Letter to President Carter from Jonestown

In the spring of 1978 – the exact date is unknown – the leaders of Jonestown wrote a letter “in urgent haste” to President Jimmy Carter about the community’s perceived threats to its very existence. Signed by Temple member Laura Johnston, the 12-page letter offers a lengthy summary of  Jonestown’s understanding of itself. Among other topics, it speaks of:

  • The paternity of John Victor Stoen, the child custody suit filed by Grace Stoen (later joined by Tim Stoen), and the other actions taken against Peoples Temple by Tim Stoen after his defection;
  • The conspiracy against Peoples Temple led by Tim Stoen, but joined by others – mostly in the Concerned Relatives – who have tried to enlist the assistance of federal agencies to bring down the Jonestown community;
  • Tactics of Temple critics, including electronic surveillance, attempts at blackmail, and manipulation of the media;
  • Harassing actions taken by federal agencies, including the IRS, the Federal Communications Commission, the U.S. Customs Department, and the Social Security Administration;
  • The accomplishments of Peoples Temple – both in the US and in Guyana – and the humanitarian aspirations of its pastor, Jim Jones, and the people he leads, all of which are threatened by Tim Stoen, the Concerned Relatives, and the government agencies which are being manipulated for “political” and “terrorist” ends.

While the letter contain no overt or direct references to death or any other drastic measures to resolve the issues, it does profess great frustration with the situation and poses rhetorical questions about how much more it should endure.

The last paragraphs of the letter capture its tone and overall message:

“We could go on and on. We have spent no money except to build – a program which is the most significant kind of grassroots like between two people. Tim Stoen has spent thousands and solely to tear down – our work, Guyanese-American relations, hope for little children. We are peace-loving people, made so by decent, productive work and the enormous inspiration of our humanitarian leader. Now they would even threaten his health – he cannot endure much more of this, it is too much for one to bear alone. He feels too deeply for the safety and security of everyone; and it could literally kill him to see his child [John Victor Stoen] to be dragged away to be ‘raised’ by terrorists and sadists; or to see his people thrown back into the counter-productive and destructive modes of life it took years to rehabilitate them from. Where in heaven’s name would this organization be without the constant moderation and direction of Jim Jones? Yet many believe by this point that this is exactly what Tim Stoen and the others are out to do – destroy and kill the person who has given many the only hope they have ever known! We need to keep our people’s faith alive and the program going. These threats, harassment ­– when we are doing so much good – are getting to be more than they can endure.

“We implore you to investigate these sources yourself and determine the conspiracy behind it. Investigate the Project [Jonestown]. We are a credit to both America and Guyana. We are in a unique position to cement relations between these two peoples, and we are avid and positive towards that end. We are a practical model and can make THE significant difference.

“The impending IRS investigation, deliberately provoked by false charges and lies as Tim Stoen had threatened, will totally alienate our membership. How much can people be expected to take? We urgently request your help.”

While the letter is authentic – in that it came from Peoples Temple – the identity of the writer is unknown. Laura Johnston, who was in Georgetown on 18 November 1978 and thereby survived the deaths in Jonestown, acknowledges that the signature could be hers, but that she didn’t write the letter. Her name was “Laura R. Johnston” at the time, not “L[aura] J. Johnston.” Moreover, the letter contains a great deal of information – including many of the names, and especially the details of the Stoen custody battle – that she did not know until many years later. “I vaguely remember signing it,” she wrote in June 2008, but “I never wrote it.”

Letter to President Carter from Jonestown, RYMUR 89-4286-M-1-a, pp. 7a-7l
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Last modified on October 22nd, 2013.
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