The following essay appears in Millennialism, Persecution, and Violence:
Historical Cases, ed. Catherine Wessinger (Syracuse University Press,
When H. Rap Brown observed in 1967 that violence was
as American as cherry pie, he was justifying the civil rebellions erupting
in black ghettoes across the nation, and criticizing the institutional
racism which caused them. The 1960s and 1970s witnessed state-sanctioned
violence in Vietnam, in Central America, and in the United States. Americans
could watch sheriffs' deputies beating up Freedom Riders in the South,
U.S. troops dropping bombs and napalm on Vietnamese villagers, or police
attacking demonstrators in Chicago, Berkeley, or on almost any American
campus--all on the nightly news.
This is the historical context in which Peoples Temple
developed.2 Jim Jones (1931-1978), its charismatic leader,
established Peoples Temple in Indianapolis in the 1950s as a protest
against a racially-segregated church and community. He moved the Temple
to Redwood Valley, California in the 1960s seeking safety from what
seemed like imminent nuclear war. It branched out into San Francisco
and Los Angeles in the 1970s seeking new members from the ranks of the
urban poor, many of whom were African American. It moved again in mid-1977
to a remote jungle in western Guyana on the north coast of South America,
to escape the violence, poverty, and racism of life in America. And
on November 18, 1978, the people living in Jonestown, Guyana, killed
their children and took their own lives.3
Theology married ideology in Peoples Temple in a radical
interpretation of the Gospel imperative to care for the poor, the hungry,
the sick, the imprisoned (Matthew 25:35-40). The Temple opened its doors
in the heart of black ghettoes in San Francisco and Los Angeles, where
members offered a variety of social programs which, in turn, attracted
new recruits. Some joined because of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, others
because of the Gospel of Karl Marx. In both cases the Temple's activism
appeared to offer a vigorous challenge to the culture of racism and
classism which marked American society. It is important to remember
that the optimism of liberation movements in the 1960s gave way to pessimism,
rage, and despair in the 1970s, and thus Peoples Temple provided an
alternative to mainstream American culture and to a moribund
It is no exaggeration to claim that Peoples Temple
and the violence surrounding it were as American as cherry pie. But
Peoples Temple also belonged to a prophetic religious tradition that
was utterly American as well. This tradition included abolitionism,
social gospel progressivism, and civil rights activism. To suggest that
Peoples Temple, or even Jim Jones, are anomalous in American culture
is to misread and ignore history. America produced Peoples Temple and
the tragedy at Jonestown, just as it produced the nineteenth-century
slave trade and the twentieth-century civil rights movement; as it created
the Vietnam War and the peace movement; Ronald Reagan and Robert Kennedy;
Rush Limbaugh and Martin Luther King, Jr. Attempts to distance ourselves
from what happened are therefore misplaced and misguided (Chidester
In order to understand why over 900 people died in
a jungle thousands of miles from their places of birth it is necessary
to examine the growth of injustice against Peoples Temple and
the rise of injustice within Peoples Temple. This essay argues
that increasing external threats, which were quite real and well-documented,
served to escalate the violence internal to the organization. The result
triggered assaults on Temple members leaving Jonestown with Congressman
Leo Ryan on November 18, 1978; the assassination of the congressman,
members of the news media, and a defector at the Port Kaituma, Guyana
airstrip; and the mass murders-suicides of members of the Jonestown
Violence and Peoples Temple:
In the twenty years since my sisters Carolyn Layton
and Annie Moore and my nephew Jim-Jon Prokes died in Jonestown, my thinking
about what happened in Peoples Temple and at Jonestown has changed.
I wrote A Sympathetic History of Jonestown (Moore 1985) as a
counterweight to the mass of quickie anti-cult books which popped up
after the suicides (Kilduff and Javers 1978; Kern and Wead 1979; Krause
1978; Mills 1979; Nugent 1979). This means that I tried to explain and
interpret the actions of the members of Peoples Temple in a way which
would make sense of what had happened, both to the reading public and
to myself. In the process, I downplayed the violence internal to the
institution. This is most apparent in the chapter "For Every Good
Thing, Something Bad."
Evidence seems conclusive, however, that: 1) beatings
and public humiliation sessions regularly occurred as part of the Temple's
means of controlling its members; 2) individuals were privately threatened
or intimidated; 3) suicide drills were practiced as a way to test loyalty,
and to prepare members for the "real thing;" 4) some individuals
were controlled with drugs in Jonestown and an atmosphere of repression
grew there as Jim Jones' health deteriorated; and of course 5) violence
broke out against Congressman Ryan and against the community itself.
In 1985 I tried to contextualize these facts by calling them "paradoxes,"
"double standards," or "ironies." There are several
reasons why I am no longer willing to do that.
First, the credibility of the anti-cult movement (ACM)
has been demolished and I no longer need to try to balance their biased
accounts. The coercive tactics of deprogrammers have been exposed, the
threat to the free exercise of religion by the ACM has been recognized,
and perhaps most importantly, the crucial and negative role anti-cultists
played in shaping government action toward the Branch Davidians in Waco,
Texas has been documented (S. Wright 1995; Tabor and Gallagher 1995).
Second, books and articles by scholars of religion have critically assessed
the accounts given by apostates, or "defectors" as they were
called in 1985 (Hall and Schuyler 1998; Shupe and Bromley 1994; Shupe,
Bromley and Breschel 1989), and similarly eliminated the need to put
things in perspective. Third, the voice of Jim Jones' biological son
Stephan Jones has begun to emerge in articles (L. Wright 1993), books
(Maaga 1996), and in personal conversations. His reports of what happened
in Jonestown confirm the worst, yet appear neither self-serving nor
judgmental. Finally, time has allowed me to face the fact that my sisters
were involved, either explicitly or implicitly, in planning some
of the violence which occurred in Peoples Temple. Maaga cites a letter
Annie wrote in which she argues for the suicide of the community (Maaga
How did Peoples Temple members rationalize their internal
violence? Carolyn defended the security gate and armed guards at the
Temple buildings in Redwood Valley by saying that local townspeople
had fired shots into the area (Moore 1985, 115).4 Racial
incidents in the predominantly white towns of northern California persuaded
members that they were not safe. Peoples Forum, the newspaper
of Peoples Temple, reported frequent harassment of members. The group
excused the guards at the Temple on Geary Street in San Francisco because
of conflicts with Neo-Nazis and the Nation of Islam.
Disciplinary actions against members came under the
rubric "catharsis." Catharsis sessions comprised confession
and humiliation before the entire community. True catharsis required
a change in behavior, such as repenting of an elitist attitude, or giving
more time to the cause. Some of the behaviors requiring repentance included
resenting decisions made by the Temple Planning Council (the decision-making
body for the group), or calling someone names. It is clear that church
members, not just Jim Jones or the Planning Council, vigorously participated
in the discipline. One Temple woman kept a diary which noted that:
Glenn Hennington was on the floor for driving without
a license for six months. He got a ticket. He had to fight with a
girl who knocked him out, which exhilarated the feminine portion of
the audience... (Moore 1985, 127).
Complicity in discipline, catharsis, fake faith healings,
and other questionable, unethical, or illegal activities bound Temple
members to each other.
Jim Jones mediated the news for members in the United
States, but with the move to Guyana his control of information became
virtually absolute. In Jonestown he could blow up a border skirmish
between China and the Soviet Union into a major war. He could claim
that America was herding blacks into concentration camps. The outside
world, already threatening and hostile, became forbidding, dangerous,
and closed. It became apparent to Peoples Temple that its enemies were
successfully persuading the news media and agencies of the United States
government to investigate the organization in ways which threatened
A dualistic worldview pitted the good guys--Peoples
Temple--against the bad guys--a racist and classist society which epitomized
the greed and selfishness which Peoples Temple members categorically
rejected (Wessinger 1997, 282). Those who joined the group sought to
create a new society, a utopia which my sister Annie described in her
last letter to the world:
There were no ugly, mean policemen wanting to beat
our heads in, no more racist tears from whites and others who thought
they were better. No one was made fun of for their appearance--something
no one had control over. Meanness and making fun were not allowed.
Maybe this is why all the lies were started. Besides this fact, no
one was allowed to live higher than anyone else (Moore 1986, 285-286).
Coupled with the egalitarian sentiments expressed by
Annie, was an apocalyptic expectation which dominated Jim Jones and
ultimately the entire community. Whether the end of life in the United
States came by fascist take-over or nuclear annihilation, it was
coming. The group shared and promoted Jim's apocalyptic expectation
in plays, in speeches, in confessions, and in songs. The night Leo Ryan
stayed in Jonestown a young woman sang a song titled "1981:"
You will stand in line
With your passport to sign
And the government says no to your kind (Moore 1985, 157-158).
A journal by a Peoples Temple member declared that
"Nuclear war is made certain" after Jim gave a discouraging,
and biased, news report on the Middle East (Moore 1985, 158). Current
events seemed to confirm the imminent end of the world.5
Aggression against Peoples Temple itself, however, also validated apocalyptic
fears and expectations.
Violence Against Peoples Temple6
A body of literature about apostates from New Religious
Movements (NRMs) and their influence upon government and the news media
has arisen in the past decade (Hall and Schuyler 1998; Shupe and Bromley
1994; Tabor and Gallagher 1995). The fiery end of the Branch Davidians
in Waco, Texas in 1993 also focused attention on the undue credibility
which apostates received from government agencies handling the siege
(Tabor and Gallagher 1995; S. Wright 1995). A critical approach to apostates
did not exist at the time of Jonestown, however, and so a group calling
itself the Concerned Relatives, comprised of former Temple members and
relatives of current members, had virtually unchallenged access to the
media and to the government.
The Concerned Relatives began to organize as early
as 1976, but did not go public until an August 1977 article in New
West Magazine presented its allegations against the Temple without
much critical analysis. Spearheading the movement were Timothy and Grace
Stoen. The couple sought to regain custody of their six-year-old son
John Victor who they had legally entrusted to Jim Jones. Tim, a lawyer
and top leader in the Temple, had assigned custody to Jones when Grace
fled the Temple in 1976. When Tim defected a year later, he and Grace
joined forces to try to get John Victor out of Jonestown. The custody
issue was complicated by the fact that Tim had signed an affidavit which
said that Jones was the biological father of John Victor. In January
1978 the Stoens traveled to Guyana to try to exert personal pressure
on the U.S. Embassy, the Government of Guyana, and on Jonestown. When
they returned without having seen their son, they began to lobby members
of Congress, including Congressman Leo Ryan, whose own daughter was
a member of the Rajneesh religious commune in Oregon.
The next major offensive from the Concerned Relatives
came in April 1978 with the release of an "Accusation of Human
Rights Violations by [the] Rev. James Warren Jones Against Our Children
and Relatives at the Peoples Temple Jungle Encampment in Guyana, South
America." The group sent the document to the media, members of
Congress, the U.S. State Department, and to Peoples Temple. They listed
a number of grievances, such as denial of access to relatives, censorship
of mail, and prevention of travel by family members. The "Accusation"
also included affidavits from Steven Katsaris which related his failed
attempt to see his adult daughter Maria, and from ex-member Yolanda
Crawford, who lived in Jonestown for three months in 1977.
After the publicity surrounding the "Accusation"
died down, a new strategy emerged: intensified legal action against
Peoples Temple. Tim Stoen filed lawsuits seeking damages against Peoples
Temple and Jim Jones on behalf of three other disgruntled relatives.
In spite of a counter-suit filed against Tim Stoen in the summer of
1978, Peoples Temple still faced these three suits as well as the Stoen
custody suit in November.
Most damaging, and ultimately most persuasive to U.S.
government agencies and to Congress, was an affidavit Tim Stoen helped
Deborah Layton (Blakey) prepare after her defection from Peoples Temple
in Guyana in May 1978. In addition to describing the rough living conditions
which prevailed in the community, Deborah reported that Temple members
had conducted suicide rehearsals. It was Deborah's affidavit and personal
communication with Congressman Leo Ryan that convinced him to travel
The access the Concerned Relatives had to the media
and to government agencies helped create a hydra of federal, state,
and local investigations into the activities of Peoples Temple. If these
investigations had found any evidence of fraud or illegal activities
Peoples Temple would have seen many of its financial resources dry up.
The threat to the very existence of Jonestown from several agencies,
including the U.S. Customs Service, the Federal Communications Commission,
the Social Security Administration, and the Internal Revenue Service,
was quite real.
The U.S. Customs investigation began in February 1977
at the instigation of ex-members and continued into 1978. The year-long
investigation included surveillance of Peoples Temple property in Redwood
Valley and San Francisco; lookouts posted in Houston, New Orleans, and
Miami; and cargo searches. Nevertheless, the Customs Service failed
to turn up any signs of smuggling or contraband. "At no time was
there any evidence of a substantial enough nature to justify an affidavit
for either a search warrant or a presentation to the U.S. Attorney for
Federal Grand Jury Action," a Customs agent reported to the House
Foreign Affairs Committee investigating the Jonestown suicides (Moore
1985, 279-280). Nevertheless, U.S. Customs forwarded a report made in
August 1977 to Interpol and to the State Department, which Peoples Temple
members then received from the government of Guyana.
Aside from inaccuracies in the report, the most intriguing
As a result of this action [Customs' surveillance],
a continuing series of magazine, newspaper, radio and television articles
and coverage has been given to JONES and the Church. Subsequently,
investigations have been initiated by San Francisco and Mendocino
counties (Moore 1985, 281).
In other words, a concerted and planned effort existed
to discredit and dismantle Peoples Temple. Peoples Temple members were
concerned not only about the delay of needed items shipped from the
United States to Guyana, but more importantly, about the effect the
report would have on their relationship with officials in the government
of Guyana. After all, they were in Guyana only at the pleasure of Prime
Minister Forbes Burnham's ruling party. Any unfavorable publicity or
damaging incidents, they felt, could jeopardize that.
The custody case waged by Tim and Grace Stoen also
threatened the delicate balance between the Temple and its supporters
in the highest levels of the Guyanese government. A visit to Jonestown
in September 1977 by the Stoens' attorney from America, coupled with
the absence from the country of some members of Guyana's ruling party
sent the community into a panic. The group threatened to commit mass
suicide if John Victor were removed, according to Charles Garry, the
Temple's San Francisco attorney (Moore 1985, 285). My sister Carolyn
later explained the political significance of the case.
If we do not get backing on this issue, how could
we ever have confidence in the government backing us on far more controversial
issues (Moore 1985, 286).
Further evidence of the coordinated attack on Peoples
Temple came in the form of a Federal Communications Commission (FCC)
investigation into the group's use of the amateur radio waves. The FCC
began monitoring Temple communications in April 1977 after receiving
a tip from a ham radio operator. The chief of the FCC's Enforcement
Division urged the San Francisco office of the FCC to continue daily
coverage between 1977 and 1978. By November 1978 the agency had logged
between 40 and 60 hours of conversation.
The major communications link Jonestown had with Peoples
Temple in San Francisco, and with the outside world, was through its
ham radios. Radio conversations ranged in topics from continuing education
and agricultural training to T-shirts and tractor parts. Sometimes members
read political statements over the air. The biggest problem, as far
as the FCC was concerned, was the fact that the Temple seemed to be
conducting private business over the public airwaves, and was going
out-of-band to do so. "We haven't found anything wrong other than
the business-type traffic," complained one FCC engineer. "It's
the out-of-band bit we need to hang them" (Moore 1985, 293).7
In August 1978, the FCC warned Elton Adams, a Temple licensee, that
revocation of his license, as well as fines, might occur if he continued
to use his station to facilitate the administration of Peoples Temple.
Transcripts of the FCC's communications show that the
investigation was influenced by the negative publicity generated by
the Concerned Relatives. One engineer told another about a TV talk show
which aired charges against the Temple. "Make it an official observation,"
was the response. Mirroring the crimes listed in the Customs Service
report, an FCC report from August 1977 said that "the Peoples Temple
may be engaged in nefarious acts on an international level" (Moore
1985, 294). The "nefarious acts" purportedly included gun-running,
narcotics smuggling, and illegal transfers of funds out of the country.8
The FCC's revocation threat of August 1978, coupled
with a reiterated threat in November 1978, came on top of a new communications
problem. The Maritime Mobile Net refused to carry phone patches from
Peoples Temple, claiming that the FCC told it the calls were illegal
(Moore 1985, 199). What this meant was that calls from Jonestown, Guyana
had to be routed through the Temple's San Francisco office. Direct calls
could no longer be made.
The possibility of financial disaster from two sources
overshadowed the potential disruption of the flow of supplies and communications.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) office in San Francisco in
the summer of 1977 asked postal officials to alert it immediately to
any address changes marked Guyana. The Postal Service went a step further
and, according to a USPS routing slip, ordered all U.S. Treasury
checks destined for Guyana returned to the Treasury. It wasn't until
the late Congressman Phillip Burton (D-Calif) wrote several times, appending
the Postal Service note, that SSA finally resolved the problem in December
1977. Normally, all SSA and SSI (Supplemental Security Income) checks
are forwarded, and the Treasury Department notified (Moore 1985, 299).
In the spring of 1978 more checks were misrouted. Letters poured in
from Peoples Temple, and SSA quickly resolved the problem. But an SSA
interim report detailed the "extraordinary lengths" it followed
to prevent any sort of fraud on the part of Peoples Temple.
As of June 1978, about $37,000 worth of Social Security
checks went to Temple beneficiaries each month. Repeated investigations
by the U.S. Embassy staff in Guyana verified that those receiving the
checks were in fact alive. Then-Health, Education and Welfare Secretary
Joseph Califano reported that handwriting analysis confirmed the endorsements
of Peoples Temple members which were made on checks dated November 3,
1978 (Moore 1985, 265-266). Although one woman, Lisa Layton, died of
cancer at the end of October, her checks were returned to the government,
unsigned and uncashed.
The second threat to the Temple's financial security
came from the Internal Revenue Service. In February 1978 the IRS informed
the organization that it was conducting an examination to determine
if the Temple were receiving income from any activity subject to income
tax. In other words, the agency was investigating, and had been investigating
for two years, whether or not the Temple was adequately reporting unrelated
business income, which was taxable (Hall 1987, 197-198). In the February
letter the IRS District Director asked for organizational documents,
financial statements, payroll tax returns, and copies of licenses and
permits to operate commercial activities. The lawyer handling the IRS
case for the Temple quickly determined that it was not an official audit
and learned that it was negative publicity about Peoples Temple that
prompted the most immediate IRS move against the church. In spite of
the ad hoc nature of the IRS' request, its investigation was still pending
on November 18, 1978. The IRS finally revoked the Temple's tax-exempt
status after its demise, and sought back taxes for the last 30 months
of the church's existence from the Peoples Temple Receiver.
A number of events occurred in the summer and fall
of 1978 which compounded the insecurity the community felt. On top of
Deborah Layton's defection in May, Terri Buford, another trusted financial
officer in Jonestown, left in October. The departure of these two women,
who had access to and control of millions of dollars of Temple assets,
required a mad scramble on the part of Jones and his leadership group
to protect the Temple's holdings in various foreign banks.
The defections of Buford and Layton seemed evidence
enough of a conspiracy against Peoples Temple. Mark Lane and Don Freed
provided definitive proof. Don Freed, a writer and director whose Hollywood
credentials included political thrillers like The Parallax View
and Executive Action, visited Jonestown in August 1978 and encouraged
Lane to visit in September. As far as Peoples Temple was concerned,
Lane had impeccable credentials as a long-time supporter of liberal
causes. The group hired the conspiracy buff to uncover plots against
it, and that he did. "Mom and Dad have probably shown you the latest
about the conspiracy information that Mark Lane, the famous attorney
in the ML King case and Don Freed the other famous author in the Kennedy
case have come up with regarding activities planned against us--Peoples
Temple," Annie wrote in October 1978 (Moore 1986, 282). Carolyn
wrote that Don Freed told them that "anything this drug out could
be nothing less than conspiracy" (Moore 1986, 272).
The conspiracy which Lane and Freed exposed involved
a private detective named Joe Mazor which the Concerned Relatives had
hired. Mazor confessed his sins to the community in Jonestown in September,
explaining that he had had a change of heart when he realized that the
Concerned Relatives had lied to him. Lane perhaps had persuaded Mazor
to come clean. The lawyer announced in Guyana on September 20 that "We
have also concluded without question that there has been a massive conspiracy
to destroy the Peoples Temple and a massive conspiracy to destroy the
Reverend Jim Jones..." (Moore 1985, 305). Lane repeated the charges
in San Francisco on October 3. Temple documents show that Lane promised
to file a lawsuit against various Concerned Relatives which would reveal
details of a conspiracy against the Temple during discovery proceedings.
Lane, in short, verified what Peoples Temple members had suspected all
Violence Within Peoples Temple
The concerted and well-organized effort of the Concerned
Relatives to harass Peoples Temple had a devastating effect on the people
in Jonestown. Between the time of the mass immigration of Peoples Temple
members into Jonestown in summer 1977, and November 1978, internal dissent
escalated, and along with it, repression and inner-directed violence.
The Special Care Unit in Jonestown housed dissidents rather than rule-breakers.
If someone broke the rules, he or she was assigned more work. If individuals
dissented, however, they were assigned to Special Care, where the Jonestown
medical staff administered and monitored intensive sedation. Charles
Garry, the Temple's long-time attorney, believes that Eugene Chaikin,
a Temple member who was also a lawyer, might have been housed in Special
Care. Garry was unable to see Chaikin during his November 1978 visit
in spite of repeated attempts to do so (Moore 1985, 220).
The workload increased, as a relatively small number
of able-bodied adults tried to farm and support children and the seniors
(Maaga 1996, 138). With about a third of the Jonestown community under
age 18, and another third over the age of retirement, all of the daily
chores fell on the same group of people. Field workers never knew when
their breaks would be scheduled; they never knew in advance when they
might have a day off. The security force was ordered to patrol constantly.
Eventually it got out of hand: one security officer cocked his gun and
aimed it at people, presumably to intimidate them (Moore 1985, 309).
Tommy Bogue made one of the more dramatic escape attempts
late in 1978. Caught by the security force, he and his friends were
shackled in chains for three weeks and forced to chop wood for 18 hours
a day. Bogue said that others who tried to escape were placed in a coffin-like
box for several days (Moore 1985, 309).
Meanwhile, the suicide drills increased in frequency
and intensity. At these drills, participants would drink fruit punch
and pretend to fall down dead. It was a test, they were told afterwards,
to prove their loyalty to Jim Jones, to the community, and to the cause.
It is clear now that the group rehearsed suicide many
times. Members of the Jonestown community were mentally and physically
ready to die. Carolyn and Annie had both told my family in letters that
they were "prepared" to die. We interpreted their remarks
as statements of their willingness to die for what they believed, not
a willingness to kill themselves. But the rehearsals served a ritualistic
purpose: everyone knew what was expected and what to do. During an earlier
drill one person testified that:
Life is shit. What Dad [Jim Jones] says is true,
life outside this collective is shit... I want to die a revolutionary
death (Moore 1985, 333).
In the eyes of Jones, the enemies within threatened
to subvert the entire organization. The enemies without --hostile government
agencies, a skeptical press, angry relatives, disloyal apostates--remained
distant. But the forces combined when Congressman Ryan announced on
November 1, 1978, that he would visit Jonestown.
Ryan knew the trip could be dangerous. He had been
warned by Deborah Layton and believed that mass suicide was a real possibility.
On November 13, the U.S. State Department told him of the presence of
weapons in the community. Ryan knew of alleged illegal activities because
the Los Angeles District Attorney asked him to interview some Temple
members about an extortion complaint. Moreover, in the briefcase he
took with him to Jonestown, Ryan had notes concerning Jim Jones' lewd
conduct arrest in 1973. Nevertheless, Ryan was determined to go at any
Equally threatening as Ryan's trip itself was the congressman's
choice of traveling companions. In spite of warnings from the State
Department and the U.S. Embassy, Ryan took with him every enemy of Peoples
Temple. Tim and Grace Stoen, other opponents of Peoples Temple, hostile
reporters, and people who had sued the Temple or had threatened to retrieve
their children by force, made up Ryan's entourage.
When Jones learned that the Congressman's plane was
en route to Jonestown on November 17, he announced over the loudspeaker:
"Alert, alert! We're being invaded!" (Moore 1985, 319). Ryan's
visit fulfilled Jones' prophecies and verified his interpretation of
the truth.9 Had Ryan not gone to Jonestown, or had he stage-managed
his visit otherwise, the results might have been different (Hall and
Schuyler 1998). Maaga's study of the organizational structure of the
Jonestown community indicates that Jim Jones may have been facing a
coup led by trusted female leaders, which would have made him a powerless
figurehead (Maaga 1996, 97-103). Stephan Jones claims that he and his
brothers were ready to kill their father because of his destructive
influence on the community (L. Wright 1993, 78; and in a personal conversation).
Carlton Goodlett, Jones' doctor in San Francisco, believed he would
have been dead from drug abuse and illness within a few months (Moore
1985, 221). Instead, Leo Ryan's arrival re-established the credibility
of the faltering leader.
After Ryan left for the airstrip, taking 16 defectors
with him, Jones sent security forces to kill the congressman and reporters.
He then gathered the community into the central pavilion for instructions.
An audiotape of the final discussion indicates how
well-prepared the community was. "We're all ready to go,"
declared one man. "If you tell us we have to give our lives now,
we're ready. All the rest of the sisters and brothers are with me"
(Maaga 1996, 149). A woman reassured the group that:
This is nothing to cry about. This is something we
could all rejoice about. We could be happy about this. They always
told us that we could cry when you're coming into this world. So we're
leaving it, and we're leaving it peaceful (Maaga 1996, 153).
This woman's comments indicate that members of the
Jonestown community did not see themselves as participating in a violent
act. On the contrary, they saw themselves taking their leave quietly,
peacefully, and yet as an act of protest. Jim's final recorded words
Take our life from us. We laid it down. We got tired.
We didn't commit suicide. We committed an act of revolutionary suicide
protesting the conditions of an inhumane world (Maaga 1996, 157).
Maaga argues that members of the Jonestown community
saw their choice as being between loyalty to the group, which meant
death; or betrayal, which meant survival (Maaga 1996, 121-123). Although
the violence in Peoples Temple did burst forth against outsiders, it
was primarily directed at insiders, at individuals within the
group. While violence served as a form of social control, it also created
bonds within the new family and new society Jim and his followers were
trying to create. When people suffer together they either feel closer
as a result, or they become alienated. People in Jonestown had suffered
together, and some were alienated by that suffering. But the majority
drew closer together.10 In other words, violence--from disciplinary
sessions to suicide drills--served as the glue which held people together;
not by death threats, but rather by participation in common rituals
and routinization of the uncommon: suicide.
"We are not paranoid," a Peoples Forum
editorial declared. "We simply have found no other logical way
to make sense of our experiences" (Moore 1985, 273). The Forum
explained that a conspiracy against the Temple existed. Mark Lane, like
Dr. Frankenstein, gave life to the monster. Paranoia existed within
Peoples Temple, as evidenced by public and private confession, community
security forces, and conspiracy discussions. But the group found its
conspiracy theories validated in negative news accounts which uncritically
reported the views of Concerned Relatives. The Temple's perception that
the U.S. government was involved in the persecution was also correct.
This essay has tried to demonstrate that the Temple's perception of
being persecuted was not mere fantasy, but instead was a correct reading
of a well-orchestrated effort that was mounted against Peoples Temple
with the purpose of destroying the institution. The intention was surely
not to destroy the members of the organization, but that is in fact
Relatives, the news media, and the government perpetuated
violence against the group even after its death. News accounts sensationalized
the rumors, innuendoes, and gossip provided by apostates and relatives.
The media demonized Peoples Temple members by showing them over and
over again in death, rather than in life. Time and Newsweek
would have been guilty of libel had not my sisters been dead: but libel
laws do not cover the dead and so anything, and everything, was said
about them, including the accusation that my sister Carolyn was a member
of a death squad seeking opponents of Peoples Temple. The U.S. government
wanted to bury the bodies in Guyana, but when the Guyanese government
loudly protested, shipped them to Dover Air Force Base, two thousand
miles from the Temple's home base in San Francisco.
The most egregious violence in my mind was the government's
failure to perform even the most rudimentary of medical examinations
on the bodies. No blood, tissue, or urine samples were obtained. An
autopsy is the very least society owes the victims of violent death,
but neither the U.S. nor the Guyana governments conducted these in any
meaningful way. This means that the real cause of the deaths in Jonestown
is ultimately unknown, as the autopsy report on Carolyn prepared by
the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology indicates:
Cause of Death: Probably cyanide poisoning.
Manner of Death: Undetermined (Moore 1985, 45).
The injury Peoples Temple did to itself is obvious.
The injury done against Peoples Temple is equally obvious, but nowhere
have I heard any words of remorse from those involved in the actions
against Peoples Temple. In fact, members of the Concerned Relatives
criticized my parents in January 1979 for not joining them. As recently
as 1996 a Temple apostate, seeing my mother for the first time in twenty
years, said "You could have prevented it!"
All of us who had relatives in Peoples Temple are involved
in varying degrees with the tragic outcome. My parents, John and Barbara
Moore, chose to affirm the good that they saw in Peoples Temple and
in my sisters. They questioned the Temple's secrecy and its adulation
of Jim Jones. They chose not to side with either the enemies of Peoples
Temple or with Peoples Temple itself, but rather with my sisters. While
we do not know how this stance factored into the final equation, we
admit that undoubtedly we played some role. I have never heard any of
the Concerned Relatives make even a partial admission of responsibility
for accelerating the conflict that exacerbated the tension in Jonestown,
or for instigating the persecution of Peoples Temple.
It took almost ten years for a scholar to link the
actions of the Concerned Relatives with the apocalypse in Jonestown,
which Hall did in Gone From the Promised Land. "The key
to understanding Jonestown," he wrote, "thus lies in the dynamics
of conflict between a religious community and an external political
order" (Hall 1987, 296). Twenty years after Jonestown, Bromley
put together The Politics of Religious Apostasy: The Role of Apostates
in the Transformation of Religious Movements which further explored
the role apostates play in affecting the internal dynamics of New Religious
Movements (Bromley 1998). The essays in Bromley's book document the
effect ex-members have in shaping public perceptions of non-traditional--or,
as he calls them, contestant and subversive--religions.
In spite of Hall's earlier work, scholars of NRMs still
have failed to take the Temple's complaints against the government seriously,
dismissing them as Temple rhetoric or conspiracy theorizing. The actions
by Temple members on their final day seem to encourage a spirit of condemnation
or indifference. The sympathy which scholars had for the Branch Davidians
reflects a critical attitude toward apostates which did not extend retroactively
toward the Concerned Relatives. In addition, scholars were critical
of how the government handled the situation at Waco. I have yet to see
outrage over government handling of Peoples Temple either before, during,
or after November 18, 1978, and a full examination of what the U.S.
government did, and did not do, has never been completed. The Staff
Investigative Report on Ryan's assassination may have information on
this, but since a sizable portion of the document is classified, it
is impossible to tell what the Committee may have learned.
The violence of society and government both molded
Peoples Temple and later turned on the Temple itself. That violence
exists today just as surely as it did in 1952, 1965, and 1978. While
Peoples Temple initially rejected the injustice of its culture, it finally
embraced injustice as a social necessity. It went further, however,
in adopting self-directed violence as a means of political change. Although
those in the group saw themselves as martyrs sending a message to capitalist
America with their revolutionary suicide, the group actually destroyed
its own radical foot soldiers. Given the society which spawned the movement,Peoples
Temple's adoption of violence as a way to redirect the course of human
events was utterly American and seems almost inevitable.
- I want to thank the following readers for commenting on this paper:
Fielding McGehee, III; John and Barbara Moore; Dr. Mary Sawyer; Dr.
Scott Lowe; and Dr. Catherine Wessinger.
- One of the most complete histories of Peoples Temple is John R.
Hall, Gone From the Promised Land, 1987.
- According to the Staff Investigative Group (SIG) to the Committee
on Foreign Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives (May 15, 1979),
909 people died in Jonestown. I add to that figure Sharon Amos, who
killed her three children and herself in Georgetown, Guyana; and the
five people murdered at the Port Kaituma airstrip as they attempted
to leave Jonestown. This brings the total to 918 who died that day.
According to a report filed with the SIG by the Department of Health,
Education, and Welfare, 188 Social Security beneficiaries died in
Jonestown. A General Accounting Office audit states that 294 children
under the age of 18 died (Moore 1985, 363).
- In December 1979 Chuck Beikman, a Temple member, told my father,
John Moore, that he went outside after the shooting incident and found
that another Temple member had fired the shots.
- Catherine Wessinger differentiates between catastrophic millennialism
and progressive millennialism. The former "involves a pessimistic
view of humanity and society," while the latter, more optimistic,
sees "humans engaging in social work in harmony with the divine
will" to progressively create a new kingdom on earth (Wessinger
1997, 282-283). She identifies Peoples Temple as a catastrophic group,
and I tend to agree.
- Much of the information for this section is drawn from Chapter Eleven,
"The Vise," in A Sympathetic History of Jonestown.
Written in a journalistic rather than scholarly style, the book's
sources can nevertheless be documented in the Moore Family Collection
of the "Peoples Temple Archives" located in the Schubert
Hall Library of the California Historical Society.
- Ham radio operators are required to operate within certain designated
band-widths. Peoples Temple members were conducting business on unauthorized
- A two-year probe by the U.S. Customs Service failed to uncover any
evidence of gun-running. The government of Guyana recovered 35 weapons
from Jonestown: seven shotguns, fourteen small caliber rifles, ten
pistols, and a flare-launcher. Three additional pistols were taken
from Peoples Temple members fleeing Jonestown. The U.S. Bureau of
Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms ran a trace on the weapons and found
that 25 of them came from a rifle shop in Ukiah, California. All but
three of the weapons had been purchased before March 1975, while thirteen
were bought prior to 1970. "Hardly an arsenal," Skip Roberts,
Guyana's Chief of Police, told us (Moore 1985, 372-373).
Drugs had been shipped to Jonestown, but they seemed to be primarily
for medicinal purposes, except of course for the tranquilizers and
potassium cyanide which were used to control, and eventually kill,
people. These kinds of drugs were not what the Customs Service was
worried about. Clearly U.S. dollars had been smuggled out of the country,
given the fact that foreign bank accounts existed in Panama and Switzerland.
Some of the Panamanian accounts were in my sister Carolyn's name.
- This also seemed to be one of the lessons of Waco: the government's
actions demonstrated the validity of David Koresh's prophecies.
- In a personal conversation (1997) Mary Sawyer notes that shared
suffering describes, in part, the black experience in America. The
suffering that Peoples Temple members endured strengthened rather
than weakened their bonds of commitment.
- Bromley, David, ed. 1998. The Politics of Religious Apostasy:
The Role of Apostates in the Transformation of Religious Movements.
New York: Praeger.
- Chidester, David. 1988. Salvation and Suicide: An Interpretation
of Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and Jonestown. Bloomington and
Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
- Hall, John R. 1987. Gone From the Promised Land: Jonestown in
American Cultural History. New Brunswick NJ: Transaction Books.
- Hall, John R. and Philip Schuyler. 1998. "Apostasy, Apocalypse,
and Religious Violence: An Exploratory Comparison of Peoples Temple,
the Branch Davidians and the Solar Temple." In Bromley 1998.
- Kern, Phil, and Doug Wead. 1979. Peoples Temple, Peoples Tomb.
Plainfield NJ: Logos International.
- Kilduff, Marshall, and Ron Javers. 1978. The Suicide Cult: The
Inside Story of the Peoples Temple Sect and the Massacre in Guyana.
New York: Bantam.
- Krause, Charles with Laurence M. Stern and Richard Harwood. 1978.
Guyana Massacre: The Eyewitness Account. New York: Hawthorne.
- Mills, Jeannie. 1979. Six Years with God: Life Inside Rev. Jim
Joness Peoples Temple. New York: A&W Publishers.
- Maaga, Mary McCormick. 1996. "Triple Erasure: Women and Power
in Peoples Temple." Ph.D. diss., Drew University.
- Maaga, Mary McCormick. 1998. Hearing the Voices of Jonestown:
The Most Intimate Other. Syracuse NY: Syracuse University Press.
- Moore, Rebecca. 1986. The Jonestown Letters: Correspondence of
the Moore Family 1970-1985. Lewiston NY: Edwin Mellen Press.
- Moore, Rebecca. 1985 A Sympathetic History of Jonestown: The
Moore Family Involvement in Peoples Temple. Lewiston NY: Edwin
- Nugent, John Peer. 1979. White Night: The Untold Story of What
Happened Beforeand BeyondJonestown. New York: Rawson,
- Shupe, Anson and David G. Bromley, eds. 1994. Anti-Cult Movements
in Cross-Cultural Perspective. New York: Garland Publishing.
- Shupe, Anson, David G. Bromley and Edward Breschel. 1989. "The
Peoples Temple, the Apocalypse at Jonestown, and the Anti-Cult Movement."
Pp. 153-178 in New Religious Movements, Mass Suicide, and Peoples
Temple: Scholarly Perspectives on a Tragedy, Rebecca Moore and
Fielding McGehee III, eds. Lewiston NY: Edwin Mellen Press.
- Tabor, James D., and Eugene V. Gallagher. 1995. Why Waco? Cults
and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America. Berkeley: University
of California Press.
- Wessinger, Catherine. 1997. "How the Millennium Comes Violently:
A Comparison of Jonestown, Aum Shinrikyo, Branch Davidians, and the
Montana Freemen." Dialog 36,4: 277-288
- Wright, Lawrence. 1993. "The Sons of Jim Jones." The
New Yorker 69: 66-89.
- Wright, Stuart A., ed. 1995. Armageddon in Waco: Critical Perspectives
on the Branch Davidian Conflict. Chicago: The University of Chicago
- United States House of Representatives. 1979. Staff Investigative
Report to the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.