Falwell Dies at 73

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LYNCHBURG, Va. — Jerry Falwell, a founder of the modern Christian conservative movement who started one of America's largest churches and founded one of its largest Christian universities, died May 15. He was 73.

Falwell, who had a history of heart problems, was found unconscious in his office and without a pulse, and subsequent efforts to revive him failed. He was pronounced dead at 12:40 p.m. E.T.

Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church grew from 35 members in 1956 to more than 24,000, and his school, Liberty University, saw its enrollment expand from virtually nothing in 1971 to more than 21,000. Both are located in Lynchburg, Va. Thomas Road was independent for its first 40 years before becoming Southern Baptist in 1996.

"His ministry must be seen from the perspective of being a pastor," Southern Baptist Convention President Frank Page, who serves as pastor of First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C., told Baptist Press. "Dr. Falwell never aspired to be anything other than a pastor who spoke prophetically the Word of God. Not everyone agreed with his stances, but all should admire his passion and commitment to the cause of Christ to the end. He desperately wanted our culture to understand God and to understand where obedience and disobedience lead."

Outside of Lynchburg, most Americans knew of Falwell because of his involvement in conservative politics. In June 1979 he helped organize the Moral Majority, an organization of pro-family Christians that helped propel Ronald Reagan into the White House. Falwell's involvement in politics — which, just eight years earlier, he said pastors should avoid — was spurred by the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion nationwide.

In his 1997 biography "Falwell," he described his feelings when reading the newspaper the morning after the court's ruling.

"The Supreme Court had just made a decision by a seven-to-two margin that would legalize the killing of millions of unborn children," he wrote. "In one terrible act they struck down all the state laws against abortion and legalized infanticide across the land. I could not believe that seven justices on the nation's highest court could have so little regard for the value of human life. Apparently, there were others who shared my disbelief."

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said the evangelical world will miss Falwell.

"A true giant of the faith has gone on to his heavenly reward," Land told BP. "Our grief at our loss of his witness, energy and giftedness for the kingdom is mitigated by the fact that he is now with his Savior for eternity. Dr. Falwell's home-going leaves an enormous gap in the leadership ranks of evangelical Christianity in America and around the world. He will be greatly missed."

Falwell had a lifetime passion for the Gospel, and in 1956 began the "Old-Time Gospel Hour," a local radio and TV ministry that over the years expanded to become worldwide. During the past 50 years, more than 3 million people have contacted Falwell's ministry saying they were saved by listening to or viewing his preaching, according to ministry statistics.

In 2005, Falwell spoke at the SBC Pastor's Conference, reminding the ministers there that today's pastors have an unprecedented opportunity to take the Gospel around the world thanks to the tools of modern communications and transportation.

"The greatest churches since Pentecost are yet to be built," Falwell said. "... We've got to teach the young preachers that the way to reach the masses today is to use every means to reach every available person at every available time."

Said Page, "Those who knew him best, knew him to be a man of compassion for the poor, a gentleman who was kind to all, and a warrior who stood strong for the claims of Christ. Dr. Falwell loved the Lord Jesus Christ and was not ashamed to let that be known anywhere or anytime."

Falwell leaves behind his wife, Macel — they were married 49 years — as well as three grown children and eight grandchildren.