They Got High on Jesus Instead
Why should the devil have all the good music?" asked Larry Norman on his 1972 album Only Visiting This Planet. Norman made it clear that Satan faced stiff competition for the hearts and minds of America's young people.
In God's Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in America (Oxford University Press), Larry Eskridge provides a rich, tender history of one of the more surprising developments of the late 1960s. Coffee houses, communes, buttons, record albums, and underground newspapers witnessed to American youth that there was still only "One Way" to heaven, but not exactly the way their parents had taken. These young people listened to Larry Norman and Love Song (one of the earliest Christian rock bands), bought Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth, spoke in tongues, and were ready for Jesus to return. In many ways, the "Jesus People" had the same basic beliefs as other evangelicals, but with an added fervency, literalism, and—in many cases—sweetness.
Eskridge begins his story in the Bay Area, the birthplace of both the counterculture and the Jesus Movement. Skillfully capturing the cultural and intergenerational tension among the Christians of this era, he introduces Baptist pastor John MacDonald and a young hippie couple, Ted and Elizabeth "Liz" Wise. Liz attends MacDonald's church "while coming down from the previous night's acid trip." Eventually, her excitement about Jesus proves contagious to her philandering and oft-stoned husband. Soon, he was telling his fellow joint-smoking friends, "Jesus is my Lord." Then Wise went to MacDonald's church and told the congregation, "He is back." Wise did not explain what he meant by that statement, other than to share that the Lord had told him to tell it to everyone he met. The new convert made both the hippies and the straitlaced Baptists equally uncomfortable.
Wise and MacDonald both risked friendships and their livelihoods because of their passion to reach people with the message of Jesus' love. As MacDonald welcomed redeemed (and often only partly reformed) hippies into his sanctuary, about half of his congregants left. Wise lost his job because of his incessant attempts at workplace witnessing. Eventually, MacDonald found ways to obtain funding for Wise's mission to the flood of hippies streaming into the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in 1967. Ted and Liz Wise eventually moved into a communal living arrangement with three other couples in a home they named the "House of Acts." They aimed to live as the earliest Christians had lived, together, sharing everything in common. In January 1968, Christian Life magazine introduced Ted Wise and his hippie evangelicals to America. The Jesus Movement had begun.
Soon, other men and women—sometimes hippies themselves, sometimes straights who changed their clothes and grew out their hair—found ways to reach out to groups of young people who had typically encountered nothing but disdain from Christians. The Jesus revolution quickly spread to Southern California, where Chuck Smith welcomed Lonnie Frisbee into the ministry of Calvary Chapel, then a small, conservative congregation in Orange County. Frisbee, who according to countless men and women looked like their image of Jesus, had just returned from a visit to Haight-Ashbury and the House of Acts. Soon, Calvary Chapel updated its music and welcomed young adults in blue jeans and bare feet. The latter soiled the carpet, prompting a few disgruntled members to put up a sign reading "No Bare Feet Allowed in Church." Smith told the congregation that the young people mattered more than the carpet.