“We’re More Popular Than Jesus!” – Fans Burn Beatles Records When John Lennon Compared the Beatles to Jesus in 1966

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Early August 1966, Christian groups, primarily in the Southern United States took to the streets to burn the sin out of their beloved Beatles records in response to John Lennon’s remark that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.”

Collage of some of the newspaper headlines, Beatle protests, and “Beatle bonfires” that erupted in the U.S. following John Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” remark, republished in ‘DateBook’ teen magazine.

It all began in March 1966, London’s Evening Standard ran a weekly series titled “How Does a Beatle Live?” that featured John Lennon, Ringo Starr, George Harrison and finally Paul McCartney. The articles were written by Maureen Cleave, who knew the group well and had interviewed them regularly since the start of Beatlemania in the United Kingdom. During the Lennon interview, and in the writing of her article – which appeared on page ten of London’s Evening Standard of March 4, 1966 – a paragraph written by Cleave described Lennon’s views on religion, noting at the end of the graph, that Lennon was then reading a lot about religion.

“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.”

March 4, 1966: Portion of the original London’s Evening Standard newspaper story and layout interviewing John Lennon about his life as a Beatle, in which he made remarks about religion and Jesus, which weren’t given any special attention by the paper, nor did they bring any noticeable reaction from British readers at the time.

The article provoked no controversy in the UK. Church attendance there was in decline and Christian churches were attempting to transform their image, to make themselves more “relevant to modern times”. Both McCartney and Harrison had been baptized in the Roman Catholic Church, but neither of them followed Christianity. In his interview with Cleave, Harrison was also outspoken about organized religion, as well as the Vietnam War and authority figures in general, whether “religious or secular.” He said: “If Christianity’s as good as they say it is, it should stand up to a bit of discussion.”

In late July, five months after its original publication, a U.S. teen mag called DATEbook republished the interview with Lennon. When the magazine’s final edition hit the newsstands in September – with Paul McCartney on the cover – it also used a tagline that ran second in a column of multi-colored taglines on the left side of the cover, quoting Lennon’s remark: “I don’t know which will go first — rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity.” That line was also used as the headline for the story that ran inside the magazine.

Paul McCartney on Sept 1966 DATEbook magazine cover, which also featured story on Lennon’s remarks about Jesus.

Two-page layout of the September 1966 DATEbook magazine article on John Lennon (from the March 1966 London’s Evening Standard) using the headline, “I Don’t Know Which Will Go First – Rock ‘n’ Roll Or Christianity”.

Two DJs at radio station WAQY in Birmingham, Alabama – Tommy Charles and Doug Layton – picked up on the quote, vowing to never play the Beatles and on August 8, started a “Ban the Beatles” campaign.

Birmingham disc jockeys Tommy Charles, left, and Doug Layton of Radio Station WAQY, rip and break materials representing the British pop group The Beatles, in Birmingham, Alabama, August 8, 1966. The broadcasters started a “Ban The Beatles” campaign. (AP)

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