The Rev. Jerry Falwell’s name will always be linked with the Moral Majority, the organization he formed to galvanize conservative evangelicals into political action. Certainly, bringing evangelicals out of the cultural wilderness and marching them into politics changed both the political and the religious landscape in important and enduring ways. One needs only to look at this primary season to glimpse that legacy. This year evangelicals came out to vote in record numbers. The recent rhetoric surrounding the Obama administration’s contraception mandate—is it about women’s health or religious freedom?—recalls Falwell’s old culture war messaging. Moreover, it was Falwell, a fundamentalist Baptist, who welcomed other faith groups, Mormons and Roman Catholics included, to work alongside him in politics. (He used to boast that nearly a third of the Moral Majority was Catholic.) Without such a strategy, it is hard to imagine a GOP nominating contest that would come down to two Catholics and a Mormon.
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.