On 11 August 1966, John Lennon had to apologize for his “more popular than Jesus” remark made in a magazine interview in March.
The controversy had first broken out towards the end of July 1966, right before the Beatles’ fourth tour in the United States, when an American teen magazine had published parts of an interview the Beatles had given in March of that year.
On that occasion John Lennon, questioned about his life as a Beatle, had made remarks on religion and Jesus, which had not caused any noticeable reaction among British readers. He had stated that the public were more infatuated with the band than with Jesus, and that Christian faith was declining if compared to rock music.
Journalist Maureen Cleave had written on the London Evening Standard:
“Experience has sown few seeds of doubt in him [Lennon]: 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 [Lennon] is reading extensively about religion…”
Five months after that article, some parts were extracted from this interview and republished in America: Lennon’s comment which was an observation about religion losing its connection to young people, was misinterpreted and taken, especially in the South, as an anti-Christian boast.
It was the beginning of boycotts and bonfires, a drive to ban the Beatles music from the airways. In some states like, Georgia and Mississippi. teenagers started to smash records and throw other Beatles materials into fires.
From a business point of view this angry reaction might become an economic disaster for the group.
The Beatles considered the idea of cancelling the tour, but then they decided to go to America.
It was on 11 August, in Chicago, that the four young Brits met the press. During the conference, Lennon apologized for his remark that “the Beatles are more popular than Jesus”.
He said: “I’m sorry, I’m sorry I said it, really. I never meant it as a lousy, antireligious thing… If I had said television is more popular than Jesus, I might have got away with it…”
He repeated that he was not comparing himself with Christ, but attempting to explain the decline of Christianity in the UK.
“I’m not saying,” he explained “that we’re better, or greater, or comparing us with Jesus Christ as a person or God as a thing or whatever it is, you know. I just said what I said and it was wrong, or was taken wrong. And now it’s all this…”
The controversy was defused, and even the Vatican’s newspaper L’Osservatore Romano announced that the apology was sufficient.