Kevin Flatt is associate professor of history and director of research at Redeemer University College, Ancaster, Ont., and a history columnist for Faith Today magazine. This week on the Faith Today blog we feature some of our favourite Flatt columns.
by Kevin Flatt
Everyone has heard of the hippie movement of the 1960s and 1970s. With their bright clothing, outlandish behaviour and psychedelic music, hippies attracted attention – often intentionally.
But what about a Christian hippie? Was such a thing even possible?
The Jesus People thought so. Jesus People was the name of a North American movement of the early 1970s made up of hippies who had become Christians through charismatic evangelicalism. The hippie subculture was in a state of crisis at the time, as many hippies descended into drug addictions and abject poverty. The Jesus People movement provided a way out at a time when the established churches and “straight” society as a whole seemed remote and unfamiliar.
While the Jesus People movement began in California – early Christian rock musician Larry Norman was an important figure in the movement there – it also sprouted up in various parts of Canada.
Downtown Toronto had a thriving Jesus People scene. According to historian Bruce Douville the focal point for this movement was the Catacombs Fellowship, which began as a small Bible study led by Scarborough high school students, but quickly grew into a major weekly downtown worship service of up to 2,000 young people. One of the Catacomb’s aims was to introduce hippies to Jesus, and at its peak it was not unusual for there to be 50 conversions per week.
Another manifestation of the Jesus People in Toronto was the House of Emmaus, a small Christian commune. Robert Velick, the founder, had been heavily involved in drugs and Eastern spirituality – even renaming himself “Wu,” a term from Daoist philosophy – but had become a follower of Jesus after a friend encouraged him to read through the Bible. Like the Catacombs Fellowship, the House of Emmaus had a significant outreach to the downtown youth community, and even conducted mass public baptisms – in Toronto Harbour in May, no less!
There were sometimes tensions between Jesus People and the established churches.
In fact, Douville points out, there were five Christian communes in Toronto in the early 1970s, which played an important role in helping new believers recover from serious drug addictions and begin a new life.
So how did Jesus People compare with the typical hippie? There were lots of obvious differences. Instead of a spiritual quest vaguely connected to Eastern religions or the occult, Jesus People embraced Jesus as their saviour and the Bible as their guide to the meaning of life. Instead of the elusive comforts of sexual promiscuity or the high offered by drugs, Jesus People sought out the love of a Christian community and the “high” of the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Like other hippies, Jesus People emphasized individuality and authenticity while rejecting what they saw as the stifling nature of institutions and traditions. They shared the hippie disdain for materialism, and like hippies prioritized emotion and experience over intellect.
There were sometimes tensions between Jesus People and the established churches. Some Jesus People looked down on these churches as ultraconservative and legalistic, while some in the churches looked down on Jesus People as dirty, unruly children.
In the end, the Jesus People movement faded as its main mission field – the hippie movement – dried up and its members grew up, married and had kids. Many also realized nothing lasting could be built on a rejection of institutions, traditions and authority, and sought deeper roots. House of Emmaus founder Wu concluded, “You can’t completely cut yourself off from the history and tradition of the Church.” He became a Roman Catholic, while the Catacombs Fellowship struggled to survive for a time before ultimately joining the Christian & Missionary Alliance.
Indeed, many Jesus People made their peace with the established evangelical churches and several went on to become pastors in them. The churches recognized the traits of the Jesus People movement held great appeal for young people, and adopted some of these traits as part of their youth ministries. Even today, Canadian evangelical youth groups tend to emphasize what the Jesus People emphasized – informality and authenticity, experience and emotion.
Whether such traits are legitimate and effective ways of connecting with young people, or merely the unwelcome hangover of a transitory ’70s subculture, is open to dispute. What cannot be disputed, however, is the life-changing impact an encounter with Jesus can have in every time and place – even the hippie scene of 1970s Toronto.
Kevin Flatt is associate professor of history and director of research at Redeemer University College, Ancaster, Ont. Find more of his columns at www.faithtoday.ca/HistoryLesson.