- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 22, 2007

12:44 p.m.

LYNCHBURG, Va. (AP) — Thousands of mourners arrived early this morning for the funeral of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the evangelist who built the Moral Majority into a conservative Christian empire that influenced national politics.

The funeral returns Mr. Falwell to his roots — Thomas Road Baptist Church, where he started as a young preacher in 1956 with just 35 parishioners in an old, abandoned soda bottling plant.

Today, his son Jonathan leads Thomas Road Baptist, and the sanctuary seats 6,000.

Three hours before the ceremony, more than 2,000 people waited outside for the funeral. More than 33,000 viewed Mr. Falwell’s body during the four days it lay in repose.

Overflow seating was arranged for the funeral in Liberty University’s 10,000-seat basketball arena and its football stadium, which accommodates 20,000.

Mr. Falwell, 73, died a week ago after collapsing in his office at the university. His physician said Mr. Falwell had a heart condition and presumably died of a heart-rhythm abnormality.

Sabrina Ugron said there were about 40 people ahead of her in line when she got to the church at 6:15 a.m. Mrs. Ugron said she wanted to make sure she was in the sanctuary for the service because Mr. Falwell meant a lot to her. He married her and her husband 17 years ago and her parents before that.

Nettie Stanley, who along with her sister also got in line early, said she didn’t always agree with Mr. Falwell politically but loved him as a preacher.

“He really cared about people,” she said.

Mrs. Stanley said she and her brother and sister attended a free summer camp Mr. Falwell hosted on the James River when they were children.

“He would come every morning,” she said. “It was all about the kids.”

Brandi Scott and her husband drove eight hours from Binghamton, N.Y., and got to the church early to make sure they got into the sanctuary.

“We figured we drove all the way down here, we didn’t want to be in the stadium,” said Mrs. Scott, a Liberty University graduate.

Though some Republican figures were expected, none of the party’s presidential candidates said they could attend. The White House was sending a midlevel aide. Among Virginia’s Republican leaders, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling and Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell were expected.

Mr. Falwell founded the university in 1971 and became a force in Republican politics in the 1980s after starting the Moral Majority and organizing the conservative Christian vote to send Ronald Reagan to the White House.

Even as a young preacher, he broke new ground, beginning television evangelism with the “Old Time Gospel Hour” in 1956.

He built the Thomas Road Baptist congregation to an estimated 24,000 through the years by knocking on doors and listening to the people who answered.

To the end, he stayed in touch with his congregation.

Wendell Walker, who moved from Macon, Ga., 33 years ago to attend Liberty Baptist College, which preceded the university, said he had helped Mr. Falwell with baby-dedication ceremonies two days before Mr. Falwell’s death.

“All the parents were coming forward to dedicate their babies,” Mr. Walker said. “I’d hand him the cards.”

Mr. Walker also said he “just loved helping a godly man.”

Mr. Falwell made careful preparations for a leadership transition to his sons for both the church and Liberty University after his death. Jonathan’s brother, Jerry Falwell Jr., already is vice chancellor at Liberty.

A private burial was planned on the grounds of the university near a former mansion where Mr. Falwell’s office was located.

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