Jonestown, Jim Jones and Peoples Temple have been, and continue to be, topics that evoke strong emotion within those who examine them. Frequently these emotions make their way into books and articles published on the subject. While understandable, such personal reactions can distort or accentuate aspects of the Temple story. It is for this reason that I have begun examining the Peoples Temple audiotapes as primary sources in my research.
Jim Jones’ interest in ensuring the continued remembrance of Peoples Temple, even after either his own or the movement’s death, lends itself to the preservation and presence of extant source materials. The value in mining the Peoples Temple audiotapes for information lies in the fact that doing so essentially allows Jones, the largest single proponent of doctrine in Peoples Temple, to speak for himself. Using the audiotapes as a scholarly source gives me a clear and undiluted picture of the principles that guided Peoples Temple as they were introduced to the movement.
Thus far, there have been several aspects of the audiotapes that have defied my expectations and contributed to deepening my understanding of Peoples Temple. Two of these, particularly in the recordings of sermons, were the amounts of discernible audience participation and the Temple’s self-awareness. Although I was aware of the black religious styling of Temple services, I did not expect that the interplay between Jones and his congregation would be present on the tapes. After hearing recordings of Temple services, my preconceptions regarding the ways in which black religion influenced Jones’ style of preaching and the congregation’s level of involvement were unexpectedly affirmed.
A second perception of Peoples Temple, and particularly the Jonestown community, that was changed after hearing the audiotapes was the level of engagement with the political and revolutionary world surrounding the Temple. Initially I suspected that the insulating and isolating practices of the Temple in the United States – such as the way members often distanced themselves from non-Temple relatives – were synonymous to some extent with a withdrawal from society. If anything, the move from California to Guyana confirmed this suspicion. However, after hearing the audiotapes from both California and Jonestown, I came to realize how very exposed Peoples Temple members were to current events and the political landscape of the countries they lived in or interacted with. The audiotapes revealed to me the importance that was placed on understanding current political events and their impact – potential, imagined or real – on the apostolic socialistic lifestyle practiced by Temple members.
As I continue to investigate and utilize the Peoples Temple audiotapes, I find myself appreciating more and more their usefulness as a record of Jones’ doctrine – and the Temple community’s reaction to it – that is relatively untouched by the emotions of previous scholars and researchers. The value of the audiotapes lies within their honest portrayal of a movement that has in the past been victimized by misunderstanding and misrepresentation. Even in cases where the Temple has edited the audiotapes in order to accentuate certain ideas, it is possible to understand more clearly the values and goals of Peoples Temple and its members.
(Kristian Klippenstein’s article in last year’s edition of the jonestown report is Peoples Temple As Christian History: A Corrective Interpretation. His complete collection of writings for the site may be found here. Mr. Klippenstein may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)