Jerry Falwell, Sr. (Image Source)
Ever since Donald Trump’s run for president began over three years ago, there has been a whole lot of talk about the “Evangelical Vote,” “White Evangelical Christians,” or some amalgamation of “silent”, “family”, “value”, “moral”, and “voters”.
None of this is new, of course. The Religious Right has been a force to be reckoned with since before The Gipper took the oath of office. I remember all too well the cringey time in the late 90s when the Lewinsky Scandal had taken over the news, and every socially conservative Christian televangelist, talking head or megapastor worth his holy oil was castigating Clinton and the country in general, for his, and our, wickedness. Bad times, Folks, bad times.
But with Trump’s run, then GOP nomination, and eventual White House win, I felt like a rather large percentage of my newsfeed was devoted to talking about Evangelical Christians and their renewed power at the ballot box. One of the names mentioned most was the president of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell, Jr. In fact, about the 5,739th time I heard “Falwell”, it clicked in my head- I had started a series on my blog forever ago, called The Preachers, and I probably should do a post on Big Daddy Falwell. After all, there might not have even been such a thing as the Moral Majority if Senior hadn’t officiated at the shotgun wedding of the Republican Party and Evangelicals over 40 years ago. So, sit back, relax, and read up on the early life of Jerry Lamon Falwell, Sr. To get the deets, I relied heavily on Falwell Inc.: Inside a Religious, Political, Educational, and Business Empire by Dirk Smillie. Before we get to Jerry, it’s pretty important we go back a generation:
Jerry Falwell, holy man, had some spectacularly UNholy roots in his family tree, by way of his boozing, criminal uncle, Garland Falwell. Garland, along with brothers Carey and Warren, ran a number of local businesses- gas filling stations, cafes, a passenger bus line, and an oil distribution outfit. Buuuutttt, the real money was in bootlegging. Cue the theme from Boardwalk Empire:
At the height of Prohibition they sold moonshine. The Falwells were the biggest distributors of illegal liquor in central Virginia. Their gas stations were drop-off points for jugs of corn whiskey and peach brandy. You could buy gas for thirty cents a gallon or whiskey for eight dollars a gallon. Sealed in jam jars, brandy went for two dollars per pint. The booze came from camouflaged stills in the densely wooded outskirts of town and arrived in the bumpers of the Falwells’ fuel trucks.
[Garland] was in such a state [of drunkeness] one October evening in 1929, when a verbal showdown with a group of college students turned into a near-deadly car chase. Garland fired forty rounds into the sedan of the fleeing students, one of whom would have fourteen shot pellets removed from his head. Falwell was charged with attempted murder.
With his brothers’ help, never-do-well Garland managed to do minimal jail time on far less-serious charges. But his time in the slammer did nothing to actually reform his ways, and in two short years, he was once again in serious trouble. In a drunken rage, he turned on his brother Carey, mistakenly believing he had called the cops on him:
Garland limped upstairs to an office, where he heard Carey on the phone. Carey was running down a list of arrival times with a dispatcher at the Lynchburg bus station, checking on whether his rigs had rolled in on time. “With the receiver still in my hand, Garland rushed in with two pistols, the muzzles of which looked as big as barrels, and accused me of calling Farmer,” recalled Carey.
Watching the scene unfold was one of Carey’s cousins, who yelled “Garland!” The one-moment-diversion was all Carey needed to spring from his wooden chair and bolt through a doorway leading to a back window. He opened it and lunged through the opening, with Garland in hot pursuit. Garland rushed to the window, but Carey had vanished. The younger Falwell fired three rounds at the nearest tree as he cursed his brother and tried to scare him into the open. Garland squinted his eyes through the clouds of gunpowder in the night air, but there was no sign of Carey, who was crouched motionless behind another tree some thirty yards away.
Later, the violence came to a head:
Garland stepped through the door frame; the brothers weren’t fifteen feet from one another. Carey stepped backward, tripping over Warren’s desk as he pulled the trigger. At that range the shot hit Garland like a cannonball; the pellets from Carey’s gun would have no time to disburse. The blast jerked Garland’s body grotesquely backward into the door frame, one pistol tumbling from his hand down the stairs as his stocky body crashed to the floor. There was just smoke and silence—and a hole the size of a baseball just above Garland’s heart.
Carey’s life was irrevocably changed, and altered the course of the life of son, Jerry as well.
A young Jerry in 1950. (Image Source)
Jerry Falwell, Sr. was born in 1933, and had a twin brother, Gene. While dad Carey was not in the least religious, his wife Helen was a devout Baptist. She would bring the kids to Sunday services, but Jerry wasn’t much interested in church life outside of meeting pretty girls. Things changed after Carey’s death:
On an October evening in 1948, Carey caught pneumonia and died the next day. His sons, Jerry and Gene, were just fifteen.
When Falwell’s father died, an oppressive veil lifted around Helen’s passion for sharing her Christian faith. There had been a bitter tension between his mother’s vibrant spirituality and his father’s pugnacious hostility to it. Helen could now freely share her Baptist beliefs with her four children unhindered by her Godless husband.
Helen’s freedom of religion came at just the right time because Jerry was growing up to be a little hellion:
He hung out with a band of juvenile delinquents known as the Wall Gang, so named for a retaining wall where they would gather at after dark. Falwell was the gang’s “president.” He led attacks on rival gangs at the local roller rink, the scene of dozens of intergang clashes. Numbering about forty kids, Falwell’s followers spent their Sunday evenings drinking beer at the wall, hollering and singing late into the night.
He was a good student, though, and was a busy Dean’s List college freshman by 17. Yet, he still seeked more, and in January of 1952, he went up during an Altar Call at Park Avenue Baptist Church and accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior. And it was at this church that he would meet one of the church”s pianists, Macel Pate– who would be his wife. Dropping out of college, he enrolled in Bible Baptist College, a small fundamentalist seminary.
Macel Pate Falwell (Image Source)
His ambitions soon grew. Simply belonging to a church was not enough:
There could be no better way to worship God than to start a congregation, and no better reason to stay in Lynchburg, a town where everyone knew his name. There was another reason the idea made sense, though he did not like to think about it or really seek to understand it.
For all his athletic and academic abilities, Jerry Falwell suffered from an inferiority complex rooted in the class resentment that had simmered in his father. Falwell knew people feared Carey, but the elite of Lynchburg did not respect him. In Jerry Falwell’s mind, Lynchburg’s upper crust dismissed his father as a thug in a suit, a bumpkin who got lucky making a pile off booze and transportation, then lost it all and became a drunkard. Falwell knew he had grown up on the wrong side of town, but his father was no bumpkin, and neither was he. Hadn’t he been taken to school by a car and driver? Hadn’t his family ridden out the Depression in luxury, while most of the rest of Virginia, and the country, stood in breadlines?
Ahhh… salvation is great, but respectability? To be viewed as not just another member of the hoi polloi? Now that’s the ticket! At 22, he’d get his wish, and his teeny Thomas Road Baptist congregation of about 35 would move into a former Donald Duck Soda factory.
In spite of the dozens of churches in town, more than half of Lynchburg’s then-population of 54,000 was “unchurched.” He would find those In spite of the dozens of churches in town, more than half of Lynchburg’s then-population of 54,000 was “unchurched.” He would find those not yet saved by canvassing every block of the city, house-to-house. If he wound up prying away members of other churches who felt alienated from their own congregations, well, that was fine with him. It was a free-market approach to spirituality. His tactics would be no different than the aggressive, direct selling tactics of, say, an Electrolux vacuum salesman.
At Thomas Road, Falwell made sure to plug the Gospel of giving- to the church.
“Put God in your budget,” he commanded, telling them to place “tithing” at the top of their list of monthly expenses. Those who were slow adopting such spiritual math got a scolding. One Sunday morning at Thomas Road Baptist Church (TRBC) he laid it on thick:
Satan knows how to tempt you. The time comes around to pay your tithes and offerings. Financially, you’re behind on your payments and you don’t know how in the world you’re going to buy the groceries or meet the car payment. It’s school time, or time to buy a license. You face all kinds of excuses, bills and problems. You have God’s money, God’s tithe, and Satan tells you: “Why don’t you hold it back for a week or two. After all, you need that car to get to church. After all, the children are a responsibility. You’ll be able to pay your tithe back later.” And soon, you begin stealing from the Lord.
The church grew rapidly, with hundreds, then thousands of members. There were children’s ministries, music, and continual outreach to the community. Parishoners were informed of the evils of drinking and dancing, and the proper, Godly roles of husbands, wives and children. There was a right and wrong way to dress and wear your hair. And of course, there was a holy way to handle the changes of society- namely, the Civil Rights Movement. The best way, according to Fallwell throughout the 50s and 60s, was to keep the natural (Southern) way of life- Segregation. For this section, I’m going to turn to The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America by Francis FitzGerald:
“In the early years of his ministry Falwell was, like most fundamentalist pastors, a segregationist. In the fall of 1958 he preached a sermon (“Segregation or Integration, Which?”) against the implementation of Brown in which he rehearsed a number of the arguments being made in southern fundamentalist circles: integration was “the work of the Devil” that would lead to the destruction of the white race; “the true Negro” did not want integration, and “We see the hand of Moscow in the background.” At the time Governor Lindsay Almond Jr. of Virginia was resisting a court order to integrate public schools with the help of a group known as the Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberties. The following spring Falwell signed on as chaplain of the Defenders’ Lynchburg branch and spoke at one of its meetings—though the cause had been lost in January, when Almond had decided he had to comply with the court order.
Later Falwell denounced President Johnson’s civil rights legislation as “a terrible violation of human and property rights” and said “it should be considered civil wrongs rather than civil rights.” By the time the legislation was passed, years of sit-ins by local “black ministers had brought integration to much of Lynchburg, but in July 1964 one black and three white Lynchburg teenagers associated with a civil rights organization staged a “kneel-in” at the Thomas Road church and were evicted by the police”.
A year later, things must have hit a peak for Falwell, because he delivered a now infamous sermon that managed to trash Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and tied African Americans’ fight for equality with Soviet Communism. Because of course Negroes voting is exactly the same thing as Stalinism. Or something.
“Delivered on March 21, 1965, just after the Selma–Montgomery marches, the sermon “Ministers and Marchers” was Falwell’s first bid for regional attention, and in pamphlet form it was widely distributed in fundamentalist circles. In it Falwell began by questioning “the sincerity and non-violent intentions of some civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. James Farmer, and others, who are known to have left-wing associations.” He went on to say that the Communists were exploiting the tense situation and that the demonstrations were damaging race relations. Toward the end he talked abut the involvement of church leaders with “the alleged discrimination against the Negro in the South” and asked why they did not concern themselves instead with the problem of alcoholism since “there are almost as many alcoholics as there are Negroes.”
Much of the rest of sermon was devoted to the doctrine of separation:
“As far as the relationship of the church to the world, it can be expressed as simply as the three words which Paul gave to Timothy—“Preach the Word.” . . . Nowhere are we commissioned to reform the externals. We are not told to wage war against bootleggers, liquor stores, gamblers, murderers, prostitutes, racketeers, prejudiced persons or institutions, or any other existing evil as such. Our ministry is not reformation but transformation. While we are told to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” in the true interpretation, we have very few ties on this earth. We pay our taxes, . . . obey the laws of the land, and other things demanded of us by the society in which we live. But, at the same time, we are cognizant that our only purpose on this earth is know Christ and to make Him known. Believing the Bible as I do, I would find it impossible to stop preaching the pure saving gospel of Jesus Christ, and begin doing anything else—including fighting Communism, or participating in civil-rights reforms”.
Render unto Caesar his due, but it’s “impossible” to participate in Civil Rights, or “anything else”. And if Falwell had stuck to those guns, he’d probably have been a footnote in the Big Book of Evangelical Americana. But of course, in the following decade, everything changed, and Falwell stepped into the frontline of national politics, and neither it, or the American Church, would be the same. Stay tuned for Part 2.