- SPECIAL REPORT
LYNCHBURG, Va. — Jerry Falwell, who founded a spiritual empire that became a conservative political force and a religious lightning rod, died Tuesday after being found unconscious in his office at Liberty University.
University staff members found the evangelist about 11:30 a.m., according to Dr. Carl Moore, his personal physician. He was unconscious and not breathing, and was pronounced dead about an hour later at Lynchburg General Hospital, Moore said.
Falwell, who was 73, founded the fundamentalist Thomas Road Baptist Church in an old soft-drink bottling plant in Lynchburg, Va. In 1979, he founded the Moral Majority a conservative political coalition that lobbied against the secularization of American society and against pornography, abortion and homosexuality. Falwell – and his organization – rose to political prominence along with Ronald Reagan in 1980s.
But late in the decade, Falwell and his ministry faced tough financial challenges, particularly after scandals surrounding others in the evangelical community. Jim Bakker’s religious empire crumbled under a sex scandal and Falwell eventually took control of it. But he faded from the political landscape afterward. He dissolved the Moral Majority in 1989, in part to turn his attention back to his spiritual work.
Falwell concentrated his efforts on Liberty University, which he founded in 1971 when it was known as Lynchburg Baptist College.
“I don’t plan ever to get back into Moral Majority-type work,” he said in the 1998 interview. “What I did I did because I felt led to do it then and I’m glad I did it…My thing (now) is a non-partisan biblical approach to moral and social issues.”
Falwell saw the university as the church’s “greatest hope for effecting spiritual and moral change in America and evangelizing the world.” As graduates accept jobs around the country and world, they take with them the principles and beliefs they were taught at the university, he said.
He believed in the infallibility of the Bible and that following Jesus offered the only route to heaven.
“The Bible is the inerrant . . . word of the living God,” Falwell said. “It is absolutely infallible, without error in all matters pertaining to faith and practice, as well as in areas such as geography, science, history.”
His outspokenness often made him a center of national controversy, including a famous statement he made in 1980 in which he said that God does not hear the prayers of unredeemed Jews. Falwell later said he would “never intentionally say anything to offend my Jewish friends” and insisted he believes God “hears the prayers of all persons.”
Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, Falwell blamed gays, feminists and others for the terrorist attack.
“I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way – all of them who tried to secularize America – I point the finger in their face and say,’you helped this happen.’ “
Falwell later apologized, telling CNN, “I would never blame any human being except the terrorists and if I left that impression with gays or lesbians or anybody else, I apologize.”
He became an object of ridicule after his National Liberty Journal newspaper issued an alert to parents in 1999 that Tinky Winky, a character on the then popular PBS children’s show “Teletubbies,” might be gay.
He also railed against public schools, blaming them for the secularization of the country. He strongly lobbied for voluntary prayer in public school and for teaching creationism in opposition to evolution.
Falwell’s battle against Hustler magazine owner Larry Flynt commanded national headlines after Falwell sued Flynt for running a parody in a 1983 issue of Hustler in which Falwell told of “the first time” he had sex – with his mother in an outhouse. Falwell sued for $200,000 and won, but the verdict was later overturned by the Supreme Court.
Falwell was hospitalized for 13 days with pneumonia in February and March of 2005, and had to be placed on a respirator.
But Falwell, who rarely missed a Sunday in the pulpit at Thomas Road, returned to the spotlight almost right away. He held a news conference March 15, 2005, to welcome members of the school’s lacrosse team who were injured in a van accident in Alabama. And he traveled to Maryland and Tennessee earlier this month to watch the Liberty University’s Lady Flames reach their first NCAA basketball Sweet 16.
Falwell once gave a sermon in which he detailed what he would do “If I were the king of the world.”
“We must keep America close to its Protestant-Puritan ethic and we must keep prayer and Bible readings in our schools,” he said. “We must keep illicit sex off television and cussing off our airways. We must keep immorality out of our schools. … Don’t make laws against Christians and against the church. Don’t try to be politically correct, don’t give more allegiance to world religions than to Christianity. Don’t try to take God out of public life.”
Falwell, who was born Aug. 11, 1933, in Lynchburg, was the grandson of an atheist and the son of an agnostic. He graduated as valedictorian from Brookville High School in 1950 at the age of 16 and later graduated from Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Mo.
Shortly after his ordination, he turned to radio in an effort to bolster the membership of his new church and to reach more people with his ministry.
WBRG in Madison Heights “had only 1,000 watts, but on a clear morning those watts carried our Thomas Road Baptist Church broadcast to homes throughout Lynchburg,” he wrote. Falwell was astounded by the positive reaction. “I began to realize how effective the broadcast media are in getting into all those homes,” he wrote.
In 1963, he began to broadcast from the ABC television affiliate in Lynchburg, a move that would eventually bring him to the attention of the country and the world.
In the years that followed, he also would start a home for alcoholic men, a theological seminary, a home Bible-study program and a home for unwed mothers. In 1986 he wrote a book titled “If I Should Die Before I Wake,” which decried abortion and reached out to unwed mothers.
Falwell married Macel Pate, a church pianist, in 1958. They had three children, Jerry Falwell Jr., who runs Liberty Baptist University; Jonathan, who now heads the Thomas Road Baptist Church; and Jeannie Falwell Savas, a surgeon.