Daily Life of Peoples Temple Revealed in Journal

by Michael Bellefountaine

Edith Roller
Edith Roller
Photo Courtesy of California
Historical Society, MSP 3800

Very few people keep diaries or journals. And that is too bad. Many famous and important people have kept diaries, and they become helpful tools to historians and researchers in assessing that person’s contribution to history. But of equal importance, and interest, are the diaries of people who detail the day-to-day life of a particular time. Mundane details of the trials and triumphs of the average citizen can often give more information than the broad, sweeping biographies of the famous. Indeed, it could be argued, the more anonymous the diarist, the less likely that the journal will be self-serving – and self-censoring. When Anne Frank wrote in her diary each night, for example, did she ever think that it would become the voice of millions of people who would share her fate? Would she have been as honest about her likes, her dislikes, her love?

Students and historians researching Peoples Temple and Jonestown do have access to one journal that gives tremendous insight into daily life in the communal church. There are a number of survivors who accurately detail their lives in the Temple, but this journal was written without the specter of the Jonestown tragedy. It is, as it were, untainted.

Temple member Edith Roller meticulously recorded her daily activities. Like many Temple members, Edith was an older woman (she was 63 when she died in Jonestown). She worked in downtown San Francisco at the international company Bechtel and initially lived alone in an apartment in the Richmond district. The journals are virtually flawless, which is no surprise, since she had a PhD in English. Giving us insight into the daily life of an average Temple member, Edith gives us the minutiae of the day and of the events both that happened to her and that she observed at work or at church.

For Edith, the journal was an obvious labor of love. She would take notes during the day, edit them, type them up and edit them again, a dedication to writing that comes from a deep passion for the craft.

Most important for historians, Edith provides a true, unvarnished look at the daily activities of Peoples Temple. She writes about the various services – when she arrived, where she sat, who she sat with and what happened throughout- as well as critiquing the many skits and songs. She highlights points from Jim Jones’ sermons. The repetitive lessons on racial and gender equality, poverty, urban decay and the influence of America in the affairs of other countries recur throughout the journal. She details Jones’ unfulfilled plans to establish a Temple branch in Chicago, and she brings us along on innumerable trips back and forth from Ukiah to San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Other churches of the day were similar to Peoples Temple in these respects – an activist congregation, deep concerns about social policies, plans for expansion – but Peoples Temple had other characteristics as well, and Edith discussed them too. She recounts the boxing disciplines: who fought who, who won, was there any blood. Far from being repulsed by the discipline, Edith, like most Temple members, accepted this form of punishment for violations of the Temple’s rules. At times she actually seems to relish when a girl beats up a well-deserving older boy! The journal reveals her mindset of Edith, and that of other Temple members, who found the beatings not only justified, but in most cases a better alternative than turning the person over to the police.

And then there are the miracles. Edith lists a number of them, unquestioningly going into detail as to who was saved and from what. Some of the healings are very dramatic, others are almost afterthoughts. Almost as if she is acting as the Temple scribe or historian, Edith meticulously records them, and Jim Jones’ paranormal healing powers are treated as simple matters of fact.

Edith truly seemed to enjoy her life in Peoples Temple despite the opposition from her close-knit family, of whom we are given a very intimate look. Her sisters were concerned about Edith’s devotion to Jim Jones and her involvement in the politically-active church.

Through the journal we see how the elders were treated: she is often brought to the front of the line, served first, given a seat and checked on. But despite her age Edith was very active. She reports on her regular exercise and lists what she eats each day. She often stayed up late reading books on socialist theory, when she wasn’t attending the church services that lasted until one or two a.m. Whether traveling to services in a car pool or to L.A. on a bus, she details who rides with her and what they discuss.

As Temple members began to move to Guyana and the responsibilities lessened, she actually seemed to miss the hectic pace. Then she learns that she will go to Jonestown as well, and the diary presents her genuine anticipation. Despite her excitement, though, Edith worries that she won’t be able to take her typewriter with her.

The worries seem to be well-founded. When Edith moved to Jonestown, her journal goes from neatly-typed and numbered pages to literally hundreds of pages of handwritten notes. (And when the FBI photocopied the notes, they did so on a very light setting rendering many of them illegible. Researchers are trying to reconstruct these notes so that they might get a better look into the daily life of the Jonestown residents.) She does finally get a typewriter in the secluded community, but it seems she used it only for correspondence with Jim Jones, in order to save ribbon.

Understanding that Edith differed from a majority of the Peoples Temple congregation – in that she was a Caucasian with an advanced university degree – the journal is still an invaluable tool for people wanting to know more about the daily life of the membership of Peoples Temple. It may never have the social impact of the Anne Frank diary, but Edith Roller’s journal does give a voice for many Peoples Temple members who shared her fate. The diary is an excellent primary source for researchers working on Peoples Temple and Jonestown.

(Portions of the diary appear here. A complete copy of the diary appears on a set of three CD’s which the FBI released to the editors of the jonestown report pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request.

(Michael Bellefountaine was a frequent contributor to the jonestown report before his death in May 2007. His complete collection of writings for the site may be found here.)

Last modified on March 12th, 2014.
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