The last two years of the sixties saw flower power wilt with a vengeance. Vietnam burned on. Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan was thriving. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy were assassinated in the space of two months. Charles Manson’s murderous crew offered up their victims to nihilism. Mick Jagger sang “Sympathy for the Devil” as an Altamont rock concert fan was killed by Hell’s Angels.

At the same time, along came the Jesus People—earnest, alive, “freaks” with smiles instead of frowns or vacant stares. The long hair was confusing to many Christians, but the message sounded first century: “Get ready! Repent because Jesus is coming back soon!”

Some Christians criticized it, saying it had a “simplistic mentality,” with “an excessive emphasis on experience and feeling.” Others called the Jesus Movement counterfeit Christianity. In 1971, the mass media noticed, and Look, Time, Life, and Newsweek gave the movement mostly positive, though somewhat superficial, reviews.

That was about 25 years ago. Looking back, who were these “Jesus People”? And what has happened to them today?

Communal Beginnings

The Jesus Movement, like the time that spawned it, was psychedelic in the variety of its participants. A 1974 study suggested that at its apex, the movement comprised 30,000 to 3 million people, depending on how one defined a “Jesus Person.” But one common factor was a testimony of a personal, revolutionary encounter with living Truth:

“When I was in the peace movement,” said one young convert, “I was always looking for peace and joy and love, and there never seemed to be any. I’d come home at night and it just didn’t seem real, it just didn’t last. You know, it says in the Bible that if you build a house on sand that, when the wind and water come, it will blow away. But if you build a house on rock, when the wind and the water come, it will stand firm.

“When I heard about Jesus, it just blew my mind that something came before and then just went on into eternity. It blew my mind that I could be grounded into that rock … I had always believed that there was a truth, a rock, that you could grab hold of and that wouldn’t change, but I was never able to find it until I found Jesus.”

Ted Wise, who some credit with starting the movement in the spring of 1967 (he denies it), was a Sausalito, California, sailmaker whose wife had rediscovered her lost childhood faith. Tired of the drugs and esoteric Eastern religions he’d found in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, Wise began reading the Bible for himself and made a decision for Christ. Wise then started a Christian commune, The House of Acts.

“We all moved in together—eight adults and seven children in a two-bedroom house,” House told Look magazine. “It was a situation where prayer and faith in God’s will was an absolute necessity.” Through the late sixties, such Christian communes spread across the west coast.

Southern California Splash

Another early convert who influenced the movement was Lonnie Frisbee, an extroverted longhair. After he was introduced to Chuck Smith, pastor of Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California, Frisbee moved into Smith’s house. Lonnie brought home so many converts, a new home had to be found in May 1968. Within two weeks, 35 young men had accepted the Lord and had moved into the house. “We had built bunks out into the garage,” recalls Smith, “and they were sleeping wall to wall through the house. One kid was even sleeping in the bathtub.”

The commune was called “House of Miracles” and would ultimately spin off into a number of related communes of Jesus People known as the Shiloh communities. At their high point, Shiloh claimed 187 communities across the country. (In 1987, after leadership struggles and an encounter with the IRS, Shiloh’s last community closed its doors.)

Smith’s ocean baptisms of young counterculture converts made excellent copy for journalists and thus helped publicize the movement. Smith, dressed in a tee shirt and slacks and surrounded by young men and women, stood hip-deep in the Pacific, and one after another, he plunged the new converts beneath the waves. Each newly-baptized Christian seemed to emerge with a beatific smile.

As in much of the movement, there was an infectious joy at Calvary, expressed in the twin slogans, “One way!” and “Maranatha!” (Come quickly). The belief that Jesus was coming back soon lent an urgent dynamism to the movement. Smith’s lack of flamboyance or charisma (one observer said he resembled a grocery clerk) lent credence to the idea that Calvary’s revival was Spirit-led rather than man-made. By 1974, with a massive infusion of young Jesus People, Calvary Chapel opened facilities that held 2,300.

Frisbee eventually became estranged from Smith and then ping-ponged between various churches and movements. He eventually faded from public view and died in 1994.

Today Calvary Chapel thrives, with Chuck Smith’s Sunday morning services averaging 8,000 in attendance. Calvary has spun off churches across the country and world, all of which reach out to youth on the youth culture’s turf.

Disciplined Army

The Jesus Movement’s northern west-coast branch was, to many observers, less “trippy” and more demanding. Linda Meissner—known for her work with David Wilkerson in his Cross and the Switchblade—headed up the Jesus People Army (JPA) in Seattle. She wanted disciples, not just converts, as her extensive training programs and communal houses attested. She wanted to lead a last-days army of disciplined young evangelists to spread the gospel across the world.

Meissner’s striking beauty and intense Christianity drew those who were aching to commit to something real, total, and lasting. At its peak, the JPA numbered an impressive 5,000 members. But as the media frenzy faded and a split within JPA developed (precipitated in large part by Linda’s separation from her husband), her dream was in trouble. In desperation, Meissner attached the JPA to David Moses Berg and his separatist group, the Children of God (COG).

The COG had its genesis in a 1968 California Teen Challenge run by Berg and developed into a communal group headquartered in Texas. Berg’s “Mo Letters” (instructions to his followers) became virtual scripture to COG members. The COG saw itself as the sole possessor of truth, while the rest of the church (Jesus People included) were part of the Great Whore of Babylon. By 1973, Berg would shock people with his use of sex for evangelism—“flirty fishing”—and promoting sex outside of marriage. But in the late sixties and early seventies, his group was mainly known as the hard-core element of the Jesus Movement, extremely organized and intense about Scripture study.

Some Jesus People thought Berg was too sectarian and legalistic—among other things, COG members used to disrupt mainline church services by standing up and declaring God’s judgments on the startled congregations. Eventually, Meissner’s portion of JPA faded into obscurity under the onus of Berg’s reputation, and Linda dropped from sight.

Midwest Version

Meissner’s original vision was not lost. Jim and Sue Palosaari, who had become Christians via a Meissner disciple, moved to Milwaukee in 1971 to start a JPA counterpart. Beginning with only seven members, Jesus People Milwaukee and its Discipleship Training School quickly bloomed.

The midwest Jesus People built close ties with local churches and invited pastors to teach young disciples, who lived in an old hospital building. The daily regimen centered on basic Bible teaching coupled with witnessing to Milwaukee’s Brady Street counterculture.

JP Milwaukee grew to nearly 200 by February of 1972 and then divided itself into various ministries. A troupe of 30 went to Europe to evangelize but soon found themselves broke, eating army K-rations and fried potatoes, and living in an abandoned German bar. After being rescued by a wealthy English sponsor (who wanted to provide an alternative to the COG, who had lured his son into their group), the group evangelized in Europe and then the States for a couple of years.

A second group from Milwaukee called itself Jesus People USA, since their only address was a brightly painted school bus with Jesus emblazoned on the side. JPUSA started grassroots revivals in various Michigan towns, especially in the Upper Peninsula.

A Houghton-Hancock, Michigan, newspaper portrayed JPUSA’s arrival: “A large bus and several cars with Jesus painted on the side roll into the Houghton-Hancock area. Thirty-six freaky-looking kids spill out onto the streets. The girls with ankle-length dresses and long-haired boys fortified with armloads of [Jesus] papers scatter and start rapping with the closest passerby.…

“Each morning the group assembles to pray and study the Word of God. Classes include studies in Romans, Apologetics, Old Testament Survey, Life of Paul, the Study of Cults, Christian Leadership.… The afternoons are spent on the streets witnessing person to person. In the evening, the group gathers for rallies which feature the ’Resurrection’ Jesus rock band.”

After Florida and Michigan stints, the group settled in inner-city Chicago in May 1973. After two years in a church basement, they moved into a six-flat apartment building. Like many of the Jesus Movement’s communal experiments, they had leadership problems but survived their head elder’s departure.

JPUSA continues to live communally with a membership over 400, evangelizing and serving the poor through various ministries. In 1989, JPUSA joined the Evangelical Covenant Church and lives in a ten-story apartment building in Chicago’s uptown ghetto. The community also publishes Cornerstone magazine.

Permanent Fixture

Many groups born of the Jesus Movement have disintegrated for one reason or another, but others retain vital, nationally known ministries, including Jews for Jesus and The Christian World Liberation Front, which spawned the cult researching group, Spiritual Counterfeits Project.

As one scholar put it, “Several of [the movement’s] groups have achieved a remarkable degree of strength and stability and must now be considered more or less permanent fixtures on the religious scene in America, and even around the world.”

Jon Trott is a senior editor with Cornerstone magazine and has been a member of Chicago's JPUSA since 1977.