church, which he founded in Lynchburg, Virginia, in 1956. The church, which was independent before joining the Southern Baptist Convention in 1996, now has 24,000 members. Falwell was one of the first megachurch leaders to develop a large media following, said sociologist William Martin, who wrote about the Religious Right in his 1996 book With God on Our Side. Falwell's daily radio broadcast, "The Old-Time Gospel Hour," became a national television show, reaching millions of people. The show's audience was the core of Falwell's Moral Majority, which he launched in 1979 to lobby for "pro-traditional family values."
"He began to say, 'Get saved, get baptized, and get registered to vote,' almost putting them on a parallel," Martin told Christianity Today.
Falwell rallied millions of religious conservatives to become involved in politics when they preferred to separate faith from government, said Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
"Whether one agrees with his tactics or style, one at least has to grant that he was a major force in American political life," Cromartie said. Although Falwell long described himself as a fundamentalist, he countered the fundamentalist tradition of separatism.
"These lines between fundamentalism and evangelicalism have been blurred," Cromartie said. "As he got more involved in these cultural and political activities, he began to shed his fundamentalism and become known more as an evangelical."
The shift into political engagement stirred tremendous criticism from both liberals and conservatives. Former Moral Majority insiders Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson blistered Falwell in the 1999 book Blinded By Might.
"I was an outspoken critic of Jerry Falwell and others. Recently, I've changed my mind," said Dobson, a former Moral Majority board member and assistant to Falwell. "I think he was doing what he felt God was leading him to do and I was doing what I felt God was leading me to do. The ultimate judgment is up to God, not me or Jerry."
Falwell closed the Moral Majority in 1989 and announced that it had accomplished what he wanted by mobilizing religious conservatives.
But political activism may not be remembered as his greatest achievement. Martin, senior fellow for religion and public policy at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, believes Falwell's lasting legacy will be Liberty University, a university with 9,600 students and winning Division I sports teams.
"It's not usual to launch and sustain a university," Martin said. "That's a real footprint to leave."
Falwell is survived by his wife, Macel, and three children. His son Jerry Falwell Jr. will succeed him as Liberty chancellor. His other son, Jonathan Falwell, will lead Thomas Road Baptist Church.
Critics and friends alike have praised Falwell for his character and contributions.
"We did not always agree on everything, but I knew him to be a man of God," evangelist Billy Graham said. "Some of my grandchildren have attended, and are attending, Liberty University. He leaves a gigantic vacuum in the evangelical world."