Lonnie Frisbee: The Sad Story of a Hippie Preacher
His life was a precursor to many of the ministry scandals of today
Editor’s Note: Lonnie Frisbee was born on June 6, 1949. Had he lived, he would be 72 on Sunday.
Lonnie Frisbee is a name mostly lost to history, but he could be one of the most influential persons in the modern evangelical movement. There’s no doubt that he is the man who put the “freak” in “Jesus Freak.” And in his life we see some of the best and worst of evangelicalism. And in the way evangelical leaders dealt with him we see a pattern of cover-up that extends even to today.
But to understand that, a bit of his biography is helpful.
Lonnie Frisbee was a quintessential baby-boomer, born in 1949 and fully immersed in the hippie movement of the 1960s. He was in San Francisco during the famous 1967 “Summer of Love,” and even then, at age 18, he was a compelling figure, winning awards for his painting and becoming known in the “gay underground” for his dancing and bohemian attitudes and profligate drug use. He described himself as a “nudist, vegetarian hippie.” His rootlessness may have been a result of a dark home life when he was a child. He was raped at age eight, often ran away from home as a child, and was in and out of school so much that he barely learned to read or write.
It is, then, perhaps no surprise that Frisbee’s conversion to Christ included unusual circumstances. A “spiritual seeker,” Frisbee would often read the Bible while tripping on LSD. He claims he became a Christian while reading the Gospel of John on an LSD-induced high while on a “vision quest” near Palm Springs, California. The group he was with baptized him in Tahquitz Falls. He later said that on a different acid trip, after his conversion, he had “a vision of a vast sea of people crying out to the Lord for salvation, with Frisbee in front preaching the gospel.” (A lot of the material for this article comes from David W. Stowe, No Sympathy for the Devil: Christian Pop Music and the Transformation of American Evangelicalism, UNC Press Books, 2011.)
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This all sounds too strange to be taken seriously, but one could argue that it is precisely at this point that American Evangelicalism goes awry. Not only was Lonnie Frisbee taken seriously as a convert, he was embraced by 60s and 70s-era evangelical leaders, and thrust into leadership positions himself.
For example, Calvary Chapel’s Chuck Smith was smitten. “I was not at all prepared for the love that this young man would radiate,” Smith said. Smith put Frisbee in charge of one of Calvary Chapel’s ministries, “The House of Miracles,” which ministered to hippies, addicts, and street people. Frisbee led a Wednesday night Bible study that quickly attracted thousands and became an “on ramp” for the early growth of Calvary Chapel. All this despite the fact that Frisbee – though by now married – continued to use drugs and engage in homosexual liaisons.
Still, Frisbee’s powerful personality and speaking style had a remarkable impact. The House of Miracles grew and eventually spawned 19 communal houses. It eventually migrated to Oregon and became an important “Jesus Movement” commune, which at one time had 100,000 members in 175 homes spread across the country. Also, Frisbee was an early influence on later Calvary Chapel leaders Mike MacIntosh and Greg Laurie.
But Frisbee’s demons hounded him. He became involved with the such fringe charismatic teachers as Kathryn Kuhlman. As the Calvary Chapel movement matured and started seeing the excesses of the “Jesus People” movement, Smith and Frisbee had a break in 1971. Frisbee and his wife divorced in 1973, and Frisbee became a part first of the controversial Shepherding Movement led by Bob Mumford, and then John Wimber’s Vineyard Movement.
During this whole time, while he was preaching in some of evangelicalism’s largest venues, his moral failings were more or less an “open secret.” He would “party on Saturday night and preach on Sunday morning.”
Lonnie Frisbee’s lifestyle eventually caught up with him. He contracted AIDS and died of complications from the disease on March 12, 1993. Chuck Smith, to whom he had been more-or-less reconciled, preached at Frisbee’s funeral, saying that Frisbee was a “Samson figure” who was powerfully anointed by God, but who was a victim of a desperately broken childhood and his own struggles and temptations.
The post-World War II evangelical movement has produced many great and godly leaders. Billy Graham, Chuck Colson, J.I. Packer, John Stott, Frances Schaeffer, Bill Bright, and many others come easily to mind.
But it has also produced more than a few men like Lonnie Frisbee. They were men who resisted transparency and accountability in their personal and public lives. We do well to remember them – and learn from their lives — if we want to have a witness to a skeptical, cynical, secular world that changes hearts and brings glory to God.