Farewell to Falwell: Evangelical pioneer praised by thousands
LYNCHBURG, Va. — Thousands of mourners on May 22, many arriving before dawn, bade farewell to the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the Baptist evangelist who became a leader in winning souls to Christ, founder of Liberty Baptist University, and a moral force in national politics.
The congregation at the Thomas Road Baptist Church included political and civic figures who came to mourn, but the 10,000 men and women in the audience were drawn to pay tribute to the Gospel that Mr. Falwell preached with fire and passion for Christ in a ministry that spanned five decades.
“No one ever had a better friend than Jerry Falwell,” said the Rev. Jim Moon, a childhood friend and co-pastor of the Thomas Road Baptist Church, where the service was held. “Jerry Falwell was a man who trusted in the Lord with all his heart. He sought the wisdom of God in every decision he made.”
Mr. Falwell founded the church in 1956 with just 35 parishioners in an abandoned Donald Duck Cola bottling plant. The church now enrolls 24,000 members.
The Rev. Jerry Vines, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, told the packed church of the early days of the ministry, when Mr. Falwell preached and his wife, Macel, played the piano.
Their efforts attracted 800 members by the end of the first year, he said, and the Falwells had built a megachurch “before megachurches were cool.”
Mr. Falwell was remembered as a “saint,” “prophet,” “a dreamer who dared” and a “giant of a man” who understood the “will and work” of God, and made all he met feel like they were his best friend.
Inside the big man was a “mischievous little boy,” Mr. Vines said. He gave surprise bear hugs that left people checking for rib injuries and once drove a car equipped with a horn that made a trainlike sound.
Mr. Vines said Mr. Falwell, who had carefully planned his service, once told him “I’m going to walk out” if the funeral ran longer than 45 minutes. “So I have been watching carefully,” Mr. Vines said.
The Rev. Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, said Mr. Falwell was a controversial figure because of his unwavering belief in moral standards, such as his opposition to abortion, pornography and same-sex “marriage.”
Mr. Graham praised Mr. Falwell for “believing that moral decay weakened America.” He said Mr. Falwell’s passion changed U.S. politics, particularly when he started the Moral Majority in 1979, which helped elect Ronald Reagan president and united evangelical and fundamentalist Christians who had avoided politics.
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, head of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, said before the service that Mr. Falwell was one of the “first to build a bridge between evangelicals and Jews in America and evangelicals and Jews in Israel.”
Mr. Falwell, who had suffered heart problems, died May 15 after collapsing in his university office. He was 73. Mr. Falwell’s physician said that he was found “without a heartbeat,” and he suspects Mr. Falwell died of a heart-rhythm abnormality.
Mourners began arriving at the church as early as 5 a.m. About 300 police officers and other personnel helped manage the crowd, said Lynchburg Police Chief Charles W. Bennett Jr.
Among the mourners were George Allen, the former Republican senator from Virginia; television personality Pat Robertson; Ralph E. Reed Jr., the one-time chairman of the Christian Coalition, and Roy Moore, the former justice of the Alabama Supreme Court who was removed from office after refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the courthouse. Virginia Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell and Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling attended as well, and President Bush sent aide Tim Goeglein.
Mr. Goeglein said Mr. Bush and first lady Laura Bush were “deeply saddened” and were praying for Mr. Falwell and his family.
“Jerry lived a life of faith and called upon men of all backgrounds to believe in God and serve their communities,” Mr. Goeglein said. He said Mr. Falwell would be proud to know that interns from Liberty University are working in the White House.
Mr. Falwell’s daughter, Jeannie Falwell Savas, a surgeon in Richmond, thanked the congregation for the prayers of support and said she was proud of her brothers for stepping into leadership roles. Jerry Falwell Jr. is the university’s vice chancellor and Jonathan Falwell is pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church.
More than 33,000 people had viewed Mr. Falwell’s body over four days as it lay in repose. A private burial was planned on the grounds of the university.
The funeral was not disrupted by the protesters across the street. Campbell County authorities arrested a Liberty University freshman on May 21 on charges of manufacturing an explosive device, after they found several homemade bombs in the trunk of his car, said Maj. Steve Hutcherson of the county sheriff’s office.
Mark David Uhl, 19, told a family member that he had made explosive devices and planned to attend the funeral, Maj. Hutcherson said. However, authorities did not know what Mr. Uhl’s plans were.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.