Thousands attend Falwell funeral at church he founded in 1956

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

LYNCHBURG, Va. -- The Rev. Jerry Falwell was remembered by thousands Tuesday as a champion of conservative Christian values who fearlessly galvanized the religious right into a powerful force in American politics.

The funeral returned Falwell to his roots -- the Thomas Road Baptist Church, where he started as a young preacher in 1956 with just 35 parishioners in an old, abandoned soda bottling plant. More than 10,000 people attended the funeral, many forced into overflow seating.

"He was a champion of the fundamental values that we hold dear," fellow Virginia evangelist Pat Robertson said as he entered the sanctuary. "He stepped on some toes."

The event was mainly peaceful, though it drew a handful of protesters. Falwell's son, Jerry Falwell Jr., said Liberty University security personnel told the family Monday that there had been a threat but that it had been resolved with an arrest.

Police said a student at the evangelical university was arrested after they found homemade bombs in his car. While he planned to attend the funeral, authorities said, they did not believe he planned to disrupt the event by using them.

Falwell, 73, died a week ago after collapsing in his office at the university. His physician said Falwell had a heart condition and presumably died of a heart rhythm abnormality.

In many ways, he was the architect of his own farewell: He designated the speakers and picked out the music for the service, according to Mark DeMoss, his former executive assistant. The most prominent of those attending were leaders of the religious right; none of the Republican presidential candidates attended.

Speakers remembered Falwell the politician, who became a force in the Republican Party in the 1980s after starting the Moral Majority and organizing the conservative Christian vote to send Ronald Reagan to the White House.

"He said, 'I believe God has called me to confront the culture,' and did he ever confront it," said the Rev. Jerry Vines, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention who gave a sermon that ranged from personal stories about Falwell to Biblical references.

Falwell was outspoken in his condemnation of homosexuality and pornography, and his opposition to abortion led him to get involved in politics.

The Rev. Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, said he had been asked whether he agreed with Falwell. He drew applause with his response: "Every time he opened the Bible, I agreed with Jerry Falwell."

Even as a young preacher, Falwell broke new ground, launching television evangelism with the "Old Time Gospel Hour" in 1956. He built the Thomas Road Baptist congregation to an estimated 24,000 over the years by knocking on doors and listening to the people who answered.

To the end, he stayed in touch with his congregation.

Wendell Walker, who moved from Macon, Ga., 33 years ago to attend the Liberty Baptist College that preceded the university, said he had helped Falwell with baby dedication ceremonies two days before his death.

"All the parents were coming forward to dedicate their babies," Walker said. "I'd hand him the cards."

Walker said he "just loved helping a godly man."

Falwell made careful preparations for a leadership transition after his death of both the church and Liberty University to his sons. Jerry Falwell Jr. is already vice chancellor at Liberty, the evangelical university Falwell founded in 1971. Another son, Jonathan Falwell, leads Thomas Road Baptist.

The White House was represented by Tim Goeglein, who told the crowd Falwell was "a great friend" of the administration. Among Virginia Republican leaders at the service were Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, Attorney General Bob McDonnell and former U.S. Sen. George Allen.

Other conservative leaders attending included former Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer, and Paige Patterson, president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

"So many in politics aren't recognizing the social and moral issues in our society," said Roy Moore, the Alabama judge who gained a national following with his unsuccessful fight to display a Ten Commandments monument. "People like Jerry Falwell were bold enough to speak out."

More than 33,000 people had viewed Falwell's body over four days as it lay in repose.

A private burial was planned on the grounds of Liberty University near a former mansion where Falwell's office was located.

Regarding the arrested student, authorities said they didn't know what he planned to do with the bombs. Campbell County authorities arrested the freshman Monday night on charges of manufacturing an explosive device after they found several homemade bombs in the trunk of his car, Maj. Steve Hutcherson said.

Mark David Uhl, 19, had told a family member that he had made explosive devices and that he planned to attend the funeral, Hutcherson said.

It wasn't immediately known whether Uhl had a lawyer.

A group of Liberty students had staged a counter-protest to the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, which sent about a dozen protesters who claimed Falwell was a friend of gays. The church has picketed soldiers' burials, claiming the deaths are God's punishment for a nation that harbors gays. It was unclear whether the student was involved with the counter-protest.

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