Jesus Movement

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JESUS MOVEMENT refers to a communally oriented fundamentalist Christian movement that developed in the 1960s and 1970s among relatively affluent young people in the United States. Early Jesus Movement groups attracted considerable media attention and became the focus of some Christian religious leaders who were concerned about whether or not such groups were "truly Christian." Well-publicized lifestyle practices that included long hair and casual dress contributed to the controversy, as did overt efforts to proselytize other young people.

The movement gained much attention for about three decades and spread to other countries, becoming worldwide in scope. One controversial Jesus Movement group, the Children of God, at one time had outposts in nearly two hundred countries. The movement lost momentum in the 1990s, and by the early 2000s only a few Jesus Movement groups, such as Jesus People USA, centered in Chicago, and the Family (formerly known as the Children of God) were still in existence. Remnants of some Jesus Movement groups joined Pentecostal churches, such as Calvary Chapel, a new denomination that has many features akin to the Jesus Movement.

Most participants in early Jesus Movement groups were heavily involved with drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and premarital sex prior to joining. Participation in the Jesus Movement usually led to dramatic behavioral changes, with the notion of "getting high on Jesus" seeming to serve as a replacement for previous activities. The Jesus Movement seems to have served as a "halfway house" for many participants who had become disaffected from normal society and were involved with dissipated lifestyles.

Some Jesus Movement groups grew rapidly, attracting much media attention. Recruitment was aided by the establishment of communal centers where converts could find food, shelter, and friendship (along with the "message of Jesus"). This communal context also allowed more rigorous resocialization to take place in the relative isolation of such settings, with some Jesus Movement groupssuch as Shiloh, which began in southern California in the late 1960s but shifted its headquarters to a rural setting in Oregon in the 1970sdeveloping sophisticated approaches to member training. Later, as the "target population" of young people decreased in number, recruitment became more difficult, forcing experimentation with new methods: "Jesus rock" concerts were held, Christian coffee houses were opened, and attention was paid to recruitment on college campuses, among other tactics.

Initial Jesus Movement recruits were mostly single young males, which contributed to the considerable geographic mobility that characterized the movement's early years. Members were not burdened with families and could be sent to faraway places for missionary activities. Members of several groups, such as the Children of God, could decide to "live on the road." Other groups were also quite mobile as they "spread the Word" in the United States and elsewhere.

Major media portrayed the large and energetic Jesus Movement as a sharp contrast to the considerable turmoil over the Vietnam War, race, and other issues in American society. Some societal leaders initially celebrated the apparent "return to religion" by many young people. Later, the media, as well as the general public and policymakers, soured on the recruitment efforts of most Jesus Movement groups. Unsavory actions, such as the Children of God's "flirty fishing," which for a time used sex as a recruiting tool, were revealed. In addition, most Jesus Movement groups were "high demand" religions that expected participants to "forsake all" to follow Jesus and obey group leaders.

When accusations of brainwashing and mind control were made against some Jesus Movement groups, authorities sought to exert control over the groups and to limit recruitment. Such accusations were refuted by scholars studying these groups, but such claims persisted and led to problems for some Jesus Movement groups. Indeed, the first recorded "deprogramming" of a member of a new religious movement (the first of many thousands in the United States and other countries) involved a member of the Children of God.

More females, including some with children, were attracted to the Jesus Movement groups, which were usually communal, facilitating the establishment of families. With the arrival of children (sometimes in large numbers, since most Jesus Movement groups did not practice birth control), life in the Jesus Movement underwent dramatic change. Groups with families as a large proportion of membership had to support the family units. Membership figures for the Family demonstrate the magnitude of this change. As of 2003, the Family had approximately ten thousand members worldwide, with well over half of them being children. The presence of families had a domesticating effect on Jesus Movement groups. Mobility had to be curtailed, making groups much more sedentary. This led to a lessening of missionary activities in other countries. Divisions of labor were established within the groups, so that fewer members traveled and proselytized, while most took care of children and sought ways to support growing families.

The presence of children sometimes led to conflicts with public officials over child care and schooling. Some Jesus Movement groups home-schooled their children in an effort to inculcate them with the group's values, thus drawing attention from local officials. Child-custody battles sometimes developed, brought on by a parent wanting to divorce his or her spouse and leave the group. The Children of God was even accused of child sex abuse as a result of the libertine lifestyle some adult members led for a time. In the 1980s and 1990s these accusations led to many children being temporary removed from Family homes in different countries, including France, Spain, Argentina, and Australia. The children were eventually returned to their families, and in Australia the government even had to pay damages for the actions taken toward the children.

Methods of group support varied considerably as members experimented with ways of raising money or engaging in activities that would support the group. Street solicitation for money was one successful method, but was not the most prevalent. The Children of God used this method, distributing their infamous "Mo Letters," which were tracts written by the Moses Davide Berg who established the group. Group members asked for money in exchange for the tracts, a fund raising method they called litnessing. The Children of God also scavenged for discarded fruits and vegetables from local markets, among other ways of finding sustenance. Other Jesus Movement groups, such as Shiloh, relied on work teams in agricultural and construction industries for support, as well as donations from members and their parents, and some even accepted contributions from governmental agencies. Some Jesus Movement groups also sold music tapes and put on concerts as they experimented with ways to support themselves.

The Jesus Movement still exits, even if some groups have changed markedly as a result of the material concerns discussed above. The apex of the Jesus Movement occurred in the 1970s and early 1980s, when there were Jesus Movement groups operating in many different areas of the United States, as well as in many other countries. The movement lost momentum as a result of fewer recruits, shifting societal circumstances, and problems deriving from the maturing of the membership and the establishment of families.

See Also

Brainwashing (Debate); Family, The.


Di Sabatino, David. The Jesus People Movement: An Annotated Bibliography and General Resource. Westport, Conn., 1999. A good reference by an insider in the movement.

Ellwood, Robert S. One Way: The Jesus Movement and Its Meaning. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1973. An excellent early study by a major scholar.

Enroth, Ronald, Edward Ericson, and C. Breckinridge Peters. The Jesus People: Old Time Religion in an Age of Aquarius. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1972. One of the first major studies, filled with good descriptive material.

Lewis, James, and J. Gordon Melton. Sex, Slander, and Salvation: Investigating the Family/Children of God. Stanford, Calif., 1994. Edited volume with chapters from a number of major scholars, focusing on changes occurring in this controversial Jesus Movement group.

Richardson, James T., and Rex Davis. "Experiential Fundamentalism." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 51 (1983): 397425. Article focusing on the melding of Christian fundamentalism with an experiential lifestyle, leading to some unexpected beliefs and behaviors.

Richardson, James T., Mary White Stewart, and Robert Simmonds. Organized Miracles: A Study of a Contemporary Youth, Communal, Fundamentalist Organization. New Brunswick, N.J., 1979. This book describes the second largest Jesus Movement group, Shiloh, from inception through the late 1970s.

Stewart, David T., and James T. Richardson. "Mundane Materialism: How Tax Policies and Other Governmental Regulation Affected Beliefs and Practices of Jesus Movement Organizations." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 67 (1999): 825847. This article reports research on how material concerns of Jesus Movment groups affected every aspect of group culture, including beliefs.

Van Zandt, David. Living in the Children of God. Princeton, N.J., 1991. A detailed report on life in this controversial Jesus Movement group.

James T. Richardson (2005)