Dr. James T. Richardson
is Director, Grant Sawyer Center for Justice Studies at the University
of Nevada, Reno. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
In 1979 I presented a plenary address at the annual meeting of the Society
for the Scientific Study of Religion entitled, “Peoples Temple
and Jonestown: A Corrective Comparison and Critique.” In that
presentation, which was later published in the Society’s journal
(Richardson, 1980), my major point was that Peoples Temple was unlike
other groups referred to as New Religious Movements. I cited eight major
points of dissimilarity between Peoples Temple and NRMS, including:
(1) time and context of inception; (2) characteristics of members; (3)
organizational structure and operation; (4) social control techniques
used, and contact with outsiders; (5) resocialization techniques; (6)
theology or ideology; (7) general orientation toward the world; and
(8) ritual behaviors engaged in by the groups.
The major thrust of my paper was to describe the uniqueness of Peoples
Temple, which was more similar to urban black churches such as that
of Father Divine or Sweet Daddy Grace than it was the controversial
NRMs that were attracting so much attention at that time in America
and elsewhere. I lamented the fact that the dissimilarities were being
overlooked by those who would use the tragedy of Peoples Temple as
a weapon to attack groups not at all like the Peoples Temple group.
There are grounds for continuing that lament because, as John R. Hall
(1995: 228) has noted, the mass suicide motif that developed immediately
out of the Peoples Temple event has affected how other religious groups
have been treated since that time. That template was apparently applied
to the Branch Davidians by law enforcement authorities, who justified
the actions they took in part by the claim that they feared the Davidians
would commit mass suicide (Wessinger, 2000: 64-65). Indeed, virtually
all controversial new religious groups since the time of Jonestown
have had to deal with suspicions that they are “suicide cults.”
My 1980 paper also raised other issues relevant to full understanding
of what happened at Jonestown, mainly in some footnotes in which I
questioned actions taken by government officials and others in the
Jonestown aftermath. I was appalled (1980: 240, note 1) at the apparent
deliberate lack of action concerning autopsies on the victims at Jonestown.
Only seven complete autopsies were done, and those took place three
weeks after the deaths, when the bodies were back in the U.S. Thus
we will never even know how many people were murdered and how many
died of self-ingested poison. Of the 909 people who died in Jonestown,
according to Dr. Leslie Mootoo, Chief Medical Examiner of the Guyana
Government, no more than 200 committed suicide. If that figure is
true, this means that over 700 might have been murdered, raising many
issues about what actually happened there. The lack of interest in
doing autopsies led to a destruction of very important evidence that
could have answered some of these questions.
In that same footnote I mentioned the conspiracy theories that developed
almost immediately about CIA involvement at Jonestown, especially
as raised by Deirdre Griswold, who wrote three articles in Workers
World (Griswold, 1978a,b,c). These theories have not disappeared
over the years, as noted in the recent and thorough examination by
Rebecca Moore (2000). She addresses explicitly the conspiracy theories
that have developed around Peoples Temple (2000: 18-21) and, even
as she critiques them by pointing out internal inconsistencies and
lack of hard evidence, she notes that these ideas persist because
official information has been hard to obtain, and there are many unexplained
facts that seem to support parts of such theories.
At the time of my earlier research I made a number of efforts to obtain
information about what happened at Jonestown. I even contacted members
of the Nevada congressional delegation whom I knew, asking them if
they could obtain any additional information. The response was that
they could not, and that everything about the Jonestown tragedy was
classified, to such an extent that, even as members of Congress, they
could not find out what happened! This was shocking to me, and made
me wonder at the time what was going on.
Earlier in her recent article Moore points out that the government
has apparently destroyed many documents having to do with Peoples
Temple (Moore, 2000: 8). She describes the Freedom of Information
requests filed by Fielding McGehee that revealed destruction of the
requested materials. This is astounding, given the continued interest
in episodes of violence involving religious groups. One cannot help
but wonder if the decision to destroy the files was deliberate, and,
if so, why such a decision was made?
In correspondence with Fielding McGehee (2003) about these episodes
I have found out that the House Foreign Affairs Committee has placed
a “30 year hold” on all documents concerning Jonestown,
making it virtually impossible to learn more from what materials do
still exist. Further efforts to obtain materials by McGehee have resulted
in what can only be described as classic delaying tactics. He asked
the State Department for materials which the agency provided to the
1979 congressional investigation, only to be told the request cannot
honor without identification of the documents. That identification,
of course, could not be furnished without more knowledge of what is
I also noted (1980: 253, note 23) that the official report of the
episode (U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs,
1979), a voluminous but shallow discussion made up mainly of news
reports on the tragedy, made some disheartening recommendations, supposedly
derived from the “research” contained in the report. The
recommendations at the end of this vacuous government study were to
review provisions of the federal Privacy Act and the Freedom of Information
Act. The claim was made that if the government did not have to abide
by the Privacy Act then it would have been easier to obtain information
on what was happening in Peoples Temple. The report also complained
that the FOIA hindered governmental agencies in their desire to take
needed actions, since they might have to be reported publicly later.
Finally, the report recommended that IRS rules about tax exempt status
for religious groups should be reviewed in light of the Jonestown
The upshot of the failure to take appropriate action, as with the
autopsies, and the destruction and unavailability of much information
on Peoples Temple held by the government, is that recommendations
such as those made in 1979 can go relatively unchallenged. Since no
one can find out for certain what happened, there is little recourse
for those who might disagree with the governmental report’s
recommendations. What seems clear is that, no matter the facts, those
who drafted the report were intent on using the episode to limit privacy
of citizens, while also limiting their access to information on governmental
The lack of official information can severely hinder scholarly examination
by scholars of what happened at Jonestown. Recent treatments such
as that of Wessinger (2000) and Richardson (2001) may posit some sort
of interactionist theory, and claim that the government and other
outsiders bear some of the blame for what happened that fateful day
in 1978. But even those studies that take into account government
action are potentially quite incomplete in that, for whatever reasons
key information may not be available to scholars.
Another case in point is a recent collection by two prominent scholars
in the field of new religions and violence, David Bromley and J. Gordon
Melton (2002). There are numerous mentions of Peoples Temple and Jonestown
in this volume, which contains papers by a dozen or so scholars. None
of those discussions cite the problems of lack of available official
accurate information on what happened at Jonestown. Various theories
about how such a catastrophe could have occurred are offered, but
none treat at all the idea that what happened there may be more closely
described by some of the conspiracy theories so well-described by
Moore (2000). They all assume that what happened derived mainly from
internal beliefs and actions of Peoples Temple leaders and members,
with some actions by outsiders such as Congressman Ryan serving as
a catalyst. That may be true, but the missing information causes questions
to be raised about why all this continuing secrecy and whether the
“canon” on Jonestown can ever be completely accurate.
Bromley, David and J. Gordon Melton (2002). Cults, Religion, and
Violence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Griswold, Deirdre (1978a). “Questions on the Mass Deaths In
Guyana.” Workers World, Nov. 24: 3-5.
Griswold, Deirdre (1978b). “Jonestown: motives for the Murders.”
Workers World, Dec. 15: 5.
Griswold, Deirdre (1978c). “The Sanitizing of Jonestown.”
Workers World, Dec. 22: 4 & 8.
Hall, John (1995). “Public Narratives and the Apocalyptic Sect:
From Jonestown to Mt. Carmel.” In S. Wright (ed.), Armageddon
in Waco. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 205-235.
McGehee, Fielding (2003). Personal email, July 18, 2003.
Moore, Rebecca (2000). “Is the Canon on Jonestown Closed?”
Nova Religio, 4: 7-27.
Richardson, James T. (1980). “Peoples Temple and Jonestown:
A Corrective Comparison and Critique.” Journal for the Scientific
Study of Religion 19: 239-255.
Richardson, James T. (2001). “Minority Religions and the Context
of Violence: A Conflict/Interactionist Perspective.” Terrorism
and Political Violence 13: 103-133.
U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs (1979).
The Death of Representative Leo J. Ryan, Peoples Temple and Jonestown:
Understanding a Tragedy. Report of Hearing of May 15, 1979. Clement
J. Zablocki, presiding.
Wessinger, Catherine (2000). How the Millennium Comes Violently.
New York: Seven Bridges Press.