Religious historians have long been interested in the so-called Jesus Revolution, an evangelical movement from roughly the 1960s and 1970s. This movement created a number of the biggest names in evangelicalism. It also introduced concepts that evangelicals today think derive from their gauzy notion of original 1st-century Christianity.
But evangelicals have this funny habit. They love to revise their own history to make themselves look better. Considering the history of their religion as a whole, I guess the habit comes naturally to them. They’ve even recently made a movie about it! So today, let’s look at the Jesus Revolution. Let’s see how it’s been sterilized into modern hagiography for modern evangelical audiences.
(This post went live on Patreon on 2/21/2023. Its audio ‘cast also lives there!)
A new movie about the Jesus Revolution!
Very soon, the movie Jesus Revolution opens in theaters in America. (I see some theaters are showing it starting tomorrow, on the 22nd. However, its official release date seems to be February 24th.)
Jesus Revolution tells the story of various men involved with the actual Jesus Revolution. That’s a widespread evangelical movement from the 1960s and 1970s. It spawned a number of the biggest and most influential names in evangelicalism—from preachers to pastors to musicians. Unfortunately, it also spawned a number of evangelicals’ worst ideas and tribalistic customs and beliefs.
(We’ll cover these people, ideas, customs, and beliefs in more detail in a few minutes. For now, I just want to set forth some general facts.)
In Jesus Revolution, youthful Greg Laurie heads to Southern California—along with a lot of other young adults like him—to figure himself out. While there, he meets Lonnie Frisbee, an incredibly charismatic street preacher, and Chuck Smith, a straitlaced pastor who wants to draw all those navel-gazing young adults to his failing church. Together, these three unlikely partners help create what might well be the most influential movements in recent evangelical history.
The filmmakers even got Kelsey Grammer on board to play Smith! (Noooooooooo, Kelsey!!) If you’re wondering, he’s not evangelical. Far from it. He says he was raised as a Christian Scientist, which is a complete heresy to almost all evangelicals. But he’s close enough, I suppose.
As for the other roles, Frisbee’s actor, Jonathan Roumie, recently starred as Jesus in The Chosen, a TV series about Jesus’ life. Otherwise, he’s been doing voice acting for the past decade. Laurie’s actor, Joel Courtney, has been in some extremely forgettable teen movies.
Why the real Jesus Revolution began
Often, historians call the Jesus Revolution and its adherents by other names: Jesus Movement, Jesus People, Jesus Freaks. Of these labels, Jesus Movement and Jesus People are the ones I’ve heard most often.
As you might have noticed, Jesus is always part of these labels. That’s because the movement’s adherents and leaders hyper-focused on Jesus himself. They weren’t satisfied at all with their parents’ staid, ritualistic, Sunday-morning-only style of Christianity. Instead, they wanted something that felt real, authentic, supernatural, and most of all consuming. They thought (erroneously) that original 1st-century Christianity had been like that because Jesus had made it like that. After all, he’d been right there to get things started correctly.
Somehow along the way, though, Christians had tragically forgotten and abandoned their first love.
During the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, these proto-Jesus Revolution adherents saw lots of other young adults finding cosmic enlightenment, meaning, and purpose in all kinds of things. However, they always felt like Christianity should contain the ultimate state of all of those—and more.
In the Bible, these proto-adherents saw all these stories of people who encountered Jesus during his time on Earth and came away changed forever, given purposes and missions that they were willing to die to fulfill. And they wanted to be like those fictional characters. That’s the Christianity they wanted.
Evangelicals in particular are master manipulators with a nose for opportunity. It isn’t even vaguely surprising that a few of them sensed that these proto-adherents were ripe for the picking and controlling.
How the Jesus Revolution was forgotten
In the 1960s, Christian leaders discovered their cultural power eroding quickly. The Red Scare, a moral panic about Communism that was engineered after World War II by Republican politicians and evangelical leaders like Billy Graham, successfully shored up evangelicals’ power for a while. But the moral panic’s reach proved to be both finite and limited. Younger Christians weren’t falling for it like their elders had (and still do).
Instead, those younger Christians wanted to find the same fulfillment they thought their secular truth-seekers were finding in the New Age movement. But as one source points out, history has largely neglected those Christians and the Jesus Revolution they started and still engage in today. They were written off as fringe fanatics by most people. Thus, their history must largely be pieced together from firsthand sources and the memories of those who ran into them—as my family once did in the mid-1970s in a fast-food restaurant in the Los Angeles area.
(Me at 7: “Why is that man dressed like that?” [In an off-white bathrobe, brown sandals, and ungroomed facial hair, holding a completely incongruous McDonald’s bag in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other as he shuffled to a plastic table that morning.] Mom: “He thinks he’s Jesus.” Me: “Is he?” Mom: “NO.” Me: *zips lips*)
Indeed, many of those truth-seeking proto-Jesus People ended up in the Bay Area, along with many thousands of other young adults who had no real idea what they sought. It’s really only been in the last ten years or so that I’ve seen any particular attention paid to the Jesus Revolution.
How the Jesus Revolution got rolling
In 1967, the Bay Area found itself staring at a solid ocean of 100,000 young hippies. They’d arrived for the Summer of Love, a popular movement focusing on music, sex, drugs, and various liberal and anti-capitalist causes. Many of those hippies had no idea in the world how they were going to survive financially. Many were still teenagers, and some were actually runaways. They just wanted to be there. However, they now required food, various kinds of ongoing care, and housing.
San Francisco, the site of the gathering, mobilized to help them. Either residents or the city’s leaders organized a free clinic and a “free store.” Despite that minimal assistance, the scene soon devolved into a completely chaotic mess of crowding, drug problems, hunger, crime, and health issues.
At the same time, a new convert to evangelicalism began making some serious inroads with these hippies. His name was Ted Wise. Before, he had been a sailmaker with, it seems, no particular religious leanings. But when his wife rededicated herself to Christianity, he got interested in it as well. Like many converts do, he went into the religion full throttle. He started a Christian commune he called The House of Acts.
Wise’s group wasn’t like any other kind of Christians at the time. They were hippies: the men wore their hair long, wore weird clothes, and rejected the middle-class-WASP Christianity of their parents. And these hippies hit San Francisco like an atomic bomb. Many people even credit Wise with starting the entire Jesus Revolution, though he denies it. (Interestingly, he is not a character in the movie Jesus Revolution.)
When the negative impact of the Summer of Love became apparent, Wise begged a local pastor, John MacDonald, to help the stranded hippies. In response, MacDonald established The Living Room about a block north of the Haight-Ashbury epicenter. It functioned as a sort of free resting spot and food source. While hippies ate and rested there, proto-Jesus Movement Christians evangelized them. (Likewise, MacDonald doesn’t appear in the movie.)
From these humble sparks came a blaze of fiery zeal.
Expanding beyond the Summer of Love
Once the summer of 1967 wound to a close, the Summer of Love petered out along with it. Some hippies even staged a mock funeral for it. The funeral sent a message to the city’s visitors: it was time to go home now—and take the revolution home with them as well.
But the burgeoning evangelical movement that had begun with the Summer of Love didn’t end there. Not at all. The hippies who’d discovered Wise’s brand of Jesus-ing fanned outward, winning converts all along their chosen paths.
By 1968, these Christians were starting Wise-style communes all over the Bay Area. Their leaders teamed up with evangelical leaders (like Chuck Smith and Campus Crusade for Christ, nowadays called Cru) to direct the converts’ considerable charisma and energy along acceptable channels. By the early 1970s, Los Angeles became a hotbed of Jesus People. But all through California and Oregon, and expanding eastward through the Midwest, these Christians converted many others to their lifestyle and mindset.
To sell their style of Jesus-ing, Ed Stetzer told us a while ago, Jesus Revolution adherents used counterculture-style music like that of Larry Norman and bombastic testimonies like David Wilkerson’s The Cross and the Switchblade. Interestingly, Wilkerson strongly criticized Wise for saying drug use was completely compatible with TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. I’ve heard similar criticisms about many other movement figures.
Despite that friction, these leaders captured many followers’ hearts and minds. They heard Keith Green singing about an ideal that they desperately wanted:
They wanted it so bad it made their hearts hurt:
Make my life a prayer to You
I wanna do what you want me to
No empty words and no white lies
No token prayers no compromise
And the Jesus Revolution promised its followers that they could have it, and much, much more besides.
What the Jesus Revolution set in motion lasts even today
The Jesus Revolution fascinates me because I perceive within it the roots of modern evangelicalism. Most of them probably have no idea just how much they owe to that movement. But without it, they would still be straitlaced High Christianity ritualists.
Even in the 1980s, evangelicals jostled uncomfortably with fundamentalists to carve out the biggest slice of Low Christianity for themselves. It took decades for the two to fuse completely. When it did, it largely fused precisely because of the Jesus Revolution’s manufactured need for transformative and all-consuming Christianity. Evangelicals still aren’t 100% comfortable with fundamentalist practices like speaking in tongues, but they’re way more willing to put up with those practices than they were back when I was Pentecostal.
The Jesus Revolution taught adherents to Jesus-ify every single moment of their lives. If they weren’t Jesus-ing somehow, then they were wasting time! If they weren’t finding someone to SELL SELL SELL to without mercy, then they were condemning souls to eternal torment! More to the bottom line’s point, the movement taught evangelicals to cover their homes and bodies in Jesus swag, to consume only Jesus-ified media, and to try hard to focus entirely on Jesus no matter what they were doing.
And, of course, today’s evangelical-focused Christian music owes a lot to the Jesus Revolution.
The dark side of the movement
Everything I’ve described so far has a distinct dark side. Many of those early Christian musicians and preachers were well-known hypocrites behind the scenes. As is common in tribalistic groups, the adherents of the Jesus Revolution definitely had a tendency to look down on other forms of Jesus-ing, which they felt were inferior and possibly counterfeits that would send well-meaning Christians to Hell.
Even Keith Green, celebrated as one of the best musicians of the movement, had a distinctly off-putting side. I read his biography many years ago, and it’s obvious that he drove his wife Melody up the wall sometimes with his utter lack of concern for normal adult stuff like making a living and providing for one’s wife and kids. When I read The Last Unicorn some time later, and I got to Captain Cully describing Molly as the knot in his bright balloon, I thought of Keith and Melody. Others, like Larry Norman, had considerably worse flaws.
But some really dark shit came out of the movement as well, like the push for church membership and even communal living under completely theocratic, totalitarian leaders who held ironclad and complete power over their followers. The leaders of these groups convinced their followers that they offered a more intense and consuming form of Jesus-ing, and that hype worked all too often. Even I almost fell for it. Every time we hear about yet another discipleship church that’s turned out to be abusive to the extreme, count on this: I think about the Jesus Revolution.
Long-time readers of my work might also remember me griping about how every single terrible Christian leader seems to have close ties to Willow Creek Community Church. Its now-disgraced founder, Bill Hybels, seems like he got bitten by the Jesus Revolution bug early on. According to the mythology of the megachurch, now-disgraced Gilbert Bilezikian, then a teacher at the Illinois college Hybels attended, set him ablaze around 1970 with a vision of “an Acts 2-based church.” Five years later, Willow Creek came to life.
The shoddy tools and broken promises of the Jesus Revolution
Over the decades, though, the Jesus Revolution faded into the mists of time. The roughest edges of its flawed leaders got smoothed over by memory. Its hypocrisy and complete inability to achieve its own goals became gauzy memories of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ at its most potent and transforming.
It seems like every single big name in the Jesus Revolution has turned out to be a weirdo or hypocrite—or a weird hypocrite. And for the three principal figures in the movie Jesus Revolution, that goes double.
In most retrospective histories about the movement, Chuck Smith in particular gets presented as this incredibly kind, sincere pastor who just wants to know how heee can reeeech deeeze keeeedz.
One source claims that Calvary Chapel grew from 150 members to “thousands beginning in 1970.” It eventually became a huge, influential megachurch with branches around the world. Soon after that growth began, Smith started a music ministry within his church, Maranatha! Music. Even in the 1990s, almost every evangelical or fundamentalist I knew had at least one Maranatha album! (As far as I can tell, the label has nothing to do with the now-defunct and abusive Maranatha Campus Ministries.)
Chuck Smith himself was no angel, however. During the Satanic Panic, he tried hard to muscle in on those profits with a shoddily-researched video about Halloween. We talked about it almost a decade ago, but to my knowledge nobody associated with it has ever disavowed it. In addition, a 2005 news story and this 2007 article from Christianity Today makes clear that Calvary Chapel itself had a lot of problems and scandals dogging its heels.
I also found an interesting comment section that discussed Chuck Smith and Calvary Chapel in terms that were far less than glowing. Though I don’t know how factual the complaints were, the ones about being denigrated and shunned after leaving seem quite plausible.
Lonnie Frisbee: Discarded by the Jesus Revolution he fanned to life
You might notice some chatter in that comment section about Lonnie Frisbee, so this is a good time to discuss him. Their stories twine together in inextricable ways. In 2005, OC Weekly relayed a story about how Smith met Frisbee:
In 1968, his wife experienced a vision of Smith converting tons of hippies. It was such a powerful vision, as her husband perceived it, that he took action. He asked his daughter’s boyfriend to go fetch him a hippie he could learn from. Well, the boyfriend found a hippie hitchhiking—and it turned out to be Lonnie Frisbee.
(Remember, by this time The Living Room, John MacDonald, and Ted Wise were already making big inroads with hippies. But you won’t find them in Smith’s narrative.)
Born in 1949, Frisbee is a weird character even by Jesus Freaks’ expansive standards. He was a drug-addled psychonaut from a broken home. He had a sad history of sex abuse, and he was barely even literate. Despite—or maybe because of—those problems, he possessed absolutely preternatural levels of charisma. He was also completely fearless about public speaking and approaching people. I’ve seen videos of him speaking. He had a gift. Even without any kind of training, his talent shines forth.
While tripping on acid, he converted himself around age 18 or 19 by reading the Bible. Later on, he read it aloud to his friends. His reading so affected them that he ended up baptizing them all.
And now he stood on Chuck Smith’s porch after just having had a vision himself of converting tons of people.
Very quickly, the two realized that they could help each other achieve their respective visions.
Lonnie Frisbee had a big, terrible, dealbreaker secret
Sounds great, right?
But Frisbee was also gayer than a stack of strawberry flapjacks. By the time he converted to Christianity, he’d already been part of the Bay Area’s thriving gay scene for a few years. And there’s zero sign that he stopped seeking male partners after his conversion.
Of course, evangelicals back then were even more homophobic than they are today. Thus, Frisbee’s orientation was completely unacceptable. But when he finally split with Smith in 1971, it was over their theological differences. Frisbee was just too, well, Pentecostal for Smith.
After that, Frisbee moved on to the abusive Shepherding Movement, and then to what would soon become Vineyard Church. (Calvary’s leaders felt very miffed about it, apparently.) After the shift, Vineyard had a huge explosion of membership as well.
Frisbee also felt a real attraction to the more obviously fake, bombastic shows of devotion. According to Ministry Watch, he got involved with the fringe nutjob and faith healer Kathryn Kuhlman—she who’d also so enthralled the young Benny Hinn. Along with Smith, Frisbee even appeared on her TV show, I Believe in Miracles, which you can see here. (He also dedicated his posthumous autobiography to her.) You might remember her name as one of the influences that brewed up the Toronto Blessing.
In 1993, Frisbee died of AIDS. A few years later, several evangelical leaders utterly trashed his memory and legacy in a 1997 book called Counterfeit Revival. At the time, Christianity Today ran an extremely critical review of the book. They focused in particular on its smearing of Frisbee and his most recent mentor, John Wimber. (You might remember Wimber and Vineyard from the Toronto Blessing as well.)
Greg Laurie: Pivoting into Trumpism and QAnon
Our movie’s third protagonist is Greg Laurie. Near the beginning of the Jesus Revolution in 1970, he was a high school kid who converted under Lonnie Frisbee. Frisbee may have mentored Laurie for four or five years.
In 1973, Smith allowed the 19-year-old Laurie to give a home-based Bible study to 30 people. That Bible study group became the start of his future megachurch, Harvest Christian Fellowship. Nowadays, Harvest is a huge megachurch with branches everywhere.
In 2014, Laurie claimed that the One World Order was about to kick-start the Endtimes. I suppose his Harvest thing wasn’t paying him enough. Ah well. Soon enough, QAnon people would be attacking him for not playing along with their delusions. In between, one of Laurie’s sub-pastors, Jarrid Wilson, died by suicide.
When Chuck Smith died in 2013, Laurie wrote a nice little tribute to him and the religious movement that had done so much for both of them.
In that heartfelt love letter to the Jesus Revolution, Laurie didn’t even mention Lonnie Frisbee. Similarly, a 2013 look back at Laurie’s career doesn’t mention him at all either. But then, that post doesn’t mention Smith, either. Nor does Frisbee appear in this 2016 writeup. I wonder if Laurie feels kinda embarrassed about his former youth minister?
The lack of politicization praised in 2016 sure didn’t last, though.
In 2017, Harvest joined the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). I’m not surprised. Dude had already glommed onto Donald Trump. Trump even named him, along with a bunch of other sympathetic evangelicals (including high-level Southern Baptists) to participate in a sham of a prayer service held after his inauguration in January 2017.
He’s been pretty quiet of late, but I can tell you what he’s been up to:
Writing the Jesus Revolution book (2018) and its subsequent movie adaptation.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Sheer Audacity of These Guys
So now you know a little more about the movement that spawned this movie and the three characters it focuses on. I could have included so, so many more. The movie completely omits a number of big movers and shakers at the time, like Duane Pedersen. If I did that, though, we’d be here all night!
Incidentally, the release of Jesus Revolution coincides with the tail end of a massive evangelical revival. It’s centered around Asbury College in Kentucky, so evangelicals around the Christ-o-sphere are calling it, appropriately enough, the Asbury Revival. One of the directors of Jesus Revolution, Jon Erwin, has claimed his movie has “a divine hand on the timing” of its release because it’s coming out so close to the Asbury Revival.
Evangelicals rarely miss an opportunity to hitch their wagons to whatever or whoever’s star is ascending right then!
Appropriately enough, that rule certainly applies to the original Jesus Revolution itself. We come full circle, yet again. As above, so below. And so it goes.
How you can support Roll to Disbelieve
Thanks for reading, and thanks for being part of our community!
And now, here are some ways you can support my work:
- Patreon, of course, for as little as $2 a month! I now write Patreon posts twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with patrons getting early access 3 days ahead of time.
- Paypal, for direct one-time gifts. To do this, go to paypal.com, then go to the personal tab and say you want to send money, then enter email@example.com (that’s an underscore between the words) as the recipient. It won’t show me your personal information, only whatever email you input.
- My Amazon affiliate link, for folks who shop at Amazon. Just follow the link, then do your shopping as normal within that same browser window. This link adds nothing to your Amazon bill, but it does send me a little commission for whatever you spend there.
- And as always, sharing the links to my work and talking about it!
Thank you so much for being a part of Roll to Disbelieve!
If you want to read a bit more about these folks, here are a couple of sources that I loved but which didn’t get a lot of attention in the final draft. The first two come to us from the most excellent Christian Nightmares:
- A neat interview with the guy who made a documentary about Larry Norman (archive)
- Another interview with the same guy, who made a documentary about Lonnie Frisbee (archive)
- An interesting paper from a Southern Baptist about the Jesus Revolution
- The website oneway.org has a ton of information about the Jesus Revolution, and the Wayback Machine has many, many captures of its many links; here’s their first one
- This incredible writeup from Ministry Watch about Lonnie Frisbee and his various scandals (archive)
- And another, this one exploring Frisbee’s homosexuality and how he set off people’s gaydar
- Aaaand this Christian’s paper denouncing Frisbee and claiming that Kathryn Kuhlman was influential in shaping his ministry—and linking him to Teen Challenge, a really gross teen rehabilitation business run by authoritarian evangelicals