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The Other Preacher in Lynchburg: My Life Across Town from Jerry Falwell

The Other Preacher in Lynchburg: My Life Across Town from Jerry Falwell

by John Killinger

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After teaching for a number of years, John Killinger, eager to be a pastor, was offered a church in Lynchburg, Virginia. It was in the 1980s when Jerry Falwell had a congregation there. Falwell had just started the Moral Majority movement and had helped to get Ronald Reagan elected president. In 1983, a Good Housekeeping national poll rated Jerry Falwell the second


After teaching for a number of years, John Killinger, eager to be a pastor, was offered a church in Lynchburg, Virginia. It was in the 1980s when Jerry Falwell had a congregation there. Falwell had just started the Moral Majority movement and had helped to get Ronald Reagan elected president. In 1983, a Good Housekeeping national poll rated Jerry Falwell the second most respected man in America after Reagan.

John Killinger's new book is in part a picture of Falwell and an exploration of his influence from the unique standpoint of a "rival" minister who says that his experience of his Lynchburg years is what soon turned him into one of Fundamentalism's most trenchant and outspoken critics.

This is a fascinating story told with great grace and style about two very different men of faith, both struggling to capture hearts, minds, and souls.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

After a career as a professor of English and a teacher and dean at several divinity schools, in midlife Killinger (God, the Devil, and Harry Potter) moved to Lynchburg, VA, to pastor his first church. Across town, Jerry Falwell was making his name as a fundamentalist preacher and founder of the Moral Majority. As the pastor of a prominent Presbyterian congregation, Killinger felt reluctantly drawn to critique Falwell's theology and tactics. "But I was there-I sometimes thought maybe God had planned it that way-and somebody had to do it." He details his awkward encounters with Falwell and the unexpected publicity that came his way. Although his relationship with Falwell is the main focus here, Killinger also writes about his life before and after Lynchburg. Because Falwell has the ability to polarize, the definitive book on him may never be written; Killinger's memoir can serve as an interesting footnote to more substantive studies such as Susan Harding's The Book of Jerry Falwell. For large public libraries.
—Diane Harvey

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Chapter One

Choosing Lynchburg

I had grown up in the Southern Baptist tradition and always intended to be a pastor, not a teacher. Things being what they were in the South, though, my training at Harvard Divinity School was suspect—as was my having earned a Ph.D. in English literature before going to Harvard—and I wasn't called to a church. So I had come back South as a professor of English in Georgetown College, a small Baptist school in Kentucky. After two years at Georgetown, I had gone to Princeton Theological Seminary to work with Paul Scherer, a famous Lutheran homiletician, and ended up with another kind of doctorate. I didn't realize it, but I was only putting myself farther and farther from "callability" by a Baptist congregation.

From Princeton I went to Louisville to be the academic dean of a new liberal arts college—one with Baptist origins— but my heart wasn't really in academics, it was still in being a pastor. So when I had an opportunity to go to Vanderbilt University as a professor in the divinity school, I lost no time in accepting it. At least I would be working with preachers, and, who knew, I might one day end up as pastor of a church.

Vanderbilt and Nashville,where it is located,were a wonderful interlude in my life and the lives of my family, which now included, in addition to my wife, Anne, two sons, Eric and Krister. We built a lovely new house in Nashville, the boys attended fantastic private schools, I was invited to speak in more venues than I could possibly accept, we spent two academic years and several summers abroad, I wrote a number of books, and I had many bright and capable students, some of whom I still enjoy as friends.

One of the most important aspects of life at Vanderbilt was its strong sense of ecumenism, which enabled me to grow from being a Baptist into being a Christian-in-general, without respect to denomination. That was just as well, as I had a run-in with the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board in Nashville only a year after going to Vanderbilt.

I was speaking to a large student conference at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, California, one of five Southern Baptist seminaries. My first address—the program committee had assigned the title for it— was called "Christ in a World of Revolution." In my second address, "Christ Is a Revolution"—my own title—I made a few seconds' worth of remarks about the denominational slavishness exhibited by the Sunday School Board, where several of my friends worked. My friends' thoughts and writings, I knew, were constantly reviewed and bowdlerized before reaching the public. The response, from the school's president as well as from Sunday School Board officials, was as outraged and instantaneous as if I had whipped out a machine gun and mown down everybody on the speaker's platform.

It was my first real experience with bureaucracy and how quickly it moves to cover and protect itself. First, the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board sent out a web of fabricated reports and news releases accusing me of everything from inaccuracy to immorality. (I had used an illustration from a James Baldwin novel; ipso facto, I was almost certainly a homosexual.) It canceled my future speaking engagements in the denomination and threatened to withhold funding from institutions that hosted me. Later, it even circulated false stories to the effect that I had begged the pardon of the Sunday School Board's executive secretary, wept before a large audience over the error of my ways, and had been graciously embraced and forgiven.

Employees of the board, moreover, were secretly warned that they would be dismissed if seen associating with me. As a result, several close friends in the church we belonged to no longer spoke to us, and others took every precaution against detection when communicating with us. Our lives as Baptists were suddenly, peremptorily, and definitively over. From then on, we would be ecumenists whether we wished to be or not.

Despite the overall happiness of our lives in Nashville, though, I began at midlife to desire what many men desire in that period of their lives—to revisit earlier vocational pathways and possibly resume one of those. I had become a highly successful young academic. I was widely known, had won grants to study abroad, had been promoted to full professor, and had published several books. But I found myself yearning again to be a pastor, and to fulfill my earlier sense of calling as a minister. I had at various times entertained invitations to become the minister of several large, progressive churches—in North Carolina, New York, and Minnesota—and had dismissed them without a thought. Now, in my middle years, I became very serious about making a change.

I talked with congregations in Houston, Grand Rapids, Denver, Los Angeles, and then, almost reluctantly, Lynchburg, Virginia. I was very much attracted to the church in Los Angeles, and was on the verge of accepting its invitation, when a winsome, late-middle-aged man named Jack Cosby and his wife, Anne, showed up at a statewide Disciples of Christ conference where I was speaking in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. They were from the First Presbyterian Church of Lynchburg, Virginia, Jack confided in his soft voice, and would be grateful if I would meet them for breakfast.

"No," said Anne. "You're not interested in going to Lynchburg. Let's not take our breakfast hour in this lovely place to meet with them."

"You're only afraid I'll listen to them," I said.

"You will," she said. "I know you will."

She was right.

Jack Cosby was one of the most inviting, irresistible men I ever met. Tall, slightly bent, and rough-hewn—I often thought of him as "Lincolnesque"—he wasn't physically attractive. In fact, he was almost the opposite. But he had such a kind heart and such a gentle civility about him that I couldn't say no to his invitation to visit Lynchburg and talk with their search committee. Before we left Gatlinburg, we had arranged a date for the visit.

Anne and I drove to Lynchburg with a sense of its being a doomed visit from the start. I knew almost nothing about Lynchburg except, as I could tell from the map, it seemed to sit in the middle of nowhere. There was no major institution of learning there, the nearest real theater and music were three hours away, in Washington, D.C., and the town's only claim to fame, as far as I could tell, was that it was the home of Jerry Falwell, who was somehow connected to the newly formed Moral Majority, about which I knew very little and cared less.

"We'll go for a couple of days," I told Anne. "Then we'll drive home. It will give us a chance to get away and do some thinking. We can consider moving to that church in L.A."—which is what I fully expected us to do.

The search committee members at First Presbyterian were all lovely, cultivated people who knew exactly how to appeal to my sympathies. They had been looking for a new pastor for two years. At the end of the first year, they had identified someone they wanted, but, after agreeing to come, he changed his mind and remained with his church in Florida.

They told a lot of funny stories about their experiences going into other churches to listen to prospective preachers.

In one town, they arrived early, parked a couple of blocks from the church, and made their ways individually to the church and sat in different parts of the sanctuary so they would not be recognized as a search committee. But the pastor they were there to scrutinize, unaware of their mission and wishing to be hospitable, asked all visitors to stand and tell the congregation where they were from. Sheepishly, one by one, they confessed that they were from Lynchburg, Virginia.

The congregants soon realized there was a predatory committee in their midst and broke out in laughter. It was an awkward moment, but the people were so nice to the visitors that it overcame their embarrassment.

And when they had heard him preach, they decided they didn't want that minister after all!

Another time, when they had .own to Florida to eavesdrop on another minister, two young men on the committee went out to a roadhouse for a beer. As they stood at the bar, an attractive young woman came up to the handsomer of the two, a businessman named Jim Christian, and asked him to dance. They were on the dance floor when she asked Jim where he was from. He told her.

"Oh," she said, "you're a long way from home. What are you doing down here?"

"You wouldn't believe it if I told you," he said, lazily gyrating to the music.

"Try me," she said.

"I'm with a church pulpit nominating committee," he said. "We're here to look at a minister."

Suddenly, the woman stopped dancing and stood absolutely still, studying Jim's face. Deciding that he was telling the truth, she promptly turned on her heels and walked away, deserting him in the middle of the floor.

I liked those people. Every one of them. I liked it that they had a sixteen-year-old boy, Ed Richards, on the committee, and that they let him talk and listened to him as if what he said was as important as anything the rest of them said. A couple of elderly women were on the committee too, and they were accorded the same courtesy.

There were also a financial adviser, the owner of a large roofing company, a leather broker, a doctor's wife, a nuclear scientist's wife, a teacher, an attorney's wife, a department store executive, and of course Jack Cosby, who was president of the American Federal Savings and Loan Association.

Jack also happened to be the brother of Gordon Cosby, the minister who founded the famous Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C.—celebrated in Elizabeth O'Connor's book Call to Commitment—and whose wife, Mary Cosby, was a well-known inspirational speaker. Mary and I had been together on a program for a large gathering of United Methodist pastors in Macon, Georgia, and it was she who had given my name to Jack.

There were four Cosby brothers, all of whom except Jack became ministers, and one sister, Mary Gordon Cosby, who married a minister. One of the brothers, Beverly, had founded an ecumenical fellowship in Lynchburg called the Church of the Covenant that operated along the same lines as Gordon's church in Washington, requiring members to pray and study the Scriptures daily, tithe their incomes, and become regularly engaged in ministries for the poor and homeless. I remember saying once from my pulpit at First Presbyterian Church that, pound for pound, it was the finest church in Lynchburg.

I think Jerry Falwell was mentioned only one time in all the hours I spent with the search committee. I asked if his being in Lynchburg affected life at First Presbyterian Church. Falwell was on the other side of town, they said, and they hardly ever thought about him. They were too busy living their own lives, tending to their own problems, trying to be a church in their own way. They didn't speak ill of Falwell or his ministry. It was just that he didn't seem relevant to their existence.

They were smart. When we got home, the phone rang. One of the men on the committee wanted to speak to our boys, who were then sixteen and nineteen. He said, "We're talking to your dad and mom about moving to Lynchburg. We think you ought to see Lynchburg for yourselves so you'll know what that might mean to you."

They invited our sons to .y to Lynchburg, at their expense, and spend a long weekend with them. The boys were delighted, and felt very important. When they got there, the committee wined and dined them just as they had us. They took them down to Smith Mountain Lake for a night or two. Jack and Anne Cosby had a lovely home there, and an amphibious car, one that ran on land and on the water as well. The boys had a great time "driving" across the lake.

They came home and said, "Dad, you've got to go to Lynchburg!"

When I prayed about what I should do, that was the message I got too: I had to go to Lynchburg.

I was flabbergasted, because I had had no intention of going there. But I knew it was what I had to do.

For those who have never been in the Christian ministry or had close relatives who are, I should explain something. Ministers often do things that seem irrational or unexplainable. It has to do with their faith, and the sense that they are fulfilling their destiny by going where they are sent regardless of their personal desires or logic of purpose.

All the little arrows in my head were flashing toward Los Angeles. It was a larger church, it was in a major city, it offered a much more impressive stipend and a lot more opportunities for the family. But I knew, the way ministers do, that I was supposed to go to Lynchburg.

It was crazy. It was wild. It was illogical. But that was where I was supposed to go.

Lynchburg in 1980 was a sleepy little town of 67,000 nestled beside the James River on the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The largest town in the United States that wasn't on or near an interstate highway, it had lost its bid for a regional airport to Roanoke, some fifty miles away. Its own dinky little airport was serviced primarily by commuter planes flying north or south between Charlotte and Raleigh. A friend said when he heard we were moving to Lynchburg, "You'll love the restaurant at the airport. But be sure to take plenty of quarters." He was referring, of course, to the snack machines.

Like Rome, the city was built on seven hills. The roads and streets, viewed from the air at night when they were outlined by streetlights, traced crazy-quilt, unpredictable patterns that looked like the wild scribblings of a child on a tablet. That was because they followed the horse and cow paths around the many smaller hills instead of heading directly toward distant objectives. I never quite got the hang of them, and often found myself having to turn around and go in a different direction because I'd taken the wrong street.

Frances FitzGerald, in a New Yorker article in 1981, created an accurate portrait of Lynchburg. "The vista from the top of its one twenty-story building," she wrote, "is mainly of trees and a bend in the river." Despite the fact that there were about two hundred small factories in the town, she said, there wasn't much traffic, and on Sunday almost all the cars in town were parked near its churches.

It was a beautiful little city, with lots of antebellum houses and wonderful, ancient trees. Main Street, which was essentially the only business street downtown, ran through several blocks of old brick buildings, now mostly occupied by insurance agencies, antique stores, and small eateries, then west across a gorge, up the hill via Rivermont Avenue into what had once been an elegant section of big houses, out past Randolph-Macon College and Baptist Hospital, where it became Boonsboro Road, and continued for several miles past a small shopping center and Boonsboro Country Club into the foothills of the Blue Ridge. First Presbyterian Church sat on an expansive green campus just off the junction of Boonsboro Road and Virginia Episcopal School Road. Everything about this end of town was quiet,wooded, sedate, and laid-back.

Thomas Road Baptist Church and the rest of Falwell's empire lay on the other side of town, just off a short bypass road connecting the town's only real mall and most of the city's motels and restaurants. The people on our end of town went over there to shop, but the people on that end seldom came out to our neighborhood except when they needed to use the Baptist Hospital. Most of the doctors in town—Lynchburg had an unusually fine cadre of physicians—lived out our way, most of the laboring classes the other way.

The biggest thing that had ever happened to Lynchburg was the advent some twenty-five years earlier of General Electric, which quickly became the city's largest employer. The opening of the G.E. plant had necessitated the influx of hundreds of managers and manufacturing personnel from Northern cities such as Syracuse, New York, and most of the inhabitants of the city still referred to these folks as "the newcomers." Some even used the term "carpetbaggers." Until the arrival of the G.E. plant, the largest business in the area was the Craddock-Terry Shoe Corporation, one of the most respectable old manufacturing businesses in southwestern Virginia.

My secretary, Mrs. Jean Moyer, was from Syracuse. Her husband, Ed, was an engineer at Wiley & Wilson Engineering Firm. They didn't mind being called newcomers. In fact, they laughed about it. They liked the Southern ambience of Lynchburg—the milder winters, the gracious lifestyle, the quieter surroundings, the fact that you could really see the stars at night. Jean brought a Northern efficiency to her job. She was one of the best secretaries a minister ever had.

Jerry Falwell had grown up in Lynchburg. He was born in 1933, the year when I was born. His father was a notorious alcoholic, and, according to Jerry, an unbeliever almost to the end of his life. Jerry went to Lynchburg College, the four-year liberal arts college operated by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), but dropped out after two years. (He would later ask the president of the school for an honorary degree, but the president declined.) He then went to Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri, a nonaccredited institution that promulgated a fundamentalist brand of religion and, like many such schools, insisted that true accreditation was in the eyes of the Lord, not at the whim of some earthly academic association.

Returning to Lynchburg, he started his own church with thirty-five members who had decided to separate from Park Avenue Baptist Church and called him as their pastor. By his own testimony, he spent many hours a day calling on homes in the area and inviting people to come to church. Within a year there were enough members to enable them to buy an old bottling warehouse and move into it, and eventually they erected their own church building. Then, ever the huckster, Falwell got the idea of buying a fleet of old school buses and using them to ferry crowds of people, mostly children and elderly people, to Sunday school and worship.

I have said that he was part used-car salesman. He had a deep, resonant voice that he loved to employ at full throttle and an expressive face that encouraged people to believe in whatever he believed in. He also knew the power of advertising, and how important it was to give people the idea that his church was the hottest thing since colored straws. Soon he was on the radio, and then television. The Old-Time Gospel Hour, his signature program, emanated from Thomas Road Baptist Church, and its format, reminiscent of Charles E. Fuller's Old Fashioned Revival Hour, with lots of music and special guest soloists, was soon the envy of evangelicals all over the country.

Lynchburgers were duly proud of their native son as he began to put their town on the map. Most of them never attended Thomas Road Baptist Church, but they knew who Jerry Falwell was and that he was going places. He had big ideas, and he was beginning to make waves on his side of town.

He had a natural gift for cultivating important people, locally as well as on the national scene.

One of the locals was Carter Glass III, publisher of the Lynchburg News and Advance. Falwell bought ads from Glass and convinced him that he was God's specially anointed servant. Bishop John Shelby Spong, a former Lynchburg pastor himself, in an article posted on his Web site after Falwell's death, recalled that Glass was a member of his parish, St. John's Episcopal, but thought Falwell was the only trustworthy preacher in town. Glass and Falwell agreed on many things. They believed that communism was a continuing danger to the United States, and that integration of the races was a communist plot to destroy the nation. Just as Randolph Hearst had told the reporters of his newspaper chain to "puff" Billy Graham at the beginning of his career, Glass was determined to exalt Jerry Falwell as a modern-day prophet who could save America if Americans would only listen to him.

Another local bigwig Falwell courted and won over was George Stewart, president of First Colony Life Insurance Company. George was a member of my church, First Presbyterian. He was a fascinating human being, a short, jolly, round-figured man who loved showing photographs of the skinny long-distance runner he had been in his college years. A successful New York businessman, he was summoned to Lynchburg to rescue an ailing insurance business, and in a short time turned it around and made it the largest life insurance company in the country.

An earnest Christian, George had acquired a library of religious books that was the envy of every preacher who saw it. His study, which occupied the entirety of a large, thickly carpeted basement beneath the spacious house he and his wife designed and built, was surrounded by shelves of expensive encyclopedia sets and biblical commentaries. In the evenings, he usually sat there at an oversize desk, studying his Bible and preparing the popular lessons he taught each Sunday morning to the men's Bible class at our church.

George was a humorous man, and despite his cheerful disposition was, I believe, deeply cynical about human beings. But he thought a lot of Falwell, served on the board of Liberty Baptist College, and made frequent public appearances on Liberty's campus. He seemed to like me as well and, oddly enough, never once upbraided me for things I said about the Moral Majority and TV evangelists. Yet I was never completely certain about what George was thinking, and often wondered if Falwell was also uncertain about where he stood with him. It may have been part of George's success, that he was able to be nice to people without fully revealing what was going on in his mind.

Eventually, George would become one of the richest men in Lynchburg, if not absolutely the richest. When First Colony Life Insurance Company was acquired by Ethyl Corporation, George told me that he had made more than $50 million personally in the transaction. He also became CEO of First Colony and a member of Ethyl's board, doubtless at some incredibly extravagant salary.

He was very generous with our church, and with the Blue Ridge Presbytery, of which our church was a member. But he was also exceedingly generous with Falwell, and made a number of large donations over the years to the Old-Time Gospel Hour and Liberty Baptist College.

George Stewart was important to Falwell in an additional way. In the early 1970s, Thomas Road Baptist Church and the Old-Time Gospel Hour had issued $6.5 million worth of bonds at very attractive interest rates. Falwell himself had hawked most of these bonds to viewers of the OTGH program. Then, as the bonds began coming due, Thomas Road Baptist Church defaulted on them. It was their practice, according to common knowledge in Lynchburg, to send letters to the holders of the bonds, just as the bonds were coming due, saying they were very sorry, they were unable to pay the amount due, but could, if the holders were willing to settle for it, pay half of what was due. In other words, either the holders took half or got nothing.

In 1972, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission investigated the allegations of misdeed and charged Thomas Road Baptist Church with "fraud and deceit" in the issuance of the bonds. A year later, an appeals court ruled that there had been no institutional wrongdoing or criminal intention in the mishandling of funds. The judge, wishing to save thousands of creditors from financial harm, devised a creative way to rescue the embattled church. He appointed a five-man committee to oversee TRBC's finances until they were on sounder footing, and this committee reorganized the institution's debts, in part by issuing new bonds at attractive rates of interest. These highly desirable new bonds were snapped up by a lot of eager businessmen in Lynchburg.

George Stewart was chairman of this committee, and, I am sure, acquired thousands of dollars' worth of bonds for his own portfolio. Half the important businesspeople of Lynchburg bought into the scheme, not only saving Falwell and TRBC's bacon but ensuring that the business community itself would then do everything they could to protect the institution from future default.

I was reminded many times during my ensuing contest with Falwell that I had no right to come into Lynchburg and threaten their money tree!

There were also dark rumors in Lynchburg at the time of our arrival concerning the death of one of Falwell's associates, a former member of his board of ministry named F.William "Bill" Menge. Two award-winning reporters, L. J. Davis and Ernest Volkman, published an article called "Jerry Falwell" in the November 1981 issue of Penthouse magazine that described Menge as a "confidence man and convicted tax evader, sometime associate of known drug smugglers," and a "former Falwell ministry board member and adviser."

(He was also a friend, they pointed out, of evangelists James Robison, Pat Robertson, and Kenneth Copeland.)

Menge was reputed to have been negotiating for the purchase of Ambassador College in Big Sandy, Texas, from the Worldwide Church of God for $10.6 million to build a Christian City there, complete with its own airport. He had made several trips to Israel, where he was in touch with Israeli mobsters and officials at El Al airlines about establishing a special airline to carry thousands of Christian tourists annually from Texas to the Holy Land. It was rumored, said the article, that he had first been attempting to establish this Christian City for Jerry Falwell, then for James Robison, and finally for Brother Lester Roloff, a Texas evangelist who gave him $500,000 that Roloff never saw again.

There was also gossip, said Davis and Volkman, that Menge's real interest in the Christian City with an airport was to use it as a cover for flying in marijuana and other illegal substances from Mexico, and this was why he was involving the Israeli gangsters in the enterprise. It wasn't long after this that law enforcement officials acknowledged that Tyler, the closest large city to Big Sandy, Texas, had become a major hub for the distribution of illegal drugs from Mexico.

As the reporters told the story, shortly after noon on September 6, 1980, Menge had taken his tractor to a piece of property adjoining his own, an old farm in Forest, Virginia, near Lynchburg, to bush-hog the grass so his children could have a picnic on it. When his body was subsequently found mangled beneath the Bush Hog, his left hand and right forearm severed, his right leg nearly amputated, and his skull fractured, it was surmised that he had encountered a buried stump or utility pole that caused the tractor to lurch, throwing him off beneath the churning tines of the Bush Hog. But the tractor was still in high gear, suggesting that the Bush Hog had not actually been working at the time, for it would normally have been operating in low gear.

This terrible "accident" happened just days after Menge, who had either resigned from or been forced off Falwell's board of ministry, was quoted as saying he was going to "tell all" and that people were "going to jail."

Two FBI agents, said Davis and Volkman, "briefly investigated" the bizarre case, but when the reporters attempted to question authorities at the FBI they could get no information about the investigation or even a reason for the FBI's being involved, as the incident would not normally have fallen under its jurisdiction. And as the evidence of foul play was only circumstantial, no one was ever charged with murder.

Still, the whole affair left a cloud of suspicion over Falwell, TRBC, OTGH, and their dealings. I personally heard rumors that two men from Falwell's organization had shown up at Menge's home shortly before the accident and had been told he was on his tractor in the neighboring field. Later, when Menge did not come home for dinner, his wife or another member of his family who went in search discovered his body lying beneath the Bush Hog on level ground.

According to the Penthouse reporters, Menge had swindled more than $9 million during the last few years from churches, banks, ministers, and individuals—which seemed odd in light of the fact that he was reputed to be nearly broke at the time of his death and there was no record of where the money had gone.

I did not personally believe Jerry Falwell was involved in criminal activities, but I was aware that there were often shady figures lurking in the background of big-time evangelism because of the enormous sums of money it generated. A former employee of Tulsa evangelist Oral Roberts, a man named Wayne Robinson, wrote a book about skullduggery in the Roberts organization, and suspicious characters were known to .oat in and out of the company of Jim and Tammy Bakker at the PTL Club, whose headquarters was in Charlotte, North Carolina.

One of my own divinity school students when I was at Vanderbilt, a large, imposing, darkly handsome, and theatrically inclined man named Larry Clifton, was invited during his final months of seminary to .y to New Jersey, all expenses paid, to meet with some people who wanted to bankroll him as a TV evangelist. Larry had earned money to pay his way through divinity school by being a professional wrestler and had apparently come to the men's attention for this reason. He and I talked about his meeting before he went, and I warned him that it seemed extremely suspicious for a group of businessmen to want to "create" an evangelist of their own. It certainly didn't sound like a legitimately Christian enterprise.

"You were right, Prof," said Larry in his flip way when he returned. "Those guys are Mafia. They're hoods! I could tell by the way they talked and acted. I'm a tough enough guy, but those fellows scared the living daylights out of me!"

So my take on Lynchburg was a very mixed one, even from our first weeks in town. It appeared to be a lovely haven for families. Most children who grew up there gradually drifted back from whatever universities and graduate schools they attended. The local public schools were good. There were two fine liberal arts institutions, Randolph-Macon College and Lynchburg College, and a third, nationally known Sweet Briar College, was only a dozen miles to the north, in the tiny town of Amherst. The people we met seemed gracious and generous, the way people in the Old South always did. Life was quiet and unhurried.

On the other hand, there was this undercurrent of something happening around Falwell, like a dark, subterranean fountain continuously bubbling, with lots of activity, strange people coming and going, rumors of illicit practices, and, over it all, Falwell's growing influence in national politics and religion. He had been in the news during Jimmy Carter's administration for attacking Carter's admission to Playboy magazine that he had experienced lust in his heart. He had sued Penthouse magazine for $10 million because it published an article based on interviews he had given to freelance reporters. He had made several trips to Israel to visit his friend Menachem Begin, and was spearheading the movement known as Christian Zionism, a name expressing the belief that modern Israel was the fulfillment of biblical "End Times" prophecy. And, as head of the recently formed Moral Majority, he had presided as the host pastor when Ronald Reagan came to Lynchburg on October 3, 1980, to address the National Religious Broadcasters convention that helped put Reagan in the White House a month later.

My wife and I didn't realize it at the time, but we were entering a period that would almost totally alter our understanding of life, faith, and the church.


Copyright © 2009 by John Killinger

Published in March 2009 by St. Martin's Press

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

Meet the Author

John Killinger has been senior minister of the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, distinguished professor of religion and culture at Samford University in Birmingham, and executive minister and theologian at Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. He is the author of more than sixty books, one of which, The Changing Shape of Our Salvation, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He lives with his wife in Virginia.

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