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Thousands Gather for Funeral of ‘Prophet’ Falwell

Franklin Graham and former Southern Baptist Convention President Jerry Vines called Jerry Falwell a “prophet” during a 90-minute funeral Tuesday at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va.

According to the Lynchburg News & Advance, the line outside the church started forming at 1:30 a.m. By 9:30 a.m. it stretched nearly a quarter mile, waiting for the doors to open for the service that started at 1 p.m.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
More than an hour before the service, crowds were being directed away from the 6,000-seat church to overflow seating in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />LibertyUniversity’s 10,000-seat basketball arena and football stadium.
 
Notables spotted entering the sanctuary included Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson, former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, Purpose Driven Life author Rick Warren and Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
 
During the service, Webcast live on Liberty Channel, White House spokesman Tim Goeglein termed Falwell “a great friend of this administration.” President and Mrs. Bush, he said, were “deeply saddened” by Falwell’s death. Commenting on Liberty students and alumni who have worked as White House interns and staff, Goeglein observed, “A man of vision has seen a vision fulfilled.”
 
Graham, the son of evangelist Billy Graham and head of the international relief organization Samaritan’s Purse, described Falwell, who died a week ago at age 73, as a “man of faith” and a “prophet for our generation.”
 
“People ask me, ‘Franklin, do you agree with Jerry Falwell?'” Graham said. “Every time he opened a Bible I agreed with Jerry Falwell. And you know what? He opened the Bible a lot.”
 
Vines, retired pastor of FirstBaptistChurch in Jacksonville, Fla., has been introduced as Falwell’s closest friend in the ministry. Vines lauded Falwell as a pastor, educator and “a prophet to this nation.”
 
“God called him at this particular time to raise high the gospel banner in America,” Vines said. “He was not just a preacher who decided to dabble in politics. He did it out of deep conviction.”
 
Vines said Falwell “understood that Christians have a right in this country to be heard and a place in the discussion that is going on in America.”
 
“He said I believe God has called me to confront the culture, and did he ever confront it,” Vines said. “He was criticized and he was vilified and he was unfairly misquoted, but he kept on smiling and he kept on speaking the message of Jesus Christ to our culture, and the political landscape of America has been different since that day.”
 
Graham also acknowledged that Falwell was controversial, but his “goal wasn’t to be popular.”
 
Mentioning a New York Times article contrasting the Christian Right’s “fiery old guard” now passing from the scene with a new breed of evangelical leaders less overtly partisan and confrontational than their predecessors, Graham said he prayed the movement’s new leaders would “champion the same values” that made Falwell controversial–biblical inerrancy, the sanctity of life and defending marriage as between a man and a woman.
 
One of the high-profile, younger pastors mentioned by the New York Times as a possible successor is Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, a Southern Baptist mega-church in Southern California.
 
Warren, who appeared alongside Falwell in 2003 for an East Coast “Purpose Driven” training event at Liberty University, said in a statement that Falwell’s public image didn’t give him enough credit for his compassion demonstrated in ministries to alcoholics, prisoners and underprivileged children.
 
“I believe Jerry Falwell’s primary legacy will not be his political leadership,” Warren said, “but the church he pastored for 50 years, the university he founded that has produced two generations of leaders, the millions who heard him preach the Good News, the innovations in ministry he introduced, and the thousands of young pastors, like myself, whom he constantly encouraged, even when we did it differently.”
 
Several Republican politicians attended the service. They included former Virginia governor and U.S. Sen. George Allen, Republican strategist Ralph Reed and one-time Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer. None of the Republican presidential candidates said they could attend.
 
Also present were protestors from Fred Phelps’ WestboroBaptistChurch in Topeka, Kan., who changed plans to picket a Texas funeral of a soldier killed in Iraq in order to protest instead outside Falwell’s funeral. The group, infamous for a Web site titled “God Hates Fags,” criticized Falwell for abandoning his separatist fundamentalist Baptist roots to cozy up to more moderate and liberal Christians less condemning of homosexuality.
 
“There are dead soldiers everywhere,” spokeswoman Shirley Phelps-Roper explained to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “You don’t have a very high-profile, cowardly, lying false prophet like Falwell dying every day.”
 
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.