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Essay

Teaching Religion: American Evangelicalism and the Jesus People

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Allison Vander Broek is our guest blogger today. Thanks, Allison.

A few weeks ago I gave a lecture on religion in the history class that I’m a TA for. It’s a class of about 250 Boston College students, mostly freshmen and sophomores. And I was given pretty free rein as far as topic—religion from the 1950s-1970s with some sort of global perspective. Preparing for the lecture got me thinking more about how we actually teach religion, how I have been taught religious history, and how to have a nuanced discussion of religion in the 20th century (and on a global scale) in 50 minutes when many of the students have little background in religious history. In spite of the challenge, it ended up being pretty fun, though hard to narrow down exactly what to talk about. Ultimately, I ended up deciding to focus on religion encountering modernity in the 20th century in a few different places around the world and to give students a brief rundown of secularization theory.

I decided to use the Jesus People as one of my main examples. If you’re not familiar with them, the Jesus People were a group of young evangelical Christians who embraced the counterculture of the 1960s. They maintained all the traditional evangelical beliefs while also adapting to secular youth culture. They had the long hair, beards, and hippie fashion. Hippie music, communal living, and other aspects of hippie culture were also a norm for the Jesus People. Based on the feedback from my students, this portion of the lecture was actually a huge hit, the highlight of the lecture. I’m not sure if that is because of a lack of knowledge about evangelicalism (as Boston College is a Catholic school) or that they just don’t get that much religious history. Or that the Jesus People are just obscure and wacky enough and don’t have any contemporary analog that students can use as a reference point.

I’d encountered the Jesus People in my own research a few times before and had always found them interesting as well as entertaining. And, in thinking about some of the recent scholarship done on the Jesus People (such as Larry Eskridge’s God’s Forever Family), I realized what a great example they make for a lecture on religion, because

a. They’re completely fascinating. Who doesn’t want to learn about hippie Christians?
b. There are about a million examples of Jesus People culture—music, videos, photos. In fact, I had trouble narrowing down what sort of video or song to use during the lecture. Go to YouTube and search Jesus People. You won’t regret it.
c. In so many ways, their enduring influence on American Christianity is clear—the proliferation of Christian music, bookstores, coffee shops is just one part of that legacy.
d. Few people know about them!

This last point is the one that’s stuck with me. If these students were going to get one lecture on religion, I wanted to challenge some of their notions of what religion in the 20th century looks like. It was fun to introduce them to an evangelicalism that they’re not familiar with—that many people aren’t familiar with. Part of me thinks evangelicals like the Jesus People have been overshadowed by stories of the rise of the Religious Right. It’s my perception that, since the 1980s, many people have a very one-dimensional view of what an American evangelical looks like.

Even as I discussed the lecture with my friends and colleagues, we kept coming back to a few key questions: Why do the Jesus People seem so novel to us? How could those types of people be evangelicals? What happened to them? What is it about them that, forty years later, remains so fascinating? My students seemed to have a similar reaction, which to me says a lot about how we think about American evangelicalism.

It’s a shame that people are so unaware of this segment of American Christianity. Yes, the Jesus People were a rather small group and weren’t around for a particularly long time. But since evangelicalism is such a vital and vibrant part of American history, it’s important to include the Jesus People as part of that story. And they’re a reminder that the evangelical label can apply to a wide swath of American Christians. I think recognizing the complexity that goes along with the evangelical label is a key part to understanding American religion in the last fifty years—as fascinating and messy as it may be— as well as helping us fully understand and appreciate the complexity and diversity of American evangelicalism and Christianity today.

Allison Vander Broek is a PhD candidate at Boston College studying American religious history and currently working on a dissertation on the antiabortion movement before Roe.

Allison Vander Broek

Allison Vander Broek is a historian of American religion and politics. She recently graduated from Boston College with her doctorate in history. Her dissertation, Rallying the Right-to-Lifers: Grassroots Religion and Politics in the Building of a Broad-Based Right-to-Life Movement, 1960-1984, explored the origins of the right-to-life movement in the 1960s and its rise to national prominence.

2 Comments

  • Well, the Jesus People were still around in Berkeley in various ways in the 1980s and 1990s–Christian communes, simple lifestyle. Communes may have diminished, but, isn’t JPUSA still going?

  • Allison Vander Broek says:

    Oh yes! They’re definitely still around today–JPUSA, like you mentioned, is probably the clearest example though I do think the Jesus Movement legacy continues in a lot of informal, less visible ways as well within American evangelicalism. The other contemporary example that comes to my mind is someone like Shane Claiborne who has a similar emphasis on communal living, a simple lifestyle. Interesting to think about how we’re still seeing their legacy play out!

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