Lonnie Frisbee and Calvary Chapel

Researcher David Di Sabatino is the recognized authority on the Jesus People movement. In his thesis on the history of the movement – which formed the basis of his book, The Jesus People Movement: An Annotated Bibliography and General Resource, he writes:

The alignment of the internationally known Calvary Chapel church with the Jesus People Movement is centered around the work of two contrasting images. Calvary Chapel was founded on the alliance of pastor-teacher, Chuck Smith Jr. and hippie evangelist Lonnie Frisbee.

Chuck Smith grew up in a stable and loving family who became Christians as a result of the miraculous healing of Chuck’s older sister. Upon entering Los Angeles Bible College in 1946, Chuck fulfilled a youth camp decision to enter the ministry. Taking a number of pastorates over the years, Smith speaks of enduring “17 years of denominational discomfort” where he believes that “God prepared him for what was about to happen.” In 1965, after moving to a small church in Costa Mesa, Smith stated he was given a prophecy that he would “become a shepherd over many flocks. . . to the point where our gathering place would not be adequate to contain all of the people.” In 1969, the tiny church had outgrown its facilities undertaking a building project. They erected a chapel on the border between Santa Ana and Costa Mesa. It was shortly before the building project that Smith would be introduced to Lonnie Frisbee.

Frisbee’s background was very different than Smith’s. Abused and sexually molested as a child, Frisbee carried this internal pain throughout his Christian life. Though raised in a Christian home, he found solace in the California drug subculture. A promising art student at the San Francisco Art Academy, Frisbee was initially drawn into the Jesus People Movement by members of the Haight’s Living Room mission. His subsequent reaffirmation of an adolescent confession of faith provided the movement with one of its most pivotal and controversial characters. Lonnie Frisbee was the epitome of the biblical motif of strength through weakness. Although he could barely read or write, he is remembered by his peers as “someone who accomplished more with less ability, than anyone.”

Frisbee’s insistent Pentecostal orientation put him at odds with some of his friends and pastors at Calvary Chapel. Some of his critics state that he was concerned solely with obtaining conversions insisting that converts ‘seek out’ the baptism of the Holy Spirit which Frisbee believed was necessarily accompanied by the evidence of speaking in tongues. His physical appearance was also a direct contrast to Chuck Smith’s large-frame. Frail and soft-spoken (unless talking about Jesus), he was a caricature of the Sunday-school images of Jesus. His charismatic appeal to those in the counterculture complimented the bible-teaching foundation of Pastor Smith. Those closely associated with the origins of Calvary Chapel state that ‘Frisbee brought them in, and Chuck taught them.’ Together, they forged an uneasy but dynamic twosome that propelled Calvary Chapel into a worldwide ministry.

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Chuck Smith states that his original interaction with the hippies came as a result of his wife, Kay, feeling a strong attraction to the ‘long-haired kids’ that hung out at Huntington Beach. He confesses his “initial revulsion at the hippie movement” which was “miles away from me in their thinking and attitudes.” As he began to see a number of the hippies accept Jesus into their lives, Chuck’s heart began to change. He desired to make a connection with the hippies:

So, Late one evening came a knock at the door and here was John [Nicholson] with a long-haired, bearded young man with bells on his feet and flowers in his hair. A real live hippie! ‘Chuck meet Lonnie.’ ‘Hi Lonnie.’ I extended my hand and welcomed him into the house. As we began to talk, I was not at all prepared for the love that this young man would radiate. His love of Jesus and his Spirit-filled personality lit up the room. We asked him to please stay with us for a few days.

Though there are some discrepancies in the story of their meeting, Smith did take Frisbee under his wing and urged him to be Calvary Chapel’s link into the hippie culture. Smith asked the young hippie:

If you could help John and a few of us share Christ with the hippies on the beach. . . I believe they would respond. You speak their language and you know better than any of us how, what and why they think and feel the way they do. Furthermore you could stay with us for a couple of weeks and help me understand what makes them tick.

When invited to share about his experiences in the drug culture Frisbee told the Calvary Chapel congregation:

. . . how he began using drugs in high school. He so zealously believed this was the answer to life’s problems he turned on his brothers and most of his friends to drugs. . . ‘But all that really didn’t satisfy me. . . . ‘I studied eastern philosophy and religion. I went through Haight- Ashbury when it was supposed to be where it was at. And then one day some brothers from the House of Acts commune told me where it was really at. And I accepted Jesus Christ. And man, it’s true, Jesus is where it’s at!’

Frisbee took to the streets with a zealousness that betrayed a genuine concern for the youth of the drug culture. Having met John Higgins (who would later go on and lead the Shiloh Ranches), these two became the link to the formation of communal houses under the guidance and support of Calvary Chapel. Higgins had become a Christian without any outside contact, reading through his Gideon bible two years prior to meeting any other Christians. In the mid-sixties Higgins moved to California in search of excitement. Ironically, he accepted Jesus during an effort to disprove Christianity. At the time, Higgins believed that he was the only one that truly understood this profound message, having stumbled across it accidentally. It would be two years before he came into contact with Lonnie Frisbee and Chuck Smith:

. . . and it was here that the leader [Higgins] received his training in a particular interpretation of Scripture. The experience of the leader of ‘baptism of the Holy Spirit’ or ‘speaking in tongues’ (gloss- olalia) also took place under Smith’s tutelage, and it was Smith who later encouraged the leader to serve as elder in the first Christian commune opened and supported in part by Calvary Chapel.
Source: The History of the Jesus Movement, David Di Sabatino, thesis finished during the 1993-94 semester year at McMaster Divinity College (McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada)

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First published (or major update) on Wednesday, December 7, 2005.
Last updated on October 10, 2021.

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