The death of Jerry Falwell today represents more than the passing of one of America’s spiritual leaders, it also represents the near completion of the falling of a curtain over the era of iconclastic fundamentalist leadership. For those of us who grew up during the “hay-day” of fundamentalism and/or the Independent Baptists, Falwell was one of a phalanx of high-profile leaders that marked the fundamentalist Christian movement of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s as it peaked in influence in the evangelical Christian world. Over the last thirty years, these leaders have fallen to death, scandal and sometimes both.
Names like Bob Jones (Sr. and Jr.), John R. Rice, Jack Hyles, G. B. Vic, W.A. Criswell (yes, I know he was SBC, but he was still a theological fundamentalist), Monroe Parker, Bill Rice, (recently) Lee Roberson, Tom Malone, Curtis Hutson, Truman Dollar, Cedarholm, Dowell, Roloff and many others used to be the “top billers” on speakers list and at conferences. Now they are all in heaven. Few of today’s fundamentalist Christian leaders approach them (for better or worse) in stature or fame.
Few will argue that Jerry Falwell was in a league all of his own. His was a name I have basically known since my earliest teen years. I once heard him preach with Jack Hyles, David Gibbs and Lester Roloff in Chicago. Hyles did his best to put him down for having a college where the boys could wear hair that touched their ears and for allowing (what was known then as) Liberty Baptist College to seek regional accreditation. Falwell took it all in good-natured stride and didn’t back down a bit.
Long before I had the privilege of meeting Jerry personally and forming a relationship with him, I knew guys that had known him from his days at Baptist Bible College in Springfield, MO. Many of the men I admired where in the first wave of pastors who signed on to the “Moral Majority” which became a force in American politics that will forever be a part of our history. My friend, Pastor Jack Dinsbeer of the University Baptist Church in Jacksonville, FL would talk of how he had worked with Jerry as a young man as he was just beginning his Christian journey. John Rawlings had plenty of “Jerry stories” and as only Dr. John can do, he delighted in getting Jerry’s goat, telling him what he thought and waxing long and loud about Jerry’s strengths and weaknesses both publicly and privately. In return, Jerry Falwell gave John Rawlings his respect, loyalty and appreciation.
I first got to know Jerry Falwell when I was a pastor in Florida. I was the newly-selected President of the Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools and was doing a tribute for Dr. Al Janney — a friend of Falwell’s, predesessor and mentor and the founder of FACCS. Jerry couldn’t attend the banquet, but spoke to me about other options and ended up sending a wonderful video tribute which we showed at Dr. Janney’s retirement event.
We exchanged letters over the years from time to time and I was always surprised that he would remember me, would ask questions about things in which I was involved and actually acted interested. I would discover over the years that it wasn’t an “act” — this was how Jerry Falwell was. He genuinely cared about people.
Dr. Falwell was a friend of Northside Baptist Church and our founding pastor, Dr. W. Jack Hudson. He was a regular guest in the Northside pulpit. During one of only two pastoral transitions during our church’s history, Dr. Falwell was one of the first speakers to come to our church and I am told that his message was very timely at a point when our church had divisions and disappointment throughout. I invited Dr. Falwell to be the Keynote Speaker at the 50th Anniversary of our church in 2004. He readily accepted and flew on a Sunday afternoon in September to speak to our gym packed with Northsiders.
He flew into the Concord airport in a private plane. From the moment he stepped out of the van, he was fully engaged and energetic. We chatted privately for a bit and then he went into the gym where he was obviously swamped with friends and well-wishers. He spoke to our folks for about 30 minutes regaling us with stories from his history with Dr. Hudson, fundamentalism, Charlotte, etc… Most “big wig” speakers, rush out as soon as they are done speaking. Not Jerry. He relished being with the people. He posed for countless pictures. He listened to people. He rattled off people’s names like someone with a photographic memory. He treated Dr. Hudson’s widow and her children (Mark, Linda and Patsy) with special love and attention (see the pictures here I’ve uploaded). Everytime I talked to him, he would always ask about the church and then the Hudsons.
The last time I was able to spend any significant time with Dr. Falwell was a year ago last month. We were hosting the International Baptist Network’s Global Connection Conference and he was the keynote speaker at the Thursday banquet. I found him sitting with one or two friends in our auditorium. I could tell that he wasn’t feeling well. He would later tell me that he was sick with a “bug”. He’d been very ill the year before and almost died then. We chatted about the church for a while. He was always so complementary and twice he privately commented to me that he was amazed at all the transitions in style and approach that I’d managed to see integrated into Northside. We talked about my son and his decision to attend Liberty and he would go on to help me get a position as an adjunct professor for the Distance Learning Program in the seminary which allows me to earn enough to pay the tuition costs.
It finally came time for him to go to the Fine Arts Center…perhaps a two-hundred-foot walk. He leaned over to me and lowered his voice and asked me if I would drive him over as he wasn’t feeling well and his hip was bothering him. I jumped in my Black Suburban and picked him up at one of the exits for the quick trip across the parking lot. He mentioned that I drove the same vehicle that he did.
With sweat pouring from his face, he delivered over 30 minutes of “off-the-cuff” wit and wisdom on fundamentalism, Baptists, philosphy, methodology and much more. The time passed all too quickly and he left our campus for the final time. He had told me he’d come back, but we just hadn’t gotten a date yet. Something that I regret today.
The last time I heard him preach was last month as I went to visit my son and it worked out that he was speaking in convocation (chapel) that day. To my pleasant surprise, he spoke on dangers within the Emergent Church Movement — but he did it in a way that was typical Falwell. He wasn’t angry, he wasn’t threatening, he wasn’t ugly in any way. But he was completely direct, pointed and (in my opinion) right on target.
The two dozen plus Liberty University students from our church in Charlotte would tell me of their “Jerry stories”. Yes…they would mock his repetitious illustrations shared regularly and frequently in the convocations. They would mention how he would stop and tease the students from his SUV. (Danny Lovett, President of Tennessee Temple University and former President of Liberty Seminary once told me that he had pulled up alongside of Dr. Falwell’s SUV and Jerry lit a strip of firecrackers and threw them in his car then sped away laughing hysterically.) His personality was imprinted all over the campus from the vision of every little detail that inspired things like the new logo on Liberty Mountain to the schlocky “Jerry Bobblehead Dolls” you could purchase in the bookstore. My son mentioned that during a brief period when was in the employ of that fine eating establishment “Taco Bell” which is pretty near the college, that Jerry would frequent the drive through spreading good cheer as he grabbed a bag of tacos.
Today is not a day for discussing where some differed with Jerry Falwell. Over the years, he was subject to bruising criticism from the left who hated his commitment to the Gospel and Biblical values and also from his fundamentalist brethren who often pounced on things like his associations and the mixing of politics and faith. (I DO think that we can all agree that the day he slid down the waterslide at Heritage USA dressed in a suit was NOT one of his wiser decisions.) Today is a day for thanking God for an extrodinary man of vision who was faithful to his wife, his family, his church and his Savior.
There are few icons remaining in Christian fundamentalism today. John Rawlings, Elmer Towns, a smattering of well-known professors at places like Bob Jones University and a few others. But, for the most part, the high profile leaders of that generation are now slipping into history and arriving in heaven. As one who grew up listening to them, watching them, being influenced by them…each funeral represents the end of an era.
Let us hope, pray and work so that a new generation of spiritual leaders will emerge that will be known for staying true to the Gospel, making a difference in the world, standing for right values without apology and for daring to attempt great things for God.