A History of the Jesus People: An Interview with Larry Eskridge

Randall Stephens

Life magazine, June 30, 1972
Larry Eskridge is Associate Director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals and editor of the Evangelical Studies Bulletin at Wheaton College.  With Mark Noll, he was co-editor of More Money, More Ministry: Evangelicals and Money in Recent North American History (Eerdmans, 2000). 

Eskridge has also written the definitive account of one of the most significant mass religious movements of the last century.  His
God’s Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in America (Oxford University Press, 2013) examines the fusion of the hippie counterculture and evangelical Christianity that burst onto the scene in the late 1960s. I recently caught up with Larry to ask him about the project, his research, and more.

Randall Stephens: What first got you interested in the topic of the Jesus People?

Larry Eskridge:
I found the Jesus People an interesting topic at several levels.  At the most basic was the fact that I came of age during that period and had been personally involved in the Jesus movement in my local area in northern Illinois.  So, if doing history often serves as something of an exercise in self-biography, I stand guilty as charged by dint of being curious about the overall movement and the reasons for its success and eventual disappearance.

At a larger level I’ve long been interested in the way that evangelical religion intertwines with mass media and popular culture and the Jesus People offered plenty to study at that level as they were the subject of a great deal of media coverage as well as replicating various aspects of the counterculture and youth culture in a comfort with pop culture and music that was, traditionally, very unusual within the overarching evangelical subculture.

Finally, my interest grew as the result of conversations I had in the late ‘80s with a few evangelical historians who discounted the impact of the movement and who viewed it as some sort of immature, irrelevant, generational religious fad.  As I remembered the movement’s pervasive presence during the ‘70s I thought that it had been a pretty important influence in the lives of a lot of evangelical Baby Boomers and shouldn’t be dismissed so easily.  Not only were the Jesus People a colorful, interesting bunch with their communes, street papers, and Jesus rock bands, but they also represented a chance to take the religious life and experience of young people seriously. I was frankly taken aback by the manner in which some scholars apparently were able to easily discount the religious experiences and attachments of young people in our more-or-less contemporary settings—they surely didn’t do that with the young audiences that were impacted by the preaching of Jonathan Edwards!

Stephens: How influential do you think these countercultural evangelicals have been in shaping American Christianity?

Hippie preacher Lonnie Frisbee with
Kathryn Kuhlman and Chuck Smith.
See more on Youtube.
Eskridge: Well the book argues that they were surprisingly important in shaping the nature of American evangelicalism and—by reason of the growth in evangelicalism’s organizational, cultural, and political influence in subsequent years—a larger force within the overall history of the ‘60s and ‘70s than has heretofore been thought. In many ways I believe you can’t have a real handle on that period—especially on the youth culture of that era—without acknowledging the Jesus People as one of the important aspects of what was going on.

In terms of the American church there were obvious institutional outgrowths—the growth of the Calvary Chapel network of churches and its offspring the Vineyard, for example. But the larger impact was felt at the grass roots level in the manner in which the movement modeled a different relationship with popular culture and youth culture.  Before the Jesus People evangelicalism had a very nervous, if not downright oppositional, relationship to “worldly entertainments” and all the allures of popular and youth culture.  The Jesus movement, however, was much more comfortable in baptizing popular/youth culture and making a Christianized version that could be put forward as a means to both evangelize unbelieving youth and build up the kids who came from evangelical homes and churches.  There was, and still is, opposition to this way of handling these boundaries between “the World” and “The Church,” but to a large degree, the Jesus People marked a revolution in handling these relationships.
Undated poster for Berkeley music fest

In terms of the particular historical moment, the Jesus movement’s biggest bottom line was in generational terms: it played a major role in keeping evangelicalism together by providing a much easier path for a lot of people—particularly evangelical kids raised in the church—to navigate the massive changes that buffeted American society and culture during that period.  The Jesus People had a degree of “with-it-ness” and a cultural cache that the larger movement certainly didn’t possess going into the late ‘60s.  I think it’s fair to say that if the Jesus People hadn’t come along when they did the evangelical church would have been nowhere near as formidable a force throughout American culture come the 1980s and beyond.

Stephens: You spend some time focusing on Christian rock.  How did this genre emerge when and where it did?

Eskridge: Music was such an important element in what held youth culture together by the 1960s that it would have been truly surprising if any sort of popular movement could have had any grass roots traction without a musical component. The Jesus movement was certainly obsessed by music just like the larger youth culture—”Jesus Music” seemed to naturally pour forth in the form of halting, homemade folk songs and bluesy, rock tunes from the earliest manifestations of the movement all across the country. A whole network of musical groups and venues grew up within the space of a few short years along with the infrastructure to distribute the music to Jesus Music fans. Of course this was all surprising in that the music of the Jesus People was an obvious departure from the norms of the larger evangelical subculture. Certainly there was no shortage of resistance among older, more traditional church people to the new forms of music.  But the combination of cultural crisis, earnest Jesus People fervor, and the sheer size of the generational cohort eventually served to lessen most older evangelicals’ opposition. I think most adults in the churches saw that it would be a better alternative to cultivate their kids’ enthusiasm for Jesus by indulging their new worship choruses on Sundays and letting them listen to Jesus Rock in their spare time.

Stephens: Could you say something about the kinds of sources you worked with for the project?

Eskridge: When I started working on this I was kidded by one friend, “in the biz,” that I wasn’t doing “history” so much as “current events.”  That’s not altogether a wrong-headed notion I suppose, but as I went along I quickly found out that there were a lot of challenges in taking up this sort of project.  First of all, being smack-dab in the middle of the information age while attempting to study a movement that was this far-flung, disconnected, and disorganized mean that there were simply a lot of sources with which one had to contend—books, people, documents, records and tapes, magazines, newspapers, video, etc.—and that they were all over the place.  A lot of the most basic materials had no institutional homes and were the sorts of things that libraries and archives simply had not concerned themselves with collecting—as a result, a lot of stuff was squirreled away by former Jesus People in boxes and file cabinets in their homes.

Second, I quickly realized that I was dealing with living historical subjects that could actively help and challenge you as you were in the process of research—not the sort of active relationship one might expect when writing about, say, Charlemagne. It also became pretty clear that I was stepping onto contested ground in the sense that there were evolving, competing narratives about the “Jesus Revolution’s” development, history, and importance as well as former Jesus People still trying to sort out its meaning and importance, strengths, and weaknesses. While this could sometimes get a bit uncomfortable, it was usually a help in the sense that it helped me to get a better handle on the complexity of the movement.

Overall, however, I think one of the biggest advantages that presented itself in the decade + that I was working on this topic was the opportunity presented by the development of the internet.  From the perspective of 2013 that sounds fairly pedestrian, but in terms of reaching out to prospective historical sources it was a major boon.  Not only did it allow us to find and contact former leaders who had seemingly disappeared into the woodwork, but it gave us an opportunity to connect with a lot of folks who had been part of the Jesus movement at the grass roots level.  With the help of the purveyor of a Jesus Music fan website I and another historian of the Jesus People—David Di Sabatino—were able to whip together a survey targeting those who had been involved with the movement.  Looking back, it was way too long and hardly a masterpiece of social science design, but through the grace and persistence of the more than 800 people who took the time to complete the survey it did provide an extraordinary entrée into the larger Jesus People memory banks.  When all was said and done I believe that the information folks supplied served as a really valuable corollary to the more “normal” sorts of historical digging.

Stephens: What are you currently working on?

Eskridge: At the moment I’m concentrating on duties related to my regular gig with the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals (ISAE) at Wheaton College, particularly a conference on “The Worlds of Billy Graham” which is being held Sept 26-28.  I do have two large chunks of material, which I’m thinking about a bit for future purposes.  On the way to doing the Jesus People I piled together a fair amount of material on evangelical youth culture in the post-war period that preceded the Jesus freaks. I had intended some of that for this book but it had to be axed in the service of a shorter manuscript; so, that could be something that could be explored a bit more fully.  Another area I’ve always been interested in is the world of religious broadcasting, especially the early radio preachers.  I don’t think the fundamentalist radio folks have ever been researched very deeply—certainly not the way the televangelists were back in the 70s and 80s.  I have a lot of stuff on the Chicago evangelist and radio pioneer Paul Rader—who started broadcasting in early 1922—that could be of some service in helping to understand the mass media imperative that has been so strong a force within evangelicalism.


Charity Carney said…
I've been waiting for this book to be written for a long time. It's a subject that I've been drawn to and there has never been enough in the literature. Growing up listening to Larry Norman and Keith Green, etc., and attending a Vineyard Church run by my family makes it of personal interest and I'm excited, especially, about a discussion regarding the music. Working on a study of the roots of the modern megachurch, I'm also curious to see connections between the Jesus People's "with-it-ness" and the development of the seeker-sensitive service. Looking forward to receiving my copy in the mail this week. Thanks for the interview, Randall.
Randall said…
Yes indeed. It's also a well-written book.

Larry was quoted some in this recent, provocative Harper's magazine piece on Jesus People: "Blinded by the Right? How hippie Christians begat evangelical conservatives" by T. M. Luhrmann. It's behind their paywall. Worth tracking it down through a library's digital resources. http://harpers.org/blog/tag/jesus-people/
For good interviews with Larry Norman, check out David W. Stowe's work.
Scovich said…
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Scovich said…
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Scovich said…
Very interesting topic. I am a Catholic and I discovered Keith Green, Larry Norman and Daniel Amos through YouTube. I know no one personally who is a fan of these artists but it is so obvious that the quality of the music is better than most of the Christian rock which came after them. I am also a graduate student in political science studying contemporary American religion and economic policy. After reading Stowe's book and listening to some of the songs by Norman, Green and Daniel Amos oriented to social justice (especially Norman's "The Great American Novel), combined with their clear conviction that the apocalypse would be coming soon, I'm interested in the political ideology of the Jesus People. A lot of scholarship indicates that a belief in the impending apocalypse has been one cause of the political conservatism among evangelicals, but many Christian rock artists, at least in the early years, did not fit this pattern. I wonder if there is any information in Larry E's survey about the current political leanings of the Jesus People? I would imagine many of them are independents; like many of the Catholics who support the consistent life ethic, they may be socially conservative but economically liberal?
Gary Sweeten said…
I filled out the survey Larry sent around and I let him use some of the photos and newspapers I have from that era. I was in Cincinnati and saw the Jesus Movement arrive here an little earlier than it became known out west. It came in waves of revival from Asbury College, Campus Christian Groups and the Charismatic Movement, all which overlapped.

It was mainly responsible for tearing down walls of race, gender, denominations, clergy and laity, etc. it opened up the small group movement and missions like nothing else.

Larry did a great job of reporting on a huge movement.

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