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.
Ted and Liz Wise, as well as Lonnie Frisbee, displayed a carefree, irresponsible (by American standards) urgency to live as the Bible taught and evangelize and disciple troubled souls. Chuck Smith and John MacDonald both took angst-filled risks to evangelize countercultural young people. It was not easy for either side. MacDonald soon learned that the Wises and their fellow hippie converts had not given up drugs. After all, they had found Jesus while high, and it was hard to have a conversation with prospective converts without sharing a joint. (Those living in the House of Acts eventually gave up the drugs). Lonnie Frisbee's marriage dissolved, partly because of his hidden homosexuality, which would eventually rupture his friendship with Chuck Smith. Still, in these heady days at least some evangelical hippies and some straights formed unlikely alliances for Jesus.
Unfortunately, the chaotic and fervent atmosphere of the Jesus revolution attracted a whole host of wolves in both straight and hippie clothing. Self-promotion often blended with evangelistic zeal, and some opportunistic leaders simply wanted to exploit hippie Christians to revive their flagging churches. One of the most compelling chapters in God's Forever Family is Eskridge's account of how the authoritarian Children of God (COG) recruited Jesus People into its ranks, then cut them off from family and other outside relationships. David Hoyt, a Krishna-turned-evangelical from Haight-Ashbury, joined the COG in 1971. When he fell out with COG leader David Berg one year later, he left the movement but lost his wife and children in the process. Going forward, Jesus People groups worked hard to distinguish themselves from COG; the episode also spawned evangelical countercult ministries.
By 1972, the Jesus Movement had reached its peak. Nearly 100,000 people attended Explo '72, an evangelistic training and rally organized by Campus Crusade for Christ. The event's climactic Jesus Music Festival drew 180,000.
Within another year, it was clear that the Jesus Movement had run out of steam. Masses of evangelical children bought Jesus buttons, pointed their fingers to heaven, and listened to Larry Norman, but they had no background in the counterculture. The Jesus Revolution became yesterday's news and a bit less revolutionary. Most simply, the Jesus People grew up. They married, had kids, and got jobs. What had been countercultural became part of the evangelical subculture.
No Flash in the Pan
Eskridge, however, mostly avoids framing the Jesus Movement as a simple story of declining influence. The movement's passions, he contends, have endured long beyond its heyday. If executives eventually commercialized the Jesus generation's music, the children of the long 1960s introduced "praise music" into countless American churches. More generally, they reminded evangelical leaders that it could be more effective to sacralize rather than to shun popular culture. They helped teach churches to be sensitive to the often-alienated seekers who might walk through their doors. As Eskridge concludes, "God's forever family had not been a mere cultural flash in the pan."
As is often the case, the outlook for evangelical Christianity in the United States seems rather bleak today. Most non-evangelical young people have deeply negative opinions about Christianity in general and about evangelical Christianity in particular. Many evangelical children love Jesus but feel more than a bit uneasy about their parents' politics or culture.
Future predictions, however, nearly always run aground on the shoals of the unexpected. In the mid-1960s, few journalists or social scientists predicted a surge of youth evangelicalism in the years ahead. The Jesus Movement surprised nearly everyone. We could use some fresh surprises. "I'm fifteen and I want the Jesus Movement again," says a young girl, quoted by Eskridge, who watched a video about the movement and who had heard about it from her parents. Thanks to Larry Eskridge, the Jesus People finally have a rich, documented history of their own. Perhaps it will help inspire another generation of young evangelical activists and another generation of straights willing to take a few chances on them, willing to once again sing—in Larry Norman's words—"a sweet, sweet song of salvation."
John G. Turner is assistant professor of religious studies at George Mason University and the author of Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ: The Renewal of Evangelicalism in Postwar America (University of North Carolina Press), winner of CT's 2009 award for History/Biography.