Jerry F. Falwell (1933-2007), Baptist preacher and televangelist, was born one of twin sons in Lynchburg, Virginia to a successful, but alcoholic, businessman father and his devout Baptist wife. After graduation from the local public high school as valedictorian in 1951 he began attending Lynchburg College. One evening during his freshman year Falwell was greatly affected after hearing a broadcast of Charles E. Fuller’s “Old Fashioned Revival Hour”; he began attending a local Baptist Church and underwent a conversion experience.
Believing he was called to preach, Falwell transferred to an unaccredited separatist school linked with the Baptist Bible Fellowship in Missouri. He graduated with a degree in theology in 1956 and then headed back home to Lynchburg. Renting out a former soft drink bottling facility, Falwell began the Thomas Road Baptist Church within a few weeks of returning home. A tireless worker, he and a few church members canvassed the neighborhoods of Lynchburg; within a few months they managed to purchase the building they were using and begin extensive renovations. Over the course of the next twenty years Falwell combined a savvy use of radio and television broadcasting along with an aggressive bus campaign for his Sunday School to build Thomas Road into one of the largest churches in the country. Besides opening a rescue mission, building a youth camp, and starting a maternity home for young runaways, Falwell erected a 3,800 seat church sanctuary (1970), began a Christian school (1967), founded Lynchburg Baptist College (1971-later renamed Liberty University) and purchased 4,400 acres of mountain terrain for future expansion.
Between the beginning of the church and his mid-1970s success, Falwell’s understanding of the scope of his ministry changed dramatically. In his early years he had been a typical separatist fundamentalist Baptist preacher who wanted nothing to do with political activism of any stripe that would take away from “soul winning.” A Southern segregationist as well, he lamented the civil rights movement and particularly the role of clergy in its promotion. But steadily throughout the 1970s he began to change his mind. Thomas Road Baptist Church began admitting blacks into services and for membership and his schools began allowing blacks to enroll. His preaching assumed a more political tone as well as he began to criticize the erosion of morality in American culture.
In July 1979 Falwell formed the Moral Majority, an organization designed to promote grass roots political activism (pro-life sentiments, opposition to homosexual rights and the Equal Rights Amendment, battling pornography, and support for the state of Israel) among conservative Protestants and other like-minded religious Americans. Falwell became a media “go-to” figure at this time and the Moral Majority played an important role in bringing out the vote for Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election–though not as important role as many agitated journalists, scholars, and Falwell himself seemed to believe at the time. During the course of the 1980s the Moral Majority’s support began to wane and in 1986 he formally closed its doors. Although he attempted to foster similar political programs in the years that followed, none ever approached the impact of the Moral Majority. Nonetheless, Falwell’s empire prospered: by the dawn of the 21st-century Thomas Road Baptist Church attracted 8,000 people to its Sunday morning services and Liberty Baptist University had more than that many students. While never quite the powerbroker secular media pundits made him out to be, Falwell was an important player in the political re-engagement of evangelicalism, particularly in drawing many separatist fundamentalists out of their cultural shells.
For further reading see Susan F. Harding, The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics (Princeton, 2000); Macel Falwell, Jerry Falwell: His Life and Legacy (Howard, 2008).