Letter from Professor Scott Lowe Letter from Professor Scott Lowe
Chair, Department of Philosophy and Religion
University of North Dakota
As we approach the twentieth anniversary of the cataclysmic end of the Peoples Temple communal experiment, it seems reasonable to expect renewed media and public interest in what has come to be the emblematic and defining event for the great American "cult" debate. Two decades ago lurid, sickening full-color images from the jungles of Guyana were splashed across the covers of Time and Newsweek and beamed into every American home on the evening news: Leo Ryan, a flamboyant California congressman, gunned down on a remote bush airstrip. The swollen bodies of hundreds of men, women, and children bloated beyond recognition, stacked in great piles, rotting in the sun. Abandoned cottages, lush green gardens, books and toys left where they were dropped, an ambitious social experiment gone horribly wrong. What madness, the media asked, could have led so many to end their lives so hideously, so far from the homes they had fled? And what lessons could this nightmare possibly hold for the rest of us–normal Americans content with normal lives–living in a different universe, a sane world of safe emotions and reasonable, well-socialized aspirations? It was all so strange, so fascinating, and so disturbing.
At the time, few scholars had much to say, publicly at least, about the tragedy. This left the field open for the usual cast of media pundits to spin horror tales about the dangers of charismatic leaders and socially deviant groups. The analysis was shallow and cautionary, demonizing the victims and stressing the ways they differed from the rest of us. The public wanted absolution, and the media gave it.
The study of New Religious Movements was in its infancy then, and responsible scholars were very tentative in their observations. As we have gained the wisdom of hindsight (such as it is) and have had time to refine our reflections, a more balanced picture of Jonestown has begun to emerge. It is a picture with its fair share of villains and heroes, but most importantly it is a picture that allows us to see the many members of Peoples Temple as human beings, people like ourselves, with dreams and hopes, joys and fears, loves and passions much like our own. The victims of Jonestown were not unbalanced, weak-minded, or bizarre; they were ordinary people struggling to survive in extraordinary circumstances, doing their best to remain true to deep convictions and commitments most of us still find hard to comprehend.
To the extent that this website furthers our understanding of the humanity of the citizens of Jonestown and gives us an empathetic window into their strange but oddly familiar world, it will be a success. However, do not expect to find easy answers here. Jonestown and Peoples Temple were experiments as complex and confusing as human life itself. We may never gain complete closure on the mass suicides, but we can, and should, marvel at the intensity of the community’s beliefs and feel chastened by the demonstration Jonestown provides of the power of the human will to bring forth unarguable good, unequivocal evil, and much that moves between the poles.