LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–The death of Jerry Falwell brings an end to one of the most fascinating lives of the 20th century. In so many ways, Jerry Falwell became one of the most recognizable faces for conservative Christianity in America.
In the late 1970s, Falwell became concerned about the moral state of the nation and was awakened to a sense of political and social responsibility. He began to speak to these issues, calling conservative Christians to become involved in the political process.
As a 16-year-old boy, I was in the crowd at the convention center in Miami Beach when Dr. Falwell joined singer Anita Bryant in holding a rally to involve Christians in the struggle against a gay rights ordinance adopted by Dade County. I had never heard of Jerry Falwell until that night -– and after that experience I would never forget him.
As the 1980 presidential race approached, Jerry Falwell was one of the primary leaders of a movement intended to mobilize conservative Christians for the election. Dr. Falwell founded the Moral Majority as a means of educating and mobilizing Christian citizens about moral issues such as abortion -– a key issue after the 1973 Roe decision. By any measure, he was successful beyond all expectations. The movement was crucial to the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980 and has shaped every election cycle since.
Even as the Moral Majority became less prominent in national affairs (and eventually was disbanded as a formal organization), this was, to a considerable extent, an affirmation of its very success. Dr. Falwell leaves a legacy of motivating Christians for activism and concern -– especially on issues such as abortion and the family.
What the national media often missed was his greater passion -– Liberty University. Jerry Falwell was a man of big ideas, and Liberty University was perhaps his biggest. Founded in 1971, the school was first known as Lynchburg Baptist College. But Jerry Falwell did not have Lynchburg on his mind so much as a generation of young people. The school was driven by Falwell’s expansive vision. When I preached at Liberty University just a few weeks ago as a chapel speaker, I was impressed once again with the reality of what Dr. Falwell often called the “miracle on Liberty Mountain.”
The legacy of Jerry Falwell will be debated for decades to come. Political scientists, theologians, church leaders and historians will all have their say. Jerry Falwell would not be threatened by this analysis. He expected that some would love him for his beliefs and others would not. He was a man in constant motion, and he seemed rarely to look back. He redefined independent fundamentalism and then led his church to associate with the Southern Baptist Convention, which had experienced its own conservative redirection. He mobilized a movement of conservative Christians and built a massive empire.
These remain as monuments to Jerry Falwell’s leadership and vision. But far more than these, I would look to his family. Dr. Jerry Falwell leaves a wife he dearly loved, Macel, and three children who were the pride of his life. The best testimony to Jerry Falwell the man is that his children love him and his two sons stand ready to continue what their father began. For a man who spent so much time in the public eye, this is truly a powerful legacy.
I am confident that if Jerry Falwell could speak now of what he most loved about his ministry, I believe he would speak of all the achievements listed above. But, more than these, he would be thankful for those who had come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ through his preaching and witness -– and through the multiplied witness of those trained and educated at Liberty University.
And, as he spoke of these, you could count on him talking with a smile -– and with big plans for the future.
R. Albert Mohler Jr. is president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. To read a statement by Mohler’s on Jerry Falwell’s death incorporating more historical perspective on his ministry, go to the Washington Post-Newsweek “On Faith” website at http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/r_albert_mohler_jr/2007/05/the_legacy_of_dr_jerry_falwell.html. Mohler discussed Falwell’s legacy on his national radio program, which will be posted to www.albertmohler.com.