Larry Eskridge

Jesus People Movement

JESUS PEOPLE MOVEMENT TIMELINE (See a more detailed timeline here)

1965-1966:  The counterculture emerged within bohemian districts in several American cities, particularly in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco.

1967:  The Evangelical Concerns non-profit was established in the Bay Area to promote work among hippies; opening of Living Room mission center in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury and “House of Acts” commune in Novato, California, the first recognized appearance of “hippie Christians.”

1968:  Evangelical outreaches to the countercultural and drug culture youth emerged in Southern California. These included David Berg’s “Teens for Christ” (Huntington Beach), Arthur Blessitt’s Sunset Strip mission His Place (Los Angeles), Don Williams’ Salt Company coffeehouse (Los Angeles).

1968:  Chuck Smith, pastor of the Calvary Chapel, a middling-sized church in Costa Mesa, CA connected with the Living Room’s Lonnie and Connie Frisbee. Along with John Higgins, they open the House of Miracles, the first of numerous communal homes in Orange County.

1969:  The Christian World Liberation Front (CWLF) was established in Berkeley, California by former Campus Crusade for Christ staffers.

1969:  John Higgins moved to Oregon and began the Shiloh Youth Revival Center commune near Eugene.

1969:  David Berg’s group abandoned Huntington Beach and took to the road, picking up the name “Children of God.”

1970:  A distinct Jesus People “scene” took root in Southern California with well over one hundred churches, coffeehouses, centers, and communal homes identifying with the movement.

1970:  Significant Jesus People centers emerged in Atlanta, Kansas City, Wichita, Buffalo, Norfolk, Akron, Fort Wayne, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, suburban Chicago, suburban New York City, and other scattered cities across the country.

1971:  Evangelist Billy Graham publicized the Jesus People presence at the Tournament of Roses parade; a flood of national coverage ensues and the movement becomes strong in the Midwest.

1971:  The Oregon-based Shiloh Youth Revival Centers had over 1,000 full-time members in its communal homes across the country.

1971:  The Associated Press named the Jesus People one of its “Top Ten Stories of 1971.”

1972 (June):  Campus Crusade for Christ held a youth evangelism conference in Dallas that featured Jesus People themes and musical artists. EXPLO ‘72 attracted 85,000 and a culminated music rally draws an estimated 180,000.

1973:  By the end of 1972, over fifty books on, by, or connected with, the Jesus People movement have been published.

1973:  Jesus People USA arrived on Chicago’s North Side and set up a permanent base of operations.

1976:  Jesus Music festivals proliferated across the country during the summer of 1975.

1976:  The Bay Area’s Evangelical Concerns, Inc., underwriter of the Living Room mission back in 1967, decided to close down.

1979:  The Hollywood Free Paper ceased publication.

1980:  Shiloh closed its doors.


The Jesus People was an amorphous, youth-centered, Pentecostal and fundamentalist-leaning religious movement that sprang up all around North America in the late 1960s as the result of interactions between members of the hippie counterculture and evangelical pastors and youth workers. The movement spread across the country in the early 1970s, but by the end of the decade it had largely disappeared. While the movement’s enduring institutional footprint was minimal (and in such cases as the Calvary Chapel network, often overlooked), its ongoing impact upon the evangelical subculture in terms of music, worship, and the relationship to youth and popular culture were pervasive.

With the development of the counterculture and the attendant rise of a new drug culture in the mid-1960s, contact between hippies and evangelical “straights” was inevitable. Tracing its precise beginnings is difficult, but ongoing evangelistic outreach to bohemian youth and drug users, greatly stimulated by the publication of David Wilkerson’s 1963 book The Cross and the Switchblade (Bustraan 2014:68-70), resulted in relatively unpublicized local ministries in Detroit, Fort Lauderdale, Norfolk, and other cities with bohemian youth populations that resembled what later came to be labeled “Jesus People.”

However, the first major organized, publicized outcropping of these developments that had direct influence and connections to the later Jesus People movement arose in the San Francisco Bay area in 1966 and 1967. There, a core of bohemian converts led by Ted and Elizabeth Wise began attending a small Baptist Church in Mill Valley, California pastored by the Rev. John MacDonald, a 1943 graduate of Wheaton College and a classmate of evangelist Billy Graham. With the national publicity surrounding the growing hippie counterculture and the coming of 1967’s “Summer of Love,” Wise and friends were able to secure the backing of MacDonald and a few other (mostly Baptist) pastors and laypeople for an evangelistic and relief effort in the Haight-Ashbury district. In the summer of 1967 the group created a non-profit organization called Evangelical Concerns, Inc. that was used to funnel a small amount of money to support a coffeehouse/drop-in center in the Haight called the Living Room. [Image at right] At the same time, the Wises and three other couples began to live together communally in a large, rambling farm house in Novato, California, sometimes referred to as “The House of Acts” (MacDonald 1970; Eskridge 2013:37-39).

In January 1968, the group was featured in the cover article of the Wheaton, Illinois-based evangelical periodical Christian Life. The article about the new “Street Christians” was controversial but generated a buzz in evangelical circles about ministry to hippies and the drug culture (Allen 1968). This resulted in numerous visits to the Living Room and inquiries to the board of Evangelical Concerns. The Living Room closed in early 1969 but only after making contact with thousands of hippies and runaway youth and a number of evangelical pastors and youth workers. Evangelical Concerns would continue providing some support to a number of communal homes and evangelistic efforts in the Bay area into the mid-1970s, particularly “United Youth Ministries,” a network organized by Baptist seminarian Kent Philpott and his ex-Hare Krishna associate, David Hoyt (Philpott 2014).

But during this time the center of gravity for what became the Jesus People movement shifted to Southern California as the Los Angeles area became home to several evangelical efforts to reach out to hippies and drug users. One of the most visible of these early efforts was the work of a young Southern Baptist preacher named Arthur Blessitt, who began working with runaways and junkies on the Sunset Strip. [Image at right] In mid-1968, he opened a storefront mission called “His Place” on Sunset Boulevard. Part old-style skid row mission and part psychedelic coffeehouse, His Place attracted a steady flow of kids with Kool-Aid, peanut butter sandwiches, and a hip patter that urged his hearers to drop “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John” instead of LSD and to get “high on Jesus” (Blessitt 1970:26). As converts began to accumulate, the longish-haired and bellbottom-wearing Blessitt became well-known both on the street and in the area’s evangelical churches.

Another ministry that began to work with the growing hippie population on Sunset Strip was the Tony and Susan Alamo (Pronounced Ah-LAH-mo) Foundation. Tony, a former crooner and record promoter, and Susan, a platinum blond itinerant Pentecostal evangelist, appeared on the Sunset Strip in late 1968 passing out tracts and preaching hellfire and damnation to passing youth. Eventually attracting a following, the Alamos began Bible studies in houses near the Strip and by early 1970 had relocated their base of operations to a seven-and-one-half acre property in the desert town of Saugus, about forty miles northwest of the city. Over the next several years the Alamo Foundation’s buses would become a regular sight on the Strip, delivering crews of fiery young evangelists that would return every evening with a load of youth seeking a free meal and shelter. Once converted, the new disciples entered a strict, no-nonsense, fundamentalist regimen that was increasingly isolated from more mainstream evangelical churches and shunted their several hundred followers into Alamo-oriented business enterprises (Enroth, Ericson, and Peters 1972:54-65).

Located a world apart from the Sunset Strip, another outreach that began to connect with LA’s hippies was the youth group run by Don Williams, the Ph.D-holding youth pastor at Hollywood Presbyterian Church. Introduced by a pregnant runaway girl to the various hippie “tribes” of Hollywood and intuiting the importance of music for the younger generation, Williams convinced his elders to bankroll the creation of a coffeehouse that would present Christianity to a youthful audience in a more relevant setting. The Salt Company coffeehouse opened in a building adjacent to the church in the summer of 1968 and regularly attracted a mix of 300-400 church youth, college kids, and street people every weekend. [Image at right] With a mix of in-house and area musicians whose styles ranged from Dylanesque folk to hard rock, the Salt Company became not only a venue for the early LA-area “Jesus Music” scene, but a “how-to” example for what would become a burgeoning Christian coffeehouse phenomenon (Williams 1972).

A fourth early manifestation of what would become known as the Jesus People movement was located out in Huntington Beach in Orange County. There, a group called “Teens for Christ” (and later known as the “Children of God”) under the leadership of a former Christian & Missionary Alliance pastor named David Berg set up shop in early 1968 in a building near the oceanfront dubbed the Light Club. With his adult children and their spouses serving as musical entertainment and core leadership, Berg and his group began to dress like beach bums and hippies and began to attract a following. Declaring a “Revolution for Jesus,” Berg criticized the older generation, middle-class lifestyles, and “Churchianity” and began attracting a lot of attention in 1969 (much of it negative) as the demonstrative, enthusiastic group appeared in public areas and crashed local church services. (Van Zandt 1991:31-34; Eskridge 2013:63-68).

The largest and most influential of all these early efforts, however, was an outreach to hippies connected to Calvary Chapel, a small non-denominational church in Costa Mesa. The church’s pastor, Chuck Smith, had formerly been part of the International Church of the FourSquare Gospel (the denomination founded by Aimee Semple McPherson) but had severed his ties with the group largely over concerns about internal politics and emotional Pentecostal displays. Coming to Calvary Chapel in 1965, Smith presided over a modest, but growing church that soon included work with runaways and drug addicts through a mentoring relationship with John Higgins, a recently-converted salesman enamored of the live-in ministry model being touted by David Wilkerson.

In the spring of 1968, Smith and his wife Kay were introduced to Orange County native Lonnie Frisbee, who had formerly been part of the Living Room group up in the Bay Area. Smith was impressed with Frisbee’s zeal and evangelistic gifts and brought he and his wife Connie on staff to help Higgins with a new endeavor to house hippie converts. In May 1968, Calvary Chapel opened its first communal home in Costa Mesa, the House of Miracles. The house was soon overflowing and other communal homes (the Philadelphia House, Mansion Messiah, I Corinthians House, and the Blue Top Motel) opened up in Costa Mesa, Santa Ana, Newport Beach, Riverside, and other cities. Increasingly, ministry to the hippies, druggies, and beach bums dominated Calvary Chapel. With Smith as the wise, fatherly Bible teacher, Frisbee as the charismatic “Hippie Preacher,” and an increasingly wide berth given to a burgeoning number of upbeat, pop and folk-influenced musicians and bands, the church’s informal atmosphere began to attract local high school-aged youth as well. Soon, Calvary Chapel moved to multiple services, outgrew its sanctuary, and relocated to a large circus tent in the middle of an old farm field on the boundary line between Santa Ana and Costa Mesa. By mid-1970, the church was pulling in over 1,500 people every Sunday and attracted hundreds to near-nightly Bible studies. Monthly baptisms held along a rocky beach at Corona del Mar State Park were a popular element of Calvary Chapel’s program (often bringing out 500 or more baptismal candidates) and became a stock image of the Jesus movement in the popular press (Smith with Steven 1972; Enroth, Ericson, and Peters 1972:85-94). [Image at right]

By the beginning of 1970, Calvary Chapel’s success was merely the most prominent component of what had become a thriving Jesus People scene in Southern California. Christian coffeehouses and various evangelistic efforts targeting hippies and their teenaged admirers were seemingly everywhere. At Bethel Tabernacle in Redondo Beach, Pentecostal evangelist Lyle Steenis with his own former hippie sidekick, Breck Stevens, had a following of ex-druggies that numbered in the hundreds. Outside the UCLA campus Hal Lindsey, a former staff member with Campus Crusade for Christ, established the JC Light & Power House that combined Bible training and prophecy teaching in a communal home setting. In the West Covina area a Baptist youth pastor, Ron Turner, had begun a string of coffeehouses and Bible studies under the banner of the “Agape Force.” Meanwhile, Duane Pederson, a mild-mannered Minnesota Baptist and would-be-gospel-magician provided a new dimension to the movement through his creation of a Jesus People version of an underground street paper (the Hollywood Free Paper), which soon acquired its own printing operation and was being passed out in the tens of thousands across the country. [Image at right] Overall, by the summer of 1970, there was a full-blown Jesus People “scene” in Southern California that featured well over a hundred Jesus People groups, coffeehouses, and communal homes stretching from Santa Barbara in the north to San Diego in the south, and out to San Bernardino and Palm Springs in the west (Eskridge 2013:76-77).

But while SoCal was arguably the early hot spot for the new Jesus People, the movement was hardly limited to that region. By 1969, often independent of any direct connection to, or knowledge of, what was going on in Southern California, groups of converts from the counterculture and ministries targeting hippies were springing up across the country. In the Bay area, groups connected to Evangelical Concerns continued to expand their efforts and the Christian World Liberation Front (CWLF), started by a quartette of former Campus Crusade for Christ workers led by Jack Sparks, evangelized the radical student population in Berkeley (Streiker 1971:90-107; Sparks 1974). In Washington state, a loosely-connected string of communal houses and coffeehouse called the Jesus People Army sprang up in Seattle, Spokane, Tacoma, Vancouver and a number of other towns under the leadership of Linda Meissner, Carl Parks, and Russell Griggs (Enroth, Ericson, and Peters 1972:116-28). Former Calvary Chapel staffer John Higgins relocated to Oregon and created a communally-based organization called the Shiloh Youth Revival Network that quickly added farms and a training center in Oregon as well as across North America (Richardson, Stewart, and Simmonds 1979). [Image at right]

Outside the West Coast, the movement grew more slowly, but by late 1970 was present in about every corner of the country. In upstate New York near Ithaca, a deejay from the Christian Broadcasting Network named Scott Ross became the rallying point for a syndicated youth-based radio ministry (The Scott Ross Show), coffeehouse, and a commune known as the Love Inn. Former Bay area leader David Hoyt founded the Atlanta Discipleship Training Center that operated communal homes in that city as well as sponsored Jesus People houses in other Southern cities, such as Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Birmingham, and Jacksonville. In Milwaukee, Jim and Sue Palosaari began a coffeehouse (the Jesus Christ Powerhouse), their own bootstrap training center/Bible college (the Milwaukee Discipleship Training Center), a newspaper (Street Level), and sponsored touring rock bands (The Sheep and Charity) and evangelistic teams (Enroth, Ericson, and Peters 1972:128-33). Meanwhile, other Jesus People groups sprung up in Kansas City (Agape House), Wichita (Brothers and Sisters in Christ [B.A.S.I.C].), suburban Chicago (Jesus is Lord), Fort Wayne (the Adam’s Apple), Cincinnati (The Jesus House), Akron (The Avalon), as well as in New Jersey (Maranatha, New Milford) and the suburbs of New York City (The Way East–founded by former members of San Francisco’s Living Room, Steve and Sandi Heefner) (Eskridge 2013:104-22).

Although the combination of counterculture and evangelical Christianity that produced the Jesus People was utterly unexpected, there actually were a number of affinities between the two subcultures. First, the exuberant style of Pentecostal worship was attractive to hippies who tended to be interested in the mystical and who valued spontaneity and emotional openness. [Image at left] Second, evangelicalism’s traditional associations with rural America, its primitivist tendencies, and outsider status fitted nicely with countercultural sensibilities and nostalgia for simpler times. Third, the black and white churches of the South were the musical roots of the rock music which played such a central role within the counterculture. Fourth, the evangelical emphasis on the end times (particularly as characterized in this period by the popularity of books like Hal Lindsey’s bestselling The Late, Great Planet Earth) mirrored hippie perceptions of the apocalyptic direction of modern America. Finally, evangelical views about sin and the need for salvation seemed convincing as dreams of a hippie utopia unraveled amid evidence of the physical, psychological, and social pathologies of indiscriminate sex and drug use.

For the most part, the Jesus People received little attention in the media through 1968 and 1969. What coverage it did receive came in the religious press where the focus was on individuals and the idea of outreach to hippies, rather than any notion that there was any sort of “movement” worth noting. This began to change in 1970 as coverage in the religious media picked up and stories in the secular press (particularly a piece in the August 3 issue of Time) began to comment upon the “latest incarnation of that oldest of Christian phenomena: footloose, passionate bearers of the Word, preaching the kingdom of heaven” that had arisen among young people blending the counterculture with the sawdust trail (“Street Christians” 1970).

Early in 1971, the Jesus People story began to appear all over the press. The initial jump-start for the new flood of publicity came on New Year’s Day via evangelist Billy Graham’s enthusiastic interactions with the young Jesus People in Pasadena he encountered while serving as the Grand Marshall of the Rose Parade. Graham subsequently began to talk up the movement in his interviews and press conferences just as the first major media coverage began to hit (Eskridge 1998). In late January, NBC broadcast a two-hour documentary that largely focused on the Children of God. Look magazine featured a major story on the Jesus People in early February and a few days later the movement gained national attention through a “Jesus March” on the state capitol in Sacramento that attracted over 7,000 Jesus freaks and church youth. Major stories in Life, Newsweek, the New York Times, and Wall Street Journal triggered an avalanche of coverage in denominational newspapers and magazines and sent reporters for local papers scurrying to find evidence of the Jesus People in their communities. On June 21, the movement achieved “official” cultural status when “The Jesus Revolution” was the cover story for Time [Image at right].

Much of the secular media coverage was boosterish, charmed, even (“there is an uncommon morning freshness to this movement, a buoyant atmosphere of hope and love;” “The New Rebel Cry 1971) and often reflected a “man bites dog” tone. The religious press largely shared in this sort of coverage. While in some theological and cultural corners the tone was cautious or critical, more often the tone was triumphalist, seeing the Jesus People as the vindication of conservative Christianity, a likely indicator of a sweeping national revival, or even a herald of the End Times. Stories in both the secular and religious press tended to naively portray the movement as monolithic, missed differences between groups, and occasionally tabbed run-of-the-mill evangelical youth ministries, as well as groups that were on the margins of mainstream evangelical orthodoxy (the Way International, the Society of Holy M.A.N.S., and even in a few instances, the Process Church of the Final Judgment), as “Jesus People.” This lack of nuance, if anything, only tended to magnify the movement in the public eye.

As journalistic coverage increased, a number of Jesus People leaders, pastors, journalists, and scholars also began to churn out books about, or connected to, the movement. Over the next two years, over fifty titles having to do with the Jesus People (in some way) appeared on the nation’s bookshelves. Almost uniformly the books were positive (not altogether a surprise as the majority of the volumes originated at points evangelical) and tended to focus on Southern California. Easily the most successful of these books was Billy Graham’s The Jesus Generation, which sold well over half a million copies. [Image at right] But, other volumes such as The Jesus Movement by Christianity Today news editor Ed Plowman and Jesus People by Duane Pederson also sold well, particularly to evangelical readers eager for news about the unexpected youth revival that was sweeping the nation.

The riptide of publicity stoked the nationwide growth of the movement. Fueled by a torrent of idealistic evangelical youth eager to identify as Jesus People, existing groups like the Shiloh communities and the Children of God attracted numerous recruits while hundreds of new communes, fellowships, and coffeehouses sprang up. More importantly, Jesus People themes, music, and jargon were incorporated into the existing youth programs of churches, high school-based groups like Campus Life, and successful youth evangelism programs such as the SPIRENO (Spiritual Revolution Now) campaigns among Southern Baptist young people in the Southwestern United States. These developments signaled a major shift in both the demographics and dynamics of the movement. While long-haired hippie converts were still being converted out of the drug and counter cultures, its make-up was increasingly younger and more middle class, and created a Jesus People-based evangelical youth subculture that paralleled the larger youth culture.

No one event signaled the evangelical “capture” and mainstreaming of the Jesus freaks than did the massive week-long EXPLO ’72 conference held in Dallas, Texas in mid-June 1972. [Image at right] Sponsored by Campus Crusade for Christ, the event had originally been conceived as an evangelistic training seminar aimed at college students with a secondary purpose of defusing campus radicalism. But as planning proceeded, the growing impact of the Jesus People skewed the event’s contours toward the movement, and Campus Crusade began to recast its program and quickly drew up plans for a week-ending “Jesus Music Festival.” The new direction attracted more interest from church youth groups and as a result the demographics of the attendees shifted toward a high school-aged cohort that surpassed the college-age “delegates.”

By the time EXPLO got underway 85,000 young people rolled into Dallas. They packed daytime seminars and nightly rallies at the Cotton Bowl, where Billy Graham and Campus Crusade leader Bill Bright tried to rein in the enthusiastic J-E-S-U-S cheering crowds between speakers and musical acts. On Saturday, June 17, an estimated 180,000 people gathered on a patch of land between two freeways at the Texas State Fairgrounds to hear a variety of musicians (including Johnny Cash and his retinue), athletes, beauty queens, and Billy Graham urge those on hand to carry the gospel back to their home towns and schools. EXPLO (dubbed “Godstock” by some observers) made the nightly network newscasts, the cover of Life magazine, and produced front page coverage and photographs in the New York Times as well as wire service stories in hundreds of papers across the country (Turner 2008:138-46). However, the event turned out to be the last great wave of media coverage for the Jesus People. While a few books would continue to appear into 1973 (including several somewhat late-to-the-rodeo academic volumes) and occasional stories continued to appear in the religious press, the movement gradually faded out of the news.

On the ground, however, the movement continued to spread, particularly into the Great Lakes region. Arguably, by late 1972 the Jesus People center-of-gravity had shifted from the well-publicized Southern California scene to a less-centralized, far-flung network of Jesus People coffeehouses, communes, and “fellowships” (churches) that had arisen throughout the Midwest. While there were exceptions (for instance, the Jesus People USA commune in Chicago), the individual, local manifestations of the Midwestern version of the Jesus movement tended to be smaller affairs than their California predecessors. But what they lacked in unit size, they made up for in corporate ubiquity as almost every sizeable city, town, or lonely county seat between Kansas City in the west, to central Pennsylvania in the east, and from the Ohio River north into southern Ontario had some sort of Jesus People presence in the early-to-mid 1970s (Eskridge 2013:146-55).


The Jesus People movement was in most respects characterized by a general adherence to the doctrines of conservative evangelical Christianity, with a heavy tilt in the direction of Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement. Some sectors of the movement maintained a distrust of the religious establishment, which could mean anything from a disapproval of “cold” non-evangelical congregations to viewing all established churches with disdain (as was often the case with the Children of God). Jesus People venerated the Bible, devoting hours to reading, memorizing, and “rapping” about its meaning. While a broadly evangelical orthodoxy marked the overall movement, the formal and informal theological approaches could vary widely depending on the denominational and theological pedigrees and influences within each individual group. Indeed, it’s important to note that for many Jesus People groups theological beliefs and views were often in a state of flux. The fluctuating influence of particular individuals, authors, and Bible teachers would cause groups to modify or change their views over time. Often, the coming and going of particular individuals as well as personal and group experiences (positive and negative) would cause Jesus People groups to reconsider or modify various assumptions and beliefs.

The Jesus People believed that all human beings, stemming back to the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, were sinful and in need of salvation to rescue them from eternal punishment in Hell. They believed that Jesus Christ was the promised Messiah and the Son of God who had provided a substitutionary death in mankind’s place. Belief in his sacrifice and a personal commitment to follow him ushered the believer into a personal relationship with Christ and opened the way to a more abundant life in this world and eternal life in heaven. The Jesus People were nearly all solidly Trinitarian (although a few small “Jesus Only” groups emerged) and venerated not only Jesus, but God the Father, and had a particularly high regard for the person and work of the Holy Spirit (Smith 2011:296).

Many of the Jesus People’s doctrinal and theological beliefs were the direct result of input from evangelical church-based evangelists, pastors, and youth workers allied to, working with, or sponsoring, various groups. As a result, they not only tended to mirror a general Christian orthodoxy but tended toward a fundamentalist view of biblical inerrancy. They were also influenced by evangelical eschatological views and writings of dispensational premillennial persuasion (particularly such works as The Late, Great Planet Earth), and many Jesus People were sure that the Second Coming was right around the corner. A survey of former participants in the Jesus movement in the early 2000s found that almost eighty percentof respondents had believed Christ’s return to Earth was imminent (Eskridge 2013:297). This provided a sense of urgency which, combined with the influence of their evangelical mentors and their own experiences and reading of the scriptures, only intensified their emphasis upon personal and group evangelism.

A particularly important characteristic of the Jesus movement was its embrace of the Pentecostal gifts of the Spirit. [Image at right] This came both through the Jesus People’s reading of the New Testament and the influence of various Pentecostal and Charismatic evangelists and pastors. A sampling of former Jesus People noted that over seventy-two percent of respondents had personally spoken in tongues during their time as part of the movement (Eskridge 2013:294). Nonetheless, despite the ubiquity of glossolalia, there was no clear uniformity on this point. The degree of emphasis on the necessity of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues as a necessary sign of the Baptism, and the importance of prophesying and “words of knowledge,” varied widely within the movement. Throughout the movement were prominent pockets of Jesus People (such as the CWLF and even Calvary Chapel, to an extent) that merely tolerated, significantly downplayed, or disapproved of Pentecostal manifestations. As one observer noted in 1971 after a nationwide tour of various groups, there was a sizeable minority that struck him as “Baptist” (Ward:122-26).


Because of the unorganized nature of the movement, local circumstances and personalities played important roles in shaping the emphases and tone of various Jesus People groups. Nonetheless, there was a pervading ethos that characterized the larger movement. In contrast to their conventional church-going brethren at the time, the Jesus People were usually true to their countercultural and youth culture roots: beards for men, long hair for both sexes, and casual clothes and hippie fashions were the defining couture of the Jesus People. Almost without exception their gatherings exhibited a come-as-you-are emphasis on comfort and many occasions featured groups gathered in face-to-face arrangements, seated in circles, or on the floor. Their worship services were often enthusiastic, emotional, and frequently characterized by upbeat music, speaking in tongues, and other Pentecostal manifestations. [Image at right].

Communion practices were varied and often fell in line with the routines of a particular evangelical church or denomination influential in a specific Jesus People group. However, informal communion as part of Bible studies or coffeehouse nights were not uncommon. Baptism was always for those who had been “saved” and, unless there was a specific tradition that influenced a particular Jesus People group almost always by immersion. It was not unusual for baptism to be an almost immediate response to conversion (one Midwestern leader recalled breaking the ice in a nearby pond to baptize new converts in the dead of winter (Rendleman 2003:64), and often Jesus People baptisms used public space at the ocean side, in lakes, rivers, and public swimming pools. This allowed converts to publically declare their intention to follow Jesus, opened the way for further evangelism, and gave the movement a valuable opportunity for publicity.

While some aspects of Jesus People worship and practice resembled conventional evangelical Protestant churches, there were other aspects of the movement that set them apart from their counterparts in the churches and served as distinctive markers of a Jesus People culture. One element that particularly stood out was the movement’s penchant for communal living, a practice that the Jesus People inherited from the hippie counterculture and that fell neatly into line with their readings of the Book of Acts. There were hundreds and hundreds of Jesus People communes functioning at any one time, and the Oregon-based Shiloh Youth Revival Centers may have created as many as 175 over the course of its history (Peterson 1996:61). Historian Timothy Miller has pointed out that the Jesus People communes were a major constituent sector of the 1960s communal movement and may have numbered “several thousand at one time or another” (Miller 1999:94). Indeed, it was common enough, and stood so far outside of the normal living arrangements of middle class evangelical Christian America, that it was one of the aspects of Jesus People life that most frequently drew comment by outside journalists and observers. While communal living was considered a necessary arrangement in only a few groups, many of its most prominent groups included communal houses as part of its infrastructure, and many of the most committed Jesus People experienced communal life, at least for a while.

While the Jesus People commune was perhaps the purest distillation of the movement, especially in its early years, its predominant institution was the coffeehouse. Drawing upon 1950s bohemia and the counterculture, the coffeehouse served as gathering place, evangelistic center, and communication point for Jesus People groups in different locales. As the Jesus movement grew in the wake of publicity in the early 1970s and began to attract more-settled evangelical church youth, the coffeehouse increasingly became the focal point of the Jesus People presence within most communities. Frequently assisted by local evangelical churches and organizations like the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Association, they featured names like The Belly of the Whale, The House of the Risen Son, and The Mustard Seed. The coffeehouse fulfilled a variety of functions: a setting for Bible studies, a center for prayer meetings and worship, a place to host concerts, and frequently just served as a place for local Christian youth to hang out.

The growth and group identification of the Jesus movement was nourished by their penchant for material and pop culture. Like the larger counterculture, the Jesus People combined the worlds of high and pop art, social commentary, and Madison Avenue that advertised their faith to outsiders even as they affirmed bonds with their brethren. One important dimension in this regard was underground-style “Jesus Papers” (such as The Hollywood Free Paper, the Christian World Liberation Front’s Right On! and Jesus People USA’s Cornerstone) that enjoyed local, regional and, sometimes, national circulation. Mimicking the colorful, art-filled street papers of the hippie counterculture, the Jesus papers provided evangelistic articles, testimonies, commentary on various issues, and information about local Bible studies, rallies, and upcoming concerts.

Another means of visible promotion and self-identification came with the Jesus movement’s enthusiasm for crosses, jewelry, posters, buttons, patches, and bumper stickers emblazoned with slogans and symbols like “One Way!” [Image at right] “Have a Nice Forever,” and “Jesus is Coming!” In response, earnest evangelical and Jesus People entrepreneurs (eager to capitalize spiritually and financially from the movement) supplied the material wherewithal to enable tens of thousands of young Jesus freaks to go out “shining their light” before the world. The new influx of Jesus merchandise and its new customers were key to the expansion of the Christian bookstore market in the 1970s as the young Jesus consumers promoted a shift in the stores’ target demographic (McDannell 1995:246-47).

Even more important to Jesus People identity, internal life, and appeal was the central role that music played within the movement. The ubiquitous presence of guitar-strumming balladeers and Jesus rock bands in the hundreds of coffeehouses that dotted the land, and the simple, but catchy Scripture songs and “praise” choruses sung in home Bible studies and Jesus freak “fellowships” pointed up the reality of Time magazine’s 1971 observation that “music, the lingua franca of the young” was the “special medium of the Jesus movement.” (“The New Rebel Cry” 1971:61). Freely importing the folk, pop, and rock music tastes of contemporary youth, the Jesus movement largely set conventional evangelical scruples about worldly entertainment and rock ‘n’ roll on their collective ear. By embracing popular musical styles, the Jesus People not only established a bridge to the larger generational cohort outside the movement, but also catered to evangelical youth whose enthusiasm for popular music had been on the rise in the form of church-based folk combos and youth musicals in the 1960s.

Chuck Smith’s Calvary Chapel played a major role in this development. Smith’s early encouragement of youthful musical expressions groomed a stable of new “Jesus Music” singers and bands. Through its services, evangelistic concerts, touring bands including Love Song, [Image at right] Children of the Day, and Mustard Seed Faith; and its own fledgling Maranatha! Records label, Calvary Chapel helped spread the new music throughout Southern California, up the West Coast, and, increasingly, eastward across the country. But Calvary Chapel simply shared in the larger impulse that characterized the movement. “Jesus Music” was an integral part of the movement wherever it appeared. Whether in the guise of amateurish guitar plunking at a coffeehouse Bible study or professionally-credible bands at a steadily-increasing number of full-blown concerts and “Jesus festivals,” music was everywhere among the Jesus People. Artists from different parts of the country such as Larry Norman (Los Angeles area), Wilson-McKinley (Pacific Northwest), Randy Matthews and Petra (Midwest), Liberation Suite (Texas), and Pat Terry (Southeast) soon gained local, regional, and even national followings through appearances on a growing vaudeville-like circuit of coffeehouses and concert venues. In the process, Jesus Music began to move away from its informal, homegrown, countercultural roots towards the trappings and business practices of the mainstream music and entertainment industries. Although a shadow of big-time rock ‘n’ roll, by the mid-1970s Jesus Music became increasingly professionalized and under corporate control as recording contracts, better production values, improved packaging and distribution, and a tiny (but increasing) amount of radio airplay made the music more available to fans even as it brought an aura of spiritualized stardom to its artists (Baker 1985; Stowe 2011).


Reflecting both the loose affiliations of the counterculture and the many-faceted denominational mosaic of American evangelicalism, the Jesus movement was split into thousands of groups, communes, coffeehouses, and “fellowships” that often had no direct links to any other entity. As a result, there was never anything even remotely resembling a national infrastructure or authoritative leadership for the movement as a whole. While the fast-paced growth and success of some nodes of the Jesus movement found individual pastors, elders, or leaders exercising authority over substantial operations, the average Jesus People group’s footprint was small, and its influence and leadership, local.

A few Jesus People efforts were begun by individuals with Bible college or seminary training, or by actual ordained clergy who had previously pastored churches–people like the Salt Company’s Don Williams in Los Angeles, Jim Durkin of the Gospel Lighthouse in Eureka, CA, or the Illinois-based Christ for the Nations’ Bill Lowery. Almost without exception their experience, education, and roles as evangelists and teachers established them as the de facto leader of their groups. The paths to positions of authority under these leaders varied from one to the next, but could involve recognition of spiritual maturity, commitment, intelligence, or perceived loyalty to the leader. There were also attempts in some groups to create internal leadership training mechanisms or the encouragement of more formal biblical and theological education.

However, numerous, likely the vast majority of, Jesus People groups sprang up within local contexts more-or-less as the result of individual lay initiative or peer-to-peer evangelism. In these instances most Jesus People entities looked to a simple New Testament model of elder rule with leaders chosen after a period of prayer (and often, fasting), frequently through democratic-style election. Not surprisingly, those who evidenced the most knowledge of the scriptures, evangelistic prowess, commitment to the group, willingness to work, charisma, or sheer force of personality ended up in positions of authority. However, even in these instances many local Jesus People organizations and coffeehouses relied on a local clergyman to serve as advisors, and in some cases would even establish formal advisory boards made up of local clergy and laypeople.

In almost all cases the leaders and elders in Jesus People groups were male (understanding New Testament passages such as I Corinthians 11: 1-16, I Corinthians 14:34, and I Timothy 2:12 to dictate male “headship” and preclude leadership by women). Nonetheless, a few figures like Linda Meissner in Seattle’s Jesus People Army (Bustraan 2014:78-80), Faith and Linda (Deborah) Berg in the Children of God (Van Zandt 1991), and Dawn Herrin Mortimer in Jesus People USA (Young, 2015) were the actual group leaders, wielded divisional authority, or were members of ruling elder councils. Some groups occasionally established deaconess positions and the Shiloh organization created a “patroness” designation for leadership of deaconesses (Richardson, 1979: 48). But these, however, were exceptions to the general rule. Nonetheless, even within these strictures, women often wielded significant authority and influence within Jesus People groups, to say nothing of playing a major part in the day-to-day life of their operations.

While the Jesus movement was almost entirely a welter of unconnected individual entities, various figures from within the movement did wield influence as leaders and teachers regionally, and in some cases, nationally. Calvary Chapel’s Lonnie Frisbee, Shiloh’s John Higgins, Jack Sparks from the CWLF, the Hollywood Free Paper’ s Duane Pederson, Southern Baptist youth leader Richard Hogue, and Fort Wayne’s John Lloyd all had regional celebrity and received some national name recognition. Don Williams’ role in establishing Hollywood Presbyterian’s Salt Company coffeehouse, and Arthur Blessitt’s Sunset Strip evangelism and later, the visibility and publicity surrounding his cross-walking ministry, both caught the attention of national evangelical audiences. Upstate New York’s Scott Ross’ syndicated radio program that at one point went out over 180 rock stations made him a national figure within the movement. But probably the most widely-recognized and influential figure to emerge from the Jesus movement was Calvary Chapel’s Chuck Smith. [Image at right] The sheer success of his “Little Country Church” in Orange County; the ubiquitous images of his ocean baptisms; the spread of his sermon cassettes in charismatic and Jesus People circles; and, the founding and subsequent growth of his Maranatha Music record label and publishing company, made him easily the most-recognized Jesus People figure in the overall movement and in larger evangelical circles (Eskridge 2013:304-05).


The nationwide expansion of the movement along with the parallel growth of “Jesus Merchandise” and a “Jesus Music” genre/industry seemed, by the mid-1970s, to indicate that the Jesus People were gearing up for the long haul. In reality, however, the Jesus movement was already on its last legs. A number of factors and trends contributed to this reality.

One of the foundational problems affecting the movement was that it was so scattered, disorganized, and diverse that there was no way its individual units could ultimately be coordinated or channeled. Another factor boiled down to cultural timing: the rapid fade of the counterculture in the early 1970s, along with the sense that the Jesus freaks were yesterday’s news, contributed to a general dearth of publicity that undoubtedly undercut the movement’s growth. Other larger cultural trends and realities also played a role in the Jesus People’s disappearance. Certainly, the mid-late 1970s economy with its stew of raging inflation, stagnant job growth, and rising oil prices was no help to the many struggling Jesus People groups that already existed on a shoestring budget.

More of a problem was the fact that the Baby Boom cohort that made up the movement was growing up. Increasingly marriage, education, jobs, and families took many Jesus People out of the frontlines in the communes and coffeehouses, muting or re-channeling their religious enthusiasm toward (usually) the pews of the nation’s evangelical churches. Finally, perhaps the biggest factor that impacted the movement was that the countercultural style with which the Jesus freaks had been so closely identified was eclipsed by a growing welter of youth culture styles as the 1970s moved on. The fashions, music, and values associated with disco, new wave, punk, and metal youth cultures were all removed from the peace-and-love ethos of the counterculture from which the Jesus People had emerged. Having traded on being hip and relevant, by the late 1970s the Jesus freak style had become something of an anachronism in the larger cultural scene.

Another persistent problem that dogged the movement throughout its history was the taint of authoritarian control. Clashes among leadership and within constituencies over internal decisions, responsibilities, and resource allocations are part and parcel of life in any religious or secular organization. The Jesus movement certainly had its share of these ordinary dust-ups as perceived leadership styles and internal struggles for power caused several groups, such as the Shiloh Youth Revival Network, to founder and come completely apart (Peterson 1990). The influence of the “Shepherding Movement” that had originated within Charismatic circles also proved problematic. Aimed at providing “covering” and authority in its efforts to “disciple” immature believers, the new Jesus People were thought of as ideal material. The efforts to shepherd new believers, however, led to a number of instances of intrusive control that caused individuals and couples to flee, and some groups to splinter into pieces (Moore 2003).

Much more damaging were patterns within some groups of manipulative and controlling behavior that led to actual instances of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, such as that which occurred in the Ohio-based Church of the Risen Chris, run by Rev. Larry Hill (Stevenson 2015). Much of the sensationalistic coverage and legal controversy surrounding David Berg’s Children of God also stemmed from accusations along these lines (Bainbridge 2002:1-20). This led not only to a discrediting and marginalization of that group within the Jesus movement and its evangelical supporters, but also helped create a wider net of suspicion and fear of “Jesus freak” groups within American culture in the 1970s’ “cult” mania.

What then is the long term impact and influence of the Jesus People movement? Although few elements of the Jesus People movement were able to survive in something like their original form (the Jesus People USA commune in Chicago being the most prominent of these: Young 2015), few groups were able to navigate changing times and make a go of it as individual congregations or parachurch ministries (Jews for Jesus, for example. See Tucker 1999). Undoubtedly the most significant institutional development to emerge from the Jesus movement was Calvary Chapel, the informal “non-denominational denomination” that grew out of Chuck Smith’s original church in Costa Mesa, California; by 2016 it had grown to be a “fellowship” of more than 1,600 churches in North America and overseas (Calvary Chapel website). Along with its daughter/splinter movement, the Vineyard International, which grew to over 600 churches in North America, and more than 1,800 others worldwide by 2016 (Vineyard website), they represented two of the largest new Protestant groups to form in the period after World War II. Many of these individual congregations were not begun by Jesus People but their history, and general style, is very much rooted in the ethos of the movement. Significantly, Calvary Chapel and Vineyard congregations have been in the forefront of the “megachurch phenomenon” (defined as a church with a sustained average attendance of at least 2,000 per week) with thirty three Calvary Chapel, and thirteen Vineyard, congregations defined as megachurches in one major statistical database (Hartford megachurch database 2016).

But even beyond the existence of Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard, the Jesus People proved to be a game-changer in terms of the evangelical movement and the larger American church. One of its major impacts came through its music. “Jesus Music” became the Nashville-based “Contemporary Christian Music (CCM)” industry whose stars such as Amy Grant, Petra, the Newsboys, DC Talk, and Sixpence None the Richer became known within the evangelical subculture and beyond. By the early years of the twenty-first century (before digital and downloading trends changed the entire music industry), it represented the bulk of gospel music sales that accounted for nearly seven percent of the total music market and had eclipsed (as a genre) the sales of jazz, New Age, Latin, and classical music combined (“Contemporary Christian” 2002).

The Jesus People were the source of an even larger, and more controversial, -musical influence in North American churches. After “a generation of leaders marginalized themselves to bring rock singing Jesus freaks into the sanctuary (Smith 2011:134),” church congregations of nearly every denominational and theological stripe seized upon the “praise and worship” music that had originated in the communes and coffeehouses of the Jesus movement, for their Sunday morning services. New publishing companies (including Calvary Chapel’s Maranatha! Music) and the singer-songwriters of the CCM world helped spread the new music into the churches as guitars and drums replaced organs, “worship teams” replaced choirs, and screen-projected lyrics pushed out hymnals (Hamilton 1999; Fromm 2006). The resultant “Worship Wars” in many congregations, seminaries, and denominations was testimony to the fact that the change was not universally embraced. Yet, although critics lambasted what they perceived as the introduction of entertainment values and a dumbing-down of lyrics and melodies, praise music became the default musical mode within a matter of decades in most evangelical churches.

The Jesus People’s influence on music bespoke the larger impact that the movement had on American evangelicals’ relationship to popular culture. Traditionally stand-offish to anything smacking of worldly entertainments, evangelicals’ tolerance/embrace of the Jesus movement and their music, artwork, jewelry, and affection for skits and drama signaled a shift in such scruples for the Baby Boomer generation and those that followed. While larger cultural forces were certainly at work and cinched the deal, the rise of the Jesus People certified that change was afoot.

Likewise, the Jesus People movement marked the beginning of a major shift in the way that evangelicals dealt with the reality of youth culture. While twentieth century conservative Protestants had gone to heroic efforts to keep and convert their young people through congregational, denominational, and parachurch groups that combined evangelism, recreation, and discipleship (Youth for Christ, Young Life, Campus Crusade for Christ, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, etc), their attitude toward the larger youth culture resembled the evangelical approach to worldly entertainments by trying to keep outside forces at arm’s length. The Jesus People, by contrast, represented the first major instance in which evangelicals tolerated and/or sanctioned a baptized version of the predominant youth culture. While the movement itself faded, the modus operandi did not as the conviction that musical styles and the trappings of youth culture were in essence neutral became ingrained within most evangelical circles. From the late 1970s onward, a multiplicity of evangelical youth subcultures grew up reflecting larger trends in youth culture and music.


Image #1 : Photograph of Ted Wise (l) and Danny Sands (r) who were part of the Living Room/House of Acts group in the San Francisco Bay Area, ca. 1967.
Image #2: Photograph of Arthur Blessitt witnessing on the Sunset Strip.
Image #3: Photograph of the front page of a Salt Company flyer.
Image #4: :  A photo of Chuck Smith and Lonnie Frisbee leading one of the Ocean Baptisms at Corona del Mar State Park.
Image #5: Photograph of the cover of an edition of the Hollywood Free Paper.
Image #6: Photograph of residents of a Jesus People house.
Image #7: Photograph of Jesus People worshiping in Milwaukee.
Image #8: Photograph of the June 21, 1971 cover of Time Magazine.
Image #9: Photograph of Billy Graham’s book The Jesus Generation.
Image #10: Photograph of the cover of Life Magazine featuring a story on EXPLO ’72.
Image #11: Photograph of Jesus People in prayer.
Image #12: Photograph of Jesus People in expressive worship.
Image #13: Photograph of a small group of Jesus People gathered around a “One Way” banner.
Image #14: Photograph of the Calvary Chapel’s Love Song musical group performing at a tent concert.
Image #15: Photograph of Chuck Smith preaching to countercultural youth in California.


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Post Date:
15 October 2016