When the phantasmagorically weird Beatles film Yellow Submarine premiered 50 years ago, its psychedelic colors and peace-and-love sensibility quickly influenced fashion, graphic design, animation and music.
But the 1968 movie also influenced organized religion — a fact lost in the hubbub over the release of a restored and remastered version in American theaters on July 8.
Not long after the British-made film landed in the United States, “submarine churches” attracted urban, young people. They adopted the outline of a yellow submarine with a small cross on its periscope as their symbol and displayed it alongside peace signs, flowers and other popular emblems of the 1960s.
There were enough of the churches a year after the film’s release that they operated The Submarine Church Press, which published a national directory of 40 such churches, most with mainline Protestant or Catholic roots, and held a three-day “rap session,” or conference, in Kansas City, Mo. Attendees came from New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, St. Louis and Akron, Ohio.
“In the Beatles’ movie, the submarine was the place where they loved each other in a groovy way and got strength to do battle with the Blue Meanies,” Rev. Tony Nugent, a former co-pastor of a submarine church in Berkeley, Calif., told The New York Times in 1970. “It also shows that a church has to have flexibility and maneuverability.”
When a group of so-called radical Christians attended the National Council of Churches’ 1969 convention, they had a slogan: “The submarine church is surfacing.”
Submarine churches had unusual names, like Alice’s Restaurant, Ecstatic Umbrella and Now Church, and were known for their equally offbeat practices. Some were new and independent; others evolved from existing congregations. They routinely met outside church walls in parks, basements and college plazas, and they staged elaborate, protest-themed stunts. Similar to the Biblical tale of Joseph and Mary searching for an inn in Bethlehem, Alice’s Restaurant sent a couple and a donkey to a local hotel one Christmas in search of lodging. (They got it.)
Submarine churches adopted the refrain of John Lennon’s song “All You Need is Love,” spelled out in mod-style letters across the op art landscape of the film.
Some also borrowed the film’s fashion sense. When the Rev. Richard York of the Free Church of Berkeley, a submarine church with ties to the Episcopal Church, was ordained in 1968, he wore a flowing robe of pink, yellow, green and gold that looked like it was ripped from one of the film’s far-out backgrounds. The bishop who ordained him wore a plain white cassock.
The Beatles and religion were frequent — if often uncomfortable — bedfellows. None of the musicians were traditionally religious. Paul McCartney once said none of The Beatles believed in God, George Harrison was interested in Hinduism, and Lennon, who identified as an atheist, proclaimed The Beatles were “more popular than Jesus” in 1966. Several of their songs, including “Eleanor Rigby” from the Yellow Submarine soundtrack, are sharply critical of traditional religion.
“Father McKenzie, wiping the dirt / From his hands as he walks from the grave,” McCartney sings. “No one was saved.”
But many scholars have established their careers on sussing out symbolism and meaning in Beatles lyrics, and some have argued that while the Fab Four were not religious, they were definitely spiritual and routinely expressed that in their music, especially in the second half of their oeuvre.
“The Beatles viewed love and peace as the highest values in living a good life,” said Hector Avalos, a professor of religious studies at Iowa State University who has written about the Beatles and religion. “Living a good life was not about salvation or following the Bible. That emphasis on love erased all the ‘isms’ that Lennon specifically hated.”
But the intention was never to craft a new religion or birth a new line of churches. As British music journalist Steve Turner wrote in The Gospel According to the Beatles, “They got into music for the kicks and the sex, not to be spreaders of good news.”
Yellow Submarine, the film, (the song was written earlier, in 1966) was created at a time when the Beatles were experimenting with Eastern instruments, time signatures and spirituality. In February 1968, they traveled to India to study transcendental meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a guru to the stars. While the trip ended in their disillusionment with him due to sexual and financial misconduct allegations, it also sparked interest in Eastern religions among Beatles fans in the U.S.
The plot — what there is of it — of Yellow Submarine also echoes religious themes, despite the writers’ claims they were working so fast to meet studio deadlines that they had no time to think deeply about the screenplay. There is an epic battle between good — the dancing, flower-picking residents of Pepperland — and evil — the music-hating, bomb-dropping Blue Meanies, who turn all of Pepperland’s colorful hippies into gray stone.
Enter the saviors — the Beatles — who travel via a magical, banana-colored submersible to Pepperland where their music defeats the Blue Meanies and restores life to the stone(d).
All of this appeared only a year after the Summer of Love spawned waves of hippies and against the backdrop of a worsening war in Vietnam. America’s youth was open to a new way of doing religion that submarine churches now offered, with their “love is all you need” gospel inspired by the Beatles.
Submarine churches, like the Beatles themselves, did not last. By the early 1970s, most had disappeared or morphed into something else — mostly into shelters and clinics for runaway teens and the homeless. They foreshadowed the movement among mainline Protestant denominations in the 1990s toward nontraditional churches that focused on young adults and met them in bars, parks, clubs and other largely secular spaces.
“The Beatles mirrored the secularization of society that was accelerating in the ’60s,” religious studies professor Hector Avalos said. “They exemplified the search for alternatives to Christianity in any spiritual quest.”