History of Explo ’72: The Apex of the Jesus Movement, 50 Years Ago
Fifty years ago, Explo ’72 was held in Dallas, Texas, from June 12 to June 17, 1972. It was the most conspicuous event of the Jesus Movement, at least in the media. Sponsored by Campus Crusade for Christ, it was initially called the “International Student Congress on Evangelism,” but it was billed as Explo ’72 and became the largest youth evangelism training conference in church history.
What was the historical and cultural context in which this event developed, where did it go, and how was I involved?
The Jesus Movement preceding Explo ’72
I came to the University of California at Berkeley, “Cal,” in 1971 amid the Jesus Movement. In historical terms, the Jesus Movement, or the Jesus Revolution, was considered the sixth American Revival and the first post-modern one. Growing up in California, I had seen the Jesus Revival in 1969 at Hollywood Presbyterian’s “Salt Company” ministry and in northern California in coffee shops and bookstores. This was not a revival like the Great Awakening of the 18th century nor the Second Great Awakening Revivals of the 19th century, the latter a subject upon which I would later write my history thesis. This was something entirely different.
This revival hadn’t started with the established church but with the counter-culture. And it was very much youth-based; it appealed to Baby Boomers. Was it born of the “free love” movement of the “Summer of Love” that had happened four years earlier in 1967? Perhaps, but I didn’t think so.
It was not libertine in its morals nor progressive in its politics. It was underground in its sentiment and orthodox in its theology. There was long hair — it was post-Beatles, after all — and very interested in music. These were the days of the Jesus Music of Barry McGuire, Keith Green, and the 2nd Chapter of Acts. While music was a staple of young people then, this kind of music would later become known as “Contemporary Christian Music.”
Cru at Cal
Campus Crusade for Christ, now known as “Cru,” had already been on the Berkeley campus since the ’60s when I arrived in 1971. The Berkeley of the mid-’60s was known for free speech and civil rights protests. But the late ’60s were known for the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations and riots that involved occasionally calling in the National Guard with military helicopters and tear gas, joined by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department anti-riot squads. I witnessed the last such major riot on campus in the Spring of 1972.
In 1967, Bill Bright, the founder and President of Campus Crusade for Christ, and Billy Graham, the renowned evangelist, had been to the campus for the “Berkeley Blitz.” This involved 600 Campus Crusade staff and students hosting dinners, a performance by a magician, on-campus concerts from the steps of Sproul Plaza (where Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke that same year), and closed with an event featuring Billy Graham speaking at the Greek Theatre, an open-air amphitheatre on the east side of campus.
I lived on the hill above the Greek Theater for five years while a student. I saw Ike & Tina Turner, Miles Davis, The Grateful Dead, and James Taylor there.
But this was the same venue that had previously hosted President Theodore Roosevelt, William Randolph Hearst (who had gifted the theater to the campus in 1903), the Dalai Lama, and Senator Robert Kennedy.
As has often been said, “the ’60s happened in the ’70s,” and I was there for that. We did evangelistic surveys on campus, shared the “4 Spiritual Laws” booklet, and had dorm Bible Studies.
Cal at Explo ’72
Billy Graham called Explo ’72 the “religious Woodstock.” This Cru-sponsored event attracted 75,000 registered delegates, but over 10,000 visitors (or were there, as some estimated at the music event, as many as 200,000?), mostly college students, it seemed to me at the time. Subsequently, I heard there were also many high school students.
If there was a singular “event” associated with the Jesus Movement, this was it. It ran from Sunday, June 12th, and closed Saturday, June 17th. There was the feel of an arena rally. Not really hippies, but we all had long hair back then. I rode in the back of an AMC Gremlin from Berkeley to Dallas, which seemed lightyears away.
The thing was, I hadn’t finished the school year yet! While other delegates participated in morning training classes and afternoon practicums, I had a thesis to complete. So I spent each day at the local library writing what turned out to be a 50-page paper on Italian immigrants. This was, after all, three months after the release of the blockbuster movie The Godfather.
Tent City at Explo ’72
Student attendees stayed in hotels (filling some to almost double capacity), college dorms, homes, everywhere. But about 10,000 of us, including the Cal gang, stayed at Tent City, a camping ground somewhere between Dallas and Ft. Worth. The heat and humidity were stifling. You’d walk out of the shower, and it felt like you were in a shower. And at night, the mosquitos would come to carry you away.
Ah, but at night! Because we had the worst accommodations, we got the best speakers and musical performers. We had concerts under the big top at Tent City. We heard Love Song, Barry McGuire, and we got a visit from Bill Bright and other luminaries.
One night we had a torrential rainstorm at Tent City. The emcee for that night’s meeting asked us all to pray. He explained that if the rain turned the ground into mud, the tent posts that held up the big top would come out of the ground. So 10,000 students prayed. A few minutes later, the rain stopped.
Rally and Jesus Music Festival at Explo ’72
At the evening sessions at the Cotton Bowl, we heard Billy Graham, professional athletes like Roger Staubach, and others.
At a concert in an open area in downtown Dallas (now a freeway interchange), we listened to the music of Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Larry Norman, Barry McGuire, Andre Crouch and The Disciples, and more… for about 8 hours.
Explo ’72 ended on June 17th, the same day that five men were caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters across the country in Washington, D.C., at the Watergate Apartments.
Aftereffects of Explo ’72
But the impact of Explo ’72 lived on. Beyond the lasting impact it had on music, many delegates would participate in various ministries, and some would become leaders of churches and parachurch organizations. After college, my first career was to serve as full-time staff with Campus Crusade for Christ and in subsequent church lay leadership roles.
In 2005, Christianity Today magazine reported that Explo ’72 delegate Joe Losiak, a Polish American student in 1972, had heavily influenced a young Roman Catholic Cardinal back in Poland toward evangelistic efforts. That Cardinal was later to become Pope John Paul II.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian