One year after his passing, his wife of 49 years, Macel Pate Falwell answers these questions and more in her first book titled, Jerry Falwell: His Life and Legacy. She insists that behind this larger-than-life exterior was a devoted family man, compassionate pastor, practical joker, and constant friend to all.
From their humble beginnings of building a church and university in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the days just before his death, she tells the story of how God groomed an unlikely pair to emerge as world-changers for the cause of Jesus Christ.
It was a warm spring evening in Lynchburg, Virginia. Monday, May 14, 2007. My husband, Jerry Falwell, and I drove across town enjoying how the Blue Ridge Mountains stood in timeless majesty against an azure sky, dressed in verdant green trees. Their branches waved in the gentle breeze like a benediction.
“Would you like to go to O’Charley’s for dinner?” Jerry said, the usual twinkle of good humor in his eyes. “It’s Monday.”
“Oh Jerry, I’d forgotten!”
On Monday nights, O’Charley’s offered steak soup, a new dish on the menu. I’d longed to try it again, but I seemed to think of it only on Wednesday or Thursday or Saturday. Most people wouldn’t expect a man like Jerry Falwell, who had so many major issues on his mind, to remember a little thing like getting his wife a bowl of steak soup. But then, most people didn’t know my husband.
The crowd at O’Charley’s was light as we slid into a booth. Jerry nodded and waved at some people across the room. We’d never met the young woman who waited on us, but after 49 years of marriage, I wasn’t surprised by my husband’s kindness to her.
“Where do you go to college?” he asked.
“I go to the community college,” she said with a shy smile.
“Why aren’t you at my university?” Jerry asked. “Liberty University.”
“My parents can’t afford it,” she said, shrugging one shoulder.
“If you’d like to go to Liberty, I’ll give you a full scholarship.”
Her eyes lit like sparklers on the Fourth of July. “Are you serious?”
Jerry assured her that he was serious, and she floated away in a haze of disbelief. She’d had no idea when she walked up to our booth with her pad in hand that her life was about to change forever. But after almost 50 years of marriage to Jerry, I could have predicted it.
Once, some children had knocked a baseball over the fence into your yard. Before giving the ball back to them, Jerry wrote a message on it promising a scholarship to Liberty, and then he signed it. “Wait!” he yelled, chasing the kids down the street. “I want to add that it’s a four-year scholarship.” So I smiled at the young waitress who tried to be sedate but almost jumped for joy as she walked away.
Something else stands out in my mind about that evening. I remember that Jerry ate no more than two or three bites of his food. Instead, he seemed content to gaze across the table, his eyes tracing the familiar features of my face in a most unusual way.
It was almost as though he was seeing me for the first time -- or the last. As soon as the thought formed, I pushed it aside. Jerry had looked across the table at me for almost 50 years.
Still, he focused on my face. I savored my soup, aware of his scrutiny. Young people like our waitress often think those of our generation are trite when we repeat such worn expressions as, “Where did all the years go?” But one day they, like the rest of us, will look up, stunned that 50 years could have been so… brief.
That’s why, as Jerry watched emotions flicker across my face, I reflected over our life together, and marveled. It had been quite a ride – not at all what I’d envisioned when I’d married the skinny young man who founded Thomas Road Baptist Church.
Back then, neither of us had any idea where our journey would take us. I, for one, am glad. Timid as I’ve always been, it is best that I did not foresee meetings in the White House, traveling around the world, protestors, death threats, bomb threats, and a kidnapping plot. God’s plan for our lives is so much bigger than anything we can imagine, and though I would have shied away from it had I known what lay ahead, I’m so grateful I did not miss it.
Neither Jerry nor I imagined that God was forging us into instruments He would use to affect thousands of people and the politics of a nation. We were unaware of the tapestry He’d been weaving all along. We just thought we were living our lives. That’s the way God works, but we didn’t know that then.
I don’t think what makes our story relevant is Jerry or Macel Falwell. We were… how shall I say it? Unlikely candidates. You could search the world and have trouble finding two more opposite people than Jerry and me.
I was a prim and proper lady who’d been raised in the arms of a hardworking, protective Christian family. Jerry used to say that, in my family, failing to pay a tithe was akin to murder. Though it was a bit of an exaggeration, he had a point.
In my home on Christmas morning, no one unwrapped a gift until the Christmas story had been read from the book of Luke. We never listened to any music except Christian music. We did not watch movies, and alcohol was forbidden. I was the youngest of three daughters with a younger brother on whom we doted. I was timid and hesitant about life, a trait that would progress with the years.
Jerry was the son of a bootlegger. His father was an agnostic and his grandfather was an avowed atheist. His father shot and killed his own brother in self-defense. He was a shrewd businessman who made a small fortune, while drinking himself to death.
Jerry and his twin brother, Gene, were the youngest of five children in the Falwell family. Their mother, a quiet Christian woman, was a saint in the midst of a rough and rowdy family of Southern rebels.
I spent my younger years committed to Christ and to His church. Jerry had grown up without such commitment. Over the years his mother pressed him to go to church. For a while he accommodated her, but most Sundays Jerry walked in the front door and slipped out the back door when no one was looking.
Throughout our marriage I was shy, fearful, and even certain that none of Jerry’s wild ideas would work. Jerry believed that anything was possible through prayer and hard work.
So you see, our story is not relevant because of who we were, for we were polar opposites, ordinary people with ordinary weaknesses, whose lives intersected with Jesus. Our story is relevant only because it reveals what God can do with two ordinary, if unlikely people who dare to say yes to Him.
The Bible says that the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (I Corinthians 1: 25). Somehow, Jesus took us—weak, foolish vessels that we were – and confounded the wisdom of the world.
Our story is about Jerry, Jesus, and me, and what happened when our lives intersected.
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