A brief history of the Jesus Movement

"On Hollywood's Sunset Strip," Newsweek reported in 1971, "they roam about in shaggy pairs, praising the Lord and pressing for converts at the drop of a psychedelic Bible tract. On Midwestern college campuses, fellow-travelers of the Jesus People stalk the fringes of the radical political rallies shouting 'Right on - with Jesus!'" Look magazine warned, "Look out, you other 49 states. Jesus is coming."

The phenomenon that captured nationwide press coverage in 1971 had begun as a quiet ripple in America's youth culture as far back as 1967, appearing simultaneously in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle.

In many ways the spring and summer of 1967 was a bleak moment in America. Three astronauts were killed in the Apollo 1 explosion, and in Vietnam, American troops were moving into the Mekong Delta, and massing along the Cambodian border. Anti-war protests were escalating alongside the war itself, with draft card burnings, marches and other forms of demonstration on the rise. Black unrest was smoldering in cities across the nation in the wake of the Watts riots two years earlier.

In the narrow streets and gingerbread Victorian houses of the bohemian Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco (also simply called "The Haight"), a nameless but powerful youth-based counterculture had been born roughly the summer before and was gaining momentum. As young people arrived from the cities, suburbs and rural spaces of America for a "Human Be-In and Gathering of the Tribes" at the Polo Fields and Golden Gate Park, a Haight-Ashbury community of flower children began to self-organize around them. The Council for the Summer of Love, Happening House (a "university in the streets"), and an educational collective called Kiva were in the process of being formed along with a health center, the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic organized by physician David Smith.

One young Bay area couple, Ted and Liz Wise, then in their mid-twenties, were feeling a spiritual impulse, but each for a different reason. Ted, a Navy veteran and sailmaker, was interested in the possibility of a spiritual release from what had become for him an out-of-control involvement with the drug LSD. Liz began attending a local church in nearby Mill Valley in search of her childhood religious roots, and as a positive influence for the couple's two children. Before long the Wises became Christians, and as Ted recovered from his earlier drug abuse the couple began sharing their newfound faith with their friends.

Soon, they rented a rambling farmhouse in northern Marin county which they opened as a communal living space shared with three other young Christian couples and their children, and formed what is considered the first community of the fledgling Jesus Movement, the House of Acts. Life at the House was hard work and often beset with problems but, in Ted Wise's words, "better than church."

The Wises and the other couples from the House of Acts community provided the leadership for opening the first Jesus coffeehouse in the Haight, the Living Room, which opened in 1968 and ministered to the street people of the district for the next year and a half. The House of Acts members viewed this ministry in the Haight as their mission and "worked at odd jobs...like painting houses or digging ditches" to keep the doors open after local pastors provided "some of the means and all the respectability...needed to rent a storefront." The Living Room ministry, like the House of Acts, became "a greenhouse of fertile Christian ideas and growth" to the nascent community and both inspired and served as models for similar ministries across the United States.

A student at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in nearby Mill Valley, Kent Philpott, was drawn to the Haight by a sympathy for the hippie ideal which grew out of his earlier interest in and attraction to the beatnik lifestyle of the 1950s. Philpott and David Hoyt, a former Hare Krishna devotee converted to Christianity by Philpott and Golden Gate classmate Timothy Wu, opened the Soul Inn not long after the Living Room, in facilities borrowed from the Lincoln Park Baptist Church. The Soul Inn was in operation for nearly a year, closing when the host Lincoln Park church was sold.

On and around the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, former Campus Crusade for Christ missionary Jack Sparks and several co-workers formed the Christian World Liberation Front or CWLF (later called the Berkeley Christian Coalition) and published one of the first Jesus People newspapers, Right On! (later re-named Radix).

Where much of the Jesus Movement including the Hollywood Free Paper was often criticized as simplistic and superficial, Sparks' group engaged UC Berkeley's radical intellectuals, presenting the peaceful "inner revolution" of Jesus as a rational alternative to violent political revolution. Sparks patterned his strategy after the then-popular radical movement the Third World Liberation Front, drawing up a strong 13-point manifesto of the CWLF's beliefs.

Further up the Pacific coast in Seattle, Washington, a young Iowa farm girl named Linda Meissner, pictured above with Duane Pederson, was organizing local teens to form a "Jesus People Army" after leaving Central Bible College, an Assembly of God school in Springfield, Missouri. Meissner's group organized quickly, and one of the early Movement newspapers, Agape, began under her leadership.

The Catacombs, a Jesus People coffeehouse, opened in 1969 near the Space Needle built for the 1962 World's Fair. Two Jesus People commune houses, the House of Caleb and House of Esther, were opened in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle's North End, an area thrown into chaos by the prolonged 1962 construction of Interstate 5 and searching for an identity. In 1970, the Eleventh Hour, a ministry to Seattle's street youth similar in concept to the Living Room in Haight-Ashbury, opened in a rented storefront at 1st and Madison near the waterfront in downtown Seattle.

The movement that evolved from these modest beginnings grew in new and creative ways, many of which lived on as the movement itself began to fade in the mid 1970s. The folk-rock music of the movement became a new and lasting form of contemporary worship that is still popular today. Aspects of the earlier 60's counterculture were adapted to the movement, including peaceful demonstrations, coffeehouses and communal living in what are today called intentional communities. "They played and preached on street corners, in parks, coffeehouses, and outdoor amphitheaters," author John Fischer recalls. "Even their baptisms were in common places where people were used to gathering."

Perhaps the most important legacy of the Jesus Movement was its return to the simple Gospel and the New Testament prototype of Christianity, centered in the life and teachings of Jesus and demanding a personal relationship with Him, placing a renewed emphasis on discipleship, evangelism and Bible study.

We have covered here only the early West Coast beginnings of a movement that lasted for several years and spread across North America and Europe. It would be impossible to chronicle such a widespread and varied movement in its entirety. In particular the many artists and songs that made up the music of the movement, from Larry Norman to 2nd Chapter of Acts to Agape and many others, have been described and catalogued much better elsewhere than we can here. For those interested in further study about the Movement, more extensive historical material on the Jesus People can be found in the following excellent sources:

Recommended Reading

Bozeman, John M., Jesus People USA: An Examination of an Urban Communitarian Religious Group: Florida State University, 1990.

Di Sabatino, David: A Little History: Mississauga, Ontario, 1997.

Di Sabatino, David, History of the Jesus Movement: McMaster University, 1995.

Trott, Jon, Life's Lessons: A History of Jesus People USA: Chicago, 1999.

White, Rebecca M., The Jesus Movement: South Dakota State University, 1999.

Wise, Ted and Jason Cronn, A Grad Student Questions a Jesus Freak (later retitled "Jason Questions a Jesus Freak"), Peninsula Bible Church, 1997.




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