Falwell, Jerry (1933-), Evangelist and Political Activist

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Falwell, Jerry
(1933-), evangelist and political activist.

Jerry Falwell is pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia; founder and chancellor of Liberty University; primary evangelist on the nationwide television program The Old-Time Gospel Hour; and founder of Moral Majority, the flagship organization of the Religious Right during the early 1980s. A native of Lynchburg, Falwell attended Lynchburg College for two years before transferring to Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri, where he trained for the ministry. Shortly after graduation in 1956, he accepted an invitation to become pastor of a new church, which grew from a cluster of twenty-five families into one of the largest Protestant churches in America, with a membership of approximately twenty-two thousand people.

During the late 1950s and for most of the 1960s, Falwell supported racial segregation. In a notorious 1965 sermon titled "Ministers and Marches," he openly criticized Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other clergymen who participated in the civil rights movement, charging them with insincerity and with being manipulated by Communists, if, indeed, they were not Communists themselves. "Preachers," he said, "are not called to be politicians, but to be soul winners." A little more than a decade later, Falwell repudiated this sermon, even calling it "false prophecy." Such a recanting was necessary, since by 1980 the American minister best known for his involvement in politics was none other than Jerry Falwell.

In 1967 Falwell founded Lynchburg Christian Academy, which subsequently grew into Lynchburg Baptist College, then Liberty Bible College, then Liberty University, all designed to provide fundamentalist Christian young people with an education untainted by secular humanism, an ideology fundamentalists feared was destroying the moral and spiritual foundations of the nation. As part of his campaign to combat secular humanism, Falwell invited prominent evangelical intellectual Francis Schaeffer to speak at the university. Schaeffer urged Falwell to use his television program, by then seen on more than 330 stations each week, to address social issues such as abortion and homosexuality. After his first such efforts began to draw attention, conservative political operatives approached Falwell, urging him to begin a grassroots political organization. The result, chartered in 1979, was Moral Majority.

During the 1980 election campaign, Moral Majority became the best-known component of the new movement that came to be called the Christian New Right or, more commonly, the Religious Right, and Falwell became the movement's ubiquitous spokesman. Moral Majority, though popular among fundamentalists, never developed highly effective political techniques or organization. Faced with failure to achieve major legislative victories for the organization's "promoral, profamily" agenda and with chronic financial problems at Liberty University, Falwell disbanded Moral Majority in 1989. Leadership of the movement shifted to other groups and organizations, most notably Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition. Falwell retained a role as one of the movement's significant elder statesmen but turned most of his attention to Thomas Road Baptist Church, his television ministry, and Liberty University.

See alsoChristian Coalition; Fundamentalist Christianity; King, Martin Luther, Jr.; Moral Majority; Religious Right; Robertson, Pat; Televangelism.


D'Souza, Dinesh. Falwell, Before the Millennium. 1984.

Falwell, Jerry. Listen, America! 1980.

Martin, William. With God on Our Side: TheRiseof theReligious Right in America. 1996.

William Martin