Minister led religious shift in '80s

Televangelist was founder of the Moral Majority

The Rev. JERRY FALWELL 1933-2007

May 16, 2007|By Lisa Anderson | Lisa Anderson,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

The Rev. Jerry Falwell, the conservative televangelist and founder of the Moral Majority, died yesterday afternoon at a Lynchburg, Va., hospital after being found unconscious and without a pulse in his office at Liberty University.

Mr. Falwell, who gained national stature for galvanizing conservative Christians into political action during the 1980s, was 73 and had suffered from a heart condition.

The Chicago Tribune interviewed him May 1 at his office in a little stone cottage on the campus of Liberty University, which he founded in 1971 and which has 9,600 students on campus. He spoke proudly of the huge education complex - now providing programs from preschool to doctoral studies - that he has built in Lynchburg, all created around the Thomas Road Baptist Church, where he had preached since 1956.

"Everything we're doing here is to produce multiple young champions for Christ," he said, referring to the sprawling campus in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Mr. Falwell's 1979 founding of the Moral Majority, an organization he characterized as "pro-life, pro-family, pro-moral and pro-American," changed the political conversation in the country, encouraged Christian conservatives to become politically active and was instrumental in the 1980 election of President Ronald Reagan, whose candidacy the organization championed.

Despite efforts at resuscitation at his office, en route to the hospital and in the emergency room of Lynchburg General Hospital, Mr. Falwell never regained a pulse and apparently died of cardiac arrhythmia, Dr. Carl Moore, his personal cardiologist, said at a news conference yesterday afternoon. Dr. Moore said the heart rhythm abnormality occurs without warning and cannot be predicted.

Ron Godwin, the university's executive vice president, said he had met with Mr. Falwell for breakfast at 8:30 a.m. and they left for their respective offices about 9:50 a.m. After Mr. Falwell failed to appear at a meeting, colleagues found him unconscious and unresponsive in his campus office, Mr. Godwin said.

At breakfast, Mr. Godwin said, Mr. Falwell "was talking about the future, plans for the future and about some encounters he had had with Liberty students yesterday that were very encouraging to him."

Mr. Godwin also said that Mr. Falwell had made "timely and prescient preparations for an event such as this." He said Mr. Falwell's two sons, Jerry Jr., a vice chancellor at the university, and Jonathan, executive pastor of the Thomas Road Baptist Church, would fill the void in leadership left by their father's death.

Mr. Falwell "was a giant of faith and a visionary leader and has always been a man of great optimism and faith. He has left instructions to those of us who have to carry on, and we will be faithful to that charge," said Mr. Godwin.

Over a 20-year period, Mr. Falwell spoke at several events for Rock City Church in Baltimore County, said its pastor, Bishop Bart Pierce.

"He was always concerned we were slipping on that slippery slope away from those family values we've known, and he was a swinging voice to try to bring us back," Bishop Pierce said. "We do need that voice in the balancing act of a society that tends to lean in one direction.

"It's a loss, no doubt, to the entire body of Christ, and really honestly to a lot of generations because of the great school they had in Liberty," Bishop Pierce said.

Mr. Falwell died just days before the university's commencement ceremony, which is scheduled to take place Saturday as planned. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich will deliver the address, and Liberty will graduate the first class of its new law school.

Mr. Falwell clearly had been looking forward to that event.

"The reason we have a law school, I'm not sure another law school is needed unless there is a unique purpose, and ours is to train up men and women who can provide the salt of ministry to a hurting nation and world," he said earlier this month.

The law school was just the latest item to be ticked off Mr. Falwell's ambitious list of educational institutions he planned to found, he said.

"More than 40 years ago, I had already been pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church here in Lynchburg for 10 or 11 years, and I began building a dream," he said, sitting at a dining room table at one end of his wood-paneled office.

"The dream was a Christian institution of education providing preschool, kindergarten, elementary, high school, liberal arts university, graduate schools, seminary, law school, engineering school, medical school. Well, the engineering starts this fall, and the medical is five years down the road," he said.

"So we bought 5,000 acres of land over the years. It's called Liberty Mountain. And our church actually established all of this. The law school, three years ago, was our most recent invention."

The law school will graduate 50 students Saturday.

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