*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 11th of August 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.
Well, well, well… I tend to steer clear of the televangelists on this program- not because I don’t think they play an important role in the history of modern American Christianity but rather because I find it difficult to do so in this format without sounding like a jerk or mocking sometimes obvious hucksters.
Sure, we have had the Dr. Gene Scott All-Stars for four years, but partly because I think he was goofier than a threat. I haven’t done a show on the likes of Benny Hinn or Robert Tilton because they seem like parodies of the faith.
But today’s character is more historically significant than a TBN shyster but perhaps a little more troubling (in some ways) than a Dr. Gene Scott All-Star.
It was on this, the 11th of August in 1933, that Jerry Laymon Falwell Sr was born. By the time of his death in 2007, there was no more significant member of the Religious Right in America.
The Falwell family traces its roots back to the 1660s in Virginia, where Jerry was born. His Grandfather and father were both well-known locals as rowdy atheists. His father was a successful businessman who also owned a restaurant that became a center for a local polyamorous community. He was also a bootlegger who killed his own brother.
So you might imagine the shock to Jerry’s mother (a Christian) when Jerry decided to become a Christian in 1952. It may have had something to do with the church’s pianist (whom Jerry would later marry). Within two months of his conversion, he decided to become a minister. In 1956 he founded the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia. The small church would grow into one of the biggest churches in America, and the church’s Bible Academy would become Liberty University, today the largest Christian college in the nation.
He also started the Old Time Gospel Hour- a radio and then television program that helped usher in the golden age of American televangelism. [This was modeled after Charles Fuller's “Old Time Revival Hour”- there was a peculiar fascination with the “old time” version of things in the 20th century].
But unlike many televangelists, he was not marred by scandal. At least the kind of naughtiness that brought down the likes of Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker.
The scandals associated with Falwell’s name were more of a political nature- which is ironic in that Falwell’s ministry initially swore off political involvement. In 1965 he preached a sermon against political activism. But by the 1970s, he saw what he would call a “moral majority” across theological lines that could do battle with what he saw as an increasingly secular country. This “Moral Majority” would hold “I Love America” campaigns that blended the sacred and secular.
He became something of a punching bag in some circles- he sued Larry Flynt, claimed that “Tinky winky” the purple tele tubby was gay, and after 9/11, claimed that it was the fault of “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians … the ACLU (and) People for the American Way”. He would retract the latter statement, and other bombastic statements often made with the flair of a professional wrestler.
And it was that swagger that made him popular in the culture wars- even his opponents admired him for providing a constant sparring partner and one who seemed to recognize the playacting nature of much of it (if you are familiar with the world of professional wrestling this is kayfabe- an important concept in wrestling, religion, and politics wherein exaggeration and falsehoods are accepted as a kind of theatre).
I do not want to minimize the troubling racist policies that his colleagues had. Still, as one professor at the University has suggested, it was “culture-wide in central Virginia at the time, unfortunately. Policies at the school just seemed to reflect the mood of what society was”.
Falwell’s son would take over the University at his father's death- but that’s a story for a different time and a different podcast. Falwell Sr died in 2007, born on this day in 1933 was 73 years old.
The Last Word for today comes from the lectionary for today from Psalm 80:
Hear us, Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock. You who sit enthroned between the cherubim, shine forth
before Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh.
Awaken your might;
come and save us.
Restore us, O God; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 11th of August 2022, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man with nothing against Tinky Winky but wonders why Dipsy is always so stubborn. He is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man who believes in a “God who isn’t short of cash, mister.” I’m Dan van Voorhis
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.