For many years now I have been obsessed with the Jesus People Movement of the late 60s and early 70s. It was a revival of Evangelical convictions among youth, following the disappointment of the 60s countercultural revolution. For years I have read little bits of the larger story: interviews, short journalistic essays, and watched bands talk about being on the forefront of the Jesus rock launch. Nothing, however, came close to a comprehensive understanding of the movement. Larry Eskridge, however, has written the most complete analysis of the Jesus People Movement in his book God’s Forever Family. This book gives readers a nuanced look at the various threads that make up the complete tapestry of the movement.
The challenge with writing a historical analysis has to be the skill of managing the complexity of the history with the accessibility for the reader. An overly complicated analysis will result in muddying the history and making it difficult for readers to understand the general flow and development of a movement. A simplistic analysis, of course, tends to reduce movements to one general cause and effect – which isn’t realistic. Larry Eskridge manages to navigate between these two ditches well. He writes in an incredibly accessible manner, outlining the general development of the movement and gives readers a good grasp of the causes, key persons, events, and flow of the movement. But he also explores the nuances and various contributions that play a part in the movement. He explores the contributions of people and communities outside of the Bay Area. He gives a whole chapter to the development of Jesus rock. He also acknowledges the disparity and conflict that erupted between certain groups within the movement. The book is willing to explore these details, but without losing the general outline of the movements origin, development, and decline.
The book’s main argument is that “the Jesus People movement is one of the most significant American religious phenomena of the postwar period” (7). As Eskridge sees it, the Jesus People have been largely ignored from American religious histories. Passing references, some mild explorations of the events, but little acknowledgment of the lasting impact that this revival had on the Evangelical landscape in America. He writes:
This book contends that we cannot begin to understand the resurgence of evangelicalism during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries without taking into account the crucial way in which the Jesus People movement shaped the development and direction of the larger American evangelical subculture. (7)
This book, then, is more than just an explanation of the facts of the movement. It is an analysis of the impact those facts had on the present theological, cultural, and ecclesiological landscape.
The book examines the development and spread of the Jesus People Movement, starting the Bay Area and becoming a nationwide phenomena. Its impact is seen in the rise of Christian pop-culture, Jesus rock music, various ministry methods, church denominations, evangelistic methods, and modern church culture. Eskridge does an excellent job of demonstrating the impact of the Jesus People on all these areas, and more, but woven into the narrative. The impact is seen more in real-time as the story unfolds, not as some sort of list of ways the movement impacted modern evangelicalism. Eskridge is, in that regard, a great story-teller and historian.
The books real beauty is in the various threads that Eskridge develops. The origin story of the movement is well-documented and retold often. It was Ted Wise and his friends who launched the first ministry to Hippies down on Haight-Ashbury. The development of the Bay Area Jesus People is relatively easy to retell, its development unfolds in a somewhat straight-forward fashion. As the movement grows, however, it becomes harder to see a straight line. The movement spreads and diverges and the influences of these strands on modern evangelicalism becomes harder to detail. Eskridge values these various strands, however, and explores them both in light of the others and from their own unique vantage point. The various leaders and groups that make up the unofficial record of the Jesus People is rather detailed. Some knew one another, and others had little contact. Some were frontrunners and others were second wave developers. Some were high-profile and others were less known. Some were orthodox and others were cultic. Eskridge touches on all of them. He also explores the phenomena of coffee-house ministries, Jesus rock, Christian paraphernalia, and general Evangelical youth culture. He notes the contributions of the Established church, and the disagreements between the groups. He notes the way that the established church and the Jesus People Movement helped to reshape one another. Eskridge leaves no stone unturned in this analysis, and yet never loses the reader in the story.
I personally was captivated by the book. It is written well, with personal testimonies, loads of documentation, and insightful analyses. It’s a thick book, covering the rise, expansion, and decline of the movement. Yet, for all its detail it never feels cumbersome. This is a well-written history of a frequently ignored and yet important religious movement within American history. God’s Forever Family will likely be the definitive work on the Jesus People Movement for a long time. I hope it inspires more analysis of the enduring value of this moment in Evangelical history.