An Archivist’s Farewell…

by Robert Ray

(Robert Ray was head of Special Collections at San Diego State University Library until his retirement on September 1, 2020. His final article about the SDSU Collection is here. His responsibilities for the Peoples Temple Collection have now been assumed by Anna Culbertson. She can be reached at aculbertson@sdsu.edu.)

In 1978, I had just left a graduate program in Religious Studies in Richmond, Indiana, the same town where Jim Jones went to high school, where he met his wife Marceline, and where he began to preach. When the world learned of Jonestown later that year, I was shocked, horrified and dismayed, as was everyone who tried to fathom the despair of the tragedy.

As years passed, Jonestown faded in my memory, periodically interrupted by a documentary or made-for-TV exploitation from time to time. What lingered for me was the mystery of Jim Jones – someone who advanced real racial and social equality – only to bring all that Peoples Temple and Jonestown made real come to a sudden end.

Fast forward thirty years to 2008, when I first met Dr. Rebecca Moore, a Professor of Religious Studies at San Diego State University (SDSU). I had been hired two years earlier as Head of the Department of Special Collections at the SDSU Library. I knew of the Peoples Temple Collection acquired by my predecessors as early as 2003, but what hadn’t quite dawned on me was what I was now fortunate enough to be responsible for – until I met Dr. Moore. That’s when I learned of the great Internet resource Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple, created by the Jonestown Institute and sponsored by the Library. Rebecca and her husband Fielding McGehee invited me to get more involved and that has made all the difference. Special Collections has acquired materials from the Jonestown Institute nearly every year since then, and we now hold the most significant body of material documenting Peoples Temple outside of the California Historical Society in San Francisco.

What have I come to learn, appreciate, and understand about Peoples Temple and Jonestown as a result of working with this collection? Since I am an archivist and preservationist by trade, let’s begin there. Archiving – preserving the past – is really about the future, or more specifically, faith in the future. If nothing is saved, the future is lost because it cannot understand how it came to be. It cannot answer “Where do we come from?” The Peoples Temple Collection gathered by the Jonestown Institute illustrates the significance and power of preservation. As angels of preservation, Rebecca and Fielding’s faithful, painstaking efforts largely through grueling and exhausting FOIA requests year after year is why the collection includes, as my first article in the jonestown report summarized 12 years ago:

photocopies of papers retrieved from Jonestown that include personnel files and member profiles; financial and medical inventories and records; affidavits, letters, and diaries written by Peoples Temple members; contact information between Jonestown and various countries; and documents of contact between Peoples Temple and various U.S. government agencies. In addition to the documents retrieved at Jonestown, there are documents and files prepared by the FBI after the November 18 mass deaths, such as autopsy reports and fingerprint identification documents.

The SDSU Library and Special Collections participate as agents of this preservation by assuring the safety and security of the collection according to archival standards. But the act of collecting by Dr. Moore and Mr. McGehee has made it possible for there to be the “numerous personal and scholarly perspectives on this major event in American religious history,” as well as the many diverse views and opinions about Peoples Temple and the events in Jonestown that have been written about and communicated since the tragedy. The faithful act of collecting has made it possible for the world to “come away with an understanding that the story of Jonestown did not start or end on 18 November 1978.”

I have also learned from working with this collection that there are some documents far more powerful than others for “understanding the story.” Perhaps the most significant of the FOIA requests by the Jonestown Institute has been for copies of the many hundreds of audio tapes made by Peoples Temple that were recovered by the FBI at Jonestown.

In 2003, 750 tape copies were donated to Special Collections by the Jonestown Institute along with printed hardcopies of the transcripts and summaries of the tapes to that date prepared by the Institute. The number of transcripts and summaries continues to grow each year. They contain sermons delivered by Jim Jones, conversations between Jones and his followers and various public figures, Jonestown meetings involving Peoples Temple ideologies and issues within the settlement, news broadcasts by Jones and radio broadcasts from Jonestown, and recordings of Russian language lessons. This was Peoples Temple and its members in their own words, and the intimacy and directness of the sound of the words gives a “humanness” to the voices and events that encourages understanding and empathy. Audio also provides a more unmediated and more direct participation with the events of the past. I first discovered this when teaching using a sermon delivered by Jones in Philadelphia at Father Divine’s church, where he “bewitched” the gathering such that it compelled them “to walk in the light.” I felt like I was there.

And so, it was only natural and right that the world be able to not only read the words of Jim Jones and his followers, but also be able to listen to those words themselves. Through generous support from anonymous donors, Special Collections launched a tape digitization project in 2008 and has since 2012 provided online access to digitized versions of over 900 Temple audio tapes! The project has been a perfect marriage of the needs of preservation and the need to share and provide access to the life of Peoples Temple.

Because “a picture is worth a thousand words,” photographs are another document type more powerful than others for “understanding the story.” Special Collections has digitized nearly 2,000 items from its collections documenting Peoples Temple, Jonestown, and the family of Rev. Jim Jones. The Peoples Temple Digital Collection comprises nearly 1,200 online photographs separated into several sub-series that include:

  • Peoples Temple photographs from the early to mid-1970s, which mainly depict daily life within the church;
  • The Federal Bureau of Investigation sub-series, which includes photographs taken during the FBI’s investigation into Jonestown following the tragedy of November 18, 1978;
  • Photographs taken during Jonestown’s zenith from 1976 to 1978, which were later recovered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation; and
  • The Moore Family Photographs, which include photographs taken during both John and Barbara Moore’s visit to Jonestown in May 1978 and Rebecca Moore and Fielding McGehee III’s visit in May 1979.

The good work archiving, preserving, and making accessible this initial collection of photographs persuaded the Jonestown Institute to transfer additional photographs and more to Special Collections. The Jones Family Memorabilia Digital Collection contains nearly 600 photographs, illustrations, documents, and letters. Most of the available items are photographs, taken from the mid-1960s to as recently as 2002, with the bulk of the images depicting life within Peoples Temple during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Noteworthy in this collection are two intact, original photo albums of snapshots of the Rev. Jim Jones and his family and the activities of Peoples Temple.

Furthermore, in 2019 the Jonestown Institute made it possible for Special Collections to acquire approximately 500 photographs from Stephan Jones, son of the Rev. Jim Jones. The photos were added to already existing photographs in the Jones Family Memorabilia Collection.  Peoples Temple took thousands of photographs of Temple members and activities, but these 500 photos are particularly notable, important and rare because they afford an immediacy to and an understanding of Jim Jones, the Jones family, Peoples Temple, and Jonestown not found elsewhere in the collection. The photographs of Jim Jones with national, California, and particularly San Francisco politicians are especially rare and important. Again, this project has proven to be a perfect marriage of the needs of preservation and the need to share and provide access to the life of Peoples Temple.

Good intentions and actions can persuade other good deeds, especially in a weary world. By digitizing over 900 Temple audio tapes and thousands of Temple photographs, Special Collections became the beneficiary of several very important related collections :

All of this made possible Special Collections’ 2014 exhibit Peoples Temple at Jonestown. The exhibit showcased various attempts since 1978 to interpret and find meaning in the Jonestown community and the Jonestown tragedy through works of art, photography, sound, documentary film, theater, poetry, fiction and non-fiction texts. The anchor of this exhibit was the Jonestown Carpet, donated by the artist who created it, Laura Baird. Her generosity inspired a Peoples Temple art preservation project and further donations of artistic interpretations of Jonestown, such as works by Jonestown artist Nancy Virginia Sines. Our continuing hope is that Special Collections at SDSU will become the national repository of artistic interpretations of Jonestown.

* * * * *

Working with and building the Peoples Temple Collection at SDSU has been a faithful journey in realizing the hopes of historic preservation. The content of the collection helps us understand by documenting and communicating the complicated nature of Peoples Temple and the humanness of its members. Consider the two original photo albums of snapshots of Jim Jones and his family and the activities of Peoples Temple. Here I found an immediacy to and some understanding of one whose path I crossed way back in Richmond, Indiana. Some understanding can come from photographs of Peoples Temple bus trips, like the cross-country “Caravan of Hope” tour in the summer of 1974. Even more understanding can come from the non-photographic items in the collection, such as Stephan Jones’s childhood drawings, grade school report cards, and elementary school assignments, as well as two letters addressed to Stephan: one from his mother, Marceline Jones, and one from his paternal grandmother, Lynetta Putnam Jones.

The issues were complex. As Rebecca Moore has written:

Cherish the people and remember the goodness …

Peoples Temple is generally interpreted through images of mass suicide or by fixating on the sins of its leader, Rev. Jim Jones. Focus instead on the basic decency and genuine idealism of Temple members.

By fixating on the tragedy – and on the Jones of Jonestown – we miss the larger story of the Temple. We lose sight of a significant social movement that mobilized thousands of activists to change the world. The group was especially committed to a program of racial reconciliation. Throughout the movement’s history, African Americans and whites lived and worked side by side. It was one of the few long-term experiments in American interracial communalism.

And as I step away from this position and turn it over to capable hands, what do I take with me? I believe that Peoples Temple succeeded when it kept reaching towards Utopia, and failed when it thought it had realized it. Because the question will always be: is Utopia possible? Utopia is an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect. In 1516. Sir Thomas More imagined a fictional island society in the South Atlantic sea which had nearly perfect qualities for its citizens. Many Christians strive towards the ethic of Jesus – but as one theologian has written, “what an impossible possibility.” Once we think we can or have achieved Utopia, we are on the fanatic’s path to tragedy.

* * * * *

The collection has taught me that the issues were complex, that – as the home page of the Jonestown website says – “the story of Peoples Temple and Jonestown did not start or end on 18 November 1978.” I can say it no better than that.

Originally posted on September 20th, 2020.

Last modified on October 2nd, 2020.
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