Pastor Chuck Smith dies at 86; founder of Calvary Chapel movement

In his church office, pastor Chuck Smith kept a crown made of thorns and a jar full of candy. The thorns were from the Holy Land. The candy was for his grandkids. The image suggested his special appeal as a preacher: A harsh, old-school Christianity delivered with grandfatherly sweetness.

Smith, the founder of the Jesus People and the Calvary Chapel movement, and one of the most influential figures in modern American Christianity, died Thursday morning at his home in Newport Beach after a two-year battle with lung cancer, church officials said. He was 86.

“He was definitely a pioneer,” said Donald E. Miller, a professor of religion at USC. “He had a transformative impact on Protestantism.”

The Calvary Chapel phenomenon, which now includes more than 1,000 churches nationwide and hundreds more overseas, began with the 25-member church Smith founded on a Costa Mesa lot in 1965.

He was a biblical literalist who believed staunchly in hell, Armageddon and the sinfulness of homosexuality. But from the pulpit, and in person, he emanated a disarming warmth. His church became famous as a sanctuary for a generation of counterculture refugees. He wore a Hawaiian shirt and a big, benevolent smile.


He didn’t care how worshipers dressed or how long they wore their facial hair. He welcomed hippies, dropouts and the drug-damaged. He allowed guitars to accompany worship songs. He became Papa Chuck to the thousands he baptized below the ocean cliffs of Corona del Mar.

“It was really a new style of worship,” Miller said. “It incorporated a generation of young people who otherwise would not have darkened the door of a church. Part of his genius was he was theologically conservative but simultaneously culturally avant garde.”

Smith’s movement contributed to the ascent of the modern megachurch, and he was a mentor to generations of younger evangelists, including Greg Laurie of the Harvest Christian Fellowship.

Friends said Smith had never planned to preside over more than one church and did not even bother to keep track of how many Calvary Chapels had sprung up across the country.

At the pulpit, he went through the Bible verse by verse, page by page, from Genesis to Revelation. He taught it cover to cover 10 or 15 times. Sometimes he took three years to do it, sometimes nine. When he died, he was at Chapter 4 of Romans.

“He was the first minister I ever saw who I thought wasn’t putting on an act,” said Dave Rolph, a longtime friend and fellow Calvary Chapel pastor. “Chuck showed you can do ministry and be a real person. There was no acting, there was no performance.… He was a regular guy.”

Smith was born in Ventura on June 25, 1927. A graduate of LIFE Bible College, he taught at pulpits around Southern California, at times cleaning carpets to pay the bills.

His rise to prominence began in the mid-1960s, when he was invited to take over a small church in Costa Mesa. The congregation grew quickly, but its membership skyrocketed after he met a hitchhiking hippie, Lonnie Frisbee, who brought dozens of his hippie friends to Bible studies.

Frisbee became Smith’s assistant and a bridge to the counterculture. Smith presided over mass baptisms of thousands of new Christians at Pirate’s Cove at Corona del Mar.

The emergence of Calvary Chapel paralleled — and helped to fuel — the so-called “Jesus movement” of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which embraced religious seekers who had grown alienated from the secular counterculture.

Smith’s church at times drew controversy, as in its treatment of Frisbee after it emerged that Frisbee was gay; Smith was accused of then downplaying his role.

In recent years, the church was also embroiled in a legal battle over control of its multimillion-dollar network of radio stations. On one side was Smith. On the other was one of his proteges, Mike Kestler, who preached at a Calvary Chapel in Twin Falls, Idaho, and had been accused by female churchgoers of making sexual advances.

When Smith said he planned to surrender much of the radio empire to Kestler in what he characterized as a Christian gesture, one of Kestler’s accusers said she felt abandoned.

Smith was known for reading divine retribution into current events, such as earthquakes and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and he saw apocalyptic portents in the depravity of mankind and the various crises in the Middle East.

He repeatedly predicted the end of the world, and his zeal for the notion seemed undiminished when it failed to materialize. “Every year I believe this could be the year,” he would say. “We’re one year closer than we were.”

Smith was diagnosed with cancer two years ago, and he underwent rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. He continued to preach at Calvary’s flagship church, a low-slung building on Sunflower Avenue at the border of Costa Mesa and Santa Ana.

Rolph said Smith would reach as many as 8,000 worshipers during three Sunday sessions, and many more on Calvary’s nationwide radio network. The flagship station, K-WAVE, ran tributes to Smith Thursday.

In recent months, Smith’s deteriorating health made his appearances at the church erratic. Last Sunday, he came to the pulpit attached to his oxygen hose.

“There was intermittent weeping throughout the congregation,” said Brian Brodersen, associate pastor at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa. “I think people could sense this was probably the goodbye they were getting from their pastor.”

Smith is survived by his wife, Kay, and four children, Chuck Jr., Jeff, Janette and Cheryl, a church representative said.

Rolph said he visited Smith at his home earlier this week. “He said, ‘I feel weak.’ And that is something Chuck Smith wasn’t used to,” Rolph said. “But he said, ‘I’m doing great, I’m doing fine.’”

He said Smith had hoped to make it to the pulpit one last time, however. “Many times over the years he said, ‘Some day you’re going to read in the paper, “Chuck Smith died,”’ Rolph said. “He said, ‘That’s bad reporting. What it should say is, ‘Chuck Smith moved.’”