One of my friends recently moved back to Lynchburg after about a decade away and described the relationship between Liberty and Lynchburg as follows: “nearly everyone in town either loves the ministry or hates it; if you mention it to someone you find out pretty quickly which side they’re on.” Unfortunately that’s something that was also true of Jerry; he wasn’t someone who invited a lot of nuance and ambivalence, and he was such a strong personality and so quotable that whichever side you were on he gave you frequent and ample reinforcement.
I guess that puts me in the small and mostly quiet minority of people who loved Jerry but occasionally found him difficult to love.
First of all Jerry was sort of a freak of nature. He apparently had a photographic memory; so far as I know he never used a teleprompter or spoke from notes. He was a larger than life personality and a natural politician. He had two characteristics that many successful politicians had: an encyclopedic memory for names, faces, and personal stories, and the ability to speak to one person and make them feel like they were the only person in the room. He was apparently a genuinely warm and happy person.
He had an eye for talent and apparently didn’t mind if people who worked for him succeeded. He was personally loyal to a fault and valued loyalty in others. He was personally genuine and sincere. See for example Larry Flynt’s comments about him here:
He was something of a natural in the pulpit; he had a great preaching voice and made good use of it. He had a good sense of what his audience would understand. He was without doubt a man of vision and not afraid of risk.
People who knew him personally say he was a man of great faith and a man of prayer. One of my spiritual heroes knew him personally and spent a lot of time around him, on the clock and off, throughout the Seventies and early Eighties, and said he learned a lot about prayer from watching Jerry. He was by all accounts faithful to his wife, and I have to believe after seeing many high-profile preachers raise children who were hellions that it’s to Jerry’s credit that none of his three children are divorced.
Finally, Jerry was on occasion willing to admit he was wrong. Maybe not as publicly and thoroughly as we all might have liked, but he wasn’t as strict an adherent to the “never apologize, never explain” as many of his peers.
In a later post I’ll take up the less comfortable topic of the things that made him difficult to love. This probably won’t happen tomorrow.
Sumner Wemp was Vice President for Spiritual Development at Liberty in the late Eighties; I didn’t realize this at the time, but he had not only been involved in the ministry since almost the beginning, but he left in the late Eighties, about the time I left.
Here’s Wemp’s own timeline; he doesn’t break down his history neatly, but he was at Southeastern Bible College for just a couple of years (1969-1971) and he was at Liberty for 17 years, so he must have left Liberty in 1988 or 1989. Not only does he have a website with sermons available for download, there’s also a blog, which appears to be a fan site, since the authorial voice refers to Wemp in the third person.
We’re sorry to hear that his wife of sixty-plus years, Celeste, died earlier this month.
Wemp was something of a puzzle for me during my days at Liberty. He was clearly very important to the ministry, having been there since Liberty started, and he was the walking example of the preferred way for Liberty students and graduates to do evangelism. He was also full of war stories of how he met a stranger on a plane and before they landed in Charlotte or wherever the person was praying the Sinner’s Prayer. Unfortunately during my time there I heard several stories about him having run-ins with students, in which he came across as brittle, angry, authoritarian, and generally unpleasant. He didn’t appreciate students asking questions in his class; he had a reputation for dressing people down in public for relatively minor infractions.
I never encountered his wrath personally; I once made the mistake of bumping a loose railing during a chapel service where Wemp was speaking, causing the railing support to fall into its socket and make a loud noise; Wemp gave a look in my general direction that suggested that whoever the culprit was he’d interrupted God himself. To be fair it was a loud noise, and I may have caught him on a bad day. Regardless, it left me with the impression that at least at that moment his sunny persona was a patina of joy over some sort of deep smoldering anger. I don’t know what he was going through at the time, and he was in the waning days of his time at Liberty by then.
Most everyone at Liberty of a certain vintage had nothing but good things to say about Sumner Wemp; I have a hard time squaring what I heard second-hand with what I saw first-hand.
Two California municipalities are investigating the relationship between Fox News on-air personality Glenn Beck and retail precious metals concern Goldline. There’s an adequately good if gaudy diagram of the accusations against Beck/Goldline here.
Beck is being accused of explicitly encouraging his viewers to call Goldline and trust them, as well as telling them a scary story where inflation eats their buying power and the Federal government confiscates most gold in private hands (except, conveniently, something similar to but not the same as what Goldline is selling). Meanwhile, Goldline’s selling “numismatic coins” at a substantial markup over the melt value of the coins. That’s the accusation, and that’s what you’ll see in the diagram linked above.
This is similar to but not the same as what I’ve heard on at least a couple of Christian talk shows (CrossTalk America, News & Views with Dr. Larry Bates & Chuck Bates) where the host will have the head of a company that sells gold come on the air and talk about pending hyperinflation, or where the host will tell a scary story about pending hyperinflation and economic collapse while the host is pushing financial services and/or the ads that run during the program are for companies selling gold in various forms.
I’ll be interested to see what comes of this; I’m sure there’s a line here where the host’s responsibilities stop and the listener’s or viewer’s responsibilities start, but I can’t say I know where it is. Caveat emptor!
Liberty University Inc. has filed a civil suit against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, challenging the provision that it requires citizens and residents of the United States to purchase health insurance for themselves and their dependents by January 1, 2014 or be subject to civil penalty. This is probably old news, but I hadn’t heard it before.
The suit is named Liberty University Inc. et al v. Geithner et al and was filed in the Federal District Court for the Western District of Virginia. It is one of twelve or thirteen civil suits challenging the act; according to the analysis (PDF) by Paul Benjamin Litton at the Thomas More Society, Liberty’s suit is one of four challenging the act on the basis of a claim that it requires funding of abortion and so constitutes a violation of the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.
Anyone who wants to follow the progress of the suit can do so here at Justia.com.
I don’t fault Liberty for having a music code per se; many schools intentionally attempt to foster a particular atmosphere on campus, and I suppose the music code contributed to this atmosphere directly. During the time I was on campus I got the impression that the school was meant to feel a particular way to fit the expectations of an audience that was never named; in retrospect this audience was probably fundamentalist pastors of a certain age. The last thing Jerry wanted was for one of his fellow pastors to call his office and break ties with him because the pastor had visited Liberty (with or without a bunch of prospective Liberty freshmen in tow) and been offended by something he saw or heard.
This generic thought experiment — that someone might see us behaving a particular way and have a particular reaction — defined fundamentalism as a subculture as much as any of our other distinctives. We didn’t go to movies at the mall for fear someone might think we were there to see an R-rated movie. We didn’t eat (or work) in restaurants that served alcohol for fear someone would see us there and think we were getting drunk. The Scriptural basis for this was our interpretation of Paul the Apostle’s instructions in 1 Thessalonians 5:22, as rendered in the King James Version: “Abstain from all appearance of evil.” Better translations of this verse would have saved us a lot of grief: “Abstain from every form of evil” (NASB) or “Avoid every kind of evil” (NIV).
But in our case this nameless observer went from generalized other to real life named person often enough to matter a lot. In fact, one of the churches I attended within the last ten years was the source of one of these stories. Our pastor was on a college tour with the senior class from the Christian school the church sponsored, and they visited among other places Wheaton College (Illinois) and Liberty. When they were on the Wheaton campus the pastor stopped a passing professor and asked him “Do you believe the Bible is the Word of God?” and the professor responded “That depends on what you mean.” When the group reached Liberty and he did the same thing, the Liberty professor said “Yes.” And that was a major part of the justification for the pastor choosing Liberty for his daughter and encouraging the other seniors from the school to attend Liberty as well.
I really have no idea how frequently similar incidents were happening on the Liberty campus; I’m sure some of them cast Liberty in a favorable light and others not so much. And I’ve gotten indications that Jerry’s if not Liberty’s generalized other was pretty well-defined. Dirk Smillie claims Jerry acquired the Sword of the Lord mailing list from John R. Rice late in Rice’s life; this gave Jerry a “generalized other” of roughly 120,000 fundamentalists, many of them pastors. Needless to say not all of them sent students to Liberty, but I suspect it’s safe to say that much of what we did at Liberty was meant to be safe for their consumption.
By the time I arrived at Liberty there was enough Christian pop music in enough different genres to make the question of what was permissible on campus a sticky question. It was nearly as simple as “Sandy Patti is, Amy Grant isn’t,” but not yet: Grant’s divorce and thoroughly secular duet with former Chicago frontman Peter Cetera were still in the future. The question of whether U2 was Christian or not was still murky, but the answer was still typically “no;” if you’d asked the question after Boy and October the answer might have been a tentative “yes,” but The Unforgettable Fire, with its conflation of Jesus and Martin Luther King Jr made the argument a whole lot harder. And of course once Rattle and Hum came along and Bono took an explicit poke at The Old Time Gospel Hour the question was no longer worth asking.
The Word stable of artists were for the most part acceptable, since that included thoroughly safe Carman, Bill Gaither Trio, Gaither Vocal Band, The Imperials, Rich Mullins, Russ Taff, Amy Grant, Sandy Patti, etc. Steve Taylor was on Sparrow, and Stryper was on Enigma, of all places, and they were definitely in a gray area. The Bob Dylan Christian albums were out; so far as I know nobody was listening to Larry Norman, so he wasn’t an issue.
The worship wars were still in the future, since for the most part Maranatha! Music was still confined to California and the technology that made singing along with a screen (the screens themselves and Microsoft PowerPoint) was still unreliable. People showed up at Liberty having sung songs with very simple lyrics and arrangements appropriate for guitar at youth group or church camp, but they rarely appeared alongside hymns. The song structures that dominated praise choruses were still mostly confined to charismatic churches, and as I mentioned before in 1985 and 1986 charismatics were still officially unwelcome at Liberty.
Liberty’s official music fit somewhere on a continuum between chorale (think Christian glee club or talented church youth choir) on one end and Southern Gospel just past the other. The Sounds of Liberty were the smallest and highest-profile of these groups; they often sang at Thomas Road and occasionally traveled with Jerry. Unlike the other school-sponsored singing groups they did not offer tryouts; Sounds were recruited from Liberty feeder churches and feeder schools. I didn’t realize the significance of it at the time, but the bass in the 1985 edition of the Sounds was from Anchorage Baptist Temple in Anchorage, AK and had been discovered while David Randlett, leader of the group and program sponsor, had been scouting another singer. The Sounds also occasionally recruited singers from e.g. YouthQuest, Smite, or Light, other singing groups that were more like traditional chorales. These groups had roots in larger groups that had traveled with Jerry way back when, such as the Youth Aflame Singers, the LBC Chorale, and if memory serves the I Love America Singers. At some point in the Seventies it became impractical for Jerry to travel with a dozen or so singers and the groups were slimmed down. I suspect but don’t know that when Jerry got a plane the days of the LBC Chorale were numbered.
So far as I know the highest profile singers ever to come out of the Liberty singing groups were the members of dcTalk; I believe they were all members of YouthQuest.
Only a handful of Jerry’s sermons are so well-known that people refer to them by their titles. One is “Ministers and Marches” (1965), which is cited repeatedly as evidence that Jerry changed his mind from a separatist point of view when he became involved in politics. Another is “The Myth of Global Warming” (2007) which is one of the few sermons mentioned by name in Gina Welch’s book In the Land of Believers. The former is not available online in any form, which is unfortunate given the tiny fragments that are quoted every time it is mentioned.
This is one reason I love YouTube.
This is a classic clip from the Seventies-era Old Time Gospel Hour show. It opens with a balcony shot of the congregation with the Sue Willmington oval inset, then shifts to a tight shot of Jerry telling an invitation story and transitions to a shot of Jerry in profile without Sue inset.
Those yellow choir robes didn’t last; they switched to a TV-friendlier blue in the Seventies. The platform was reconfigured in the Nineties, putting a gap in the choir behind Jerry, arranging the throne-like chairs behind the pulpit in a semi-circle and giving the stage a feel that was more like a TV show set and less like a small Baptist church grown to fit.
I’d love to know who that is walking behind Jerry, sitting down, and arranging his glasses and hair. Those gestures could be Elmer Towns, but the posture and the ear look wrong.
There were three things that made Liberty a tough place to go to school in the mid-Eighties, but they both came down to one word: time. First there was the list of courses required as part of the Religion core. Then there were required meetings. Then there were the Christian Service requirements.
Liberty requires nearly a minor’s worth of Bible courses, and there’s no way to test out of any of them. There’s two semesters each of Old Testament Survey, New Testament Survey, and Systematic Theology. Then there’s Evangelism and a course’s worth of in-class Christian Service, which was required and took three class hours a week for a full semester. That’s seven or eight courses, nearly enough for a minor, none of them listed as being above sophomore level. Fortunately, with the exception of the Theology series, anyone who attended a Christian high school (or even a decent Sunday School) could just about sleepwalk through them. I had the privilege of taking the Old Testament Series along with several hundred other freshman under Ed Hindson, just before he left the ministry for ten-plus years elsewhere. Evangelism was historically a sinecure for ministry veteran C. Sumner Wemp, who taught old-school tract-and-stranger-encounter street evangelism, but my freshman year there were too many sections for him to teach, so one got pushed off onto Terry Miethe, who taught something called Lifestyle Evangelism. I missed the golden opportunity to take this with Miethe, and had to catch one of the non-Wemp sections another year.
Required meetings included chapel for roughly 75 minutes three times a week, plus Sunday morning church services for students on campus, plus prayer group meetings one night a week, and the aforementioned Christian Service. That was for the rank and file; student leaders including resident assistants (RAs) had additional required meetings, and prayer group leaders, who were typically putting in a tour of duty while angling for an RA position, had additional prep time as well. It’s my suspicion that this system tended to favor students who were headed for more relationship-oriented careers like pastors and businessmen over accountants and lab sciences, just because of the time and skill set requirements. I did occasionally hear of a Chemistry major who was an RA, but I didn’t hear of many of them.
Christian Service (CSER) represented a nominal three-hour-a-week requirement. There was a vast mosaic of opportunities to fill this requirement that corresponds to some of the clubs and service organizations a student might encounter on the campus of a state school, sort of; most of these opportunities benefited the ministry in some way. I managed to fill most of my requirements in the tutoring center, which turned out to be a plum assignment; I met interesting people, I didn’t have to do anything that got me out of my comfort zone, and the time was bounded, so there was no chance of it turning into slave labor. I envied some of the people who got to count things they were already doing as part of their scholarship against their CSER requirements, but most of them (football players, singers on traveling teams, RAs) ended up putting in far more than three hours a week.
I managed to slip through a loophole that let me work at the tutoring center for two years, my second and third year, doing “upper level” CSER, but I still had to fill in what was essentially a sophomore-level CSER requirement my senior year. By some quirk of the CSER numbering system I was able to fill this gap by signing up to pray for ministry prayer requests an hour a week before the Sunday evening service at Thomas Road. This was one of the “most Liberty” of all the experiences I had during my time there, and worth a post by itself. When years later I encountered Henri Nouwen’s mother’s warning against losing one’s faith by being a public Christian this was part of what prepared me to hear it.
Elmer Towns has a bunch of the books he’s written on his website in PDF form, available for free download. Of the 76 items there, a handful are study guides, and he has Church Aflame available in two parts, leaving roughly 69 books. Of those, by my count 19 or 20, or about 28%, are devoted to various aspects of church growth: church growth techniques, Sunday School techniques, studies of fast-growing churches, historical revivals, etc. And it turns out I was wrong about him being outside the mainstream of the Church Growth Movement: his Practical Encyclopedia of Church Growth is replete with references to Donald McGavran, former missionary to India and founder of the movement. Oddly enough I didn’t find any references to management guru Peter Drucker; it’s entirely possible that I didn’t look in the right place, or it may be that Drucker’s influence in the movement has been overstated.
Regardless, Towns’s influence on Jerry Falwell, on Thomas Road, and on Liberty has been huge; he’s the head of the School of Religion (not the seminary; that’s another part of the organization chart), was one of the founders of the college, and was one of Jerry’s right-hand men for years. He was rumored (unconfirmed and probably false), along with Harold Willmington, to write Jerry’s sermons. During my time there in the Eighties, while Jerry Jr was in law school and Jonathan was still an undergraduate at Liberty, it was rumored (unconfirmed) that if Jerry had died suddenly the ministry would have passed into the hands of four people who would have acted as regents, more or less: Towns, Ed Dobson, singer Don Norman, and Harold Willmington. Of those four, Norman left in 1989 or so to return to singing gospel music with The Harvesters Quartet, and Dobson left in 1987 to follow M. R. DeHaan as pastor of Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, MI. Towns and Willmington are still at Liberty.
I hesitate to use a term like “first-rate mind” to describe Towns or Willmington because I’m not in a position to judge, really, but in every anecdote I ever heard about either one of them they came off as smart, quick, well-prepared, etc. I don’t know how Jerry found them but they were great finds and have made huge contributions to the ministry over a period of more than forty years.