More popular than Jesus

john lennon by Sebastian Kruger

More popular than Jesus‘ was a controversial remark made by musician John Lennon of the Beatles in 1966: Lennon said that Christianity was in decline and that the Beatles had become more popular than Jesus Christ.

When the quote appeared in the American teen magazine ‘Datebook,’ angry reactions flared up from Christian communities. Lennon had originally made the remark in March 1966 during interviews with Maureen Cleave on the lifestyles of the four individual Beatles. When Lennon’s words were first published, in the ‘London Evening Standard’ in the United Kingdom, they had provoked no public reaction.

When ‘Datebook’ quoted Lennon’s comments five months later, vociferous protests broke out in the southern United States. The Beatles’ records were publicly burned, press conferences were cancelled and threats were made. The protest spread to other countries including Mexico, South Africa and Spain; there were anti-Beatles demonstrations and their music was banned on radio stations. The controversy erupted on the eve of the group’s US tour, and the anger and scale of the reaction led their manager, Brian Epstein, to consider cancelling the tour.

Two press conferences were held in the US, where both Epstein and then Lennon expressed their regret at words taken out of context and offense taken. Christian spokesmen pointed out that Lennon had only stated what the church was itself saying about Christianity’s decline. The US tour went ahead but there was disruption and intimidation, including picketing of concerts by the Ku Klux Klan, and at one concert the group mistakenly believed they were the target of gunfire.

When Cleave interviewed Lennon on March 4, 1966. After encountering a full-size crucifix, a gorilla costume and a medieval suit of armor on her excursion through his home, Kenwood, in Weybridge, she found a well-organized library, with works by Alfred Tennyson, Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and ‘The Passover Plot’ by Hugh J. Schonfield, which had influenced Lennon’s ideas about Christianity. Cleave’s article mentioned that Lennon was ‘reading extensively about religion,’ and quoted a comment he made: ‘Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I’ll be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first—rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.’

The decline of Christianity had been the subject of regular discussion in the UK since the First World War. Experiencing ever-falling levels of attendance, the Christian church was making no secret of its efforts to transform its image into something more relevant to modern times. As music historian Jonathan Gould wrote, ‘The satire comedians had had a field day with the increasingly desperate attempts of the Church to make itself seem more relevant (‘Don’t call me vicar, call me Dick … ‘), while the individual Beatles themselves had experienced the ministrations of the Rev. Ronald Gibbons, who told reporters at the height of Beatlemania that a Fab Four version of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ might provide the Church of England with ‘the very shot in the arm it needs.’ In 1963, the Anglican Bishop of Woolwich, John A. T. Robinson, published a controversial but popular book, ‘Honest to God,’ urging the nation to reject traditional church teachings on morality and the concept of God as an ‘old man in the sky,’ and instead embrace a universal ethic of love.

Brian Epstein was so concerned by the US reaction that he considered cancelling the tour, believing the group would be seriously harmed in some way. He then flew to the US and held a press conference in New York City, where he publicly criticized ‘Datebook,’ saying the magazine had taken Lennon’s words out of context, and expressed regret on behalf of the group that ‘people with certain religious beliefs should have been offended in any way.’ Epstein’s efforts had little effect, as the controversy quickly spread beyond the borders of the US. Even the Vatican became involved; issuing a public denouncement of Lennon’s comments.

Shortly before the tour began, on August 11, 1966, all four Beatles attended a press conference in Chicago to address the growing furore. Lennon told reporters: ‘I suppose if I had said television was more popular than Jesus, I might have got away with it, but I just happened to be talking to a friend and I used the words ‘Beatles’ as a remote thing, not as what I think – as Beatles, as those other Beatles like other people see us. I just said ‘they’ are having more influence on kids and things than anything else, including Jesus. But I said it in that way which is the wrong way.’

A reporter replied: ‘Some teenagers have repeated your statements – ‘I like the Beatles more than Jesus Christ.’ What do you think about that?’ To which Lennon offered: ‘Well, originally I pointed out that fact in reference to England. That we meant more to kids than Jesus did, or religion at that time. I wasn’t knocking it or putting it down. I was just saying it as a fact and it’s true more for England than here. I’m not saying that we’re better or greater, or comparing us with Jesus Christ as a person or God as a thing or whatever it is. I just said what I said and it was wrong. Or it was taken wrong. And now it’s all this.’

When asked if he intends to apologize for his remarks, Lennon said: ‘I wasn’t saying whatever they’re saying I was saying. I’m sorry I said it really. I never meant it to be a lousy anti-religious thing. I apologise if that will make you happy. I still don’t know quite what I’ve done. I’ve tried to tell you what I did do but if you want me to apologise, if that will make you happy, then OK, I’m sorry.’

At the press conference Lennon described his own belief in God by quoting the Bishop of Woolwich, saying, ‘… not as an old man in the sky. I believe that what people call God is something in all of us.’ When the tour began, it was marred by protests, cancellation of concerts, and disturbances. Telephone threats were received, and concerts were picketed by the Ku Klux Klan. ‘Daily Express’ writer Robert Pitman, responding to the US outcry, wrote, ‘It seems a nerve for Americans to hold up shocked hands, when week in, week out, America is exporting to us a subculture that makes the Beatles seem like four stern old churchwardens.’ In the US too there was criticism of the reaction; a Kentucky radio station declared that it would start to give Beatles’ music airplay to show its ‘contempt for hypocrisy personified,’ and the Jesuit magazine ‘America’ wrote: ‘Lennon was simply stating what many a Christian educator would readily admit.’

Asked about the controversy during a 1969 trip to Canada, Lennon said: ‘I think I said that the Beatles have more influence on young people than Jesus Christ. Yes, I still think it. Kids are influenced more by us than Jesus. Christ, some ministers even stood up and agreed with it. It was another piece of truth that the fascist Christians picked on. I’m all for Christ, I’m very big on Christ. I’ve always fancied him. He was right. As he said in his book, ‘you’ll get knocked if you follow my ways.’ Lennon also said in 1978: ‘I always remember to thank Jesus for the end of my touring days; if I hadn’t said that the Beatles were ‘bigger than Jesus’ and upset the very Christian Ku Klux Klan, well, Lord, I might still be up there with all the other performing fleas! God bless America. Thank you, Jesus.’

In a 2008 article marking the 40th anniversary of the Beatles’ ‘White Album’ release, the Vatican newspaper, ‘L’Osservatore Romano,’ issued the statement: ‘The remark by John Lennon, which triggered deep indignation, mainly in the United States, after many years sounds only like a ‘boast’ by a young working-class Englishman faced with unexpected success, after growing up in the legend of Elvis and rock and roll. The fact remains that 38 years after breaking up, the songs of the Lennon-McCartney brand have shown an extraordinary resistance to the passage of time, becoming a source of inspiration for more than one generation of pop musicians.’ In response, Ringo Starr said: ‘Didn’t the Vatican say we were satanic or possibly satanic, and they’ve still forgiven us? I think the Vatican’s got more to talk about than the Beatles.’

On May 18, 1968, Lennon summoned the other Beatles to a meeting at Apple Corps to announce that he was the living reincarnation of Jesus: ‘I have something very important to tell you all. I am Jesus Christ. I’m back again.’ The meeting was adjourned for lunch, and Lennon never mentioned the subject again. In May 1969, Lennon and McCartney recorded ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko,’ with Lennon singing the lines, ‘Christ, you know it ain’t easy, You know how hard it can be, The way things are going, They’re gonna crucify me.’ In a BBC interview a few months later, Lennon called himself ‘One of Christ’s biggest fans,’ talked about the Church of England, his vision of heaven, and expressed disappointment at not being allowed to marry Yoko in church.

In late 1969, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice asked Lennon to play the part of Jesus in the stage production of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’ which he declined, although he said he would have been interested if his wife, Yoko Ono, could play the part of Mary Magdalene. Lennon mentioned Jesus again in his 1970 song, ‘God,’ singing, ‘I don’t believe in Jesus,’ but also sang that he did not believe in the Bible, Buddha, Gita, and the Beatles. Whilst living in Los Angeles with May Pang, Lennon once said to DJ Wolfman Jack, ‘To boogie or not to boogie, that is the Christian.’ Critics of Lennon’s lyrics also focused on Lennon’s 1971 song, ‘Imagine,’ because of the line, ‘Imagine there’s no heaven.’

Lennon was murdered on December 8, 1980 by Mark David Chapman, who had become a born-again Christian in 1970, and was incensed by Lennon’s ‘more popular than Jesus’ remark, calling it blasphemy. He later stated that he was further enraged by the songs ‘God,’ and ‘Imagine’—even singing the latter with the altered lyric: ‘Imagine John Lennon dead.’

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