The Jesus People Movement began in 1967 with the entrance of a number of Christian missionaries into hippie enclaves and formally ended in 1973 with the retreat of the visible counterculture from the North American foreground.
Though some have minimized its impact, at its peak the Jesus People Movement generated over 800 communal houses throughout the United States and Canada, spawned a massive number of conversions to the Christian faith and reverberated throughout 70 countries in the course of its wake. Though estimates of the total number of participants range from 30,000 to three million, it can be safely stated that the Jesus People Movement has been a neglected chapter in North American Protestant revival history.
For others who have analyzed this movement, less loftier explanations are grasped. For them, the Jesus People Movement is best understood as a social movement, arising as one of many viable alternatives within the context of the counterculture. When seen through this guise the Jesus People are perceived as societal drop-outs simply exchanging one dependency for another; Jesus in lieu of political activity, sexual overindulgence, or drug addiction.
Reasserting the dictum that ‘religion is the opiate of the masses,’ they claimed that affiliation with the Jesus People was akin to copping out of reality; that in fact, “one becomes a child again. The world is defused. . . [and] depoliticized. Jesus is coming.”
Converts to the movement were described as “maladaptive,” in need of “temporary security or escape,” or as having accepted Jesus because of ethical and psychic deprivation.
The combination of corporate and individual strife existing in the era provoked a reactionary reaffirmation of Christian beliefs and ethics. Though some credence must be given to sociological and psychological factors, the course of the following study aims to capture the Jesus people as they saw themselves. It will attempt to assess the Jesus People theologically and historically by endeavoring to comprehend the nature of periods of spiritual revival and mass conversions while tracing out the movement’s legacy to the contemporary church.
The Jesus People Movement began primarily as a missionary impulse into the burgeoning hippie enclaves that sprang up across the continent during the mid ’60s. A handful of pastors, seminary students and laypeople were compelled to enter areas of counterculture to share the message of the gospel and to meet the needs of this new breed of rebellious youth. These first missionaries saw their ‘callings’ as a response to Jesus’ command (known as ‘The Great Commission’) to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
The recollections of early Jesus People leaders all sound similar in comparison when asked to recount their being drawn to the counterculture’s dispossessed; in response to the leading of the Holy Spirit they entered these hippie communities for the expressed purposes of evangelism. To their surprise, they found a receptive audience prepared to wholeheartedly accept their spiritual message. Most of those involved agreed that they “did not have to argue for the existence of the supernatural. Most street people already knew that the supernatural was a real realm and that they were soulish beings somehow related to it.”
As more and more hippies responded to the Christian message, they began to share their experiences with their friends and a groundswell of spiritual activity ensued. Large numbers of hippies began to renounce sexual promiscuity, their dependence on drugs and the hedonistic lifestyle while proclaiming Jesus Christ as their ‘savior.’ True to the language of the streets, the hippie proclaimed his/her salvation in the vernacular of the street; “once high on drugs, the Jesus freak is now high on Jesus. Jesus is the ultimate trip, a high which never ends.”
Throughout cities in the United States and Canada, reverberations of spiritual activity travelled quickly as sparks to dry tinder, igniting a huge brush fire of spiritual activity that crossed the continent and eventually the world. Richard Lovelace made the observation that “some measure of evangelical renewal is occurring everywhere in American Christianity – except perhaps in the comfortable pews of the Middle-American church. The resulting tableau is like Elijah’s altar before the fire had fully taken hold.”
By early 1971 there were Jesus People communities, coffeehouses and establishments in every state and province throughout the continent. By the end of 1971, the story of the Jesus People had graced the covers of magazines worldwide. Time reported: “It is a startling development for a generation that has been constantly accused of tripping out or copping out with sex, drugs, and violence. Now, embracing the most persistent symbol of purity, selflessness, and brotherly love in the history of Western man.” Religion had made a startling comeback to the forefront of the North American situation. Once again, Jesus Christ was more popular than the Beatles.
– Source: David DiSabatino, The Advent of the Jesus People
The above quote comes from the History of the Jesus Movement, a thesis by David Di Sabatino, which became the basis for his book The Jesus People Movement: An Annotated Bibliography and General Resource