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.
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
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 Chris-
tian 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 Cata-
combs Fellowship, the House of
Emmaus had a significant outreach
to the downtown youth commun-
ity, and even conducted mass public
baptisms – in Toronto Harbour in
May, no less!
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 es-
tablished 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
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. /FT
NUMBER OF JESUS
PEOPLE IN CANADA IN
When a hippie meets Jesus…
The Jesus People movement brought colour and challenge to the Church in the 1970s