IMAGE: Faithful gather for funeral of Jerry Falwell
Mario Tama  /  Getty Images
Thousands of mourners wait in line Tuesday to attend funeral services for the Rev. Jerry Falwell at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia.
updated 5/22/2007 2:52:17 PM ET 2007-05-22T18:52:17

Thousands of mourners arrived Tuesday for the funeral of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the folksy evangelist who built the Moral Majority into a conservative Christian empire that influenced national politics.

The funeral returns Falwell to his roots — the Thomas Road Baptist Church, where he started as a young preacher in 1956 with just 35 parishioners in an old abandoned soda bottling plant.

Today, his son Jonathan Falwell leads Thomas Road Baptist, and the sanctuary seats 6,000.

Three hours before the ceremony, more than 2,000 people waited outside for the funeral. More than 33,000 had viewed Falwell’s body over four days as it lay in repose.

Overflow seating was arranged for the funeral in Liberty University’s 10,000-seat basketball arena and its football stadium, but while some Republican figures were expected, none of the party’s presidential candidates said they could attend. The White House was sending a midlevel aide. Among Virginia Republican leaders, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling and Attorney General Bob McDonnell were expected.

Falwell, 73, died a week ago after collapsing in his office at Liberty University. His physician said Falwell had a heart condition and presumably died of a heart rhythm abnormality.

The Rev. Jerry Falwell, 1933-2007Falwell founded the university in 1971 and became a force in Republican politics in the 1980s after starting the Moral Majority and organizing the conservative Christian vote to send Ronald Reagan to the White House.

Even as a young preacher, he broke new ground, launching television evangelism with the “Old Time Gospel Hour” in 1956.

He built the Thomas Road Baptist congregation to an estimate 24,000 over the years by knocking on doors and listening to the people who answered.

To the end, he stayed in touch with his congregation.

‘I'd hand him the cards’
Wendell Walker, who moved from Macon, Ga., 33 years ago to attend the Liberty Baptist College that preceded the university, said he had helped Falwell with baby dedication ceremonies two days before his death.

“All the parents were coming forward to dedicate their babies,” Walker said. “I’d hand him the cards.”

Walker said he “just loved helping a godly man.”

Falwell also made careful preparations for a leadership transition after his death of both the church and Liberty University to his sons. Jonathan’s brother, Jerry Falwell Jr., is already vice chancellor at Liberty.

A private burial was planned on the grounds of Liberty University near a former mansion where Falwell’s office was located.

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