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loving Jerry Falwell

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.

  1. December 30, 2012 at 9:02 pm

    I had the pleasure of knowing Jerry. I went to school with his kids and knew Jonathan pretty well. Jerry’s memory was incredible. I had moved away from Lynchburg for a few years and then spent my first year of college at Liberty. I ran into him on campus one day and said hello and he remembered me and asked how my parents were doing. (He had attended Baptist Bible College with them.) He was a very warm and loving person and nothing at all similar to the descriptions his opponents made of him. He was also extremely generous, having given away full, 4-year scholarships to a waitperson at a restaurant as well as some kids who had accidentally hit a baseball into his yard. Like those people, I was once on the receiving end of his generosity. My father had become pastor of a church just outside of Lynchburg and Jerry had come over to have lunch with him. During their time together Jerry asked my dad where he planned to send my two brothers and me to school. My parents were making a very modest living and were planning to send us to public school. Jerry would have none of that and offered free rides to Lynchburg Christian Academy for the three of us. Jerry’s heart was bigger than his personality.

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