LYNCHBURG, Va. (BP)–Jerry Falwell, a founder of the modern Christian conservative movement who started one of America’s largest churches and launched one of its largest Christian universities, died May 15. He was 73.
Falwell, who had a history of heart problems, was found unconscious in his office and without a pulse, and subsequent efforts to revive him failed. He was pronounced dead at 12:40 p.m. E.T.
Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church grew from 35 members in 1956 to more than 24,000, and the school he founded, Liberty University, saw its enrollment expand from virtually nothing in 1971 to more than 21,000. Both are located in Lynchburg, Va. Thomas Road was independent for its first 40 years before becoming Southern Baptist in 1996.
“His ministry must be seen from the perspective of being a pastor,” Southern Baptist Convention President Frank Page, who serves as pastor of First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C., told Baptist Press. “Dr. Falwell never aspired to be anything other than a pastor who spoke prophetically the Word of God. Not everyone agreed with his stances, but all should admire his passion and commitment to the cause of Christ to the end. He desperately wanted our culture to understand God and to understand where obedience and disobedience lead.”
Outside of Lynchburg, most Americans knew of Falwell because of his involvement in conservative politics. In June 1979 he helped organize the Moral Majority, an organization of pro-family Christians that helped propel Ronald Reagan into the White House. Falwell’s involvement in politics — which, just eight years earlier, he said pastors should avoid — was spurred by the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion nationwide.
In his 1997 autobiography “Falwell,” he described his feelings when reading the newspaper the morning after the court’s ruling.
“The Supreme Court had just made a decision by a seven-to-two margin that would legalize the killing of millions of unborn children,” he wrote. “In one terrible act they struck down all the state laws against abortion and legalized infanticide across the land. I could not believe that seven justices on the nation’s highest court could have so little regard for the value of human life. Apparently, there were others who shared my disbelief.”
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said the evangelical world will miss Falwell.
“A true giant of the faith has gone on to his heavenly reward,” Land told BP. “Our grief at our loss of his witness, energy and giftedness for the kingdom is mitigated by the fact that he is now with his Savior for eternity. Dr. Falwell’s home-going leaves an enormous gap in the leadership ranks of evangelical Christianity in America and around the world. He will be greatly missed.”
Falwell had a lifetime passion for the Gospel, and in 1956 began the “Old-Time Gospel Hour,” a local radio and TV ministry that over the years expanded to become worldwide. During the past 50 years, more than 3 million people have contacted Falwell’s ministry saying they came to know Christ by listening to or viewing his preaching, according to ministry statistics.
“Jerry Falwell leaves a spiritual legacy that is lasting,” said Morris H. Chapman, president of SBC Executive Committee. “During a tumultuous time in our culture, he took a stand on the Word of God that emboldened evangelicals to come together to speak in a common voice for the protection of our country’s moral and spiritual values. He will be known not only for his leadership on issues debated in the public square, but also for his tireless work to establish ministries to the hurting and those in need.
“He not only felt abortion was wrong, but also thought it was equally important to provide for the practical needs of unwed mothers. He opposed the drug and alcohol culture, but also founded a ministry to aid men in recovering from addiction. He fought to turn the tide of secularism on college campuses, but he also established one of the great Christian universities in the world to send graduates with well-founded biblical worldviews into the boardrooms, classrooms, laboratories, courtrooms, legislatures and pulpits of America.
“His leadership and friendship to so many around the world will be greatly missed.”
Page said Falwell “was delighted to witness the conservative direction of the Southern Baptist Convention in the last decades.” Falwell came to his first SBC annual meeting as a messenger in 1998 in Salt Lake City. One year later, Liberty University and Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia reached an agreement of various forms of partnership.
“Dr. Jerry Falwell was a true friend and supporter of the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia,” said Doyle Chauncey, executive director-treasurer of the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia. “While we mourn this tremendous loss, we rejoice in the many years we had with this local church pastor and man of God. In fact, his was one of the first phone calls pledging support for the formation of the SBCV in 1996. Our hearts and our prayers go out to his family as well as the Thomas Road Baptist and Liberty University families.”
In 2005, Falwell spoke at the SBC Pastor’s Conference, reminding the ministers there that today’s pastors have an unprecedented opportunity to take the Gospel around the world thanks to the tools of modern communications and transportation.
“The greatest churches since Pentecost are yet to be built,” he said. “… We’ve got to teach the young preachers that the way to reach the masses today is to use every means to reach every available person at every available time.”
Said Page, “Those who knew him best, knew him to be a man of compassion for the poor, a gentleman who was kind to all, and a warrior who stood strong for the claims of Christ. Dr. Falwell loved the Lord Jesus Christ and was not ashamed to let that be known anywhere or anytime.”
Falwell leaves behind his wife, Macel — they were married 49 years — as well as three grown children and eight grandchildren.