It only took John Lennon a few words to stir a controversy so huge that it enraged not only media personalities, the common people, and various Christian groups but also earned the ire of the Vatican itself who only forgave him more than 40 years after.
Actually, then 25-year-old Lennon’s infamous remark first came out in a lengthy article by journalist Maureen Cleave on the London Evening Standard on this day 48 years ago. The article was part of a series of individual interviews with the Beatles members, with John’s bearing the headline “How does a Beatle live? John Lennon lives like this.” The Beatles Interview Database on The Beatles Ultimate Experience website provides the full text of the article, but to give you an idea, below is the full paragraph written by Cleave which includes said statement:
Experience has sown few seeds of doubt in him: not that his mind is closed, but it’s closed round whatever he believes at the time. ‘Christianity will go,’ he said. ‘It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I will 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.’ He is reading extensively about religion.
Interestingly, Lennon’s statement went barely noticed in the UK. Trouble rose five months after, when US teen magazine Datebook, in their cover story “The Ten Adults You Dig/Hate the Most,” wrote a section about Lennon and republished the quote allegedly out of context.
Things worked out in the magazine’s favor as they reportedly sold more or less a million copies, but not for the Beatles who suffered a massive backlash in the US. People condemned them and deemed Lennon’s statement sacrilegious, pushed for cancellation of the band’s upcoming concerts in the US, called for a ban of their songs on radio stations, and organized bonfires where Beatles records were burned. In a chilling move, the Ku Klux Klan were even said to have nailed a Beatles album on a wooden cross while vowing “vengeance.” The outcry in the US spread to South America, Africa, Europe, and eventually to the Vatican who publicly condemned Lennon’s comment.
The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein attempted to control the situation by holding a press conference in New York City to express regret on behalf of the band about the incident, to little effect. In August, Lennon finally explained himself in a press conference held in Chicago:
Although the furor was said to have declined a little after this, the Beatles’ concert tour was still punctuated by demonstrations, disturbances, threats directed toward the members, and pickets by members of the Ku Klux Klan.
In 2008, the Vatican, who was known to be one of the Beatles’ staunchest critics, sang an entirely different tune by forgiving Lennon. In a front page article on the Church’s official newspaper L’Osservatore Romano was the following 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.
Two years later, exactly 40 years after the Beatles broke up, the Church published another article that offered nothing but warm praises for the band and their music, calling them a “precious jewel” and even posing the question, “…what would pop music have been like without the Beatles?”
All information in this article were sourced from John Lennon – We’re more popular than Jesus and Datebook republishes John Lennon’s ‘Jesus’ comments on The Beatles Bible, More Popular than Jesus on Wikipedia, and the Telegraph.
Further reading: Abovementioned sources, plus More Popular than Jesus Interview on The Beatles Ultimate Experience.
Check out more articles about The Beatles in the Lomography magazine!