The residents of Jonestown experienced many different types of social influences from the physical world around them to their personal interactions and emotions. Through these experiences, they defined the values of their community at Jonestown and created a new world in which they sought to achieve their socialist society. In alternative communities, the values created may place importance on the divergent realities experienced within untraditional environments. These new realities may lead to the creation of new values that may vary from mainstream culture. The formation of these new values based on experiential difference may involve great creativity. We should not view these creative forms of meaning as odd or deviant, rather selectively viewing them in a positive light for the new dimensions they add.
I reviewed the Jonestown archives looking for sample writings by Temple members in which common daily activities and experiences might show the alternative beliefs that were forming in Jonestown. I chose samples only from within the Jonestown Institute archives for reasons of validity. I looked for writings that appeared to contain the unaffected expression of the author and which could be representative of the general population of Jonestown. Researchers often use the writings of children for this purpose because they may provide an honesty that escapes censure. Personal diaries and anonymous works are another source of writing that may contain the genuine articulations of the writer. The personal letters written home to family and friends, and even individual letters reporting the activities of Jonestown appeared to contain genuine expressions. Poetry is another form of writing that may contain spontaneous poetic illustration. Finally, I included two official works from within the Temple because they provide a view of the Temple mission that may be used to gain perspective when considering divergence in the writings of Jonestown. Of the many writings reviewed, I have included samples of Six Anonymous Poems; Two Poems of Christopher Campbell and Jimmy Cordell; The Poetry of Joyce Polk Brown; select letters of Annie Moore, Marlene Tarver, and Danny Beck; the poem “The Front Line in Ballad and Thought,” by Barbara Walker; an article about the Jonestown school in the Guyana Chronicle; and a Peoples Temple Letter to the Guyana Christian Community. While there are other excellent writings, I limited my samples to remain within the parameters of this paper and because the writings chosen may portray innate expression and divergence.
When reviewing the writings I looked for divergence in beliefs that appeared to be rooted in the experiences of Jonestown. Children tend to be more open to the acquisition of divergent values and may easily develop disproportionate alternative meanings because they lack the experience to which adult values conform socially. In adults who have conformed to established cultural norms, conventional values may become vague, leading to the development of new values. Individuals from isolated population groups, such as urban ghettos may have already experienced the growth of alternative values and may have been vulnerable to further divergence in Jonestown.
While censure may have affected some communications from Jonestown, the writings selected appeared to portray the honest inner expressions of the writers. One of the most dramatic experiences in the writings of Temple members seemed to be the jungle in Guyana. Frequent portrayals of the lush colorful vegetation, wildlife, clean air, and pristine beauty of the Guyanese jungle are found in the writings of children and adults. The descriptions of happiness in the beauty of a jungle paradise seem especially vivid in the writings of children. The healthy diet and abundance of tropical food crops is another aspect of the natural environment highlighted in the personal writings. They place emphasis on the abundance of tropical foods and the satisfaction gained from the work involved in planting and growing the crops. The letter of Marlene Tarver mentions the benefits of a healthy diet and the weight loss from the hard work of farming. The health benefits described by Marlene may provide physical evidence of the written claims in the letters.
In my analysis, I have found themes that show divergence. Temple records showing importation of foodstuffs may conflict with a view of agricultural self-sufficiency. This suggests that the hard work to grow foods, often done in social groups of Temple members, and the beauty of the tropical environment, may have created the image of abundance. Frequently mentioned is the happiness of living in the clean natural environment of Guyana in comparison to the ghettos of urban American. Pioneering and developing a new life and society based on socialist principles is a theme commonly found in the written materials. This is a creative adaptation of the community values of Jonestown.
Community-based work was another theme found in the literature of Temple members. The writings show great pride in the work required to develop the land, build the community, farm foodstuffs, and manage daily activities and services. The letters of Annie Moore showed the high priority she placed on her experience working as a young nurse and playing in a blues band. The Jonestown community had great pride in its medical facilities. The disillusion shown in Annie’s later letters may suggest an aberration in the ethical values and behavior of medical workers.
The Jonestown school would have been an important factor in the formation of new values. Most of the letters show that children, teachers, and the general community were happy with the Jonestown school. The June 19, 1978 issue of the Guyana Chronicle published a complimentary article upon the Jonestown school having achieved official status as an integrated cooperative community school without walls that offered nearly twenty skill areas and work-study programs to over 250 students.
The writings also portrayed feelings of growing disassociation with the values of the United States. This may have resulted, at least in part, from divergence from the cultural values of American society and adjustment to the new experiences and values that were developing in the Guyanese environment and in Jonestown. The politics of Temple leadership cultivated feelings of disassociation and conspiracy toward the US among the Jonestown community. In this sense, Temple leadership guided and perhaps hastened divergence in the development of new ideals among members of the agricultural commune. This political contradiction seems self-defeating, considering the Jonestown community’s dependence on its ties to the US. Regardless, mention of an American conspiracy against the Jonestown mission was apparent in many of the writings.
The Jonestown mission of social justice and equality seemed more pronounced in the writings of some of the adult members than of children. This may imply that the social issues of justice and equality were ideologically motivated within the Temple leadership across national boundaries and transferred to Jonestown. Adults tend to conform to social conventions such as social justice issues, whereas children tend to accentuate new and disproportionate values that are significant to their experience. Perhaps the emphasis placed by the children on the natural environment, instead of social equality, may indicate that the eradication of discrimination had some success among Jonestown’s youth.
Some of the letters showed a sense of dawning disillusion. Disillusion may have included adjustment to new environments, and the realization that no matter how beautiful the scenery of Guyana, running a community the size of Jonestown was going to be a complex and difficult task. A certain amount of disillusion may have arrived in Jonestown with members having suffered disenchantment in the US. It is paradoxical that divergence from the accepted social values of mainstream American culture when coupled with convergence into the new realities of the Guyanese environment may have been a cause of disillusion.
While it may be impossible to determine the beliefs of every person in Jonestown, the writings evidence that their authors appear to have believed in the mission of Jonestown. They believed that they were working towards a better life at Jonestown, in the utopian society that they were building, and in their struggle for social justice and equality. Their writings show that they were willing to work and sacrifice for their beliefs.
Divergence began to form in Temple members while still in the United States before their arrival at Jonestown. The move to Guyana and to the Jonestown project radically altered the life experiences of Temple members and enhanced the creation of new values in the lives of Jonestown residents. These new ideals were part of the natural integration of Peoples Temple into the culture of Guyana and the experience of Jonestown. We should not view these new values through the narrow lens of conventional thought in 1970’s America, but as a creative adaptation of the dreams of Temple members in a new environment.