The Real Story Behind ‘Jesus Revolution’

A look at the counterculture movement that became the religious right.
Jesus Revolution Real Story

Real Stories is an ongoing column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the stories and influences behind the 2023 film Jesus Revolution.

Many readers will be familiar with the Summer of Love and the hippies of the 1960s and 70s. But that period also saw the rise of the so-called Jesus Movement. Participants in the movement were called “Jesus people,” or “Jesus freaks.” The movement serves as the inspiration for Jesus Revolution, a film by directors Jon Erwin and Brent McCorkle. The film stars Joel Courtney, Anna Grace Barlow, Jonathan Roumie, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, and Kelsey Grammer. Below is a look at the true story behind the film.

Birth of the Movement

As historian Larry Eskridge writes, the counterculture of the 1960s had a “decidedly spiritual dimension that attracted a great deal of hippie interest.” But some eventually found that the activities of the counterculture, including drugs and sex, had gotten out of hand. In the Bay Area, so-called “Jesus freaks” appeared on the scene, “urging people to follow Jesus Christ and forsake drugs and promiscuous sex.”

Their message became clear: “Get ready! Repent because Jesus is coming back soon!” The national press soon began to take notice, and tens of thousands of people began to join. Some estimates place membership numbers at as high as 3 million people.

Founding Figures

The man often credited as one of the founders of the movement, Ted Wise, partnered with a pastor named John MacDonald to form a coffee house and mission called “The Living Room.” According to Eskridge:

Over the next year and a half, thousands of runaway youth and hippie characters (including a man named Charles Manson later convicted for mass murders) came into the mission to talk with what MacDonald referred to as the “Street Christians.”

Similar venues began to pop up along the area. Pastors, sensing the burgeoning movement, gave sermons and began to usher in new relations between hippie sects of Christians and evangelical Christians. Southern California, and in particular the southern Los Angeles area, became the epicenter of the movement. But similar so-called “coffeehouses” began to spread across the country. As Neil J. Young writes for Vox, “Christian coffeehouses presented themselves as an alternative to hedonism.”

Birth of the Religious Right

Many scholars, including Eskridge, have noted that the Jesus movement helped give birth to the modern religious right. There is a certain, obvious irony there. After all, when we think of the 1960s counterculture, we probably first conjure images of Kent State, or protests against the Vietnam War, racism, and misogyny in American life.

But look at the mega-churches today on TV, and you will see traces of the Jesus movement. Like the counterculture movement, they relied on music, a laid-back style, and, of course, long hair to help appeal to new followers. They were selling a lifestyle and community. And as their numbers grew, so too did their influence. Young writes:

… the Jesus People also reshaped American politics. They helped to inspire the birth of the religious right. Many conservative evangelicals had long avoided politics, believing it would corrupt their spiritual lives, but the Jesus People contended that Christians couldn’t keep their spiritual and political lives separate.

The controversial and powerful pastor Billy Graham quickly embraced the movement, writing a best-selling book on the subject and using it as a vehicle for recruitment. Similarly, Jerry Falwell, another pastor with a history of bigoted statements, also saw an opportunity. Young writes:

When Jerry Falwell implored conservative Christians in the 1980s to become “revolutionaries” for Jesus, he was tapping directly into that legacy. Co-opting the Jesus People’s outsider stance to justify their own entry into politics, white evangelicals took control of the Republican Party and set their sights on winning the nation.

Today, the religious right remains a powerful force in American politics. Looking back on the movement today, it is obvious why they would see partnering up with the so-called “Jesus freaks” as beneficial to their cause.

Characters Depicted in the Film

It is clear from the film’s trailer and the backgrounds of its creators that it presents a positive outlook on the so-called Jesus Movement. Courtney plays Greg Laurie, who is in real life a preacher based in Riverside, California. He got caught up in the Jesus Movement of the period, where he joined the ministry of Chuck Smith. Laurie has made headlines recently for predicting that the war in Ukraine is the beginning of Christ’s second coming.

Grammar plays Smith and Roumie plays Lonnie Frisbee, two influential leaders in the Jesus Movement. Frisbee and Smith founded the Calvary Chapel movement, which at one time boasted upwards of 25,000 members, according to Young. Smith became famous during the period for conducting mass baptisms on the beach.  The trailer for the film shows Smith confused by the Jesus Movement, but then seeing it as an opportunity to grow his small parish. Before his death in 2013, Smith often made headlines for bigoted statements, including tying the 9/11 attacks to homosexuality and abortion.

By the mid-1970s, the Jesus Movement began to decline. But its influence lasted forever. Mega churches? Look to the movement. Christian rock music? Look to the Jesus freaks. Young writes:

As Berkeley’s Christian World Liberation Front had argued that Jesus People were to “join others of his [God’s] forever Family here to change this world.”

Jesus Revolution debuts in theaters on February 24, 2023

Will DiGravio: Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.