The Jerry I Remember
By Timothy George
I first met Jerry Falwell in the hot summer of 1968—yes, that summer of race riots, war protests, and assassinations. But the turbulence of the times seemed far away as I boarded a Greyhound bus in my hometown of Chattanooga and headed for a week long preaching assignment at Treasure Island Youth Camp, a summer ministry for underprivileged children run by Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg.
I was a recent high school graduate, a flaming youth evangelist, and this was the big time for me. Each week the church brought in a noted speaker to preach to the several hundred young people—white and black—who flocked to the island camp in the middle of the James River. I was flattered to be squeezed in between Bob Harrington, the flamboyant “Chaplain of Bourbon Street” and Lester Roloff, an austere Texas evangelist known for not eating catfish or anything else condemned in the Old Testament.
I was a Southern Baptist and Brother Jerry, as we called him back then, was somewhat skittish about folks of my ilk. No doubt, he feared that some of the reputed liberalism in the SBC might have rubbed off on me. When he heard me speak, though, he seemed relieved to know that his young people would be getting a genuine hot Gospel message that week.
Jerry had just received an honorary doctor’s degree from Tennessee Temple University and was already a well known figure in fundamentalist Baptist circles. He had begun Thomas Road twelve years earlier with just thirty-five members. By the time I arrived in Lynchburg, the church had grown to several thousand members. There was a home for unwed mothers, a center for recovering alcoholics, and a fledgling radio and television ministry as well as the youth camp I had come to preach at. Liberty University would not be founded for another three years and the Moral Majority was more than a decade in the future. I remember Brother Jerry as a warm, winsome preacher of the Gospel, a pastor who smiled a lot and had a compassionate heart for all kinds of people, especially for the down and outers.
Jerry Falwell was an unlikely choice to become one of the most recognized faces and one of the most influential clergymen of the twentieth century. Born in Lynchburg on August 11, 1933, he came from a respectable, hard-working family but not one known for its religious pedigree. His father had once been a bootlegger and disliked preachers of all sorts. His grandfather had been a committed atheist. Falwell himself was first awakened to the Gospel message by listening to the sonorous voice of Charles E. Fuller and his “Old Fashioned Revival Hour” which was aired across America on the Mutual Broadcasting Network. Jerry’s “Old-Time Gospel Hour” program was a thinly veiled imitation, though eventually Falwell would master the media and reach millions more than Fuller could ever have dreamed of.
Falwell himself became a Christian at age eighteen through the preaching of a minister named Paul F. Donnelson who had been led to Christ by his missionary father Fred Donnelson who, in turn, had been led to Christ by the famous evangelist Billy Sunday. Sensing a call to preach the Gospel, Jerry attended Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri where he studied hard, played basketball, and taught a Sunday School class of 11-year-old boys. There, his commitment to the verities of Baptist fundamentalism was deepened. At Springfield, he also came to know some of the great leaders of the Independent Baptist movement including John Rawlings and B. R. Lakin, both of whom became his lifelong mentors. The speaker at Jerry’s graduation from BBC was Dr. Bob Jones, Sr.
Jerry was 34 when I met him in 1968. He was still in transition from the kind of baptistic sectarianism represented by William Bell Riley, J. Frank Norris, and Lee Roberson, on whose shoulders he stood, to the broader public theology he would come to embrace over the next two decades. But even then there was something really special about Jerry Falwell. Though he was no intellectual, he did respect the life of the mind and wanted Christians to be culturally literate as well as biblically informed. Already he had “that vision thing,” as Bush 41 would call the ability to envisage a reconfigured future and inspire others to work with you to make it a reality. Jerry Falwell was a horizonal leader. At a time when fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals were best known for Gospel puppeteering, Sunday School bus-ins, and sawdust revivalism, Jerry redefined the Christian calling in terms of activism, moral concern and social outreach. In so doing he helped many of his fellow believers recover a heritage that was in danger of being eclipsed.
In 1947, five years before Jerry’s conversion, Carl F. H. Henry had sounded the trumpet of evangelical engagement with his Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. Early on Falwell had been wary of the evangelical entanglements Henry, Billy Graham, and others promoted. In a 1965 sermon called “Ministers and Marches,” which he later repudiated, Jerry also opposed the civil rights activism of Martin Luther King, Jr. The Christian’s place is in the prayer room, not on the picket line, he said. Pastors should stay out of politics and stick to the pulpit. However, by the time the Moral Majority was born in 1979, Falwell publicly had repented of the racism of his segregationist past. He had also come out of the closet of evangelical privatism and had begun to rally his fellow believers for a moral crusade that would change the face of American politics.
What changed Jerry Falwell? No doubt, he tapped into the reservoir of resentment and rage felt by many conservative Christians in America during the sixties as the traditional values they cherished seemed to be eroding on every hand. But, by his own account, it was the Supreme Court’s 1973 abortion ruling that galvanized Falwell into action. Baptists like Falwell were notorious for opposing vices like smoking, drinking, and gambling, all matters handled at the private or local community level. It was the Presbyterian apologist, Francis Schaeffer, who helped Jerry to see the wider social implications of the abortion issue and who lent moral support to Falwell’s “Wake Up, America” crusade. In 1980, the year Ronald Reagan was first elected president, Jerry wrote, “As a preacher of the Gospel, I not only believe in prayer and preaching, I also believe in good citizenship. Americans must no longer linger in ignorance and apathy. We cannot be silent about the sins that are destroying this nation.”
Falwell entered the political arena with the same abandon with which he made his famous bungee jump a few years ago. The consequences were enormous, contributing to the second great demographic realignment in twentieth-century American politics. The first was the rush of African Americans to join FDR’s Democratic coalition in the 1930’s. The second was the move of many conservative Christians into Republican ranks. Without Falwell’s activism, it is doubtful that he would have lived to witness, shortly before he died, the 5-4 Supreme Court decision restricting partial birth abortions.
But there were losses as well, as Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson, both former Falwell protégés, have pointed out. By identifying Christian concerns so exclusively with one party, does the church face the danger of becoming a mere pawn of partisan politics? Do pastors lose a prophetic voice in speaking to a broader range of moral issues, not only abortion and homosexuality but also systemic poverty, concern for the environment, and many more? Early twentieth-century liberals identified the Christian message with the “social Gospel” of the day, and in time their message became all social and no Gospel. Jerry would have done well to have pondered that historic example while not backing away from the moral leadership he did provide with courage and civility.
Larry King was once asked whether he liked Jerry Falwell and he confessed that it was hard to dislike someone who was so likable. There were certainly those who could do so. Upon hearing of Jerry’s death, Christopher Hitchens, one of Falwell’s God-despising secularist critics, referred to him as “a little toad” and lamented that there was no hell for him to go to. Falwell made good target practice for the abortion and pornography lobbies, and other predictable opponents on the left. But he had his detractors on the right as well—his former fellow-travelers among the fundamentalists who considered him apostate, and many evangelicals who winced when his views were equated by the media with theirs.
Jerry could pontificate with the best of them and some of his statements were uproarious, outrageous, and just plain stupid. After 9-11 he singled out pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays and lesbians, the ACLU, and other assorted groups on the left, blaming them for the vicious attacks in New York and Washington. These were hurtful and divisive comments and I wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal saying that Jerry should have known better. I also said that I thought Jerry was better than his reckless rhetoric implied. He was, and he later apologized for those remarks.
In recent years, I had few contacts with Falwell. However, a few weeks before he died, one of my colleagues here at Beeson spoke at Liberty and Jerry sent back a warm personal greeting to me. I wrote him back just a few days before he died recalling our first meeting years ago and the encouragement he gave to a young preacher at Treasure Island. The Jerry I remember poured his life into countless young people across the years and I will always be grateful that I was one of them.
Timothy George is founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and a senior editor of Christianity Today. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
An edited version of this article was published in Christianity Today, Vol. 51, no. 7 (July 2007) 48-49.