Who is Jerry Falwell?

Who is that guy holding Tinky Winky?

The other day in my Introduction to History class at Messiah College I was talking about a former student who wrote her senior honors thesis on Jerry Falwell and the rise of the Moral Majority.  (I discuss this student in chapter 7 of Why Study History?)

As I began to explain how my former student had to put aside her liberal politics and beliefs in order to empathize and understand the world according to Falwell, I noticed that many of the 20 students in the class were giving me strange looks.

After a few minutes I figured it out. I asked the students how many of them had ever heard of Jerry Falwell.  Only two hands went up.  I then told them that Falwell was the founder of Liberty University and nearly everyone nodded.

Here are my initial thoughts about this conversation:

1.  Evangelical students today do not identify with the Christian Right’s founding generation.  They really have no clue about Falwell apart from the school he founded.

2. Evangelical students really have no understanding of the history behind the movement in which many of their parents came of age and which probably informed the kind of households in which their parents raised them.

3.  Messiah College students, while no less pious, tend to be a bit less connected to the evangelical “movement” or “subculture” than students at other Christian colleges. Falwell and the other founders of the Christian Right did not have a great influence on many of them.  I compare this to the couple of visits I have made to Wheaton College in the last few years where there is a definite sense that “evangelicalism” is a major part of the identity of the college and the students who attend it.  (But to be fair, most at Wheaton would not identify with Falwell as much as Billy Graham or Christianity Today).

For the record, I also asked them if they had ever heard of Billy Graham.  Almost all the hands went up and no one thought he was a professional wrestler.

What else should I make of my students’ failure to know anything about Falwell?

8 thoughts on “Who is Jerry Falwell?

  1. I attribute it to a general lack of historicity among current young people. They aren't taught history, it's not considered important in regards to the practice of their religion and therefore their identity.

    In fact, I'd argue that an ahistorical approach to Christianity gives evangelicals most of their traction. If you start thinking historically, heaven forbid if you approach the NT that way.

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  2. I think it may also have to do with streams of evangelicalism as well as with how much one pays attention to that kind of stuff – I was in high school when the Jerry Fallwell Telly Tubby thing hit, and yet, the couple of students from my high school class that went to Messiah probably still didn't register all that much about him… The only student headed to Wheaton probably didn't either for that matter now that I think…The ones going to Wesleyan and Nazarene schools (or at least came from that background) registered a bit more about him, though we'd probably also have somewhat written him off as “well he's a Baptist” (sorry, but it's true, regardless of whether the Baptists have been paying my paycheck for most of my professional life or not, it's what we thought) – the only student in my high school graduating class that likely gave any thought to Falwell was my friend with fundamentalist leanings who went to Liberty….

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  3. The same could probably be said about my own alma mater (North Park University). I agree with you that the evangelical identity and ethos features more prominently at schools like Wheaton. I can't speak for Messiah, but NP often lacked the activist spirit found at schools like Wheaton and Liberty.

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  4. Steve: This could be it, but by the 1990s I think Falwell could be more accurately called a conservative evangelical than a fundamentalist. He had largely split from the separatist fundamentalist world of his mentor John R. Rice.

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  5. Could it be possible that your students failure to know who Falwell is not because of their lack of identifying with evangelicalism, but with fundamentalism, which I would take as subbranch of evangelicalism.

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