Co-Founder Reflects On 50 Years Of God’s Providence At Liberty
The year is 1971. The sanctuary of the original Thomas Road Baptist Church is filled with 154 fresh faces embarking on their post-secondary educational journey, along with 200-300 attendees of TRBC. They have come to celebrate the birth of Lynchburg Baptist College at its first chapel gathering.
“Whatsoever He sayeth unto you, do it.”
Mary, the mother of Jesus, spoke these words to the servants of the wedding feast at Cana. Dr. Elmer Towns, co-founder of Liberty University—then known as Lynchburg Baptist College—selected this verse as his charge to LBC’s first class of students on Friday, Sept. 10, 1971.
“I didn’t have an outline for the sermon; it was written in my Bible,” Towns said. “I preached John 2:5 to the young people, saying, ‘Whatever God is telling you, I want you to do it. If God is saying you have to take English, I want you to do it and do an outstanding job in English. If God is saying you have to take mathematics, you’ve got to do it. You’ve got to be in class, keep the rules and be on time.’”
Towns played a significant role in emphasizing academic standards at LBC, challenging faculty members to give daily assignments to ensure academic credibility in student performance.
“I remember that first day of class, I lectured and gave an assignment,” Towns said. “I told them, ‘Now, remember that if we don’t have the discipline of education and rules, this will just be another Bible conference.’”
Dr. Jerry Falwell Sr. and Towns strived to make the new college a respectable, credible school comparable to other Christian universities in America. They wanted it to thrive, grow and last for generations. The founders set the bar high for that first class of students, implementing a demerit system to establish a standard of excellence.
“We told the students, ‘You gotta get up in the morning, make up your bed, make up your day and serve God,’” Towns said.
Towns also talked about John 14:13 during that first chapel, sharing Jesus’s teaching that “Whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that I will do.” In response to this verse, Towns advised the students to pray about what God would have them do, then to do it with all their hearts, referencing Colossians 3:23. He encouraged students to follow the example of Ezra, who prepared his heart to know and obey the word of the Lord.
Along with the school’s firm standard of discipline and educational excellence, it also cultivated the joy of fellowship and community. Towns made it his mission to plan some type of activity every weekend, ranging from opportunities to serve in the church to fun gatherings of believers. He served in the role of organizing student activities in addition to being a professor. Towns opened his home to students, and he remembers buying an abundance of donuts and milk to feed all who showed up.
“It was one big, happy family,” Towns said.
Towns was the only full-time teacher at the beginning of Lynchburg Baptist College, and he hired part-time faculty from the cities of Lynchburg and Roanoke. The first year, LBC’s faculty included four former college presidents. Towns was one of them.
These initial faculty members believed in the vision of Dr. Jerry Falwell Sr.—they were building a great college to train champions who would build churches and change the world. The school’s name was changed from Lynchburg Baptist College to Liberty Baptist College in 1977, then it became Liberty University in 1985. As years passed, Towns specifically praised God for the success of pastors who graduated from the school and had gone on to plant thriving churches.
“When the school was about 25 years old, I had on a 3×5 index card a list of about 15 Liberty graduates who had planted churches with over 1,000 in attendance, and I would carry it with me,” Towns said. “I’d pull it out and I’d say, ‘This is what Liberty is all about: planting churches, reaching cities for Christ.’”
The school did not have much in the early days, but the faculty stewarded well what God provided. They used Thomas Road’s Sunday school rooms as classrooms and purchased seven two-bedroom World War II era houses to serve as dormitories. Tuition was a mere $100 per semester, but not many students had to pay tuition due to scholarships made possible by donations and special offerings.
“Jerry and I, we set a goal of 5,000 students. So, now that we have 100,000 students, you know that God answered our prayers,” Towns said.
Liberty’s humble beginnings were no obstacle to God’s power and faithfulness. The school has continued to grow and train champions for Christ in the 50 years since Towns preached his first chapel sermon.
“I was 38 years old when Liberty was founded, and now I’m 88—50 years later,” Towns said. “So, after 50 years, what have I learned? ‘Faithful is he who calls you, who also will do it.’ 1 Thessalonians 5:24… I’ve learned that God is faithful. God called us to start a school, and he’s done it.”
Kacey Martin is the Assistant Feature Editor.