Even for the confident, silver-tongued Jerry Falwell, this is going to be a mission that will mightily tax his powers of persuasion. The country’s best-known Baptist, the star of his own TV ministry and leading light of the religious right, is for the first time in his life working to save not just individual troubled souls, but the soul of an entire church in Maine. Bangor Baptist Church, perhaps the largest Fundamentalist congregation in New England, has been convulsed and nearly destroyed by its charismatic leader, the Rev. Herman C. “Buddy” Frankland, who late last year reluctantly admitted to adultery but refused to leave his pulpit.
Enter Jerry Falwell, who last week became Bangor Baptist’s interim pastor and chief executive officer, a job he didn’t need but one he says that he could not refuse. “These people appealed to me personally,” says Falwell, who presides over the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va. and is director of the newly formed Liberty Federation, which has incorporated the Moral Majority. “They called me almost nightly and said, ‘Please come help us.’ These are godly people. No stunt is involved in my coming here.” He plans to preach at the church once or twice a month and has brought in a part-time caretaker staff to manage things until a permanent replacement for Reverend Frankland is found.
Falwell’s rescue mission began two weeks ago when he winged into town on his Westwind jet. On his second visit he met the press, analyzed church records and promised to keep the church’s 100,000-watt radio station on the air. Above all, he addressed his new flock. “A spiritual bombshell exploded in this pulpit that has devastated many of you,” he said. “When a church has a problem, when a congregation suffers, that’s what sister churches are for. We plan to stay with the ship here as long as we are wanted.” Building to a crescendo, the man from Lynchburg drew a chorus of “Amens!” when he said, “Just remember, we’re all sinners but for the grace of God.”
Some sinners are bigger than others. The Rev. Buddy Frankland, who is currently in seclusion, was a Fundamentalist who fulminated from the pulpit against loose living and deviate behavior. A native of Eastport, Maine, Frankland worked in the family fish-processing business before studying at Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Mo. Starting in the late ’60s with a congregation of 23 members, he increased his flock to 3,000, largely by taking a hard line against a range of perceived moral evils in American society. He first gained attention outside Bangor in 1974 with his vehement opposition to the formation of a gay rights group at the University of Maine. In 1978 he ran an unsuccessful but credible campaign for governor. He also led a campaign against the presentation in Bangor of the rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar. In fact, everything was going well for Buddy Frank-land, a married man with four children, until last October when he was forced to admit to keeping company with one of his parishioners, a widow in her 30s who has since fled town.
The widow, Bonnie Boyington, disclosed the affair to Bangor Baptist’s board of deacons because she said she felt guilty and because she believed that Frankland was unfit to preach. According to Michael Martin, 38, then a church deacon, Boyington presented to the board a five-minute tape of a phone conversation she had recently had with the pastor; Martin describes the tape as “incriminating.” He says that when Frankland was first told of the widow’s accusation, the pastor denied it, saying, “I’m calling her a liar.” Confronted with the evidence, he admitted to his indiscretion, which reportedly had been going on for many months. Martin and three other deacons quit the board almost immediately because, as he says, “I knew Frankland wasn’t going to leave” the pulpit.
As it turned out, the deacon’s suspicions were on the mark, but matters first had to get worse. Several days after the deacons learned of the adultery, but before the news leaked to the press, the widow had confessed her sin at a ladies’ prayer meeting. The women were stunned. “I was devastated. My heart broke in two,” says Kim Arnold, 26, who says many of the women in attendance dissolved in tears. On Oct. 15 Buddy Frankland went before the local TV cameras and in a quavering voice read his farewell. “I am resigning,” he said, “of my own volition because I am guilty of adultery…. I cannot begin to comprehend the damage I’ve done to the cause of Christ.”
But Frankland did not go gently into the coastal mists. On Dec. 4, claiming that God had called him back, he mounted the pulpit again only to see all hell break loose. Five minutes into the prayer meeting, more than half of the faithful sought the exits. When the first four deacons quit he immediately replaced them. When additional deacons walked out he replaced them too—such was his authority in the church. Still, only 200 souls showed up for subsequent prayer sessions, and a number of his followers defected to form two splinter churches.
According to Reverend Falwell, it was right after Frankland reclaimed his pulpit that the deacons turned to him for help. A distraught Frankland reportedly phoned Falwell as well, imposing on him as an old friend and kindred Fundamentalist to stand as interim pastor of Bangor Baptist. Yet Falwell, when he arrived at Bangor, seemed anxious to put as much distance as possible between himself and the fallen preacher. In his address to the parishioners, he called Frankland by everything but his proper name, referring to him as “your pastor” or “your former preacher.” Nor were the congregants uniformly impressed by the TV minister’s performance in the pulpit. “He dealt with external imagery, not the problems of the congregation,” says the Rev. Harold Blackorby, 43, a Bangor Baptist missionary home on furlough. For her part, parishioner Lu Kenney, 58, predicts that the squabbling will run its course and that the church will thrive again. “When you hurt, it takes more than one meeting to get over it,” she says. “The people here are what you call stubborn Maine people.”