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Rev. Jerry Falwell dies at age 73

Story Highlights

• The Rev. Jerry Falwell pronounced dead at 12:40 p.m.
• Evangelist was found in his office unconscious and without pulse
• Falwell founded the Thomas Road Baptist Church at the age of 22
• In an interview last week, Falwell said he wanted '20 more years'
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(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 Video)

"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. (Gallery: The life of Jerry Falwell)

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 Video)

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

Born to a man who sold bootleg whiskey during Prohibition, Falwell became the father of a religious and political movement that sought to "reclaim America for God." (Read about Falwell's influence on politics)

At the age of 22, he founded the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg in 1956. The church began with 35 members and now boasts 24,000.

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 Video)

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 vs. Larry Flynt."

Charmaine Yoest, a spokeswoman for the Family Research Council, 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," Yoest 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." (Watch how Falwell's statements sometimes got him in trouble Video)

The Moral Majority was formally disbanded in 1989, but Falwell remained an influential figure and source of controversy. (Watch what Falwell had to say about the Moral Majority Video)

In 2001, Falwell had to apologize after televised comments in which he described the September 11, 2001, terrorist 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."

Falwell wanted 20 more years

One week before his death, Falwell told CNN's Christiane Amanpour he needed at least 20 more years to accomplish his vision for Liberty University. (Watch Falwell explain why he wanted '20 more years' Video)

Falwell told the story of Hezekiah, who in the Bible asked to live for 15 more years.

"I'm praying the same prayer with an option to renew," Falwell said.

He described his goal to expand Liberty into a "major evangelical Christian university."

"We want young people to know what they believe, why they believe it. I believe America was built on the Judeo-Christian ethic; I want to see the nation return to the Judeo-Christian ethic," he said.

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.

Services for Falwell will be held Tuesday at Thomas Road Baptist Church, according to Mark DeMoss, Falwell's former chief of staff. There may be a viewing at a building on the Liberty University campus before the funeral, he said.

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TIMELINE OF FALWELL'S LIFE

August 11, 1933: Born, along with twin brother Gene, to Carey and Helen Falwell in Lynchburg, Virginia.

1956: Starts Thomas Road Baptist Church; quickly moves into
radio broadcasting, then into television with "Old Time Gospel Hour."

1971: Opens Lynchburg Baptist College, later Liberty University.

1979: Founds the Moral Majority.

1983: Listed by U.S. News & World Report as one of 25 most
influential Americans.

1984: Sues Hustler magazine, charging he was libeled by an
obscene parody. U.S. Supreme Court overturns $200,000 damages verdict for emotional distress in 1988.

1987: Leaves Moral Majority, takes over the Rev. Jim Bakker's scandal-rocked PTL ministry for several months.
1989: Moral Majority disbands.

1990s: Grapples with dropoff in contributions, viewers stemming from the 1980s televangelism scandals.

2001: Suggests after September 11 attacks that feminists, gays, ACLU partly to blame. He later apologizes.

2004: Announces he will leave day-to-day operations of Liberty
University, Thomas Road Baptist Church to sons Jerry and Jonathan, focus on new Faith and Values Coalition.

February-April 2005: Is hospitalized twice with serious heart, lung problems.

July 2006: Celebrates 50th anniversary of Thomas Road
Baptist Church.

May 15, 2007: Dies at age 73.

Source: The Associated Press
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