They came to San Francisco seeking something more — something significant, something transcendent. By the summer of 1967, a half-century ago this year, nearly 100,000 hippies and counterculture kids had gathered in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood to drop acid, indulge in free love, and escape the confining strictures of their middle-class upbringings. They wanted to join the revolution.
Yet the utopia called the Summer of Love wouldn’t last, and, after the movement faded out, not all of them went back to professional career paths. Disillusioned by bad trips and a sense that their pursuit of hedonism had been empty, thousands of burned out hippies soon experienced something possibly even more revolutionary than tuning out and turning on: a born-again religious conversion.
Sex, drugs, and — Jesus? It’s not what the Summer of Love generally calls to mind. But of all the things that came out of San Francisco in 1967, perhaps none was more unexpected, or more consequential, than the Jesus Freaks or, as they were more commonly known, the Jesus People.
While they would give up their drugs and promiscuous sex, the Jesus People retained much of their countercultural ways, bringing their music, dress, and laid-back style into the churches they joined. Their influence would remake the Sunday worship experience for millions of Americans. As the historian Larry Eskridge has argued, today’s evangelical mega-churches with their rock bands blasting praise music and jeans-wearing pastors “are a direct result of the Jesus People movement.”
But aside from the praise anthems and the casual preaching styles that have come to characterize contemporary evangelicalism, the Jesus People also reshaped American politics. They helped to inspire the birth of the religious right. Many conservative evangelicals had long avoided politics, believing it would corrupt their spiritual lives, but the Jesus People contended that Christians couldn’t keep their spiritual and political lives separate. “I think everybody should be a full-time Christian,” the Jesus People rock singer Larry Norman once said.
Religious right leaders would use a similar line of argument to mobilize millions of evangelicals. Even more, conservative evangelicals drew directly from the Jesus People’s self-conception as marginal figures standing apart from a corrupt system. If you’ve ever wondered how the religious right came to dominate American politics while simultaneously presenting themselves as aggrieved outsiders, you can trace some of the answer to the Summer of Love.
Christian coffeehouses presented themselves as an alternative to hedonism
One couple, Ted and Elizabeth Wise, have gotten a considerable — possibly outsize— amount of credit for starting the Jesus People movement. In the early 1960s, the Wises had lived in a beat commune in San Francisco where their marriage barely survived heavy drug experimentation, infidelity, and domestic violence. In desperation, Elizabeth, who had grown up in a devout Christian family, began attending a small Baptist church in Mill Valley, California, in 1964. Ted soon followed, and both became born-again.
Still, the Wises had no desire to shed all of their countercultural ways for the conventional mores of suburban churchgoers. Instead, Ted and Elizabeth returned to the Haight in the summer of 1967 with plans to proselytize the thousands of hippies pouring into San Francisco.
They opened a coffeehouse, called the Living Room, and, across the bay in Marin County, a commune, the House of Acts, where they served free food and offered a place to rest for hippies needing a break from the streets. Other Christian coffeehouses and communes, like Soul Inn and Berachah House, popped up across the Bay Area. Thousands of hippies would pass through these spots during summer of 1967 and in the months that followed. In exchange for some hot soup or a warm bed, the directors of these Christian spots simply asked the hippies to listen to a presentation of the Gospel or a short Bible reading.
The message that countercultural evangelicals delivered to their peers represented a radically different version of Christianity than preached in most churches at the time. Most repudiated institutional churches and their weak and vapid “Churchianity.” Instead, Ted and Elizabeth Wise, and others, stressed the need for a personal relationship with Jesus, who, in their telling, was not far from being a hippie himself.
The Jesus of the Summer of Love was a radical revolutionary who had come to serve the poor, bring about racial harmony, oppose war and violence, and challenge the political establishment — he was the “real revolutionist,” as some put it, an outlaw who hung out with outcasts, criminals, and prostitutes while leading an underground liberation movement for peace and justice.
“What will get you higher than acid? What will keep you up longer than speed,” went a favorite Jesus People chant. Beyond embodying the hippies’ idealism and radical social vision, Jesus healed the broken dreams and wrecked lives that many hippies felt were the Summer of Love’s unexpected consequence. Months of drug experimentation, free love, and life on the streets began to take its toll on many who had made pilgrimages to San Francisco. For those coming down from a bad trip or reeling from an experience of personal assault — sexual violence was common in the hippie communes — Jesus offered himself as companion and comfort, standing in stark contrast to the judgmental God one often found in churches at the time.
Those who took part in the Summer of Love wanted to change the world in fundamental ways; this was true of the Jesus People as well. Having come to San Francisco to join the revolution, the hippie converts found nothing was more countercultural than the totalizing work of following Jesus. Art, culture, the economy, and even politics — all needed to be transformed by those who had undergone the life-altering experience of conversion. “In an era when students have led the protest against war and racism,” the evangelical magazine Christianity Today observed in 1971, “we should not be surprised that they have taken the Gospel of Christ and moved it into their world.”.
Indeed, as the Jesus People spread throughout California and then across the nation to Chicago, Atlanta, and even Rye, New York, evangelical publications provided generally positive coverage of the movement. “Without doubt, God is at work in Haight-Ashbury,” Christian Life magazine glowingly reported.
Billy Graham’s endorsement of the Jesus People opened some church doors
Some evangelicals, however, remained skeptical that the Jesus People had experienced true conversion. Some of their outward attributes proved hard to look past. While the Jesus People thought their bell bottom jeans, flowing robes, and, for the men, beards and long hair echoed Jesus’s look, a man from Arkansas wrote to Christian Life magazine that “to get down in the gutter and wallow in filth is not like my Christ.” Elsewhere, the evangelist Gordon Lindsay warned fellow evangelicals they should reject the Jesus People and not “start down the street with the protestors and the revolutionaries.”
Perhaps more than anyone, Billy Graham, of all people, hastened mainstream evangelicals’ acceptance of the Jesus People. The famed pastor had his first encounter with the movement while serving as the 1971 Rose Bowl Parade’s grand marshal. Seeing hundreds of hippies lining the parade route with their index fingers pointed heavenward, Graham learned this was the Jesus People’s “One Way” salute, symbolizing that Jesus offered the only path to salvation. “If it is a fad,” Graham said of the Jesus People, “I welcome it.” Later that year Graham published The Jesus Generation, a book-length endorsement of the movement that quickly sold a half million copies.
Although a national awakening, the center of the Jesus People movement remained Southern California. In 1968, Chuck Smith, pastor of a small church called Calvary Chapel, and Lonnie Frisbee, a hippie who had found Jesus at the Wises’ coffeehouse during the Summer of Love, teamed up to minister to the beach hippies and homeless youth of Orange County. Smith and Frisbee developed a casual and relaxed approach for their church services that combined extended worship singing with laid back Bible talks.
Thousands of young people demonstrated their new faith by participating in the mass baptisms Smith conducted on the beach at Corona del Mar. A decade later, Calvary Chapel boasted 25,000 members, and dozens of sister churches had sprouted throughout Southern California.
Affiliation with the Jesus People also yielded explosive growth for the Vineyard Fellowship (an association of charismatic churches) and for individual congregations around the country that opened their doors to the Jesus People. That propulsive growth would prove long-lasting. A 1992 review of the nation’s largest 102 churches found that perhaps as many as one-third of these megachurches had direct ties to the Jesus People movement.
By the mid-1970s, the Jesus People had largely faded as a visible movement as the counterculture aesthetic fell out of fashion — “Where Have All the Jesus People Gone,” Eternity magazine asked in 1973 — but the reality was their deeper influence on American evangelicalism was just beginning to be felt. With their folk music, casual dress, and chill vibe, the Jesus People helped redefine the Sunday morning worship experience across American evangelicalism. For better or worse, the “Jesus Rock” that the Jesus People created and popularized led the way to the contemporary Christian music now embraced across many American denominations.
The Jesus People’s belief that one’s relationship with Jesus required total involvement in the world, in combination with a backlash against the excesses of ’67, led eventually to a gradual drift toward moral conservatism. The movement began to blend into, and reinforce, the religious right emerging in the late 1970s. Berkeley’s Christian World Liberation Front had argued that Jesus People were to “join others of his [God’s] forever Family here to change this world.” That message resonated with the hippie converts.
A merger with megachurch culture
As Time magazine reported in its 1971 cover article on “The Jesus Revolution,” the Jesus People “act as if divine intervention guides their every movement and can be counted on to solve every problem.” The problems that began to occupy their attention included abortion, feminism, and homosexuality. While they thought of themselves as radicals, the Jesus People had also committed themselves to the most conservative beliefs of evangelical Christianity, particularly regarding gender and sexuality.
Not coincidentally, many of the same churches that welcomed the Jesus People soon became organizing sites for the nascent religious right. Christian Voice, an early religious right organization founded in 1978, worked closely with the Calvary Chapel network and other nondenominational churches with strong Jesus People presences throughout California.
In her book A Nation of Outsiders, the historian Grace Elizabeth Hale has shown that the countercultural example of the Jesus People provided the language for conservative Christians to present themselves as outsiders of the dominant culture as the religious right accrued political power in the 1980s. Even if they were a majority of the population, as conservative Christians argued during the Reagan years — Jerry Falwell named his organization Moral Majority for a reason — their self-identity as marginalized figures in the American scene proved especially useful in a political context in which other outsiders, including racial minorities, feminists, and gay and lesbian people increasingly asserted their political rights.
While their critics would argue the religious right represented a cultural and political establishment that had denied other people their rightful place in American society, conservative white evangelicals lashed back that they were the nation’s real outsiders, the authentic counterculture to an amoral secular culture.
Jesus People often called themselves “radical Christians.” When Jerry Falwell implored conservative Christians in the 1980s to become “revolutionaries” for Jesus, he was tapping directly into that legacy. Co-opting the Jesus People’s outsider stance to justify their own entry into politics, white evangelicals took control of the Republican Party and set their sights on winning the nation.
Neil J. Young is the author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics. He co-hosts the history podcast Past Present.
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