Jerry Falwell: Founder of the Megachurch

First off, let me say that I have become slightly addicted to Religion & Politics, the new online journal from the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.  They are publishing some really good stuff by some excellent authors.  (One note:  it might be helpful to have a link to the Center somewhere on the Religion & Politics homepage).  I am really eager to see how the Danforth Center grows, especially after they did a national search last  season for scholars who study religion and politics. (Have the new hires been announced?).

I think the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home will find today’s piece by Michael Sean Winters to be particularly interesting.   Winters argues that Jerry Falwell is the founder, among other things, of the present-day megachurch movement.

Here is a taste:

But for all his political influence, Falwell should also be remembered for his role in shaping another major development in the life of American evangelical religion: the megachurch. Before he created a political dynasty, before he founded a university, before he molded the Republicans’ base of social conservatives, Falwell built a church. Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, was his base, one that now boasts 20,000 members. It was from there that Falwell’s influential political and educational dynasty would grow. And it was from there that he learned the models of fundamentalist insularity and evangelical outreach that would mark his later endeavors.

Evangelicals have long liked crowds, and Falwell was not the first evangelical preacher to lead a church that held thousands. The Cane Ridge revival in 1801, which ignited the Second Great Awakening, reportedly attracted more than 20,000 people, but that was for a revival, not for establishing a permanent church. In the 1920s, Aimee Semple McPherson built the Angelus Temple in Los Angeles, seating 5,300 people, filled three times a day with members of her Foursquare Gospel Church. But she did not host a variety of ministries attached to her worship services. In 1956, when Falwell founded Thomas Road Baptist with only 35 members, he would, over the next fifteen years, build it into what would become one of the first modern-day megachurches in the country.

A megachurch is not simply a large church. If it were, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome might qualify. Rather, megachurches are large Protestant enclaves—averaging 2,000 or more on a Sunday—and are usually located in the suburbs or exurbs of cities, where they cater to congregants through a host of ministries and services, schools, and day care centers. True to this mold, over the years Thomas Road Baptist had to build four different sanctuaries to accommodate its growth. More importantly, Falwell continually added new ministries to his church, creating a sub-culture for his parishioners.

This is a nice piece of religious journalism, but is it true?  Can anyone point to other evangelical churches that predate Thomas Road Baptist Church and can be defined, by Winters’s standards, as a megachurch?

5 thoughts on “Jerry Falwell: Founder of the Megachurch

  1. Devin: I am a bit familiar with Hyles's church in Hammond. He was known for his “bus ministry” into Chicago.

    I could be wrong, but I think I remember Philip Luke Sinitiere working on this kind of project. The megachurch provides nice fodder for sociologists and anthropologists, but not a lot has been done from a historical perspective. Perhaps someone could correct if I am wrong.

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  2. I can't remember names of pastors / churches, but there are quite a few examples in Darren Dochuk's discussion of southern California evaneglicalism that predate Thomas Road and match those characteristics.

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  3. Great share, John! (I too am digging the R&P journal.)

    Roger Olson had a great post the other day about megachurches. Like Winters, Olson cites 19th century revivals and McPherson's Angelus Temple as megachurch precursors, but he also points to Jack Hyles, who worked in the postwar years to grow a small TX church from 44 to 4,000 parishioners, before leaving to found the justifiably “mega” First Baptist Church of Hammond, IN, in 1959 (just a few years after Falwell launched Thomas Rd.). Also, Olson points to the Melodyland Christian Center in Anaheim, California, but that congregation didn't get its start until the early 1960s.

    I'm wondering: is there a historiography of the megachurch? And if not, shouldn't somebody write it?

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