Video: The Rev. Jerry Falwell dies at 73

updated 5/16/2007 3:47:20 PM ET 2007-05-16T19:47:20

Spiritually, the Rev. Jerry Falwell seemed prepared for his passing.

A little more than two weeks ago, the founder of the Moral Majority preached of man being indestructible until he has finished God’s work, then told churchgoers he was at peace with death.

On the day before he died, Falwell called his son and asked him to take a drive up the mountain that overlooks Liberty University, where he posed for pictures near a new, massive “LU” logo with students from the school he built.

“He said he was feeling better than he’d felt in awhile,” Jerry Falwell Jr. said. “He’d been feeling kind of tired in the past two weeks.”

On Tuesday morning, the 73-year-old Falwell was discovered without a pulse in his office at Liberty and pronounced dead at a hospital about an hour later. Dr. Carl Moore, Falwell’s physician, said he had a heart condition and presumably died of a heart rhythm abnormality. His funeral was set for Tuesday.

The big, blue-eyed preacher with a booming voice used the power of television to found the Moral Majority and turn the Christian right into a mighty force in American politics.

The rise of Christian conservatism made Falwell perhaps the most recognizable figure on the evangelical right. The Moral Majority’s condemnation of homosexuality, abortion and pornography was praised in some circles and reviled in others.

Over the years, Falwell waged a landmark libel case against Hustler magazine founder Larry Flynt over a raunchy parody ad, and created a furor in 1999 when one of his publications suggested that the purse-carrying “Teletubbies” character Tinky Winky was gay.

Driven into politics by the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that established the right to an abortion, Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979. He credited the conservative lobbying group with getting millions of like-minded people to vote, and one of its greatest triumphs came when Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980.

“I shudder to think where the country would be right now if the religious right had not evolved,” he said when he stepped down as Moral Majority president in 1987.

Transition plans in place
Falwell was both a businessman and a preacher, roles that each of his sons embody. He had made careful preparations for a transition of his leadership to Jerry Jr., vice chancellor of Liberty University, and Jonathan, executive pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church.

But neither is involved in politics, an area where Falwell’s influence had declined in recent years. He was quietly led in and out of the Republican Party’s 2004 national convention. Just four years earlier, he was invited to pray from the rostrum.

Leaves a mixed legacy
Nonetheless, his political impact was monumental.

“Jerry was the seminal figure in bringing evangelical and fundamentalist Christians out of the catacombs and energizing them into a political voting bloc that helped elect Ronald Reagan twice and was responsible for a lot of Republican success after that,” said Cal Thomas, syndicated columnist and vice president of the Moral Majority from 1980-85.

Others remembered the fundamentalist preacher for being divisive.

Matt Foreman, executive director of National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, extended condolences to those close to Falwell, but added: “Unfortunately, we will always remember him as a founder and leader of America’s anti-gay industry, someone who exacerbated the nation’s appalling response to the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic, someone who demonized and vilified us for political gain and someone who used religion to divide rather than unite our nation.”

In recent years, Falwell had become a problematic figure for the GOP. His remarks a few days after Sept. 11, 2001, essentially blaming feminists, gays and liberals for bringing on the terrorist attacks, drew a rebuke from the White House, and he apologized.

Falwell, who started a fundamentalist church in an abandoned bottling plant in Lynchburg in 1956 with just 35 members, built it into a religious empire that included the 24,000-member Thomas Road Baptist Church, the “Old Time Gospel Hour” carried on TV stations around the country, and 9,600-student Liberty University, which he founded in 1971 as Lynchburg Baptist College.

From his living room, he broadcast his message of salvation and raised the donations that helped his ministry grow.

The Moral Majority grew to 6.5 million members and raised $69 million as it supported conservative politicians and railed against liberal social issues.

In 1983, U.S. News & World Report named Falwell one of the 25 most influential people in America.

With his high profile came frequent criticism, even from fellow ministers. The Rev. Billy Graham once rebuked him for political sermonizing on “non-moral issues.”

Falwell quit the Moral Majority in 1987, saying he was tired of being “a lightning rod” and wanted to devote his time to his ministry and Liberty University. But he remained outspoken and continued to draw criticism for his remarks.

In 1999, he told an evangelical conference that the Antichrist was a male Jew who was probably already alive. Falwell later apologized for the remark but not for holding the belief. A month later, his National Liberty Journal warned parents that Tinky Winky, the children’s TV character, was a gay role model and morally damaging to children.

Falwell was re-energized after family values proved important in the 2004 presidential election. He formed the Faith and Values Coalition as the “21st Century resurrection of the Moral Majority,” to seek anti-abortion judges, a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, and more conservative elected officials.

Refocused his life in college
Falwell dreamed that Liberty would grow to 50,000 students and be to fundamentalist Christians what the University of Notre Dame is to Roman Catholics and Brigham Young University is to Mormons.

Falwell’s father and grandfather were atheists, he wrote in his autobiography. He said his father made a fortune off his businesses — including bootlegging during Prohibition.

As a student, Falwell was a star athlete and prankster who was barred from giving his high school valedictorian’s speech after he was caught using counterfeit lunch tickets.

He ran with a gang of juvenile delinquents before becoming a born-again Christian at 19. He turned down an offer to play professional baseball and transferred from Lynchburg College to Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Mo.

“My heart was burning to serve Christ,” he once said in an interview. “I knew nothing would ever be the same again.”

Falwell’s survivors include his wife, Macel, his two sons and a daughter, Jeannie Falwell Savas.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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