The Peoples Temple’s Ideology in a Comparative Perspective

by Peter Åkerbäck

Since the collective suicide of Heaven’s Gate in San Diego in 1996 there have been numerous academic studies on Peoples Temple, Heaven’s Gate and the French/Canadian group The Solar Temple. Tremendous work has been done and many insightful theories helping to understand these incidents have been offered. Theories concerning the charismatic leader, the process of isolation, the conflict between opponents and adherents, and the social psychological dynamics of group psychology have all contributed to an enhanced understanding of what happened to these three groups and why.

Another important aspect that often has been stressed is the importance of a group’s worldview or ideology. To fully understand why these incidents happened, and why the final tragedy had to occur, we must take into account the beliefs held by these groups: What was their religion? To understand for example why the members of Peoples Temple reacted the way they did in the end, you have to understand how the members were thinking, what they believed in, and what they thought they were about to achieve. Important theoretical work has been done on millenarian movements, messianic belief, and apocalyptic worldviews, all important instruments when analyzing ideological aspects of religions involved with violence.

The violence associated with these three groups leads towards a tendency to lump them together. For better or worse, scholars often bring them together because of the similarities of their ending. But even more serious is the connection among the three that opponents of alternative religions constantly make in order to construct the myth of the cult and to further promote the general assumption that cults have a possibility to develop into dangerous and violent groups. But Peoples Temple has almost nothing in common with Heaven’s Gate and even less with the Solar Temple, at least from an ideological standpoint. This is important. In my view – and to anyone involved in any of the three groups or anyone who has had a chance to study them – one of the most important things to stress is the differences among Peoples Temple, Heaven’s Gate, and the Solar Temple.

The Solar Temple was an initiatory order with more ideological similarities to other secret orders like Knights Templar and Freemasons. The group had an intellectual and complex understanding of the cosmos that involved hidden secret masters and an idea that the group represented the eternal “temple” that from time to time manifested itself on earth to develop mankind’s spiritual progress. It was a rich group, attracting members of the upper class, and perceived itself as an exclusive elite. These characteristics are far from Peoples Temples divine socialism and the idea of justice and equality between “black” and “white”, as Jones put it, or the idea of women’s equality with men.

Heaven’s Gate on the other hand was a group that had more similarities with the New Age and the UFO movements. It mainly attracted individuals interested in developing themselves to achieve a higher state of being. Important aspects of their belief included visitors from outer space which were coming to pick them up. This led the group to become fascinated with science fiction (especially the TV-series Star Trek) and computers. All of these are ideological elements which we hardly expect to find in Peoples Temple.

But the differences among the three groups are only one aspect that reveals itself when ideology is analyzed. Another aspect concerns how the ideology of Peoples Temple should be characterized. Was it a millenarian movement? Did it embrace a messianic belief? And in what respect was it apocalyptic?

These questions presents new problems. Labels like “millenarian,” “messianic” and “apocalyptic” are often applied to different groups, including Peoples Temple, to indicate that they supposedly have something in common. These terms are, in fact, often helpful in analysing what the members of a group believes in, but sometimes the terms obscure our understanding. Instead of clearing the sky, they cloud it even more because they carry a lot of conceptions that are hard to find or just isn’t there.

What does it mean to be, for example, a millenarian movement? Without plunging into a long discussion about definitions and terms, suffice it to say that the term “millenarian” is usually used in connection with Christian movements and the expectation of a coming age lasting a thousand years – hence the term – by the end of which God will judge the people of the Earth. This is connected to the Book of Revelation, a very important book for many Christians. But if Peoples Temple is to be described as a millenarian movement, this has to be radically redefined. If there was hope for change, it was the change that the congregation itself was working for: the establishment of a just and fair society. Maybe then there could be a millennium of peace, although there probably was no one there to judge people in the end.

The same can be said about the concept of “messianic”: a group described as messianic often means that it believes in some sort of saviour, a coming saviour, or that one individual is believed to be the saviour, a belief in a coming messiah that will deliver his people. But this is not, I believe, the case in Peoples Temple. Jones of course often spoke of a messiah (or Jesus), but he also pointed to the possibility for everyone to become a messiah. In the Temple’s belief system, salvation would come when members of the congregation realized a state of divine socialism on earth. If the term messianic is to be applied to Peoples Temple, then, it must be given a very special – one might say, unique – meaning.

The term apocalyptic is even more problematic. It has sometimes been used as a metaphor for what happened in Jonestown in 1978 – “the apocalypse at Jonestown” – but being an apocalyptic group can hardly be limited to one single act. Apocalyptic belief is sometimes described as referring to the end of the world and the world’s destruction. The deeper meaning of the term is that it anticipates the idea of transformation and change, often involving superhuman agents that transform the conditions for human existence. If Peoples Temple is to be described as an apocalyptic movement, again the term to needs to be revised, mainly because for the members of Peoples Temple, the real transformation of the conditions for mankind was all in their hands. It was their work that finally was going to transform the world and bring justice and equality into the world. There was really no need for any superhuman agents.

The concepts used to describe religious movements, historic and present ones, seems to be less applicable to Peoples Temple. Perhaps they do not really fit in to what we usually perceive to be a religious group. Maybe limiting the description of Peoples Temple to the sphere of religion is wrong altogether.

What then does an ideological perspective suggest? What is it good for? Are we somehow helped by it? In my view as an historian of religion, it is very helpful. To see differences is as important as it is to find similarities. And only by letting myself getting as close as possible to those I am trying to understand can I get a hold on what they where trying to achieve, what their hopes and dreams were. The outside process, which can be described in sociological theories, with all its aspects of making a group come to a tragic end is only one side of the coin. The other is trying to find the essence of those who tried to reach a goal. The violent and tragic end of Peoples Temple was not what they set out to achieve; it was something else, something far greater, and it held within itself a belief in a better world. This of course does not fully explain the tragic outcome, but it helps us to see beyond that and to see the people whose hopes and dreams also was a part of Peoples Temple.

(Peter Åkerbäck is a Phd. student in the Department of the History of Religions at the University of Stockholm in Sweden. He can be reached at  peter.akerback@sociology.su.se.)

Last modified on February 28th, 2014.
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