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Rev. Jerry Falwell dies at age 73
(CNN) -- The Rev. Jerry Falwell, the television minister whose 1979 founding of the Moral Majority galvanized American religious conservatives into a political force, died Tuesday at age 73.
Falwell was found unconscious and without a pulse in his office at Liberty University, the college he founded in Lynchburg, Virginia, said Ron Godwin, the school's executive vice president.
Though paramedics tried to revive him at his office and en route to Lynchburg General Hospital, "Those very timely and very efficient and effective efforts were unsuccessful," Godwin said.
Godwin said he had breakfast with Falwell Tuesday morning and said they talked about the future. ( Watch Liberty University official describe Falwell's morning)
"He seemed to be in good spirits," Godwin said.
Godwin said they finished breakfast about 9:50 a.m. ET and Falwell went into his office. He was found there about 11:30 a.m. ET.
The minister, who had a history of heart trouble, was pronounced dead of heart failure at 12:40 p.m. Tuesday, his doctor, Carl Moore, told reporters. He had been hospitalized twice in early 2005 with acute onset pulmonary edema, or congestive heart failure, and at one point was placed on a ventilator.
Moore said it was "a little early to speculate" on what caused Falwell's death, but said he did have a heart condition.
"I would assume that he passed away from a cardiac rhythm abnormality, which can be a manifestation of any heart disease, heart attack or otherwise," Moore said. (Watch Moore describe efforts to revive Falwell)
Godwin said Falwell's wife, Macel, and three children "are bearing up as best as could be expected."
Godwin told reporters that Liberty students and members of Falwell's congregation were gathering at Thomas Road Baptist Church for a service later this afternoon.
Laying the foundation
Falwell founded the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg in 1956, at the age of 22. The church began with 35 members and now boasts more than 22,000. (Watch Falwell explain in a recent interview why he wanted '20 more years')
Within six months of starting the church, Falwell, a onetime prospect for baseball's St. Louis Cardinals, was airing his "Old Time Gospel Hour" on radio and television.
He founded Lynchburg Bible College -- now Liberty University -- in 1971. It opened with 154 students and four full-time faculty members. (Watch Jerry Falwell's rise to fame)
In 1973, Falwell began a series of meetings with fellow pastors and conservative politicians on what he considered their responsibility to support "pro-traditional family" policies.That led to the founding of the Moral Majority, which claimed to have mobilized nearly 9 million voters and helped put Ronald Reagan in the White House in 1980.
In his 1980 book, "Listen, America!" Falwell said religious voters "cannot be silent about the sins that are destroying this nation," which he identified as pornography, abortion, "amoral liberals," drugs, welfare and the abandonment of biblical morality.
"If Americans will face the truth, our nation can be turned around and can be saved from the evils and the destruction that have fallen upon every other nation that has turned its back on God," he wrote. "There is no excuse for what is happening in our country. We must, from the highest office in the land right down to the shoeshine boy in the airport, have a return to biblical basics."
A lightning rod for controversy
In the mid-1980s, Falwell found himself at the center of what would become a landmark First Amendment case. Hustler magazine published a parody ad of him regarding drunkenness and incest. Falwell sued publisher Larry Flynt and the magazine for libel.
Falwell did not win the libel claim, but in 1984 he was awarded $200,000 for emotional distress. The case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court where the original verdict in favor of Falwell was overturned.
The details of the case were played out in the 1996 film The People v. Larry Flynt.
Charmaine Yost, a spokeswoman for the Colorado-based Focus on the Family, said Falwell was willing to become a public lightning rod for his beliefs.
"In watching the clips that have been rolling of him speaking out, he was adamant about standing for the unborn and speaking out on behalf of pro-life principles," Yost told CNN.
"Even those who are detractors of Dr. Falwell emphasize the fact that he was a man of integrity and consistency and real courage and bravery in taking a public stance in what he believed in."
The Moral Majority was formally disbanded in 1989, but Falwell remained an influential figure and source of controversy.
Influence in politics
Falwell and the religious conservative leaders who followed are a bulwark of the modern Republican Party and helped turn the once solidly Democratic South into the base of the GOP.
In the 1990s, he used his show to promote a videotape called "The Clinton Chronicles," which alleged that then-President Bill Clinton was at the center of a criminal conspiracy involving drug dealing and murder.
And in the 2000 presidential race, Sen. John McCain singled out Falwell and the Rev. Pat Robertson as "agents of intolerance" within the Republican Party.
McCain lost his bid for the GOP nomination to then-Texas Gov. George Bush after a decisive primary battle in South Carolina, in which Falwell and Robertson lined up behind Bush.
But in gearing up for a second run in 2008, McCain received a warm reception when he addressed Liberty University's 2006 commencement.
In 2001, Falwell had to apologize after televised comments in which he described the September 11, 2001, terrorists attacks as a judgment on America for "throwing God out of the public square."
"I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America," he said. "I point the finger in their face and say 'You helped this happen.' "
A day later, he told CNN that he would "never blame any human being except the terrorists, and if I left that impression with gays or lesbians or anyone else, I apologize."
Godwin said that Falwell had planned for a transition and that his two sons would carry on his ministry.
"He has left instructions for those of us who have to carry on, and we will be faithful to that charge," Godwin said.
Falwell is survived by his wife, three children and eight grandchildren.
Socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy; its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery. (Winston Churchill)