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Ever Heard of a Canadian Christian Hippie?

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.

hippie

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!
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