Lonnie Frisbee: The Sad Story of a Hippie Preacher

A FORGOTTEN BUT INFLUENTIAL EVANGELICAL FIGURE

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.

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, bohemian attitudes, 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. Frisbee 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 doing just that, during 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.)

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 1960s and ’70s-era evangelical leaders. Calvary Chapel’s Chuck Smith was smitten. “I was not at all prepared for the love that this young man would radiate,” he 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, 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—24 years ago this weekend. 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, Frances Schaeffer, Bill Bright, and many others come to mind—and I thank God for them. But it has also produced more than a few men like Lonnie Frisbee, and we do well to remember them—and learn from their lives—if we want to have the kind of witness to a skeptical world that truly brings glory to God.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Warren Cole Smith is an investigative journalist and author as well as the Colson Center vice president for mission advancement.


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  • God doesn’t call perfect people to do his work.

    • WSC777

      But he does call broken people to heal.

  • Yvon Malenfant

    Nice article you’ve written. But as an investigative reporter, you might want to check out David Di Sabatino’s documentary on Lonnie Frisbee… I think that you’ll like it!

  • David Di Sabatino

    Funny…I don’t remember God placing a asterisk beside the names of those like Samson or Jephthah in the Hebrews Hall of Faith. What a stunning show of prejudice to make a division between “godly leaders” and what…God’s B-team?

    Maybe you should actually watch my documentary.

    • Jeff Stucker

      Yes, in Scripture, God placed an asterisk beside the names of many leaders who followed him but caused damage to his people, as a cautionary note on the impact of infidelity, pride, and idolatry, especially among leaders. For example, king after Old Testament king were described as following God, but failing to empty the “high places” of their pagan idols and practices. Their failures as leaders had tragic impact on the people of God. Thank God, his mercy is everlasting, and his forgiveness is real. Thus the sad story of leadership failures can be both a cautionary warning and a story of amazing grace.

  • There is a strain of perfectionism in modern Evangelicalism we’ve inherited from 19th century revivalism. Every Christian, leader or not, experiences moral failure in their lives. For most of us, it’s not so public or apparently egregious, and we can go through life thinking we’re not all that bad. Or at least as bad as some other people. As Luther said, we are Simul Justus et Peccator. We are simultaneously justified and sinners. Saints are sinners! I don’t know anything about this guy, but even a very cursory reading of Scripture shows us that God uses broken people to accomplished his purpose in redemption. It amazes me how often people forget this.

  • Karen Girard

    First of all I want to say how much I appreciate the great ministry of Chuck Colson and all of you that work in the ministry. I came across your article and decided I needed to respond. As I read the article my first reaction was to wonder in astonishment where the information came from. Then toward the end of the article it said that a lot of the information came form a book by David W. Stowe, “No Sympathy for the Devil: Christian Pop Music and the Transformation of American Evangelicalism”. I read the first part of Stowe’s book and wondered where he got his information. While reading the article and the first portion of Stowe’s book I hardly recognized the people or church that I was a part of in the early 70s. I knew Lonnie, Chuck Smith, Greg Laurie, Mike McIntosh personally and the information is not what I EVER witnessed. I personally never saw Lonnie do any of the things he’s being accused of in those early years. If Lonnie was doing drugs and having liaisons on Saturday night before preaching on Sunday none of us ever saw it. There weren’t even rumors that would have raised suspicions. If we’re talking about the early Jesus Movement…Lonnie didn’t preach on Sundays. I’m not writing this primarily as a defense of Lonnie Frisbee. I know Lonnie fell later on, but the implication seems to want
    to smear the movement in general. Disrespectful remarks like ” Chuck Smith was smitten with Lonnie” are inferring that this was not the work of God but of something else. Also Stowe’s’ timeline and some influences are not what I remember as an eye witness. His book in my opinion is seriously out of sync and does not capture the spirit or facts. I only read the first part of the book, but that is my take-a-way. I am truly saddened that there appears to be an attempt to delegitimize a real revival-a real move of God. For all of the thousands of eye witnesses that were there and forever changed…I hope Jesus will get the glory for all He has done.

    • Ken

      Well said.