The movement depicted in the Jesus Revolution movie was either right-wing in its roots or made a hard-right turn not soon after the beginning. But that was not true of all hippy Christians. Some were in the New Left & stayed left! Check it out!!
"We All Live In The Submarine Church: Confrontation, Celebration, Contemplation, and the Legacy of the Left-wing Hippy Christians" (presented at AAR in 2017)
Part one: the free church of the late 1960s
When the Reformation was but 451 years old, a gaggle of hippy Christians took to the streets in California’s East Bay for a provocative All Saints and Reformation Day parade, including all: “fairies, minstrels, priests, prophets, exorcists, angels, archangels, wizards, soothsayers, nymphs, elves, hobbits, priestesses, and saints, as well as all other people of goodwill.” This celebration had a direct proclamation, still available in the “Berkeley Free Church Collection” online archive, with exclamation points indicative of their gospel enthusiasm: “Out Demons, Out! The Demons are Exorcised! The Saints go Marching in! The Radical Jesus is Winning! The Submarine Church is Surfacing! Hallelujah! The Liberated Zone is at Hand!”
Somewhere just past the intersection of the New Left and newer liturgies, a passionate and polemic Christian counterculture danced and ranted their way to the end of the 1960s and the birth of the 1970s with vivid pamphlets and poetic visions. The head of steam that had been building for a decade in the various Christian youth movements had already begun to subside, and several attempts at unity began to splinter. Alternately called the free church, the hip church, the underground church, and the liberated church, the little-studied and subversive Submarine Church took its name from a Beatles’ song and comprised a well-funded renegade cell of pastors, authors, activists, seminary students, denominational bureaucrats, and their friends. With their coalition known as SCAN, the Submarine Church Action Network, they were—as documented in Harlan Douglas Anthony Stelmach’s stunning 1977 dissertation titled The cult of liberation : the Berkeley Free Church and the radical church movement, 1967-1972—“an emerging national network of local communities struggling to shape a new social order by bringing to it the radical vision of Jesus, the prophets, and the beloved community” (211).
In one of their many small-press manifestos titled “Jonathan’s Wake Stirs Late Awakening,” these leaders declared themselves “evangelical, conversion centered, pentecostal, post-liberal, post-secular, remythologizing, nongeneration, inside-subversive, outside-related, Wake-Up Oriented, youth black Third World supporting, democratic, post-Protestant, post-Catholic, Non-existent Reality, nonmembership, leaderless, post-Mao, post-SDS, happening joysprung mobile unit.”
From the heartfelt energies and playful hyperbole of mimeograph prophets, street actions were organized and liturgies written. It seems that Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Methodist leaders were so mystified and enchanted by the hippy, they were willing to pay younger pastors to participate in the revolution. Of course, we wonder if the denominational committees hoped that the likes of Richard York, Stephen Rose, and a dozen more pastors of their tribe would more-or-less contain and coopt the radicals—or at least, babysit them.
On the one hand, the Free Church began by helping runaways and druggies get the help they needed, but they had some rather unconventional ideas about teaching the street youth to make peace with society too, such as performing exorcisms on police with the so-called “Man-Mind-Blowing-Exorcising-Device,” as explained in the Pantheresque “Ministry of Defense, Communique #1.” Whether the Free Church’s interest in exorcisms got inspiration from the Yippies’ surreal actions to cast evil out of the Pentagon in 1967 or not, they clearly talk a lot about systemic injustice in spiritual terms. Contemporary theologians teach us that demonic evil is in fact real—but manifests in systemic patterns of oppression as much as in possessing people per se. It’s a wonder that today’s many militant movements have not looked more closely at exorcism as a potential tactic in our unprecedented and unfolding reality.
Years later on his blog, Rose would openly reference the Yippies as an inspiration for the Submarine Church’s creative confrontations. Rose himself witnessed the intense confrontations between police and protesters in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, before moving to the east coast. “With the smell of tear gas still in my nostrils, I moved with my family from Chicago to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in September,1968,” Rose chronicles in the post, “1969—Jonathan's Wake, Yippie, Reparations and Ecclesiastical Lassitude.” “Within a year, I was more embroiled in activism than since the early days of the 1960s.”
By the time York and Rose had formed their bicoastal alliance with an eastern faction nestled in Stockbridge, they had graduated to staging guerrilla theater-type actions at the national assemblies of major denominations, as well as at the National Council of Churches. So interestingly and somehow fittingly, the stiff suits of mainline Christianity paid for their own disruption in the form of these radical experiments, sometimes under the guise of New Church Developments. According to numbers charted in archival documents, the overall annual budget for the Berkeley Free Church in the early 1970s exceeds fifty thousand dollars; with no adjustments for inflation, this is more than the actual annual budget for a smalltown church I serve as a part-time pastor in the late 2010s.
Like the Marxist statists who worked for the day when Marxism and state would be no more, this was a tiny node inside the mainline church interested in abandoning itself, in superseding itself, in replacing itself with the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, with the authentic beloved community. Typical demands of these submarine subversives included more support for poverty programs, for black churches, and for antiwar efforts, all the while engaging in rapturous and rhetorical zeal to denounce the complicity and hypocrisy of a church that even implicitly supports racism and war.
Just like the children of the age ultimately became their parents, the Berkeley Free Church’s robust and rebellious tenure ultimately met its own decline and self-destruction long before the end of the establishment churches that parented it. Internal squabbles and ideological differences perhaps hastened what was probably inevitable. While many have predicted the last days of denominations for decades, they carry on, well into this new century. Perhaps some free churches folded back into larger congregations, while others simply dissolved, as some members followed their peers into careers as well as into New Age spirituality or continued with radical secular activism, only outside the church.
-to read a PDF version of the Master thesis Banjo & Bread or its sequel on the Submarine Church, send an email to preacherandrewsmith [at] gmail [dot] com
-@presbyhippy Andrew William "Sunfrog" Smith is a poet & DJ, a "hippy Jesus freak" of the left-wing variety, a preacher, teacher, & sober creature living on the occupied Cherokee land of Tanasi