Excavating Usefulness and Truth: Jim Jones’ Treatment of the Bible and the News

by Kristian Klippenstein

The fate of the Bible in Jim Jones’ preaching and speaking stands in sharp contrast to the fate of the newspaper. Although both were closely linked to commentary and criticism when used by Jones, references to the biblical text had virtually disappeared by the time Jones took up permanent residence in Jonestown, Guyana while references to the news became increasingly prominent. This article offers a brief exploration of Jones’ approach to biblical criticism – and his increasingly critical stance towards the biblical text – in conjunction with his approach to the news in his preaching and speaking. Specifically, the reasons causing the discord between Jones’ approach to the text of the Bible and the text of the “newspaper” will be traced.[1]  The article questions what Jones’ differential treatment of the Bible and news reveals about his critical approach to the texts he used as sources in his preaching. It suggests that the role of the interpreter and conceptions of use-value and truth play an important role in Jones’ criticism. The article proceeds by linking the Bible and the news through the concept of the social gospel and then proceeds to look more closely at Jones’ biblical criticism before finally concluding with a comparison of apparent truth in the news and the biblical text.

The Bible, the newspaper, and the social gospel

The Bible and the newspaper constitute two main “texts” used by Jones in his preaching. A third body of text would include Marxist or socialist documents, but these have been omitted from the present article for reasons of expertise as well as length. The Bible became a mainstay in Jones’ speaking due to his early connection to Methodism and the roots of Peoples Temple in the Community Unity church. Moreover, the use of Pentecostal and African American Christian worship styles in Indiana and California Peoples Temple gatherings precipitated the presence of a message that was grounded in – or at least utilized – biblical references.

The use of local, national and international news in Peoples Temple addresses can be connected to the biblical text through a movement in Christianity that Jones emulated or borrowed from: the social gospel. The social gospel was a largely protestant Christian movement that tried to couple awareness of social issues with Christian ethical teachings, thereby promoting responsibility amongst Christians to alleviate undesirable social conditions in society. Evidence of the social issues in question could often be found in the news media. This social gospel manifested itself in both the political and the religious realm. As followers of Jesus living in a specific spatial and temporal location, Christians were called by the social gospel to actively intervene and alleviate undesirable conditions within their particular geographical, political and social locations. This calling stemmed from the belief that the Kingdom of God encompassed both the sacred and the secular; therefore Christians had a responsibility not only to their own homes or sacred meeting places but also to the wider world.[2]  Moreover, the church’s embedment in the secular world meant that the well-being of the church was in some way connected to the wellbeing of secular society. Thus to ignore social responsibility in the secular world was to endanger the well-being of the Christian Church.

Thus according to the social gospel, churchgoers had to acknowledge the fact that they could not distance their spiritual beliefs from the physical world around them and, moreover, that the all-encompassing nature of the Kingdom of God and the teachings of Jesus called them to social responsibility. As Walter Rauschenbusch stated, “the present historical situation [a growing sense of social need and social responsibility] is a summons of the Eternal to enter on a larger duty, and thereby to inherit a larger life.”[3]

Although a useful tool for explaining the relationship between the Bible and the newspaper in Peoples Temple in light of its emphasis on social action, there is a distinct sense in which the social gospel was antithetical to Jones’ message. Namely, the American form of the social gospel has been criticized for being largely silent regarding racial issues.[4]  Although questions of labor and equality were frequent touchstones of social gospel teaching, historian Susan Curtis notes that “social gospelers apparently found it difficult to transcend the linguistic, imaginative and perceptual limits of whiteness…. The social gospel partook of and in turn served a culture of whiteness.”[5]

That being said, however, some basic tenets of both the social gospel and Jones’ teaching overlap, even though Jones never explicitly espoused the Social Gospel and may not have been directly aware of it. Jones taught the Temple congregation that the economic and political situation in the United States propagated a variety of social problems that endangered the lives of his listeners. He especially noted racial inequality and the lack of care for the marginalized or impoverished as daily events promoted by capitalist lifestyles that were taking place in the United States and around the world that affected, either indirectly or directly, the Temple (Q314Q188Q260Q284Q612a, Q1056 part 4).[6]

Jones’ view of religion followed – amongst other ideas – the New Testament book of James in claiming that “faith without works is dead” (Q987; also Q357). In his California sermons Jones frequently narrated how his miraculous works and knowledge had enabled him to better – or even restore – the life of various Temple members and others (Q1054 part 3Q956). Even without claiming miraculous abilities, Jones still maintained that the physical needs of the congregation were being met: “Nobody hungry in my house tonight… Not one of mine that doesn’t have a place to rest tonight… I will look after my own” (Q1035). In another sermon Jones explicitly linked Jesus’ teachings with helping others by saying “as long as you’re healing the people, as Jesus said, and helping the people, as Jesus said, you’re not against us, you’re on our part” (Q1016).

Thus Jones’ message, and the Temple’s mandate, followed a works-oriented social gospel understanding of the Bible in order to affect change in the economic and racial spheres which its members found themselves existing within in their particular social locations.[7]  This message required the use of both the Bible and the newspaper to be effective, and to interest both those members of the Temple who were chiefly interested in Christianity and those interested primarily in social action.

Disentangling Christianity from the Biblical message

With this connection in mind, there is a sense in which the Bible and the newspaper could have been subjected to the same scrutiny or critical method. In his preaching Jones criticized the Bible as being inconsistent and erroneous (Q612Q974Q1032 regarding Jesus’ crucifixion; Q1020 aQ1059 part 2 generally), a document of propaganda that kept a certain political ideology in power and validated the repression of minority groups (Q356Q612Q974 regarding King James’ translation of the Bible, defense of slavery and arguments in favor of the oppression of women). By and large, however, such criticisms of the text of the newspaper are not prevalent in Jones’ reading of the news.

By looking more closely at Jones’ criticism of the Bible one can begin to understand the purpose of such harsh treatment. Those familiar with Jones’ preaching will acknowledge that, particularly in California, Jones treated the Bible severely. Frequently the “black book” was derided (Q612Q1020aQ1057 part 5, for example) and its influence on life was revealed to be more harmful than beneficial: “you say, what would I do without my black book? What are you going to do with it? You’re going to die in the wilderness with it” (Q612). In another sermon, Jones explains that “the Bible kills. It’s a death” (Q1059 part 2). Although Jones is here adapting 2 Corinthians 3:6’s “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” and did not necessarily or consistently suggest that the Bible would physically harm or kill those who adhered to it, he did teach that following it unquestioningly was dangerous. The Temple pamphlet The Letter Killeth catalogued the “errors… absurdities… atrocities… [and] indecencies” in the Bible as a warning against overly literal interpretations of the text. Likewise, Jones warned against mistaking familiarity with the Bible for assurance of salvation or useful advice on how to live: “[the Bible] didn’t say you could get your way to heaven by reading. You can’t get across the street by reading the Bible” (Q1055-1).

Given this withering view of the Bible, it is perhaps surprising that it did not evaporate out of Jones’ speaking already in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Certainly Jones message was constrained by his medium – that is, the advertising of Peoples Temple as a church suggested that the minister talk about the Bible – but this article suggests that Jones had an ulterior motive for holding onto the biblical text despite his distaste for it. The Bible was retained in Jones’ preaching because, within its apparent husk of inconsistencies and interpretive abuses, it retained a kernel of usefulness in his message of economic and racial equality.

Even if “King James erroneously printed many things,” “made a mistake” or intentionally corrupted the truth of the Bible in his 1611 translation – Jones’ translation of choice, and a metaphor for the use of the Bible as justification for slavery and white oppression – Jones continued to quote it (Q356Q612Q1059 part 2). Although Jones may have felt constrained by the knowledge or comfort of some Temple members to continue doing so, it was likely not out of fidelity to the established Christian religion that he kept quoting the Bible in Temple services. Edith Roller recorded in her 1975 journal that Jones explained “Marx… said religion is the opium of the people” and that “as for history, he [Jones] only cared that history recorded he had done his best to establish socialism.”[8]  She went on to write that Jones said that “as Paul said, I must become all things to all men that by any means I might save the more.”[9]  Elsewhere Jones explains that he has come as Buddha, the Báb, Allah, Moses and Lenin in the past (Q928Q974Q1057 part 5), but “I [Jones] don’t have to be those that I mention. I’ve done enough in the name of Jim Jones to write the best Bible you’ve ever seen” (Q 1057 part 5). Roller’s affirmation of Jones’ Marxist understanding of religion, and Jones’ own assertions that his relation to various religious figures was perhaps nothing more than a tool to help listeners understand his message, suggest that Jones was not interested in propping up Christianity through his speaking.

This article proposes that Jones retained the Bible in his preaching in an effort to extract the useful kernel from the dismal husk of the biblical text, or – to put it another way – to disentangle Christianity from that portion of the biblical message that furthered the Temple’s cause. One of the major biblical messages – according to Jones’ interpretation – that Christianity had failed to extract, and perhaps even hindered extracting, was that people were capable of helping themselves and improving their lot in the present. Echoing the social gospel, Jones taught “Build a heaven here. He [Jesus] said ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done in earth.’… The kingdom is within you. Here’s where heaven’s gonna have to be made. We’ll make a heaven out of this place, or it’ll be a hell!” (Q932; likewise in Q1025Q1032Q1057 part 5Q1055-1Q1035 and elsewhere). In Jones’ eyes Christians had deviated from this calling to build a heaven on earth through their own actions by either expecting their Skygod to take care of earthly matters or by delaying hope of achieving a heavenly state until after death.

Jones argued that both of these Christian approaches to heaven were problematic. By relegating responsibility for making the world a better – or perfect – place to the divine, Christians tried to absolve themselves of culpability for failing to concretely change social conditions in the present. Jones once said that “people stand out there gloomy-eyed… saying ‘by and by.’…These people want somebody to do something for them. Jesus never did something for people. He showed you how to do it for yourself” (Q1055-1). This remark highlights not just the relegation of responsibility, but also the relegation of a realized heaven. Social ills would be healed, but only in the “by and by.” Christians living in the present could content themselves with dutifully attending church, either until the end of their lives – when they would go to an otherworldly heaven – or until Jesus returned and created heaven on earth at the end of human history. This relegation of heaven to the end of personal or human history and corresponding lack of personal responsibility did not lead to a changed life. As Jones put it in one sermon, “I’ve seen nothing new in the church…. They talk about being born again, but they’re the same old devil they were when they were in the tavern” (Q1023).

Against this failed Christian interpretation of heaven and social change, Jones interpreted the biblical text as telling its readers to affect positive change in their own present lives. Jones preached “How do you know there’s a heaven? Jesus didn’t talk about going anywhere…. He said, ‘the kingdom of heaven is nigh to you.’ It’s within you” (Q1032). This truth could be realized from interpreting the Bible, but it need not be realized through Christianity: “if you’ve still got that falseness that we have been using to try to build a better world, if you’re still caught up in religion, by damnit, we’d be better off without you anyway” (Q952). In the same sermon, Jones explained that “everything I’ve set my mind to do, I’ve been able to do it – but I have never believed in any loving God” (Q952). Although Jones went on to explain that it was a loving God specifically that he did not believe in, this sermon indicates his attempt to extract the biblical message of helping oneself and others in the present world from Christianity’s faulty interpretations.

An important part of this disentangling of the biblical message from Christianity – and to an extent from the biblical text itself – is the role of the interpreter. It is in regard to the role of the interpreter in critical thought that the text of the newspaper can be brought back into the discussion. Jones seems to have understood the way in which lenses and interpretations of material could skew or twist meaning or truth. In regard to the Bible, he frequently quoted some verses from Romans to explain the role of the preacher as interpreter: “how shall they hear without a preacher? How shall they preach, except they be sent?…Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”[10]  It was the job of the interpreter to critically – and harshly, if necessary – interact with the text in order to illuminate its true meaning.

Useful news through interpretation

In relation to news media, Jones claimed to value multiple viewpoints and freedom of the press as guards against biased news and misrepresentation. In one sermon Jones remarked on events taking place at Wounded Knee to illustrate the rise of fascism in America. Significantly, he singled out the arrest of a Boston Globe reporter, who was detained and charged with “inciting a riot” when he was only “reporting the news, which is supposed to be the only thing that will keep a country free – is free flow of the news” (Q1057 part 4). In an interview Jones was asked about the Temple’s role in assisting four beleaguered reporters from the Fresno Bee; he responded by defending freedom of the press and critiqued attempts to silence or control the press (Q 627). In both these instances Jones’ concern was that outside forces – the government – were attempting to alter people’s interpretation of events, or attempting to interpret the events themselves. Furthermore, amidst his reading of the news in Jonestown in one recording, Jones told his listeners that he had been “listening to all sorts of broadcasts from every opinion in the world” (Q 437). This remark is not just a claim for omnipotent knowledge – Jones’ words imply that there is value to approaching a story from multiple viewpoints in order to ascertain the veracity of any one claim or report.

Some elements of Jones’ critical framework were evident in his treatment of the Bible and the news. Like the formation of the biblical canon, Jones was critical of the creation of the news. Just as King James had altered or obscured the truth of the biblical message in order to promote slavery and oppression, Jones seems to have been worried about groups or individuals governing or restricting the news. Similarly, just as Jones admonished his audience to think long and hard about the implications of the biblical message on everyday life, so too did he push Jonestown inhabitants to remember current news and interpret its relevance to life in Guyana. The disparity in Jones’ treatment of the Bible and the newspaper arises, however, in the observation that the basic truthfulness of the newspaper’s content was often taken for granted while the basic truthfulness of the Bible’s content was denied.

To temper this observation, it is important to point out that this article does not suggest that absolute truth – however one may define it – can or cannot be found in either the Bible or the news media. Likewise, this article does not suggest that Jones was totally uncritical of the news that he relied on in either his sermons or Jonestown addresses. Jones was aware that propaganda existed – primarily in American media and press – and reminded the residents of Jonestown that in some cases meaning must be excavated from beneath the most apparent layer of media. In one Jonestown address Jones announced that two films would be shown, and that “they must be interpreted… because it’s easily possible for people to get caught up in delusional systems” (Q207). As a preface to another recitation of the news in Jonestown, Jones listed the various news agencies he was apparently gleaning information from, and then told listeners “you can interpret news for yourself” (Q402).

In his Jonestown commentaries on the news Jones clarified or extrapolated the news stories he read over the intercom, but he did not do so primarily because he felt the need to correct false or misleading information. In some instances Jones took the opportunity to offer negative commentary on the content or implications of the news. In Q190, for example, Jones explained how news items about killings in Rhodesia and poor turnouts for political rallies in the United States indicated the growing lack of freedom in the world. In other instances Jones used a certain news story to validate or praise the actions or beliefs of the people in Peoples Temple. For example, Jones notes that had the members of Jonestown been in the United States during a San Francisco political rally mentioned in Q190 they would certainly have been a part of the rally: “we actually are the life, the pulse of resistance in U.S.A. We were the crowd. We were the assemblies.” In some cases Jones provided background information in order to give additional context to a story (see Q 437, and most other news tapes). Many times Jones reminded people to remember or study the news so that they would understand it and be ready for testing with regard to content and application (questioning residents about news occurs inQ197, for example).

Commentary and criticism pertaining to the news in cases such as these was based on the premise that what Jones read over the intercom in Jonestown or used in his California sermons was, by and large, an accurate portrayal of what was really happening in the world. Any given news story may not have had the full details of any event, or its relevance to Jones’ message of socialism or the Temple members’ lives in Jonestown may have been obscure or even superfluous, but the basic truth of the story was not seriously questioned by Jones. His commentary and criticism could focus almost immediately on the usefulness of the news in Temple thought and practice, rather than having to first dispel myths and preconceptions or identify hidden agendas behind the words in a certain passage. In his biblical commentary, as we have seen, Jones could not move directly from reading the text to illustrating its usefulness for Peoples Temple. Layers of deconstruction, exegesis and re-interpretation were interposed between the quoting of the biblical text and the explanation of its importance to the Temple congregation – layers which seldom made their way between Jones’ reading of the news and his commentary on it.

Interpretation as excavation

Both the Bible and the news played an important part in Jones’ speaking – the former being restricted to his Indiana and California preaching and the latter pervading his addresses throughout the Temple’s history. The two texts were connected to the social gospel aspirations of the Peoples Temple worldview as well as Jones’ conceptions of race and equality. Since both texts were brought to bear on similar problems and to expose the same social ills, it could be expected that Jones would critically approach both texts in the same way. However, as this article has shown the Bible and the news were treated in quite different ways. This differential approach was not merely caused by a difference in the genre of the two texts. Jones did not speak harshly about the Bible solely because he harbored a vendetta against Christianity, nor did he accept the news primarily because he had no conception of multiple viewpoints or the so-called manufacturing of opinion. Jones’ critical treatment of the Bible and the news hinged on his role as an interpreter of the text, as one performing exegesis in order to bring out the useful portions or hidden meanings of the text. This interpretive and exegetical work was directly related to the apparent veracity or truthfulness of the text. In the case of the Bible significant critical work had to be undergone in order to peel away the layers of misappropriation and misinterpretation that had been handed down as Christian teachings. Only when the biblical message had been rescued from Christianity did it become truly useful in Jones’ preaching. The news, although a wary eye was to be kept on its sources or origin, was basically more factual – or at least less false – than the text of the Bible and thus required fewer impositions of deconstruction and correctional interpolations. In light of Jones’ frequent reminder that “faith cometh by hearing,” it is possible to conclude by saying that as an interpreter Jones’ critical and hermeneutical tools were designed to excavate the truly useful meaning of his texts from beneath layers of formative and interpretive difficulties or falsehoods. The relative presence of harsh criticism of biblical passages and relative lack of harsh critical engagement with the news reveals Jones’ preconceptions regarding the obscurity of truth and use in his two frequently used texts.

Secondary Works Cited

Curtis, Susan. “The Social Gospel and Race in American Culture.” In Perspectives on the Social Gospel: Papers From the Inaugural Social Gospel Conference at ColgateRochester Divinity School, edited by Christopher H. Evans, 15–32. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1999.

Gorrell, Donald K. The Age of Social Responsibility: The Social Gospel in theProgressive Era 1900 – 1920. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1988.

Moore, Rebecca. “The Sacred and the Profane in Wilson Harris’ Jonestown.” Paper presented at Crisis Carnival Conference, San Diego State University, March 20, 2008. Online here.

(Kristian Klippenstein is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. His previous writings may be found here. He may be reached at k.d.klippenstein@gmail.com.)



Footnotes

1 In this article the term “newspaper” or “news” is used as a catch-all phrase to include any form of news media – especially print media – generated at the local, national or international level that Jones interacted with during his sermons or speeches.

2 Donald K. Gorrell, The Age of Social Responsibility: The Social Gospel in the Progressive Era 1900 – 1920 (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1988), 12.

3 Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis (New York: Macmillan Co., 1907), 332, quoted in Donald K. Gorrell, The Age of Social Responsibility: The Social Gospel in the Progressive Era 1900 – 1920 (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1988), 58.

4 See, for example, Susan Curtis, “The Social Gospel and Race in American Culture” inPerspectives on the Social Gospel: Papers From the Inaugural Social Gospel Conference at Colgate Rochester Divinity School, ed. Christopher H. Evans (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1999), 15-32.

5 Ibid., 28.

6 Since this article frequently cites a variety of Peoples Temple audiotapes, they will be referred to parenthetically in the text by their number only in order to avoid a copious amount of footnotes and to allow quick access to the source of the quoted material. Additional comments related to the quoted passages will appear as footnotes. Specifically, Jones mentions race riots (Q314), the construction of concentration camps by various governments (Q188Q260), political leaders advocating the lynching of African American (Q284), poverty and the destruction of the “lower” class (Q612A) and unjust criminal charges based on race (Q1056 part 4) as important social and political issues.

7 Rebecca Moore characterizes the Temple’s social gospel stance as “challenging both segregation and capitalism… [through] racial equality and just distribution of wealth among group members” in “The Sacred and the Profane in Wilson Harris’ Jonestown,” a paper given at Crisis Carnival Conference (March 20, 2008, San Diego State University).

8 “Edith Roller Journal, September 7, 1975,” Bufile 89-4286, HH-2-80.

9 Ibid.

10 Romans 10:14-15, 17. This passage is quoted from the King James Version. Jones quotes these passage most directly in Q144Q920Q987Q1032Q1056 part 3 and Q1059 part 3.

Last modified on December 22nd, 2015.
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