The following is an excerpt of an interview of Dr. Falwell by Brenda Clements of the Lynchburg News and Advance.
What is one of your earliest memories?
My twin brother, Gene, and I were born August 11, 1933, when our father, Carey Falwell, was 40, and already a very busy and successful entrepreneur. Our mother, Helen, was 38. We were the last of five children, following Virginia, Rosha and Lewis. Rosha died in 1931 at age 10, before Gene and I were born. But, Virginia was 16 years older than the twins and Lewis was eight years older. We were unexpected and became instant celebrities in the Falwell family and circle of friends. When Gene and I were very young, I remember Dad taking us riding in his car, almost daily, to show us off to all of his business associates and friends. Long before we began attending school at Mountain View Elementary School on Campbell Avenue in Fairview Heights, I remember our parents and Virginia almost fighting daily over who was going to "have us today". It was fun while it lasted being the "special" members of a very close family. Unfortunately, the novelty began wearing off as Gene and I grew older and we were soon reduced to the status of "normal" family members.
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Jerry Falwell in the 1950 Brookville Buzzer Yearbook.
Picture thanks to James Wilson, BHS Class of 1953
Where did you go to school and what are some of
your memories of the school?
I was enrolled in Mountain View Elementary School (MVES) in September of 1940. In those days, Campbell County public schools had no kindergarten and you could not enter the first grade until you were seven. Mr. Thomas Finch was the school principal and taught me in the seventh grade. Mr. Finch has been my life-long friend and he passed only recently at a very advanced age. I conducted his funeral. I immediately fell in love with school. I skipped the second grade by the recommendation of the teacher and Mr. Finch, and landed in the third grade taught by Miss Ida Claire Garbee. Among other things, she taught me how to behave in class. This was my first encounter with corporal punishment, in the form of a willow switch, administered by Miss Garbee while I was standing in front of the class with my pants legs pulled up. There was no court of appeal and no ACLU. They would never have dared to challenge Miss Garbee. Sadly, Mom then repeated the corporal punishment when I arrived home, having received a phone call from Miss Garbee. As I look back, I consider Miss Garbee to be one of my finest teachers ever. There were many other fond memories at MVES.
I attended Brookville High School (BHS) for grades 8-11. There was no 12th grade in Campbell County high schools when I graduated in 1950. I was fullback and captain of the football team. I was also editor-in-chief of the school newspaper and graduated as valedictorian. The records will also show that my third grade mischief had somewhat escalated by the time I was in high school, resulting in my not being allowed to deliver the valedictorian address.
We went through two or three principals during my four years at BHS. Some have blamed me and my buddies for this attrition.
My fondest memory in high school was getting to know our assistant principal, William E. Wright, who served at BHS for many years, retiring decades later. Besides being an excellent teacher and disciplinarian, he was the nearest thing to a pastor that I had known intimately until I became a Christian in my second year at Lynchburg College. He loved all the students.... but especially the "active" ones, like me. He gave us his personal and loving attention. He saw to it personally that we finished our high school career. And 30 years later, BHS Assistant Principal William E. Wright called me and asked me to be the baccalaureate speaker for the BHS Class of 1980. By that time, I was not only a Christian, but pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church. I told Mr. Wright, "This will be the valedictorian address I was not allowed to give in 1950. I now consider myself officially off probation." He laughed and said, "So be it". He has since retired and still lives locally. I often see Mr. Wright in the congregation when I am preaching, and I am reminded how blessed I am to have crossed paths with this great man.
What was your childhood like?
I remember being loved very much by my parents. My father was a diligent worker and excellent businessman. He arose at 4 am each day and retired at 8-9 pm. My mother was a wonderful person. While Dad was not religious, Mom was a woman of great faith. I learned the work ethic and my entrepreneurial skills from my father. I learned love, gentleness and compassion from my mother. I loved my parents very much. Through Mom's prayers, I believe I was led to later give my heart to Christ. As a child, because of my father's financial success, I was privileged and never remember being without anything I desired.
Dad had a drinking problem that worsened as he grew older. This never seemed to affect his business performance, but it worried my mother very much. Dad died when I was only 15. I remember him making a profession of faith in Christ only days before his death. A local businessman, who was also a Gideon, brought a Presbyterian pastor to his bedside. I was not yet a Christian. But I remember the dramatic change in my father during the last days of his life. That businessman told me this story in recent years. He has since passed.
Describe your teenage years.
I graduated from Brookville High School when I was 16. I had managed to obtain a driver's license three years earlier, before I was legally of age. My father attested that I was older than I was. So, I had my own car as a young teen. In those days, very few young people had automobiles. This made me the "leader of the pack". It also contributed to keeping me in constant disciplinary problems at home and at school. Playing football, basketball and baseball and providing the transportation for the "Fairview Gang" kept me very active.
While I did not know Christ personally during most of my teen years, I do have many special memories of those times. I made friends who are still in my life. Jim Moon and I grew up together in Fairview Heights. We played ball together. We were converted to Christ the same night, January 20, 1952 at Park Avenue Baptist Church in Lynchburg. We attended Baptist Bible College together. He was my co-pastor at Thomas Road Baptist Church through many years until his retirement recently. Many other friends of my teen years are still active with me in my ministry.
When did you feel a call to the ministry and describe that time period in your life?
I was converted to Jesus Christ on January 20, 1952, making my profession of faith at Park Avenue Baptist Church in Lynchburg. I was 18 years old and a sophomore at Lynchburg College. At the advice of my brand new pastor, I purchased a Bible the next day from J.P. Bell Co. in downtown Lynchburg. I began reading the Bible much each day and memorizing Scripture. By mid-March, I felt the definite leading of the Lord into some kind of full-time ministry. I did not know until four years later that God wanted me to be a pastor.
I consulted with my pastor in March of 1952 about this leading I had regarding going into the ministry. He recommended I complete my second year at Lynchburg College and then transfer to Baptist Bible College in Springfield, MO. I wanted to study the Bible and prepare myself for whatever God wanted me to do. My heart was burning to serve Christ. I knew nothing would ever be the same again.
What path were you choosing for your life before that call came?
Before my conversion, I had several thoughts about what I would do with my life. For awhile, I thought I would like to play professional baseball. I loved the game. Playing outfield and hitting the ball meant a great deal to me. I probably was not good enough to make it, but I dreamed about trying anyhow. I also thought about engineering and journalism. At Lynchburg College, I enjoyed mathematics, physics and other courses which might lead into engineering. I also loved to write. Before my conversion, I was planning either to pursue engineering at Virginia Tech or journalism at Notre Dame. Baseball and engineering were quickly out of my life forever. Journalism has been a part of my life throughout most of my ministry.
What are some of your memories from your time at Lynchburg College and then later Baptist Bible College in Missouri?
During my two years at Lynchburg College (LC), 1950-52, I received an excellent academic foundation for a lifetime of study and preparation for my ministry. Although I did not become a Christian until my second year at LC, I met some wonderful friends like Professor Bahous who taught me advanced mathematics and the late Mike Curnan, a professional baseball player and later an FBI agent.
It was at Baptist Bible College (BBC) in Springfield, MO (1952-56) that God literally turned my life around. I sat at the feet of great Bible teachers who taught me the Word, soul-winning and local church building. I met some of the giants of the faith there. I met the young students who would become the pastors, evangelists and missionaries who would be my closest friends for a lifetime.
What, if anything, solidified your desire to become a pastor?
As late as my senior year at BBC, I did not know for sure whether God wanted me to serve Him as a youth worker, missionary or a pastor. During that final year of school in 1955-56, I was praying earnestly for wisdom about what I was to do with my life. During that last year at BBC before graduating, I was driving 180 miles each weekend to intern as a youth pastor at Kansas City Baptist Temple. Several weeks before graduation in May, the pastor at Kansas City advised me he would be out of town next Sunday and requested I bring the Sunday morning message at the church. I had never done this before. This was a large church. I was frightened.
I prayed and fasted that week that God would somehow use that Sunday sermon to let me know if He wanted me to be a pastor. That Sunday, God used my sermon to bring 19 souls to Christ in that large church. One of the converts was an elderly lady who told me she was a charter member of the church and had come to realize that morning for the first time, through my sermon, that she had never truly been born again. While this event probably meant little to anyone else, I instantly felt this was God's way to show me He wanted me to be a pastor. She had heard many great preachers through the years, but God allowed this young novice the privilege of leading her to salvation. I have never doubted since that God called me to be a pastor.
When you look back in your own life, who do you think is the most outstanding in the time of your lifetime in this area of Central Virginia?
During my lifetime, many Central Virginians come to mind as outstanding. However, there are several whom I believe are giants:
Dr. Graham Gilmer was pastor of Rivermont Presbyterian Church for 30 years. Dr. Gilmer impacted Lynchburg in a powerful way. He took me under his wing shortly after I founded Thomas Road Baptist Church. He taught me much. My wife, Macel, received Christ through Dr. Gilmer's children's ministry at Rivermont Presbyterian Church. Without a doubt, Dr. Graham Gilmer is one of the greatest Lynchburgers I have met.
Dr. John Suttenfield probably did as much for Lynchburg as anyone I have known. For 50 years, he served Fairview Christian Church. He was our mayor, and a very good one. As a boy growing up in Fairview Heights, he and Mrs. Suttenfield had a profound influence on me... and the youth of the entire city. He conducted my father's funeral and my wedding.
George Stewart was not only a man of great faith, but a businessman who used his business acumen to bless Central Virginia. Having worked with him in Christian ministry and having watched him in action in the world of business, I have not met anyone quite like him, here or elsewhere.
Calvin Falwell, my cousin, is still in the land of the living. I would be derelict, however, if I did not place Calvin in the list of the greatest persons I have met in Central Virginia. He is a man of faith. He has contributed to the sports life of Lynchburg like none other. He has spent his life helping others.
Do they share a common element?
Yes. All four have a deep love for God and mankind.
The nation has been through so much in the last 100 years. Are there patterns you see that are good? What are the patterns you see that are bad?
Two world wars, a major depression and several smaller wars have made this a tumultuous century. However, America did not lose her character or her soul because of any of these events. America began losing her soul only a generation ago. During the past 35 years or so, we have expelled prayer from our schools and legalized abortion on demand. Our divorce rate has soared to 50%. There are one million teen pregnancies each year. We have a drug epidemic. We are considering legalizing same sex marriage and trying hard to normalize the gay and lesbian lifestyle. School violence has burst upon the scene. Our culture is collapsing. Hollywood, television, video games, internet pornography and other influences are destroying our children and our values. America is in serious jeopardy of self-destructing.
On the positive side, there is a spiritual awakening among our youth that is undeniable. I spoke recently to 80,000 high schoolers in the Silverdome in Pontiac, MI. They were on fire for God and burning to make a difference in America. There is something very exciting happening in the hearts of our children and teens, all across the land, and that causes me to be optimistic about America. Are you afraid of offending someone when you take a stand on such issues as abortion, prayer in schools, and the current president?
A God-called minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ must never be concerned about the polls or his popularity. He is called to be faithful, not popular. We ministers must be concerned about God's approval only.
Your wife, Macel, is always by your side. Why do you feel your bond is so strong after more than 40 years? How has she helped you throughout your career?
When Macel and I married on April 12, 1958, I had already pastored Thomas Road Church for nearly two years. We were both 24. We mutually committed to each other that night that this marriage was for keeps. Divorce was no option. We meant it. We had been engaged for several years. We decided I should finish college first. Further, we decided that I should get this new little church strong and stable before we married. Our marriage was born in much prayer and commitment.
I first saw Macel on my conversion night, January 20, 1952. She was playing the church piano. We met shortly thereafter. At the time, she was engaged. I had my work cut out for me. As fate would have it, her fiancée was my dorm roommate at BBC later that year. It is a long story, but God brought us together before 1952 was history. We have been in love ever since.
She has always been my main and most trusted critic. She tells me what I need to hear, not always what I want to hear. She helped me early on with my enunciation, gestures and speaking skills. She has been our church pianist for 43 years, and still is. She has been a wonderful wife and a great mother and grandmother. I would not be where I am today and doing what I am doing without Macel. Fact and end of story!