Thousands of worshippers expected for Rev. Jerry Falwell funeral

Thousands of worshippers were expected for the funeral of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who built a conservative Christian empire that influenced national politics.

Overflow accommodations were set up for the service in the 6,000-seat sanctuary at Thomas Road Baptist Church, which Falwell started with 35 people in an old soda bottling plant and grew to include 24,000 members.

Falwell, 73, died a week ago after collapsing in his office at Liberty University, the school he founded in 1971. His physician said Falwell had a heart condition and presumably died of a heart rhythm abnormality.

Some Republican figures were expected at the service, but none of the party's presidential candidates said they could make it. The White House was sending Tim Goeglein, a midlevel aide. Among Virginia Republican leaders, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling and Attorney General Bob McDonnell were expected.

Falwell had lined up possible 2008 Republican presidential candidates as Liberty commencement speakers for the past two years. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is considering a bid, was the speaker Saturday; Republican candidate Sen. John McCain attended last year.

Falwell became a force in Republican politics when he founded the Moral Majority and organized the conservative Christian vote that helped send Ronald Reagan to the White House in 1980.

Even as a young preacher he broke new ground, launching television evangelism with the "Old Time Gospel Hour" in 1956.

Falwell built his Thomas Road congregation by knocking on doors and listening to the people who answered, and even as his national renown grew he he stayed in touch with his congregation.

Wendell Walker, who moved from Macon, Georgia, 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."