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Here’s another of those awesome factoids that proliferates from rock history website to rock history website without elaboration or context: “April 20, 1970: The New York Times reported that Catholic and Protestant youth groups had adopted the Beatles’ ‘Yellow Submarine’ as a religious symbol.”
In a continuing quest to flesh out such factoids, I found the article from the Times. Headlined “Yellow Submarine is Symbol of Youth Churches,” it appeared in the Times on April 20, 1970, and in other papers around the country during the next week or so. It reported on the aftermath of a three-day convention of so-called “submarine churches” held in St. Louis. The goal of the churches was said to be either the creation of counterculture-compatible churches or reform of existing denominations. They “combine heavy political involvement with new forms of liturgical celebration ranging from street parades to beer-and-pretzel eucharistic fests.” (Finally, a religion I can get behind.)
The article reported that “submarine churches” grew out of the “free” or “liberated” churches that had developed across the country in recent years, most famously the Free Church of Berkeley, California, which seems to have been the nerve center for the movement. The Berkeley group claimed that there were about 40 such churches around the country. They weren’t all about theatrics or revolution. In Berkeley, the Free Church operated a telephone hotline designed to help young people with problems of all sorts.
Reporter Edward B. Fiske wrote that some of the churches adopted the yellow submarine as a symbol after certain members of the peace movement had adopted it as a symbol of social harmony and nonviolence. The Free Church of Berkeley added a cross to it. A former Free Church pastor quoted in the story says, “In the Beatles’ movie the submarine was a place where they loved each other in a groovy way and got strength to do battle with the Blue Meanies. It also shows that a church has to have flexibility and maneuverability.” (Like a really cool 1970 model car, apparently.)
Although young people had a distinct thirst for new forms of religious expression in the early 1970s, everything from the Jesus Movement to the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, the yellow submarine churches did not take the country by storm. Just another enthusiasm of the moment that failed to catch fire over the long term, even though it was interesting enough to make the New York Times.
(Adapted from my WNEW.com archives.)