LYNCHBURG, Va. – Thousands of mourners attended the funeral Tuesday of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the folksy evangelist who built the Moral Majority into a conservative Christian empire that influenced national politics.
The funeral returns Falwell to his roots -- the Thomas Road Baptist Church, where he started as a young preacher in 1956 with just 35 parishioners in an old abandoned soda bottling plant.
Today, his son Jonathan Falwell leads Thomas Road Baptist, and the sanctuary seats 6,000.
More than an hour before the service, crowds were being directed to overflow seating in Liberty University's 10,000-seat basketball arena and its football stadium. About 300 police and other personnel were helping manage the crowd, Lynchburg Police Chief Charles W. Bennett Jr. said.
More than 33,000 people had viewed Falwell's body over four days as it lay in repose.
"He was a champion of the fundamental values that we hold dear," said fellow Virginia evangelist Pat Robertson, citing Falwell's stance against abortion and homosexuality. "He stepped on some toes."
Some Republican figures were expected for the funeral, but none of the party's presidential candidates said they could attend. The White House was sending a midlevel aide. Among the Virginia Republican leaders attending was Attorney General Bob McDonnell.
Falwell, 73, died a week ago after collapsing in his office at Liberty University. His physician said Falwell had a heart condition and presumably died of a heart rhythm abnormality.
Falwell founded the university in 1971 and became a force in Republican politics in the 1980s after starting the Moral Majority and organizing the conservative Christian vote to send Ronald Reagan to the White House.
Even as a young preacher, he broke new ground, launching television evangelism with the "Old Time Gospel Hour" in 1956.
He built the Thomas Road Baptist congregation to an estimate 24,000 over the years by knocking on doors and listening to the people who answered.
To the end, he stayed in touch with his congregation.
Wendell Walker, who moved from Macon, Ga., 33 years ago to attend the Liberty Baptist College that preceded the university, said he had helped Falwell with baby dedication ceremonies two days before his death.
"All the parents were coming forward to dedicate their babies," Walker said. "I'd hand him the cards."
Walker said he "just loved helping a godly man."
Falwell also made careful preparations for a leadership transition after his death of both the church and Liberty University to his sons. Jonathan's brother, Jerry Falwell Jr., is already vice chancellor at Liberty.
Falwell "changed the way people thought about some issues," said Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice as he filed into the service Tuesday.
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, representing the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, said Falwell was a true friend to the Jewish community.
"He was really one of the first to build a bridge between evangelicals and Jews," he said.
Other conservative leaders attending included the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham and a scheduled speaker; former U.S. Sen. George Allen; one-time Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer, and Paige Patterson, president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.
"So many in politics aren't recognizing the social and moral issues in our society," said Roy Moore, the Alabama judge who gained a national following with his unsuccessful fight to display a Ten Commandments monument. "People like Jerry Falwell were bold enough to speak out."
A private burial was planned on the grounds of Liberty University near a former mansion where Falwell's office was located.