Was Peoples Temple Religious?:
Jonestown and Durkheim’s Religious Typology

by R. Gillingham

On the face of it, the question in the title seems absurd: how could Jonestown be anything other than religious? After all, Jim Jones began as a charismatic faith healer, and was an ordained minister in Disciples of Christ denomination until his death. Peoples Temple itself was a member congregation. Jones referred to himself as a unique divine prophet, and arguably, as deity itself. As his movement became more communal, he explicitly referred to it as an “apostolic socialism” after the fashion of the early church, and, in practice, the Guyana Agricultural Project had more than a passing resemblance to some aspects of Liberation Theology’s community engagement. [1]

Of course, Jonestown is almost always viewed through the prism of more than 900 – mostly suicidal – deaths on 18 November, 1978. This post-tragedy perspective itself lends itself a religious interpretation: it is a lot easier to pin a mass suicide on an errant religious sect than on a political movement. [2] However, in her history of Jonestown, Rebecca Moore offers an alternative perspective on the presumed religious characterisation of Jonestown. In describing daily life at Jonestown, Moore writes:

An absence of religious language and practice corresponded to the emphasis on socialism and Communist indoctrination that occurred in Jonestown. Jones gave no sermons in Jonestown, but instead interpreted international news, directed the Jonestown economy, and gave monologues – or harangues – at Peoples Rallies. When religion did come up, it was to criticize it. For example, when Jones exhorted residents to pretend to be “in” the Holy Spirit, he was mocking the Pentecostal roots of the movement. He called Jesus an oppressor of black people. Peoples Temple was no longer a religious organization, at least not Guyana, but was instead a socialistic utopian experiment. [3]

This anti-religious rhetoric may perhaps be explained as a means by which Jones’ own power base could be consolidated. In The Letter Killeth – an undated but relatively early tract – Jones denigrated religion or, more specifically, the inherited religious authority of the Bible for religious understanding. [4] And yet, even in Guyana, Peoples Temple remained a member church with the Disciples of Christ Denomination. So, how should we read the religiosity of Jonestown?

What is or is not religious is a question on which it is next to impossible to bring an adequate answer. However, Peoples Temple in Guyana did exhibit some features of what can be seen as religious phenomena, irrespective of de-christianisation that arguably took place. The clearest example is the prominence of the “white night” as a regular feature of Jonestown life, a ritual that I do not think it is too tenuous to suggest is an analog of the eucharist in its increasing apocalyptic significance for the life of the community.

The Sacred and the Profane

In his analysis of religion, Emile Durkheim eschewed supernatural definitions. The common feature of religion was, he suggested, the division of the sacred from the profane:

Whether simple or complex, all known religious beliefs display a common feature: They presuppose a classification of the real or ideal things that men conceive of into two classes—two opposite genera—that are widely designated by two distinct terms, which the words profane and sacred translate fairly well. The division of the world into two domains, one containing all that is sacred and the other all this is profane—such is the distinctive trait of religious thought. [5]

Later Durkheim develops his argument to show how the profane can be a necessary prerequisite of the sacred:

That is not to say that a being can never pass one of these worlds to the other. But when this passage occurs, the manner in which it occurs demonstrates the fundamental duality of the two realms for it implies a true metamorphosis. Rites of initiation, which are practices by a great many peoples, demonstrate this especially well. Initiation is a long series of to introduce the young man into religious life. For the first time he comes out of the purely profane world, where he has passed his childhood, and enters into the world of sacred things. This change of status is conceived not as a mere development of pre-existing seeds but as a transformation totius substantiae. [6]

Durkheim considered the monastery an example of this totius substantiae transformation because of the radical discontinuity of the sacred and the profane, but as Charles Taylor suggests, the sacred is not always a minority movement. [7] Taylor refers specifically to French religion, but the vision is, I think, pertinent to the vision of popular religiosity up to the early twentieth century:

Society is still seen as organic, and one’s place in this organic whole is the essential definer of obligation and duty. The Church is that of the whole society, to which everyone must belong; and moreover, the force which inheres in social obligations comes from the sacred of which the church is guardian and articulator.

As Taylor later notes, the vision is reminiscent of the Durkheim’s social form of religion. The role of the profane is however inverted: where once the profane was evaded as in the monastery, it was now exorcised; hence participation in war which, for the 16th century Anabaptist was profane and to be avoided at all costs, could be for others enveloped within the sacred sphere either indirectly (two-kingdom theology) or directly (Holy War). The sacred could be a very big tent.

But increasingly the modern experience of religion differs from this big tent Durkheimian social form to a form more in keeping with Durkheim’s own analogy of the monastery, as religion is no longer able to offer a final word to society on what is and is not sacred. Where once there was, generally speaking, an “organic whole,” we are left with competing narratives and fractured identities. This change is often laid at the centuries-long secularisation thesis. Steve Bruce, one of the foremost defenders of the thesis, has suggested three conditions by which to determine if secularisation has taken hold of a society: i) religion has a declining importance for the operation of non-religious roles (e.g., the economy); ii) a decline in the social standing of religions; iii) a decline in the level of commitment to religious groups and the level of commitment to them. [8]

Within the context of (i) we can say that this is not so much a symptom but a conclusion from the Christendom perspective, if there are few “non-religious” roles. (ii) is very much a corollary of (i) but what interests me is (iii). A nominal adherence to a religion, particularly generally, puts the very notion of the Durkheimian elementary religious life in doubt. Here the polarity of sacred and profane would appear to be internalised, the sacred – rather than imagining or exorcising the profane – tolerates it as an eccentricity and, in so doing, effectively destroys the religious life allowing the profane to conquer all. Durkheim himself acknowledge the tendency:

Because man’s notion of the sacred is always and everywhere separated from his notion of the profane by a sort of logical gulf between the two, the mind radically rejects any mingling or even contact between the things that correspond to these realms. Such promiscuous mingling or even contact dangerously contradicts the state of dissociation in which these ideas are found in human consciousness. The sacred thing is, par excellence, that which the profane must not and cannot touch with impunity. This prohibition surely makes all communication impossible between the two worlds; for if the profane could enter into relations with the sacred, the sacred would serve no purpose. [9]

But is this not precisely what the secularisation thesis demands of religion? I have elsewhere termed this the demand for epistemic bifurcation. [10] The possibility of an epistemic bifurcation is, however, most likely a myth: sacred and profane do not mix. The demand for a dissociative state – for a privatised, user friendly, and domesticated religion – is effectively the demand for a religion that ceases to demand the totus substantiae transformation.

Religion and Jonestown

I suggested earlier that the experience of religion has changed. Where once we may have considered the sacred “organic whole” to be co-extensive with (Christendom) Christianity, that is no longer the case. Instead we find fragmentation. Ironically, religion has adopted a more elementary form of religious life and one in which it is separated from the (profane) world around it, seen principally but not solely in the rise of fundamentalisms. In the place of the big tent, religion now consists of a multitude of enclaves, in the mind of most, abnormal or, at best, quaint. Sometimes this religion has literally separated from the world, but more often it is seen as just plain strange, something people do in their own time and of little relevance to the world we inhabit, full of rituals and unintelligible language.

Which leads us again to Jonestown. I suggest that part of the answer to the conundrum of Jonestown’s disputed religiosity is provided by Moore herself in a subsequent paragraph to the one I started with. Moore notes that after the de-christianising process Jonestown undertook one could generally note that “instead of the miraculous [as existed previously], a well-equipped and well-staffed health clinic served the needs of the community, and a single doctor, Larry Schacht, was able to deal with most emergencies.” [11] That some see it difficult to see Jonestown as religious because it lacks “bells and smells” and other alien particularities may well be a sign of the times. For, it seems to me, that a society that declared all that it did to be sacred and conducted regular purges of what were seemed to be negative influences is eminently religious after the fashion of big tent sacred canopies of another century.

Of course, what makes Jonestown different is that the sacred canopy it erected was not created in situ but was created at the conclusion of a journey. Hence, Jonestown was simultaneously both Monastery – that is, an escape from the profane – and Christendom “Church” exorcising of the profane. [12] When Jones perceived the profane could not be escaped, though it would continue to impinge to sacred domain, most notably with Congressman Leo Ryan’s visit to the commune, Peoples Temple finally resolved their battle with the profane by adopting what Durkheim calls the approach of the mystic ascetic. The mystic ascetic seeks to sever humanity’s last attachments to profanity. The logical conclusion to this severing of attachments is religious suicide, “since the only way of escaping profane life entirely is to escape life altogether.” [13]

References

Bruce, Steve. God is Dead: Secularization in the West, Blackwell (2002).

Chidester, David. Salvation and Suicide: Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and Jonestown, 2nd ed., Bloomington: Indiana University Press (2004).

Cromarty, Edward. Liberation Theology and Early Experimentation in Latin American Agricultural Projects and their Relation to the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, The Jonestown Report, 10 (2008)

Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, New York: Oxford University Press (2001).

Gillingham, R. “Rawls and Religion: A Critique of the Duties and Epistemic Status of the Citizen of Faith in a Liberal Democracy, with a Particular Emphasis on the Ideas of the Original Position and Public Reason,” Unpublished MA Thesis, University of Wales (2004).

Gillingham, R. “Praxis and the Content of Theology in Gustavo Gutierezz’s Theological Methodology: A Comparative Critique,” Quodlibet, 7 (2005).

Hauerwas, Stanley. Against the Nations: War and Survival in a Liberal Society, Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, (1992)

Introvigne, Massimo, Jonestown and Liberation Theology, The Jonestown Report, 10 (2008).

Moore, Rebecca. Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple, Westport, CT: Praeger (2009).

Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, (2007).

Endnotes


[1]     See Edward Cromarty, Liberation Theology and Early Experimentation in Latin American Agricultural Projects and their Relation to the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project (2008) and Massimo Introvigne, Jonestown and Liberation Theology (2008). I have explored the praxis of Liberation Theology elsewhere. See R. Gillingham, “Praxis and the Content of Theology in Gustavo Gutierezz’s Theological Methodology: A Comparative Critique,” Quodlibet, 7 (2005). On a practical level, whatever the similarities, there were also marked discontinuities. Crucially, as the authoritarianism of Peoples Temple became more pronounced, a dialectical praxis of conscientisation that is indispensable for liberation theological model was voided.

[2]     This seems to be an ingrained component of the western approach to religion. It seems that in the event of a tragedy there is an assumption that religion is a necessary cause; hence, when there’s a terrorist attack it is presumed absent contrary evidence that it is attributable to religious person, albeit one out of the mainstream. A similar account can be found in Stanley Hauerwas’ theological reading of liberalism and Jonestown. See Hauerwas’ essay “On Taking Religion Seriously: The Challenge of Jonestown” in Stanley Hauerwas, Against the Nations: War and Survival in a Liberal Society, Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press (1992). Hauerwas argues that liberalism has effectively ostracised “religion” to the cultural wasteland so that religion, particularly religious devotion, is viewed as naturally concomitant with the excesses of which Jonestown was an example.

[3]     Rebecca Moore. Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple, Westport, CT: Praeger (2009), 55.

[4]     See David Chidester, Salvation and Suicide: Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and Jonestown, 2nd ed., Bloomington: Indiana University Press (2004), 64ff.

[5]     Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, New York: Oxford University Press (2001), 36.

[6]     Durkheim, 38-39.

[7]     Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (2007), 442.

[8]     Steve Bruce, God is Dead: Secularization in the West, Blackwell (2002), 3.

[9]     Durkheim, 39.

[10]   R. Gillingham, “Rawls and Religion: A Critique of the Duties and Epistemic Status of the Citizen of Faith in a Liberal Democracy, with a Particular Emphasis on the Ideas of the Original Position and Public Reason,” Unpublished MA Thesis, University of Wales (2004), 30-31.

[11]   Moore, 55.

[12]   This is certainly not a new phenomenon. To take one example with similarities with Jonestown in 1534 many Melchiorite Anabaptists descended upon the city of Munster setting up a religious community that was, eventually, to lead to terror, autocracy and many deaths and bloodshed.

[13]   Durkheim, 39.

Last modified on January 3rd, 2014.
Skip to main content