LYNCHBURG, Va. (BP)–Jerry Falwell, who impacted American culture with his larger-than-life persona, impacted his local culture in death. Lynchburg’s small, metropolitan airport accommodated a swarm of private jets, public schools closed early and hundreds of police and other city personnel directed traffic and managed the 10,000-plus people who thronged to the facilities of Thomas Road Baptist Church and Liberty University for Falwell’s May 22 memorial service.
More than 33,000 people viewed Falwell’s body as it lay in repose the weekend before his funeral.
People began gathering outside the church as early as 3:30 a.m. for the 1 p.m. service, which drew preachers, politicians and a panoply of evangelical figures from across the country.
When the church’s auditorium was full, thousands more were directed to overflow seating at the school’s football stadium and basketball arena, where the service was viewed via closed-circuit television.
While Falwell’s’ eulogizers each had their personal perspectives on the life and legacy of the evangelical leader, virtually all of them called Falwell a friend.
Tim Goeglein, special assistant to President Bush, told the crowd: “Jerry Falwell was a great friend of this administration.”
Goeglein read a statement from President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush which offered the Bushes’ sympathies and said they were “deeply saddened at the death of Dr. Jerry Falwell, a man who cherished faith, family and freedom.”
“He called upon men and women of all backgrounds to believe in God, and to serve their communities,” Goeglein read.
The Bushes wrote that one of Falwell’s “lasting contributions was the establishment of Liberty University, where he taught young people to remain true to their convictions, and rely upon God’s Word throughout each stage of their lives.”
“Today, our thoughts and our prayers are with his wife Macel and the rest of the Falwell family.”
Addressing the Falwell family, Goeglein said, “On behalf of all of us in the Bush-Cheney White House, please know that we are holding you up in prayer — that we hold the Falwell family in very high regard.”
Goeglein said that in all of his years in the White House, “I have never met a man who loved God and country more than Jerry Falwell. This man was in love with Jesus Christ. And this man was in love with the United States of America.”
Goeglein reflected on a conversation he had with Falwell about six weeks before his death in which Goeglein said Falwell was “praising God” for a “new generation of young men and women, rooted in first principles, who would make their contribution to our great country.
“I was very pleased and honored to tell Jerry that Liberty University had come to the White House — that young men and women whom he had trained up had joined us as interns and staff,” Goeglein said. “So, a man of vision has seen a vision fulfilled. And he is dancing with God in the stars this very afternoon.”
Franklin Graham, president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, called Falwell “a giant of a man. He was a man of faith, a prophet of our generation. I’m going to miss him.”
“People have asked me, ‘Franklin, did you agree with Jerry Falwell?’
“Every time he opened the Bible I agreed with Jerry Falwell,” Graham said to applause. “And you know what? He opened the Bible a lot.”
Graham said Falwell was “a man committed to the Gospel. I guess that’s what connected me to Jerry so much. He believed with all of his heart that Jesus was the way, the truth and the life, and that there was no way anyone could approach a holy God except through Jesus Christ. He believed it.”
Calling Falwell “controversial,” Graham ticked off a litany of social issues championed by Falwell, such as the sanctity of marriage and human life.
“He believed in the Gospel. That’s controversial.
“He believed in the inerrancy of Scripture. That’s controversial.
“He believed in the sanctity of life; he was against abortion. That’s controversial.
“He believed in the family, and who would’ve ever thought that would be controversial?
“He believed in marriage as the union between a man and a woman.
“He believed that moral decay weakened the fabric of America. That’s controversial.
“He believed that political leaders should be men and women of integrity and of character and of biblical values.
“He believed in the local church. God bless him,” said Graham, who noted the impact Falwell had on his own family because all of Graham’s children attended Liberty University.
Crediting Falwell for building a successful university, Graham recounted when Will, his oldest son, was ready for college there was “pressure” for Will to attend Wheaton College, the alma mater of Billy and Ruth Graham.
A pastor friend consulted by Graham told him regarding Liberty: “‘The students up there, they’ve got a fire in their belly.’ He said, ‘They’ve got a fire for the Gospel.’ He said, ‘They come out of Liberty … they come back into our church, they come back into our community, and they’re men and women of God and they’re standing for biblical principles.’ He said, ‘You send your son to Liberty.’
“Boy, I tell you what — I thank God for that advice,” Graham said amid resounding applause.
Falwell’s daughter, surgeon Jeannie Falwell Savas of Richmond, spoke on behalf of the family. She reflected on her father’s “showering us with his unconditional love.” She also noted that her brothers — Jerry Jr., now chancellor of Liberty, and Jonathan, now pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church — should not be expected to fill their father’s shoes, as his work in Lynchburg was complete.
Ronald S. Godwin, executive vice president of Liberty University, who had breakfast with Falwell the day he died, told the crowd Falwell “made a point of gathering self-wounded warriors to himself” and finding places of ministry for those who “other ministers might have been far too pious to use.”
Citing the poem “Go Down, Death,” Godwin related that the poem’s main character had “borne the burden in the heat of the day, having labored long in God’s vineyard.” That’s when God sent death to bring that servant to Him, Godwin said.
Saying that Falwell had “just grown tired … I believe a loving Savior looked down at Lynchburg, Virginia, … and God ordered His servant, death, ‘You go down there to Lynchburg, Virginia, and you bring Dr. Jerry Falwell home to me.'”
George Rogers, who for 30 years was a friend and financial consultant to Falwell, said, while choking back tears, “I have thanked God for the privilege of being associated with a man of great intellect, vision, compassion, godliness and courage.”
A video of vignettes from Falwell’s life was shown as a longtime ministry associate, soloist Doug Oldham, sang “Thank You,” a song popularized by Ray Boltz. The video showed Falwell praying, preaching and even pulling pranks. Falwell was depicted on the mission fields of Africa, walking hand-in-hand with children and shaking hands with adults. Footage was shown of his numerous visits to Elim Home, a facility he established for recovering alcoholics, and also to the Liberty Godparent Home, another Thomas Road ministry where pregnant unwed mothers who refuse abortion live and receive physical and spiritual care.
Falwell could be seen passing out Gospel tracts in Moscow’s Red Square, near the tomb of Lenin and also on the steps of the U.S. Capitol where he preached on behalf of any number of social/moral issues.
Several still pictures flashed by in the video of Falwell with Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Other pictures showed Falwell having fun with Liberty students and also holding and hugging some of his most prized of earthly possessions — his grandchildren.
The service also was punctuated by Bible readings by Harold Wilmington, dean of Wilmington School of the Bible at Liberty, who read Psalm 103 in its entirety, and Elmer Towns, co-founder of the university and longtime ministry associate of Falwell, who read Philippians 1:3-26. Stopping at verse 6, Towns said it was Falwell’s life verse. “He always signed a Bible with this verse: ‘being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.'”
Among those of the broader evangelical world attending the service were Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council; Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition; former presidential candidate Gary Bauer; television evangelist Pat Robertson; Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice; and Judge Roy Moore of Alabama, who lost his court battle to display the Ten Commandments at his courthouse.
Virginia’s political leaders who attended included former Sen. George Allen, Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell and Lt. Gov. William Bolling.
Among various Southern Baptist Convention leaders at the memorial service were:
— Morris H. Chapman, president of the SBC Executive Committee and a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and SBC entity heads Geoff Hammond and O.S. Hawkins, who serve at the North American Mission Board and Guidestone Financial Resources, respectively.
— Seminary presidents Paige Patterson, another former SBC president, and R. Philip Roberts, who serve at Southwestern and Midwestern, respectively, and Emir Caner, dean of the College at Southwestern.
— Four other former presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention: Jerry Vines, pastor emeritus of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., who preached at the funeral; Atlanta-area evangelist Bailey Smith; James Merritt, pastor of the Atlanta-area Cross Pointe Church; and Jack Graham, pastor of the Dallas-area Prestonwood Baptist Church.
— Pastors Ronnie Floyd, First Baptist Church in Springdale, Ark., and Johnny Hunt of the Atlanta-area First Baptist Church in Woodstock.
— Jimmy Jackson, first vice president of the SBC and pastor of Whitesburg Baptist Church in Huntsville, Ala.
Chapman told Baptist Press Falwell “stayed true to the course God had given him for his life’s work — he was a pastor who grew a congregation that honored Christ. Because of his faithfulness, God added the opportunity for him to be a recognizable voice in the public square as a champion for God’s standard of right and wrong in government policy and cultural norms.
“Liberty University will be his lasting legacy as it continues to graduate thousands of students prepared to become outstanding Christian citizens throughout our nation and around the world,” Chapman added. “The many tributes about him showed that Christ was evident in his personal life as well … as father, grandfather and friend. My son-in-law, Scott Evans, grew up with Jonathan Falwell. In that respect our family has lost a friend. He will be missed.
“I suspect history will be kinder to him than many who opposed him,” he said. “Through all his years in the public eye, he stayed faithful to God’s calling to preach Jesus, and faithful to his wife, his children, his church and his Lord.”
Patterson told Baptist Press the funeral “was a magnificent expression of praise to Jesus the Lord, a gospel service in which Jerry Vines and Franklin Graham preached the saving grace of Christ. In addition, the service, attended by worldwide media representatives and thousands of friends, focused on a man of God, who for all of his influence in the socio-political arena, remained always a pastor, a faithful preacher of God’s Word. Most of us wept without shame at the loss we feel even while our hearts sang for joy at the thought of Dr. Falwell’s presence with Jesus in heaven.”
Roberts said: “The service was a monumental spiritual experience in honor of one of America’s great Christian leaders. It demonstrated both his love and commitment to the Lord Jesus as well as his desire to take the Gospel to America and the world. Dr. Jerry Vines as one of the featured speakers passionately urged men, women, boys and girls to believe in Jesus as their personal Savior. Dr. Falwell would have been delighted in that aspect of the service as it reflected his life work.”
Reflecting such life work, according to one Thomas Road Baptist source, nearly 3.5 million people have committed their lives to Christ through the ministries of Falwell and the church.
Hammond said: “The far-reaching impact of Dr. Jerry Falwell’s more than 50 years of ministry was evident at his inspirational funeral as people from the church, school, SBC, politics and the community gave witness to how Falwell encouraged and motivated them in their personal and spiritual life. He taught us the importance of building a dynamic faith and the difference one life came make when it’s all about ‘Jesus First.’ We continue to pray for the Falwell family, the members of Thomas Road Baptist Church and Liberty University.”
Hawkins told Baptist Press: “Above all the funeral service itself brought honor and glory to the Lord Jesus Christ. Jerry Falwell was larger than life in so many ways, and I count one of the great joys and honors of life to be able to have known him personally and even to have been the recipient of many of his mischievous pranks. His lasting legacy is in his love for the Lord and his incredible family who honor the Lord in the way they have loved and honored each other across the years. As Jonathan said to David, we say to Jerry, ‘You will be missed for your seat will be empty.'”
Evangelist Freddie Gage remembered Falwell as a great soul-winner.
“The passion, passion, passion this man had for people,” Gages told Baptist Press, reflecting on a youth revival he preached at the church around 1969. “As many as 4,000 young people in a service. Hippies came out of the mountains. I personally saw Dr. Falwell sit on the floor to midnight, with teens, open Bibles, weeping with them, leading them to Jesus. What an amazing sight.”
In a concluding message at the 90-minute service, Vines, a former chairman of Liberty University trustee board, recalled one of Falwell’s oft-noted requests — that his own funeral last for only 45 minutes. “And if they go over that,” Vines quoted Falwell as saying, “then I’m going to get up and walk out.”
“So, I have been watching carefully,” said Vines, glancing at Falwell’s casket.
“My assignment is to preach the Gospel, and in Jesus’ name, and in the name of Jerry Falwell, to invite people to commit their lives to Jesus Christ,” Vines said.
Vines noted that Falwell knew the “will of God, the work of God and the welcome of God,” and that Falwell had a “three-fold anointing of God.” One was as a prophet to the United States and “not just some preacher who decided he would dabble into politics.”
Another role was as an educator, said Vines, who said he would not belabor the well-known story of the university, but invited everyone to “look around.”
The third role was as a pastor. “God used this man to build a Gospel-preaching church. [Falwell] was a mega-church pastor before mega-churches were cool,” Vines said.
Falwell started Thomas Road Baptist in 1956 with 35 members. In the earliest of days of the church, Falwell would knock on 100 doors a day, inviting people to Christ and to the church, which now sees more than 12,000 worshipers a weekend. He founded the university in 1971. Its enrollment has expanded to more than 24,000 and its alumni to more than 125,000.
Vines concluded his remarks by inviting people to commit their lives to Jesus Christ.
Following Vines’ remarks, the combined choir and orchestra of Thomas Road Baptist Church erupted into the well-known “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s “Messiah,” after which pallbearers wheeled Falwell’s casket out of the church’s auditorium.
Falwell’s interment was a private, family affair on the grounds of Liberty University.
In an interview with Baptist Press after the service, Doyle Chauncey, executive director of the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia, reflected on Falwell’s contribution to evangelical work, and the debt of gratitude Southern Baptists owe to Falwell.
“Dr. Falwell has educated multiplied thousands of our Southern Baptist children with not only one of the finest academic regimens in the country that has prospective employers waiting at the end of Liberty’s graduation lines, but also in an atmosphere of spiritual growth and accountability. SBC children and churches are far better off because of his dual commitment to educational excellence and spiritual formation,” Chauncey said.
“It is more than just remarkable to me that during the same month and year that we elected Adrian Rogers as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Dr. Falwell’s established his Moral Majority in June of 1979,” Chauncey said.
“Dr. Falwell’s efforts in returning America to conservative moral values weren’t unlike the Conservative Resurgence in the SBC. It’s hard to have meaningful social reform without theological reform, and his efforts toward a return to conservative morals in the culture, I believe, buoyed our own efforts toward theological reform in the SBC.
“We are sad because we will miss Dr. Falwell,” Chauncey said. “But, at the same time, we are heartened because the kind of ministry he so ably established and maintained for decades will continue to replicate his ‘Champions for Christ’ for many decades to come.
Falwell went to heaven May 15. He was 73.