Dirk Smillie's Falwell Inc.
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Thu Jun 02, 2011 at 11:02:56 AM EST
Forbes magazine's own Dirk Smillie spend over a year doing research on the life of Jerry Falwell.  Why a business magazine reporter would devote such an effort to Falwell might be puzzling.  Reading the book answers the question since the economy of Lynchburg, Virginia centers around the force of spending delivered to the area.  Jerry Falwell's financial theories often reflected the legacy of one of the regional Confederate military leaders.  The leader, Jubal Early, bluffed his way through a potential loss to Northern troops.  The Baptist minister from Lynchburg often bluffed his way through difficult financial circumstances and has left an impact not only in the Virginia town, but on the nation's politics.
The book begins explaining how Falwell grew up the son of an alcoholic father who suffered from the guilt of killing his own brother.  Jerry Falwell grew up rough and had little encouragement to attend church until he courted his future wife.  This led to his conversion and decision to enter the ministry.  He then spent a short term at a Bible College in Missouri until returning home to help split a church he was a member of.  The church then called Jerry as pastor and the rest is history.  Falwell helped grow the church into one the nation's mega churches.  He was at the right place at the right time.  Historic seminaries on the East Coast had lost their influence and contacts with most churches.  There was a desire to have a new place to train potential ministers.  Falwell was able to tap into this vast market.
     Baptist churches grew in astounding ways during the time Jerry begin his ministry.  He focused on going door to door and led his church to visit every person in the area and invite them to Thomas Road church.  His focus was on the local church, fundamentalism, and the gospel.  He was not interested in politics, either local or national.  That would change.
     Smillie claims Jerry Falwell died weighing 320 pounds.  He had just finished a three-egg omelet with links on the side for breakfast that fateful morning.  He lived a high stressed life, traveled, stayed on the phone and lobbied endlessly until the end.  The latter part of his life was filled with the stress of how to pay the huge amount of debt the church and university had incurred.  Liberty University, which began with students sleeping on old army cots, had begun to drain the finances of the Falwell kingdom.  Later on, in direct irony, the University would bale out the enterprises through its online classes.  Again Falwell was at the right place at the right time.  The conservative theology or some might suggest politics, delivered big donors over the years.
     Jerry's icon was Ronald Reagan. When Jerry died his sons had Reagan's coffin rest delivered for their father's casket to rest upon.  Several Reagan items were on display in Falwell's office.  I recall several times Jerry claimed that Reagan was the greatest President and at times I thought he meant the greatest American the nation ever produced.  Falwell was known to even work with cult leader Rev. Moon to promote conservative politics which seemed to trump conservative theology later on in the reign of the Virginia mega pastor.
     Early on in his ministry Falwell was a segregationist.  He once called Bishop Desmond Tutu a phony.  Jerry blamed 9/11 on liberals and church state separation advocates, claiming God got back at us through withdrawing His protection. The starting of church owned schools was one way Falwell dealt with Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court rulings on desegregation.  Jerry believed in the curse of Ham theory which stated that blacks were cursed by God to be servants to whites.  He was vocal in condemning pastors in the sixties who marched against segregation suggesting some were in bed with Communists.  In 2007, the preacher stated ministers concerned about global warming were merely being used by Satan.
     Falwell wooed his wife much in the same way he got his church.  He took them from someone else.  As a student in a Bible college Jerry was friends with wife Macel's boyfriend at the time.  The boyfriend kept writing letters that never got delivered to his true love.  They were not delivered because Jerry secretly threw them away.  
     Keeping Liberty University afloat proved to be a full time job. To do so Jerry often used church offerings, support from the state, and appeals to the secular public.  One scheme used was to offer a free trip to Israel to every pastor who enrolled five students at Liberty.
     Jerry often credited the devil when he had financial problems with TV time, church and University debts.  He often over spent and "ledgers were a mess."  Creating a crisis for his viewing audience often was his method of fundraising. Bondholders at times were asked to settle for less than promised and there were times where Jerry could not find a bank to give him any more loans.  If it were not for a few big backers who bailed out Falwell and the University the entire enterprise would have been repossessed.  What makes this legacy strange is Jerry's admiration of Ronald Reagan. Reagan cashed in on the anti- government spending movement lamenting loans that were not needed and purchasing items when the government did not have the money.  Reagan's legacy was one of restraint on spending.  Ironically, Falwell never lived by the principles of the man he so admired.  Smillie said Falwell spent and borrowed money like a liberal Democrat.  Once the SEC even said that Falwell had engaged in deceit in his business dealings.
     Raising money according to Smillie often resulted in using wedge issues for Falwell.  Jerry would often claim that feminist movements and homosexual rights were linked to communism.  The Southern fear that social movements like integration had communist backing played well in the circles that supported Jerry and the university.  I once heard Jerry claim that it isn't bad press if they spell your name right.  Publicity, even some that caused mainstream folks to blush, often resulted in more influence for the faithful who followed the Virginian.
    One popular financial disaster was the attempt to takeover Jim Bakker's theme park.  The story behind the story was Falwell did not know much about Bakker.  Bakker was angry at Jimmy Swaggart and feared Swaggart would take the park for his own purposes.  Falwell tapped his followers to bail out the real estate but the debt was too huge and the effort proved a failure.  I still recall seeing Jerry with his suit on sliding down the huge water slide as a fundraising bet.
     Falwell once lied about gifts he received in one of his many bailouts.  He claimed two friends gave the money but it actually came from Rev. Sun Myung Moon.  Moon, the cult leader was not the kind of benevolent deep pockets most Falwell followers would have appreciated.  Though Falwell would befriend Moon through the money and the Moon newspaper endorsements, he had no compassion for Bill Clinton.  Right in the middle of one of his money shortfalls he found the funds to put together the movie named The Clinton Chronicles. The movie accused Clinton of doing just about everything short of murdering O.J.'s wife.  One item of interest was the anonymous journalist who had accused the President of several murders. In the shadows of the scene in the movie the "journalist" stated he feared for his life. It turned out this "journalist" was actually the producer of the film.  In the film Jerry assured the "journalist" he would be praying for his safety implying the Clinton's might try to kill him.
    The pastor was consulted by the President concerning an appointment to the Supreme Court.  National politicians often sought out Jerry's blessing and he was given credit for swaying national elections. On the local level he was not very successful.  Candidates he backed lost.  There was an attempt by the son to use the University to elect local city council members to sway the city to comply with Liberty University wishes.   This drew some legal issues which the son who is a lawyer labored to make amends.  The legacy continues.  After Jerry's death his two sons met with Mitt Romney in a private audience with Mitt seeking their blessing. Rudolph Giuliani and Mike Huckabee both had contact with the university and its leadership seeking to sway its block of endorsements.
     One popular feature in the life of Falwell was the lawsuit against Larry Flynt the porn producer.  The two actually set up a series of engagements to debate each other in front of paying audiences.  The monetary benefit to both of these participants proved to be fruitful by the effort.  Again any publicity to Falwell was a good thing.
      In the book Jerry is portrayed as a likeable prankster who was a personable leader.  He was honored and loved by a church and its university.  One of Jerry's fears is that the school he started might one day become like many of the rest of them.  That is, they turned away from what they were created to be.  Jerry dreamed that one day the school would produce lawyers who would one day staff the powerful government agencies he so feared earlier in his life.  
     A couple of ironies on Falwell fall from the pages of the book. Falwell, who never spent much time at any college, devoted the majority of the end of his life trying to create a major university.  The man who so relished the legacy of Reagan, spent the latter portion of his life dealing with his own out of control spending even seeking federal bailouts to survive.

Ladder/latter; Fiances/finances. Yikes.

by trog69 on Thu Jun 02, 2011 at 05:43:08 PM EST

I KNOW Jerry did not split the Park Avenue Baptist Church. The church split because Pastor Paul Donnelson had an affair with a woman who was not his wife. Paul Donnelson was the son of Fred Donnelson, the Director of World Missions for the Baptist Bible Fellowship and an instructor at Baptist Bible College (BBC). It was easier for the Fellowship leaders to direct attention for the real reason the church split from Donnelson to Jerry even though he was the fair haired boy during his time at the school.

There was  a group of church members who were upset with Donnelson's actions and they did split off and ask Jerry to become the new church pastor.

Donnelson left Lynchburg and became the pastor of a church in Tennessee where he again got in trouble for messing around with another woman who was not his wife.

As for Jerry stealing Macel from her boyfriend I can't comment. I do know that when I first met Jerry at BBC in Springfield MO, (school year 55/56) he was head over heels over Macel. He had many opportunities to be with other young women - especially in KC - but to my knowledge he never accepted their offers unlike a couple of other male students who traveled to KC with us from time to time and were engaged to their girlfriends.

He was always ambitious and energetic. During his first two years at BBC he asked to teach a Sunday School of 10 year old boys. In no time at all he had rounded up over 60 boys to attend his class.

Jerry and I became good friends at BBC and drove every weekend to Kansas City where he taught a class of college age young people at the Kansas City Baptist Temple and I worked at the Blue Ridge Baptist Temple in the suburbs.  We had lunch and dinner together almost every school day.

As for his tenure at BBC, which at the time was a 3 year school, Jerry attended for 2 years, took a year off and returned for the 55/56 year which would be his graduating year.  As I recall he did drop out the last term and did not graduate.

Jerry did a lot of things but he did not split the Park Ave church.

As has been told here in Talk2Action about my successful lawsuit against Jerry and as gay man I certainly had no love for him after our BBC years but even scoundrels should have the record straight about them.

by JerrySloan on Thu Jun 02, 2011 at 05:47:54 PM EST

Thanks Jerry for update.  Smillie left out the story you have about the affair. I would be interested in your take on the book.  I did get the picture of a Falwell that was easy to like.  Last night I saw the Tammy Bakker story and Tammy claims Jerry sneaked up on them and stabbed them in the back.  I tend to view Falwell's account on the story as more believable when Jerry just called her looney and refused to respond.
    Thanks Trog for corrections...busy morning and I had wanted to post this yesterday without correcting as I should.  

by wilkyjr on Fri Jun 03, 2011 at 09:07:49 AM EST

I don't doubt the weight reference at all. In fact, that's perhaps on the short side by two or three stones. He was never small but had gotten enormous.

As for his charades locally and beyond, he was part huskster, part shylock, part shyster, always an egotist and always looking out for Numero Uno. He was a schemer par excellence, never to be trusted. His "crisis management"  was not diffrerent than most other fundies who created a difficulty for solicitation purposes & furthering his own empire. Religion gets a bad name from the likes of these, a major character flaw of the American experience. And The Moral Majority may have been short-lived when its impact had become too hard to manage & unweildy, but that did not mean he had lost his interest in crossing that church-state line. The public scrutiny that was focused on him through that medium was hardly positive. His passing began a changing of the guard within cultic fundamentalism that is still underway, inevitable via aging but still worth crisis manipulation to the younger turks on the move. Michele Bachmann's relationship to Oral Roberts in this political season cannot help but refocus & re-engage Falwell's efforts at legacy too.

by achbird65 on Sun Jun 05, 2011 at 01:22:22 PM EST

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