Jonestown 25 Years Later: Why All The Secrecy?

by James T. Richardson, J.D., Ph.D

(Dr. James T. Richardson is Director, Grant Sawyer Center for Justice Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. His email address is jtr@scs.unr.edu.)

In 1979 I presented a plenary address at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion entitled, “Peoples Temple and Jonestown: A Corrective Comparison and Critique.” In that presentation, which was later published in the Society’s journal (Richardson, 1980), my major point was that Peoples Temple was unlike other groups referred to as New Religious Movements. I cited eight major points of dissimilarity between Peoples Temple and NRMS, including: (1) time and context of inception; (2) characteristics of members; (3) organizational structure and operation; (4) social control techniques used, and contact with outsiders; (5) resocialization techniques; (6) theology or ideology; (7) general orientation toward the world; and (8) ritual behaviors engaged in by the groups.

The major thrust of my paper was to describe the uniqueness of Peoples Temple, which was more similar to urban black churches such as that of Father Divine or Sweet Daddy Grace than it was the controversial NRMs that were attracting so much attention at that time in America and elsewhere. I lamented the fact that the dissimilarities were being overlooked by those who would use the tragedy of Peoples Temple as a weapon to attack groups not at all like the Peoples Temple group. There are grounds for continuing that lament because, as John R. Hall (1995: 228) has noted, the mass suicide motif that developed immediately out of the Peoples Temple event has affected how other religious groups have been treated since that time. That template was apparently applied to the Branch Davidians by law enforcement authorities, who justified the actions they took in part by the claim that they feared the Davidians would commit mass suicide (Wessinger, 2000: 64-65). Indeed, virtually all controversial new religious groups since the time of Jonestown have had to deal with suspicions that they are “suicide cults.”

My 1980 paper also raised other issues relevant to full understanding of what happened at Jonestown, mainly in some footnotes in which I questioned actions taken by government officials and others in the Jonestown aftermath. I was appalled (1980: 240, note 1) at the apparent deliberate lack of action concerning autopsies on the victims at Jonestown. Only seven complete autopsies were done, and those took place three weeks after the deaths, when the bodies were back in the U.S. Thus we will never even know how many people were murdered and how many died of self-ingested poison. Of the 909 people who died in Jonestown, according to Dr. Leslie Mootoo, Chief Medical Examiner of the Guyana Government, no more than 200 committed suicide. If that figure is true, this means that over 700 might have been murdered, raising many issues about what actually happened there. The lack of interest in doing autopsies led to a destruction of very important evidence that could have answered some of these questions.

In that same footnote I mentioned the conspiracy theories that developed almost immediately about CIA involvement at Jonestown, especially as raised by Deirdre Griswold, who wrote three articles in Workers World (Griswold, 1978a,b,c). These theories have not disappeared over the years, as noted in the recent and thorough examination by Rebecca Moore (2000). She addresses explicitly the conspiracy theories that have developed around Peoples Temple (2000: 18-21) and, even as she critiques them by pointing out internal inconsistencies and lack of hard evidence, she notes that these ideas persist because official information has been hard to obtain, and there are many unexplained facts that seem to support parts of such theories.

At the time of my earlier research I made a number of efforts to obtain information about what happened at Jonestown. I even contacted members of the Nevada congressional delegation whom I knew, asking them if they could obtain any additional information. The response was that they could not, and that everything about the Jonestown tragedy was classified, to such an extent that, even as members of Congress, they could not find out what happened! This was shocking to me, and made me wonder at the time what was going on.

Earlier in her recent article Moore points out that the government has apparently destroyed many documents having to do with Peoples Temple (Moore, 2000: 8). She describes the Freedom of Information requests filed by Fielding McGehee that revealed destruction of the requested materials. This is astounding, given the continued interest in episodes of violence involving religious groups. One cannot help but wonder if the decision to destroy the files was deliberate, and, if so, why such a decision was made?

In correspondence with Fielding McGehee (2003) about these episodes I have found out that the House Foreign Affairs Committee has placed a “30 year hold” on all documents concerning Jonestown, making it virtually impossible to learn more from what materials do still exist. Further efforts to obtain materials by McGehee have resulted in what can only be described as classic delaying tactics. He asked the State Department for materials which the agency provided to the 1979 congressional investigation, only to be told the request cannot honor without identification of the documents. That identification, of course, could not be furnished without more knowledge of what is still available.

I also noted (1980: 253, note 23) that the official report of the episode (U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, 1979), a voluminous but shallow discussion made up mainly of news reports on the tragedy, made some disheartening recommendations, supposedly derived from the “research” contained in the report. The recommendations at the end of this vacuous government study were to review provisions of the federal Privacy Act and the Freedom of Information Act. The claim was made that if the government did not have to abide by the Privacy Act then it would have been easier to obtain information on what was happening in Peoples Temple. The report also complained that the FOIA hindered governmental agencies in their desire to take needed actions, since they might have to be reported publicly later. Finally, the report recommended that IRS rules about tax exempt status for religious groups should be reviewed in light of the Jonestown tragedy.

The upshot of the failure to take appropriate action, as with the autopsies, and the destruction and unavailability of much information on Peoples Temple held by the government, is that recommendations such as those made in 1979 can go relatively unchallenged. Since no one can find out for certain what happened, there is little recourse for those who might disagree with the governmental report’s recommendations. What seems clear is that, no matter the facts, those who drafted the report were intent on using the episode to limit privacy of citizens, while also limiting their access to information on governmental actions.

The lack of official information can severely hinder scholarly examination by scholars of what happened at Jonestown. Recent treatments such as that of Wessinger (2000) and Richardson (2001) may posit some sort of interactionist theory, and claim that the government and other outsiders bear some of the blame for what happened that fateful day in 1978. But even those studies that take into account government action are potentially quite incomplete in that, for whatever reasons key information may not be available to scholars.

Another case in point is a recent collection by two prominent scholars in the field of new religions and violence, David Bromley and J. Gordon Melton (2002). There are numerous mentions of Peoples Temple and Jonestown in this volume, which contains papers by a dozen or so scholars. None of those discussions cite the problems of lack of available official accurate information on what happened at Jonestown. Various theories about how such a catastrophe could have occurred are offered, but none treat at all the idea that what happened there may be more closely described by some of the conspiracy theories so well-described by Moore (2000). They all assume that what happened derived mainly from internal beliefs and actions of Peoples Temple leaders and members, with some actions by outsiders such as Congressman Ryan serving as a catalyst. That may be true, but the missing information causes questions to be raised about why all this continuing secrecy and whether the “canon” on Jonestown can ever be completely accurate.

References

Bromley, David and J. Gordon Melton (2002). Cults, Religion, and Violence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Griswold, Deirdre (1978a). “Questions on the Mass Deaths In Guyana.” Workers World, Nov. 24: 3-5.

Griswold, Deirdre (1978b). “Jonestown: motives for the Murders.” Workers World, Dec. 15: 5.

Griswold, Deirdre (1978c). “The Sanitizing of Jonestown.” Workers World, Dec. 22: 4 & 8.

Hall, John (1995). “Public Narratives and the Apocalyptic Sect: From Jonestown to Mt. Carmel.” In S. Wright (ed.), Armageddon in Waco. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 205-235.

McGehee, Fielding (2003). Personal email, July 18, 2003.

Moore, Rebecca (2000). “Is the Canon on Jonestown Closed?” Nova Religio, 4: 7-27.

Richardson, James T. (1980). “Peoples Temple and Jonestown: A Corrective Comparison and Critique.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 19: 239-255.

Richardson, James T. (2001). “Minority Religions and the Context of Violence: A Conflict/Interactionist Perspective.” Terrorism and Political Violence 13: 103-133.

U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs (1979). The Death of Representative Leo J. Ryan, Peoples Temple and Jonestown: Understanding a Tragedy. Report of Hearing of May 15, 1979. Clement J. Zablocki, presiding.

Wessinger, Catherine (2000). How the Millennium Comes Violently. New York: Seven Bridges Press.

Last modified on March 14th, 2014.
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