By Steve Wolfgang
Jerry Falwell is perhaps the quintessential media- made preacher. When he graduated from Baptist Bible College in Springfield, MO in 1956 and returned home to Lynchburg, VA, he was a virtual unknown. He started a little church with 35 people in a rented pop-bottling plant. He proved to be a tireless worker, canvassing the town – but he also went on radio the first week, and purchased TV time within a year. Even then, without the mushrooming of cable TV in the 1970’s, the chances are that he would still be unknown outside the county.
Falwell was born in Lynchburg on August 11, 1933 and raised there, attending two years at Lynchburg College (affiliated with the Disciples of Christ) before transferring to Springfield after a “conversion experience” in a local Baptist church. His mother had often tuned in “The Old Fashioned Revival Hour” with Charles E. Fuller, a famous radio preacher of the World War II era, and his preaching influenced young Jerry considerably. Thus, media evangelism was prominent in Falwell’s concept of religion from an early age.
The college in Springfield had roots in the Baptist Bible Fellowship, one of the more prominent Fundamentalist organizations which arose after the Scopes Trial. When he roomed at Springfield with the son of John Rawlings, mainspring of Cincinnati’s Landmark Baptist Temple, the concept of a “super church” was planted in Falwell’s mind. Returning to Lynchburg after graduation, he began Thomas Road Baptist church in the summer of 1966. From an inauspicious beginning in the old Donald Duck Bottling plant (a rented facility against which was erected a tent-like lean-to for Sunday School classes), the church has grown into a 21,000 member congregation (about a fourth of the town’s population) with a staff of about 60 employees. Other enterprises include a summer camp, a home for alcoholics, and Lynchburg Christian Academy. Liberty Baptist College, which was begun in dilapidated downtown buildings in 1971, was moved to Candlers Mountain in 1977, where a host of new buildings had been erected and 7500 students are currently enrolled.
A large part of Falwell’s ability as a promoter (“Businessmen in Lynchburg say he is . . . the best salesman they have ever seen”), is his extensive use of media. His “Old-Time Gospel Hour” (a tape of the 11:00 Sunday service at Thomas Road, edited with some extra footage inserted) has been on-air since 1969, and is now carried on 190 TV stations plus cable outlets.
Additionally, in 1979 Falwell founded the “Moral Majority,” a political organization (he has repeatedly stated that it is not a religious body). Renamed the “Liberty Federation” last year, this group allows him to work in common cause with Jews, Catholics, Mormons, and Protestants such as Billy Graham (with all of whom he has religious differences great enough that they would not be invited to preach at Thomas Road).
With all these enterprises (church, television program, college, political organization – all of which overlap to some degree, despite Falwell’s disclaimers to the contrary), it is difficult to tell what is the total income generated. Most estimates, however, place it in excess of $100 million annually, which allows Falwell the use of a mansion donated to the church as well as the ministry’s Israeli-made private jet. With Falwell’s takeover of PTL after the Bakker scandal, he will, if he is successful in salvaging that operation, have at his disposal the additional cable outlets and TV production facilities of that group.
Strober & Tomczac, Jerry Falwell. Aflamefor God (1979); Falwell, Dobson, & Hindson, The Fundamentalist Phenomenon (1986); Frances Fitzgerald, “A Disciplined, Charging Army,” New Yorker, May 18, 1981; Christianity Today, September 4, 1981; TIME, September 2, 1985.
Guardian of Truth XXXI: 12, p. 374
June 18, 1987