LYNCHBURG, Va.- Realtor Brenda Phelps likes to point out the sights to those contemplating a move to Lynchburg: "There's Jerry's church. There's Jerry's mountain." Once, when asked if Jerry Falwell personally owned that land overlooking the city, she said no, Liberty University did-"but it's Jerry's mountain."
Lynchburg is one of those cities that, in the Roman tradition, claim to be built on seven hills, and Jerry Falwell, who died on May 15 at age 73, was a man of many mountains. He's probably best known for founding the Moral Majority in 1979 and quickly growing it to 6.5 million members: It played a major role in electing Ronald Reagan but faded in the late 1980s.
Liberty University is another Falwell mountain: It began as Lynchburg Baptist College in 1971 and several times seemed leveled financially, but it now claims almost 10,000 students in residence, with 15,000 more in distance learning programs. He hoped some day to have Liberty play Notre Dame in football, and joked to WORLD last month that he was officially Liberty's chancellor but primarily its athletic director.
A third mountain is Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church, which he started with 35 members in 1956 in an abandoned Donald Duck Bottling Company plant. It now has 22,000 members in a building opened last year that seems to sprawl as far as the Blue Ridge off in the distance, with spots near the sanctuary for adults to buy coffee, teens to buy pizza, and children to romp in a playscape.
Falwell climbed almost every fundraising mountain. Small contributions that came in through the "Old Time Gospel Hour," a pioneering evangelistic show carried on TV stations throughout the United States, supported "Jerry's church" and his schools, along with homes for unwed mothers and alcoholics. Big contributions are evident in Liberty campus buildings with names like LaHaye Student Center and DeMoss Learning Center.
He was also a mountain of a man, with a girth that long put his health in jeopardy, but he remained optimistic about his remaining time in this life. In a phone meeting in March he said that he planned to continue as chancellor for another 13 years, until he was 86. In his 1997 autobiography he wrote, "God may call me home today, and I would have no regrets or complaints, but in my heart of hearts I actually believe that He is going to give me another 20 or 30 years. If you read some day soon that 'Jerry Falwell has died,' be assured that I was greatly surprised."
Last month, during a meeting in his office in Liberty's administration building, the Carter-Glass Mansion, he was clearly enjoying life. Falwell's father had been an entrepreneur who ran bootleg whiskey during Prohibition and staged illegal cockfights and dogfights in his barn, and here Chancellor Falwell was sitting in the former home of Senator Carter Glass, Secretary of the Treasury under Woodrow Wilson, surrounded by plaques and art work (including one depicting Mickey Mantle) that displayed his accomplishments and passions (he was a New York Yankees fan).
Falwell spoke of the presidential aspirants who were making pilgrimages to Lynchburg as they had for nearly three decades; Newt Gingrich was scheduled to be the commencement speaker on May 19. He had something to say about each political visitor. He was pleased to have hired new football and basketball coaches during the past 15 months and excited by all the prospective students who were visiting Liberty during a campus preview weekend.
He seemed more joyful than prideful in his role as a political player and leader, and spoke of his willingness to make provocative statements: He didn't mean to be harsh, but he wanted to tell the truth, and he had long ago realized that bold speaking would bring press attention to issues that otherwise would be ignored. Those provocative words about homosexuality, in which he expressed love for sinners but hatred for the sin, were what many critics remembered when he died.
After he collapsed in his Carter-Glass office on May 15, some headlines remembered Falwell the way traditionalist football coaches refer to a forward pass. (Three things can happen-completion, interception, incompletion-and two of them are bad.) CNN.com was typical with its headline, "Falwell's legacy: faith, hate or Teletubbies?" The last reference was to a criticism of the PBS toddler TV character Tinky Winky by a magazine under Falwell's authority.
Others reported the views of those within liberal press circles: The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette headline read, "Falwell's tactics viewed as extreme; people here saw him as a too strident visionary." The Vancouver Sun announced that "Canadian evangelicals dismissed Falwell's views," and the Globe and Mail in Toronto said Falwell was "one of a kind, thank God; there's no successor for this big, booming, bigoted man."
Some gay activists disgraced themselves. In San Francisco on the day Falwell died, demonstrators carried a 3-foot-high Tinky Winky to Castro and 18th streets, sometimes called "the crossroads of Gay America," and "reminded people about this Bible-beating bigot's horrible legacy." One activist put down a square of AstroTurf to represent Falwell's grave and invited people to dance on it; some did. Gay blogger Michael Petrelis predicted more fun to come: "When uber-bigot and primo gay-hater Senator Jesse Helms finally meets his maker, our subsequent celebration will make the Falwell event look like a Sunday tea party at the vicarage."
Some gay blog commenters disagreed with such tactics. One wrote, "This is just trashy. i'm bi and i try to lead by example: what kind of example does childish behavior like this set?" Others called it "a TOTALLY classless display" and warned that "protests against him now (and celebrations of his death) can easily backfire in the media."
But many blogs included comments ranging from "When I heard that Falwell had died I opened a bottle of champagne" to "Hopefully someone runs a train on your corpse." Some atheists expressed sudden belief in the existence of hell, as long as that would be Falwell's destination. Other reactions, unprintable here, received admonitions in response: "Hey man, regardless of your thoughts, the man is dead and a whole community is grieving. Give it some time before you bash."
In Lynchburg, a whole community was grieving. Realtor Brenda Phelps described how five days before Falwell died he handed out diplomas to pre-kindergarten kids at his church's early learning center. He tapped her grandson on the head with his diploma, hugged others, and posed for photos. "It was such a proud thing for us," Phelps recalled. "How loved he was."
In the 1960s Phelps lived near Falwell's early church building, and she recalls, "My daddy absolutely could not stand him." One Sunday churchgoers parked in front of their house. After that, "My daddy would take kitchen chairs and sit out in the street just so they couldn't park there. He said to Jerry, 'You may get all of Lynchburg but you'll never get me.' A couple of years later Jerry reminded my daddy of that when he baptized him."
Phelps said her father "had been an alcoholic, had never been inside of a church. Then he was caught drinking and driving. . . . He went to Jerry the next day and Jerry helped lead him to the Lord." Her father stopped drinking, stopped cursing, and became a church usher.
Lynchburg has many stories like that, and Falwell knew about how God changes people-starting with himself. As a high-school student with an atheistic dad and a devout mom, he was a star athlete but also a joker who lost his opportunity to give his high-school valedictorian's speech when he was caught using counterfeit lunch tickets. He messed around with what were then called juvenile delinquents until he became a born-again Christian at age 19.
Falwell later changed in other ways as well. He admitted in his autobiography that he was once a racist. He at times apologized for over-the-top statements. In recent years he said that he was not a fundamentalist. He also oversaw change at Liberty: The coats and ties that male students wore at Liberty seven years ago have largely disappeared, and diverse strains of Bible-upholding Christian theology are present now among the faculty.
But he did not change his folksy, country-preacher style, and that grated among some members of the press. Nor did he change the position on gay rights that he summarized in his autobiography 10 years ago: "Although I see homosexual practice as a moral wrong and do not favor their being singled out as a specially protected minority, I do not want to deny homosexual men or lesbian women their civil rights or take away their right to accommodations of employment or even their right to teach in public schools as long as they don't use the classroom to promote homosexuality as an alternative life-style."
That was a long way from sufficient for gay lobbyists. Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, called Falwell "someone who demonized and vilified us for political gain and someone who used religion to divide rather than unite our nation." But Alan Chambers, president of the outreach ministry Exodus International, recalled the pastor's support for those who struggled with their same-sex attraction: "Rev. Falwell will be remembered for his consistent emphasis on the truth that Jesus Christ loves and offers salvation to every individual regardless of their past."
He is survived by his wife, Macel; his daughter, Jeannie Savas, a surgeon in Richmond; and two sons who have already become his successors. Jerry Falwell Jr., a lawyer, held the office of Junior Chancellor of Liberty University and immediately became Chancellor upon his dad's death. Jonathan Falwell automatically became pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church upon his father's death.
They have mountains to climb. Many in this city along the James River loved Falwell as a minister and enjoyed his zest for living. When he walked into Liberty's arena for a basketball game, they greeted him with cries of "Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!" He would pose for photos with body-painted students and add to the crowd noise. When an official once asked his help in calming fans within the arena that became known as "the Furnace," Falwell replied, "It's taken me years to get them to act like this!"
Three years ago he said, "One day in a wheelchair, I plan to be at the 50 yard-line in South Bend when we whip Notre Dame. . . . I may be in a coffin, but that's where we're headed."
In their own words: Supporters and detractors remember Jerry Falwell
"Over the years we became friends; sometimes we had polar opposite points of view. . . . He's left his footprints in the sands of time." -Jesse Jackson
"Next to my own father, he had more influence on my life than any other person. He was a man of deep compassion and prayer and he will be greatly missed."
-Ed Dobson, Falwell assistant who helped found the Moral Majority and co-authored the Moral Majority critique, Blinded by Might
"I have lost a great friend. America has lost a great patriot."
-Paige Patterson, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary president
"It breaks my heart to think that Jerry died without ever discovering the truth about God's lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender children. I sincerely hope that one day his school and his church will have a change of heart."
-Mel White, former Falwell staffer, now a homosexual activist and president of Soulforce
"The critics of Jerry Falwell will undoubtedly remind the nation of some of the times when he misspoke or made mistakes. . . . But from my vantage point, he was playing in the major leagues of the public square-the battle for the ideas that shape America."
-Michael Farris, Patrick Henry College chancellor
"Dr. Falwell was a man of distinguished accomplishment who devoted his life to serving his faith and country."
-Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)
"Unfortunately, we will always remember him as a founder and leader of America's anti-gay industry, someone who exacerbated the nation's appalling response to the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic, someone who demonized and vilified us for political gain and someone who used religion to divide rather than unite our nation."
-Matt Foreman, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force executive director
"Rev. Falwell will be remembered for his consistent emphasis on the truth that Jesus Christ loves and offers salvation to every individual regardless of their past."
-Alan Chambers, Exodus International president
"For all of his polarizing statements and controversies, Falwell undeniably initiated a season of growing evangelical influence in American politics."
-Mark Tooley, Institute on Religion and Democracy
"I believe Jerry Falwell's primary legacy will not be his political leadership, but the church he pastored for 50 years; the university he founded that has produced two generations of leaders; the millions who heard him preach the Good News; the innovations in ministry he introduced; and the thousands of young pastors, like myself, whom he constantly encouraged, even when we did it differently."
-Rick Warren, pastor and author of The Purpose Driven Life
-compiled by Kristin Chapman
Aug. 11, 1933: Born in Lynchburg, Va.
1956: Following graduation from Bible College in Springfield, Mo., he starts Thomas Road Baptist Church with 35 people, later launches "The Old Time Gospel Hour" ministry that includes radio and television programs.
1971: Opens Lynchburg Baptist College with 154 students and four teachers, later renames it Liberty University.
1972: The SEC sues the church for "fraud and deceit" for issuance of $6.5 million in uninsured bonds. Falwell won the case in court in 1973, but Liberty filed for bankruptcy and reorganized, losing millions in church investors' money.
1979: Founds the Moral Majority to advance conservatism and Christian values through political action.
1980: His work at rallying Christians to the GOP helps Ronald Reagan to win the presidency-"my finest hour."
1983: U.S. News & World Report ranks him as one of 25 most influential Americans.
1984: Loses libel lawsuit against Larry Flynt and Hustler magazine over an obscene parody, but a jury awards him $200,000 for emotional distress. The Supreme Court overturns the award in 1988.
1989: The Moral Majority disbands; he declares, "mission accomplished!"
1990s: He struggles with financial crises that began in the 1980s-with debt peaking at $73 million-but begin to clear when an anonymous donor in 1997 pays off the indebtedness and tighter financial controls are instituted.
1996: Aligns his church with the Southern Baptist Convention.
2001: Suggests that feminists, homosexuals, and the ACLU are partly to blame for the 9/11 terrorist attacks; apologizes following an outpouring of criticism.
2002: Sparks international outrage by his comment on CBS' 60 Minutes that the Prophet Muhammad was a terrorist.
2004: Transfers day-to-day administration of Thomas Road Church and Liberty University to sons Jonathan and Jerry Jr., to focus on his new Faith and Values Coalition, later renamed the Moral Majority Coalition.
2005: Hospitalized twice with serious heart and lung problems.
2006: Celebrates the 50th anniversary of Thomas Road Church, which now claims over 20,000 members and a new 6,000-seat sanctuary.
2007: Dies May 15 in Lynchburg of a heart problem at age 73.
-compiled by Edward E. Plowman