Escaping American Individualism: Peoples Temple

by Georgia Box

(Georgia Box is a recent graduate from University College London, where she studied the History and Politics of the Americas. She is interested in public policy and hopes to work in the United States one day. This dissertation was her final graduation requirement. She may be contacted at ucvngbo@ucl.ac.uk.)

Table of Contents

Introduction
Literature Review
Case-study and Methodology: Peoples Temple
Chapter I: Race
Individualism and Race in the United States
Peoples Temple: an interracial community
Seeking a Promised Land
Chapter II: Welfare
Individualism and Welfare in the United States
Care homes
Education and Rehabilitation
Chapter III: Escaping the Nuclear Family
Individualism and the American Family
The Peoples Temple Family
Conclusion
Acknowledgements
Bibliography

Introduction

‘I look back on the past as if to another world, a dead and dying world. A new center of gravity has been established in my life—and, to my great relief and happiness, it is not me.’ (Fondakowski, 2013, 76).

Dick Tropp, born in New York in 1942 to Jewish parents, wrote these words from the Guyanese jungle in the mid-1970s, in a settlement called Jonestown. After becoming disillusioned with academia, and in search of a commune which shared his devotion to social justice, Tropp and his companion Kathryn Barbour joined Peoples Temple in 1970. Founded by Reverend Jim Jones in 1954, Peoples Temple began as a small Pentecostal church in Indianapolis. A self-proclaimed Marxist, Jones condemned the economic, social and political injustices which plagued the United States. He sought to create an interracial church, a utopia founded on socialist ideas. In turn, Jones created a community that offered accommodation, employment and sustenance to Americans of all races, ethnicities, sexualities and backgrounds.

In 1965, Jones and over 200 members of the Indiana church moved to Ukiah, California. Over the next ten years, the Temple moved its base to San Francisco, establishing permanent offices throughout the state. At its height in San Francisco, there were 5,000 members of Peoples Temple, around 90% of whom were African American (Moore, 2021). In the mid-1970s, Jones and 1,000 members of the Temple moved to Guyana to create an agricultural settlement free from capitalism, racism and injustice. In November 1978, Congressman Leo Ryan from California’s 11th district travelled to the settlement, Jonestown, after being contacted by the concerned relatives of its inhabitants. As the congressional delegation prepared to depart from the nearby Port Kaituma airstrip, Ryan and three newsmen covering the visit, as well as a Temple defector, were shot to death by Temple members. In turn, Jim Jones instructed the ‘revolutionary suicide’ of all members of Peoples Temple (Jones, 1978). Members were given a cyanide-laced drink, and those uncooperative were forcibly injected. The result was the largest deliberate loss of American civilian life until 9/11 (Conroy, 2018).

The United States is recognised as one of the most individualistic countries in the world. Throughout American history, an incredible emphasis has been placed on the responsibility of individuals to better their own circumstances, without government intervention. Tocqueville famously commented on the prevalence of individualism during his visit to the United States in the mid-1800s (Tocqueville, 1835). In the present day, American individualism is evidenced in innumerable instances: the privatisation of healthcare, the ongoing debate surrounding welfare provisions and the protection of the right to bear arms – to name a few – each reflecting an overwhelming emphasis on individual agency for well-being and protection.

At the same time, the United States is one of the most religious countries in the world. Throughout the nation’s history, indeed beginning with the Puritans who arrived in New England in the 17th century, religious sects have emerged, often known as ‘cults’, which have sought to create a utopia that exists outside of mainstream American life. Though differing in particular beliefs and demographics, each group has been led by a figure claiming to be the ‘Messiah’. Further, each religious ‘cult’ has maintained a strong commitment to communal living, and a drive to disintegrate the nuclear family. In doing so, they form their own insulated system of operations, achieving a significant degree of self-sufficiency.

The relationship between individualism and religious extremism in the United States is somewhat paradoxical. In one sense, individualism allows for the creation of extremist religious groups, as the liberal basis of the Constitution endows the freedom of affiliation. On the other hand, it is the very notion of individualism that such groups are attempting to escape through a holistic devotion to communal living.

This dissertation will focus on one group, Peoples Temple, and will trace the relationship between American individualism and Temple membership. A limitation of the existing analyses of the Jonestown deaths is the tendency to focus solely on Jim Jones. The 914 Temple members who died are frequently dismissed as brainwashed cultists, and their stories are largely left unexplored. This dissertation seeks to humanise those who died through illuminating their diverse, intricate and meaningful lives. Through an examination of interviews conducted with former members of Peoples Temple, and an analysis of the socio-political context of the United States at the time, this dissertation will explore how the American commitment to individualism contributed to the formation and growth of the Peoples Temple church. The three chapters will explore the areas of race, welfare and the family: assessing how Peoples Temple was able to fill a void in providing what was essentially non-existent in the United States at the time. Through this, a clear link between mainstream individualist ideology, and a deep desire for members to escape such an ideology, will become clear. This dissertation is not seeking to empathise with the manipulation and violence that was instructed throughout the Temple’s history by Jim Jones. The literature on such is already rich. Rather, its aim is to personify the members of Peoples Temple by showing that they were attempting to escape a fundamental, but often isolating, strand of American political thought.

Literature Review

Throughout this dissertation, individualism will be defined as the prioritisation of oneself over any societal or national interests. This encompasses the freedom of the individual to pursue their own political, religious and economic interests, with an overwhelming predominance of a steady self-reliance. The term was coined in the mid-19th century and has since stood to define one of the most prevalent features of American society. Alexis de Tocqueville popularised the term in Democracy in America (1835) in which he warned that excessive individualism removes the ties which connect human beings, hence leading to a lonely and desolate existence. He wrote:

Individualism is a considered and peaceful sentiment that disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and to withdraw to the side with his family and friends; so that, after thus creating a small society for his own use, he willingly abandons the large society to itself. (Tocqueville, 1835, 882).

Though aware of this growing tendency during his visit to America, Tocqueville felt assured that excessive individualism was not a foregone conclusion in the fate of the American people, and that the immersion of civic responsibilities could protect against such an occurrence. That Tocqueville’s attributions have materialised is debated amongst scholars, perhaps the most ambitious examination being that of Robert Bellah and his associate social scientists. In the 1985 Pulitzer Prize nominated Habits of the Heart, the authors contend that Tocqueville’s warnings have been fully realised, citing individualism as the ‘first language’ of American culture (Bellah et al, 1985, 6). Through interviews, the authors attempt to understand the commitments and motivations of the average American in both their public and private lives. They conclude that individualism reigns in the attitudes of Americans towards their understanding of the self, family, work, religion, and politics. Disheartened by such findings, they prescribe a ‘revitalized social ecology’ for all Americans – a call for the revival of the community and civic activism in order to save the moral character of the United States (Bellah et al, 1985, 287). In a separate revisitation of Democracy in America, Turner argues that the individualism noted by Tocqueville has manifested itself deep within American culture and has enabled the continued existence of structural injustice throughout the United States. He argues that Americans are less inclined to fight for racial equality as they do not see the plight of others as their responsibility (Turner, 2008).

In more focused analyses, multiple scholars have explored how individualism is exhibited through religion. In Habits of the Heart, for instance, the authors argue that ‘most Americans see religion as something individual, prior to any organizational involvement’ (Bellah et al, 1985, 226). For Lipset, the widespread and varied practice of religion in America is an expression of individualism in the highest sense, as the religiosity of Americans is derived from their autonomous desire to follow a faith, rather than being bound by any state-enforced obligations (Lipset, 1996). Many have taken the decline in church attendance in recent decades as evidence of individualism’s stronghold on American faith practice (Gallup, 2020). In a charged statement on the contemporary characteristics of American evangelism, Dr Dennis Voskuil argues that individualism is fundamentally destroying the bedrock of American evangelism through two instances: the personalisation of redemption and the privatisation of piety (Voskuil, 1987). He ascribes victimhood to American religion at the mercy of individualism and determines that this ‘must be countered with a proclamation of the gospel which stresses community and kingdom’ (Voskuil, 27). In the religious community, individualism continues to receive overwhelming criticism.

Upon viewing individualism, and more specifically religious individualism, as commonplace in American culture and society, we can look toward another commonality that has found a solid grounding in the United States: the recurrence of religious ‘cults’, also known as ‘religious sects’ or ‘new religious movements’ (NRM’s), which consistently deny the infiltration of individualist thought by practising communalism. Adam Morris’ 2019 book American Messiahs: False Prophets of a Damned Nation traces America’s first religious cult to the early Puritans who wished to create a city upon a hill. He writes that ‘the impulse to purify the group through separation from mainstream society, now regarded as the signature of a cult, could not be more fundamental to the nation’s history (Morris, 2019, 6). He details the long chronology of American messianic sects, from the Universal Friends (1776-1819) to Koreshan Unity (1870s-1982), the International Peace Mission movement (1930s-present day), and Peoples Temple (1955-1978). Morris notes that they are united almost universally by their adherence to a form of communalism and their rejection of the traditional family unit. This is one reason, he argues, that such groups have received negative commentary – as they defy the intrinsic values that Americans hold dear. A more recent example is Heaven’s Gate: a UFO religion founded in the mid 1970s. The group lived communally and in 1997, the 39 members committed mass suicide in order to enter the ‘Hale-Bopp Comet’ which they believed was approaching Earth to take them to their ‘Next Level’ (Melton, n.d.).

Social historians and psychologists have written extensively on the definitions of religious cults. For Margaret Singer, a cult is characterised by the existence of a self-appointed, persuasive leader who claims to be the Messiah, the promise of a solution to all of life’s ills, an expectation to devote oneself entirely to the cause, and an overwhelming belief in the leader’s clairvoyance (Singer, 1995). An alternative contribution differentiates between cults and sects – suggesting that both have ‘relatively high tension with their surrounding socio-cultural environment’ (Stark and Bainbridge, 1979, 125). However, whilst sects have prior ties with another religious body, cults have no prior ties to an established religious organization and are therefore completely detached from society at large (Stark and Bainbridge, 1979). The recent debate has shifted in the direction of semantics, with many sociologists claiming that the ‘cult’ label should be refuted on the grounds that it is pejorative in nature and implies the scientifically unviable brainwashing theory.[1] Instead, they argue that ‘new religious movements’ or ‘alternative religious movements’ are more appropriate descriptors. This dissertation will utilise the definition outlined by Stark and Bainbridge; Peoples Temple will be described as a religious sect, rather than a cult, due to its longstanding ties with American Protestant denominations, including the Disciples of Christ, with whom the Temple was a member in good standing at the time of its demise in 1978.

Whilst the separate debates on individualism and new religious movements are plentiful, absent is the discussion of what ties both concepts together. This dissertation will argue that the concepts are intrinsically linked, as it is individualism’s stronghold that drives many into communal escapism, and the granted individual agency which allows for such a drive to be realised.

Case-study and Methodology: Peoples Temple

The mass murder-suicides of 914 members of Peoples Temple, now known colloquially as Jonestown, is recognised as the cataclysmic end of one of the most infamous groups in American history. The popular phrase ‘don’t drink the Kool-Aid’ refers to the cyanide-laced drink which killed the members of Peoples Temple in Jonestown on November 18th, 1978. The phrase has found a home in the lexicon of Americans who seek to warn against blind obedience. Despite its witty appeal, its use skews our perception of Peoples Temple, rather than helping us understand it, by dismissing those involved as mindless followers. In doing so, we deny the humanisation of the members and fail to explore what attracted them to this movement. This dissertation is an attempt to change that, by exploring the relationship between the motivations of Temple members and the prevalence of individualist thought in the United States.

Peoples Temple was founded by Jim Jones in 1954. The church immediately attracted an interracial following as Jones fought against the institutional racism that plagued Indianapolis. After moving to California in 1965, the Temple began to attract young college-educated white people in search of a politically active community dedicated to social justice. Though originally functioning as a church, the Temple operated as more of a communal welfare programme between 1965-1978. The Temple opened care homes for the elderly, offered rent-free accommodation for all members and provided internal employment opportunities. Jones conducted ‘healings’, and many were attracted to the man who claimed to be the Messiah (Jones, n.d.). In 1976, Jones was awarded the Certificate of Honor from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for his contribution to the community, and the interracial success of the church received support from social activists at the time such as Angela Davis, Jane Fonda and Harvey Milk (Jonestown.sdsu.edu, 2013). Such support was integral to attracting new members to the church and increasing donations from external admirers.

With increased publicity, however, came negative commentary from local critics who questioned the economic motivations of the church’s leader (New West Magazine, 1977). Jim Jones’ growing paranoia led to the restructuring of his sermons, through which he proclaimed that capitalist America was trying to bring down the church. He employed security guards, and the Temple’s operations became more insulated. In 1974, partially motivated to escape such commentary, Jones leased a plot of land in the northern Guyanese jungle. Guyana’s main population is East Indian, although at the time it had a black prime minister, and Jones felt that relocating the church would allow for the full development of a racially harmonious communal utopia. By 1977, 1,000 members of Peoples Temple had moved to the agricultural settlement called Jonestown. Soon after, some relatives of those who had fled to Guyana formed the Concerned Relatives group. They had heard very little from their family members and were worried about reports of violence in Jonestown. The group contacted Congressman Leo Ryan from California’s 11th Congressional district and asked him to investigate. His visit to Jonestown from 16-18th November 1978 culminated in his assassination on the Port Kaituma airstrip, along with three newsmen covering the trip, as well as one Jonestown defector. Aware of the criminal charges that would soon follow, Jones instructed his followers to commit ‘revolutionary suicide’ (Jones, 1978).

There have been many interpretations of Jonestown throughout the years. The story has been told innumerable times through television, theatre, books and songs. Most analyses focus on the life of Jim Jones – his fake healings, sexual relationships and drug addictions. John R. Hall’s Gone from the Promised Land (1987) offered an interpretation of Jonestown which differed from the majority of the literature. Hall argued that the demonisation of and failure to understand Peoples Temple can be explained in reference to the wider social context of the time, such as the anti-communist sentiment in the United States. He denied the brainwashing narrative and argued that there should be a greater attempt to understand the members of the Temple (Hall, 1987).

This dissertation can be seen as an attempt to fulfil Hall’s commitment. Given the amount of primary material that has been made available in the years since Hall was writing, there is now greater leverage to explore the lives of former Temple members. Rebecca Moore lost her two sisters Carolyn Layton and Annie Moore at Jonestown, and has since dedicated her life to compiling an online archive of material regarding Peoples Temple. Her website, Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple, contains transcripts, personal reflections, photographs, tapes, maps, censuses and original research – all of which are used throughout this dissertation. My personal correspondences with Moore helped breathe life into the world that I was trying to understand, and her insight is noted throughout. In 2013, playwright Leigh Fondakowski published a collection of interviews which she had conducted with survivors of Jonestown in conjunction with a play she had written about the life of Peoples Temple; many of these interviews are used throughout this dissertation (Fondakowski, 2013). Mark Lane was employed as the Peoples Temple attorney in 1978, and survived the tragedy along with another Temple attorney, Charles Garry. In 1980, Lane published The Strongest Poison, offering his perspective on the Jonestown tragedy. The book includes the testimonies of Temple members recorded by Dick Tropp, who was in the process of writing a book about each person’s story. The testimonies highlight the diversity of backgrounds in the church, and they bring vibrancy to the tale of Peoples Temple (Lane, 1980).

Finally, the research for this dissertation has been informed most thoroughly through the accounts of former Temple member Kathryn Tropp Barbour. Kathryn joined the Temple with her first husband, Dick Tropp, in 1970. She worked in one of the Temple’s care homes, and then as a publisher in the Temple’s communications room. She continued to work in the San Francisco Temple until 1978 and never went to Guyana. She lost Dick Tropp and her wide extended family on November 18th, 1978. She now lives in San Francisco’s Bay Area and has since published a book picture book entitled ‘Who Died’ – a collection of photographs of those who lost their lives in Jonestown (Barbour, 2015). My interviews with Kathryn were invaluable to my understanding of the everyday lives of Temple members. Her stories were full of heartbreak, joy, togetherness. Her willingness to give up hours of her time, to answer every question, to desperately want me to understand the lives of those involved, gave further confirmation that the members of Peoples Temple deserve to be understood. In understanding what was missing from US society at the time, and what the church was offering as an alternative, one can begin to comprehend why people joined, why they stayed, and how the experience of seeking community is not so far removed from some of our deepest callings as tribal beings.

Kathryn Barbour (sitting) at her book launch in 2014.[2]

Chapter I: Race

A feature of Peoples Temple that is often overlooked is the fact that it was essentially a black church. At the Temple’s height in San Francisco, there were around 5,000 members – 90% of whom were African American (Moore, 2021). In Jonestown, 69% of the residents were black, 25% were white, and the rest were mixed race or of unknown ethnic origins (Moore, 2017). The racial makeup of Peoples Temple has often led to the question: what enticed such a large number of African Americans to join a church led by a white man? A reality of conducting research about the history of Peoples Temple is that black voices are often underrepresented. The majority of those who died in Jonestown were black, and those who survived have been less open to sharing their stories. Fondakowski suggested that such reticence is attributable to a stigma within the black community, that ‘black people were duped by a white man’ (Fondakowski, 2013, 29). Rebecca Moore confirmed the same belief and worries that, for this reason, the story of Peoples Temple will never be truly understood (Moore, 2021). In order to avoid the erasure of black voices from this predominantly black experience, it is important to draw upon the existing material: manuscripts, testimonies, tape recordings, and the recollections of survivors who are willing to talk. Through the exploration of individualism’s role in racial prejudice in the United States, this chapter will present the contextual framework of a nation largely detached from the struggles of black people. The strive for racial equality will be analysed as a driving factor for membership within Peoples Temple, followed by an exploration of Guyana as a ‘Promised Land’. In turn, one can begin to understand what the church was offering by way of racial equality that was absent from the country at the time.

Individualism and Race in the United States

The racial injustice faced by black people in the United States has characterized the nation since its founding. In 2010, Michelle Alexander published The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which argues that slavery did not end in 1865, rather the subjugation of African Americans lived on after the Civil War in the form of the Jim Crow laws and the mass incarceration of black people (Alexander, 2020). The Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 60s witnessed some institutional victories, such as the desegregation of schools in 1954, the desegregation of public transport in 1956, and the Civil Rights Act of 1957 (HISTORY, 2009). But despite such victories, most black Americans still faced racism and abuse from the white majority. In 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was violently murdered in Mississippi after being accused of disrespecting a white woman in a grocery store (NMAAHC, n.d.). In 1961, thirteen Freedom Riders were attacked by a mob in Alabama, and narrowly escaped the bomb which was thrown into their Greyhound bus (Smith Holmes, 2009). In both Indianapolis and San Francisco, where Peoples Temple flourished, racially exclusionary housing was enforced until the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 (Mauri et al., 2019). Even after its passage, racialized public housing continued for many years (Rothstein, 2018). Whilst there were legal improvements during the Civil Rights era, the practice of social equality was a far call from the separation between the lives of white and black people during the 1950s, 60s, 70s and beyond, with racial inequality still proving a major issue today.

Sociologists Paul Sniderman and Michael Hagen, and Jack Turner have argued respectively that throughout history, individualism has found manifestations in the American perception of racial inequality (Hagen and Sniderman, 1985) (Turner, 2008). In 1935, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote that because most white Americans believe that ‘any citizen could succeed through self-discipline and hard work’, they block federal programs which would provide African Americans with ‘the economic underpinnings of freedom’ (Du Bois, 1935, 182). In 1986, a National Election Study found that 59% of white respondents agreed that ‘it’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites’ (Kinder and Mendelberg, 2000, 63). The denial of communal responsibility to fight social injustice has perpetuated the racial struggles faced by black people in the United States.

Peoples Temple: an interracial community

Martin Luther King once said that ‘11 o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hour, in Christian America’ (Tripp, 2014). In 1948, a study of 8 million African American protestants found that 93% belonged to segregated congregations (Vischer, 2001, 206). In contrast, Peoples Temple was offering not only an interracial church, but one in which social action and campaigning were vital elements of Temple life. Jim Jones had an impressive record of fighting racial injustice. He was the first white man in Indiana to adopt an African American child and, in 1960, he set up the Free Restaurant in the Peoples Temple basement, which encouraged racial mixing in the dining hall and fed over 1,000 people per week (Hall, 1987, 55). Jones referred to himself as a black man and assured his followers that he shared their struggles (Jones, n.d.).

Hue Fortson joined the Peoples Temple church in Los Angeles in the early 1970s during his mid-20s. He is one of the few black survivors willing to talk about Peoples Temple. Hue’s mother had heard about a church where ‘they have all races all working together’, and Fortson was eager to find out more (Fondakowski, 2013. 65). Fortson had only belonged to black churches prior to joining the Temple and, on his first visit to the Temple, was shocked to see an interracial choir. He felt a sense of belonging in the interracial environment, knowing that others shared his belief that ‘the people united would never be defeated’ (Fondakowski, 2013, 66).

Hyacinth Thrash, born in Alabama in 1905, joined the Temple with her sister Zipporah Edwards in 1955. The sisters saw Jim Jones on television and were intrigued by the interracial makeup of the church and Jones’ reported healing abilities. Growing up, Hyacinth and Zipporah were acutely aware of the racist society in which they lived. Their close family friends were former slaves who had the names of their masters branded on their backs. Hyacinth’s closest friend was lynched. Living in Indiana in the 1950s, the sisters’ white neighbours refused to talk to them. The church was completely different. For the first time, they had white friends. The sisters moved to California with Jim Jones and were given the funds to open their own care home – an unthinkable opportunity in Indiana at that time (Scheeres, 2011).

Fortson lost his wife and son at Jonestown. He was stationed in the San Francisco Temple at the time. He is now a Pastor and encourages integration and multiculturalism in his services. Zipporah Edwards died in Jonestown. Hyacinth was the only survivor – she was asleep when the murder-suicides were taking place, and her absence went unnoticed. Though limited in content, the brief recollections of the experiences of both Fortson and Thrash imply that the church was highly attractive to black people for the interraciality that it promoted.

As well as African Americans, the interracial makeup of Peoples Temple attracted white people seeking an environment committed to social activism. Garry Lambrev dropped out of Stanford in 1966 to join the anti-Vietnam War movement in San Francisco. He joined Peoples Temple that year and remained a member until 1976. When Garry joined, he was the only academic in the Temple, and the only openly gay man. He recalled:

Never in my life before or since—never—have I been in such immediate contact and interaction with people of all races, particularly African Americans. It’s been the only glimpse I’ve had in this lifetime of a real, functional, multiracial society. (Fondakowski, 2013, 38).

In my interview with Kathryn, she recalled:

It was a time in the generation gap – the birth of hippies. In the couple of years following the assassination of Martin Luther king, there was truly a surge of desire to be free of racism. Whites and blacks had it. A desire to recreate society. People were ready for something new. (Barbour, 2021)

The Temple was fulfilling that ‘something new’. Kathryn also recalled: ‘I think that all white people there identified as black, really. I sure did.’ (Barbour, 2021). The interraciality and adoption of black identity within the church was unprecedented for the time, considering the racism that plagued the country.

Despite the outward interracial harmony, the Temple failed to achieve perfect racial equality, as the highest leadership roles within the Temple were dominated by the white middle class activists who joined the Temple in California (Grisolano, 2019). Such hypocrisy led to the defections of the ‘Eight Revolutionaries’ in 1973 – young black members who criticised the underrepresentation of black people within the Temple staff: ‘there are black People’s Temple members who have proven themselves through the years. Still, they participate in People’s Temple from the same capacity as when they joined.’ (The Eight Revolutionaries’ Letter, 1973). The predominantly white leadership points to the failure of the movement to fulfil its pledge to be entirely free of the racism that plagued the rest of the country. Whilst the interracial makeup of the church may well have attracted members, the extent to which racial equality was practiced within the Temple remains questionable.

Seeking a Promised Land

Throughout the nation’s history, African Americans have been systematically discriminated against in the pursuit of land ownership (Rothstein, 2018). This injustice has sparked multiple ‘back-to-Africa’ movements, a notable example being Marcus Garvey’s movement in the early 20th century (Ewing, 2015). In 1971, Charles Long analysed such movements, concluding that black religion in the United States has been characterized by the yearning for a home, as black Americans are a ‘landless people’ (Long, 1971, 58). By understanding the longing for a home, we can begin to understand why black members of Peoples Temple were supportive of the move to Guyana. Peoples Temple offered a chance to build a Promised Land which was for, and belonged to, the black majority church. Guyana was presented as a ‘beautifully racially-inclusive society’ in which the church could be free of racism and capitalism (PBS, n.d). By 1977, 1,000 members of Peoples Temple were living in Jonestown, Guyana, 691 of whom were black (Moore, 2017).

Elsie Ingraham Bell was born in Arkansas in 1918. She joined the Temple in 1971 after hearing Jim Jones talk on the radio. Elsie experienced an abusive upbringing and was subject to frequent racist attacks. She was eager to move with the Temple to Guyana. In an interview conducted by Dick Tropp in Jonestown, she said:

I have always wanted to leave the United States. That was my dream. I did not think it was possible… I went through so much with racists, and always hoped to be in a place where there were no racists. I always wanted to go to a black country. I am satisfied. I am happy. I am grateful. Everybody’s equal here. (Lane, 1980, 66).

(Henry Mercer, Jonestown, 1977-78.)

Henry Mercer was born in Georgia in 1885. At the age of 16, he joined the Marcus Garvey movement. He remembers witnessing the aftermath of a lynching, and recalls feeling a deep sense of fear everywhere he went. Henry joined Peoples Temple in the early 1970s. When interviewed by Dick Tropp in Jonestown, he said:

I’ll never go back to the U.S. again. Jonestown is the most beautiful place I’ve been. It’s the onliest place you can relax, it’s the onliest place you can be safe from robbery, rape, and I love it out here. (Lane, 1980, 73).

Elsie and Henry both died on November 18th, 1978. By understanding their desires to live in a community free of racism, and by viewing their exodus as a desire to reach a Promised Land, one can begin to comprehend their eventual deaths. Individualism has long characterised the race debates in the United States. In Peoples Temple, African Americans found an interracial group in which collective responsibility for changing structural injustice was discussed as an end goal. The overrepresentation of white people in the Temple staff proves that the Temple’s goal to create a racially equal community was never truly accomplished. Nonetheless, people found comfort in the interraciality of the church, and in this respect, the Temple was offering something that did not exist in the United States at the time.

Chapter II: Welfare

Throughout its two-decade long tenure, Peoples Temple implemented a series of welfare provisions which ensured a constant safety net for every member of the church. Provisions ranged from medical care and housing, to education, nursing homes and employment. Through concessions at services, selling grapes in Redwood Valley and Social Security payments from elderly members, Peoples Temple was able to fund a complete and insulated welfare programme (Hall, 1987, 85). In doing so, the Temple was offering something unique: a readily available welfare service, free of charge, in an environment which did not harbour the popular welfare stigma. In this chapter, the prevalence of American individualist thought in relation to welfare will be discussed. In turn, one will be able to understand the scope of the welfare system at the time, in comparison to what Peoples Temple was offering its members.

Individualism and Welfare in the United States

A simple observation of poverty politics throughout the history of the United States highlights the limited role of the Government in welfare provisions and the emphasis on the individual to better their own circumstances. In 1989, Michael B. Katz published The Undeserving Poor: America’s Enduring Confrontation with Poverty, which argued that since the nation’s founding, poverty has been deemed the result of personal failure (Katz, 1989). The presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945) marked a transitional moment in US welfare history, with the poor being placed on the public agenda. FDR’s New Deal saw the introduction of Social Security, unemployment relief, and federalised work programmes. Their successes, along with the relative affluence of middle-class Americans after the war, led many in the 1950s to believe that poverty was no longer an issue in the United States (Galbraith, 1958). The publication of The Other America in 1962 refuted such a belief, instead highlighting the existence of the ‘invisible poor’, which consisted of over 50 million Americans (Harrington, 1962). The subsequent War on Poverty under the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969) saw a renewed commitment to alleviating hardship, with a heavy focus on educational attainment and health programmes. However, many of LBJ’s ‘Great Society’ policies were underfunded, and millions of Americans were still living in poverty and receiving very little government aid (Marx, 2011). Up until 1972, those who did not qualify for Social Security were unable to receive financial aid from the state (Moffitt, 2015). Further, despite the desegregation of schools in 1954, many children still attended segregated schools by the mid-1970s, and the creation of ‘new schools’ meant that black children were negatively affected by neighbourhood locations (Ramsey, n.d.).

The welfare system also harboured a racialised stigma. Many Americans still believed that the primary recipients of welfare were African Americans (Kohler-Hausmann, 2015). The Civil Rights groups of the 1960s fought fervently against this, but by the late 60s many Americans had grown tired of the social unrest emanating from the liberation movements. The hunger to restore law and order resulted in Nixon’s presidential victory in 1968 (Trattner, 1974). Nixon quickly expressed his intent to narrow the capacity of federal welfare provisions, and his administration marked the gradual return to a preference for limited Government aid to the poor. In the face of a precarious system, and one coated in stigma, Peoples Temple filled a welfare void through its provisions. This chapter will focus on three of them: care homes, education and rehabilitation.

Care homes

Throughout its tenure, Peoples Temple provided care for the elderly, disabled, and mentally ill through the establishment of nursing homes. The commitment began in 1955 when Jim and his wife Marceline Jones visited the eighty-year-old Betsy Cooper at a nursing home in Indiana. When Cooper begged them to help her leave, the couple took her into their family home, where she remained for the rest of her life (Jonestown.sdsu.edu, 2013). Eight prominent Temple members in Indianapolis worked for external nursing homes, and the Temple planned for the establishment of their own homes after the move to Northern California. In my interview with Kathryn, she described her experience of working in one of the care homes in Redwood Valley. Reflecting the open-armed nature of the original Jones-Cooper living arrangement, Kathryn said ‘it wasn’t an institutional setting in any case – it was always a home that had been opened to accommodate’ (Barbour, 2021).

Kathryn recalled that Governor Reagan had just closed down the state mental hospital in Mendocino County, which served a variety of people: mentally ill, drug addicts, and the elderly with nowhere else to go. When faced with complaints, he resolved that people would have to take the patients into their own homes – something the Temple had already been doing for years. Kathryn said:

Only among the membership of Peoples Temple did it work out as neatly as Gov. Reagan assumed it would, and I never saw an unhappy or disgruntled guest in my 6 years in Redwood Valley. All homes were shared by the operators and their families, and the guests were treated as part of the family. (Barbour, 2021)

It is perhaps for this reason that elderly members were so willing to donate their Social Security payments to the Temple. Social Security was an important part of the Temple’s income, and Jones was intent on selling the idea of a better life under Temple care in the hope that elderly members would donate their finances to the church.

In addressing an elderly audience at a recruitment service in Sacramento, Jones said:

Your president [Richard Nixon] didn’t want to give you a little bit of benefit increase of Social Security… he didn’t want to give you enough, and you can’t hardly live now. If you get sick and go to hospital, you wait for five hours in the emergency ward…we’ll move some of you up there [to Redwood Valley], and you can retire in peace. (Jones., n.d.).

Mom and Pop Jackson, Jonestown, 1974

Despite growing concerns from the head of the Mendocino County Welfare Department, Dennis Denny, a 1979 grand jury found no evidence of organized welfare fraud within Peoples Temple (Hall, 1987, 82). Further, even after the tragedies of 1978, Denny admitted that he had found the care homes ‘excellent, with the residents well fed, well clothed and always clean’ (Hall, 1987, 83). A testament to the Temple’s elderly care can be found in an interview with Daniel Betts Jackson, popularly known as ‘Pop Jackson’, which was recorded by Dick Tropp in Jonestown. Pop Jackson and his wife Luvenia ‘Mom’ Jackson joined Peoples Temple in 1972. Born in Louisiana in 1892, Jackson was one of the eldest members of the Temple. He was living in one of the care homes in Redwood Valley with Luvenia prior to the move to Guyana. In Jonestown, the couple lived in a cottage and were cared for by the younger members of the group. He said:

Now, when it comes to Jonestown, I’m telling you it’s the best place that ever was. I want Jonestown to be cared for because it cared for me… I been fooling around the United States for a hundred years and it didn’t do a thing for me. The United States is the last place you ought to stop to. You in danger. You should go around that because if you go around, you’ll live longer. (Fondakowski, 2013, 217).

There were 97 people over the age of 70 living in Jonestown on November 18th, 1978. Their deaths, including those of Pop and Mom Jackson, have left a void in the personal recollections of elderly members. From reports on the quality of the care homes, and testimonies such as Jackson’s, one can assume that the Temple was providing a level of care which was highly desirable.

Education and Rehabilitation

Alongside nursing homes, the Temple provided education and rehabilitation services for its members. In terms of rehabilitation, the Temple welcomed those with troubled upbringings, alcoholics, drug addicts, and those who had been in trouble with the law. During the Temple’s height in California, its education and rehabilitation programmes were recognised by officials throughout the State. The Chief of the Fresno City Police Department once remarked:

Those in police work are constantly aware of the lack of community resources and existence of viable rehabilitation programs designed to help our young people return to productive lives. Thank heaven there are individuals and organizations, such as the Peoples Temple, who not only recognize this need but are also doing something about it. (Britton, n.d.)

Stanley Clayton (second from the right) with other Temple members in the Jonestown kitchen, 1977-1978

Temple member Stanley Clayton benefited greatly from the Temple’s commitment to rehabilitation. Stanley was raised in an abusive household in Oakland, San Francisco. His mother was an alcoholic, and he shared a room with his six siblings. At the age of 12, Stanley stole from a supermarket in a wealthy Berkeley neighbourhood and was sent to the California Youth Authority prison, and then to a foster home. His foster mother introduced Stanley to Peoples Temple at the age of 17, and he joined the Temple on his eighteenth birthday. He decided to move back to his mother’s house after graduating from high school, but quickly returned to his previous habits. In 1975 he was sentenced to three years in prison for theft. With help from the Temple’s legal aid team, Stanley was released after four months. Jones allowed Stanley to return to the Temple on the condition that he did not take drugs, would apply himself well and commit to developing new skills. Stanley agreed. In the first month after his return, he was promoted to head janitor, and was given a small team to manage. In Jonestown, he worked as a chef. Stanley survived the final day by escaping into the jungle (Scheeres, 2011).

Alongside rehabilitation, the Temple offered education and skills training to members of all ages. In California, the children of Peoples Temple attended schools in the local area but received skills training classes within the Temple. Such classes involved broadcasting, mechanics, printing and carpentry. After the move to Jonestown, education was provided internally. In Guyana, the Jonestown School was headed by Dick Tropp and Tom Grubbs and was centred around activity-based learning for members of all ages (Cromarty, 2018). The curriculum included, but was not limited to, mathematics, English, African American history, Guyanese history, physical education and science. Children in the Jonestown School were encouraged to apply their learning to solve issues in the Jonestown community, and hence would often undertake jobs in the commune which correlated to their studies.

Henry Mercer and the Jonestown School, 1978

Adult education classes were held on a daily basis in Jonestown. Jim Jones was passionate about ensuring the ‘literacy of the old’, frequently claiming that the impoverished elderly in the United States were oppressively denied the right to an education (Jones, n.d.). Elsie Ingraham Bell had received a limited education as a child. She bore seven children before the age of thirty, and her son was sent to a reform school at the age of twelve for allegedly whistling at a white woman. In an interview in Jonestown, Elsie remarked:

I see in our adult education classes people, old ones, who cannot read or write, who want so bad to be able to write… I look at these women. At the hands that have worked all their life. It upsets me… they could never go to school. I look at children here. Black children. They won’t have to suffer what my son suffered (Lane, 1980, 66).

Adult students in the Jonestown School, 1978

In my interview with Kathryn, she claimed that many families were attracted to the Temple as it would keep their children in school and would provide education to adults who had missed out in their youths (Barbour, 2021). Rebecca Moore’s mother, Barbara, provided her own view on the appeal of the church in an interview with Fondakowski. She said:

My religious belief is that all these people are looking for Jesus. Well, Jesus for a lot of people is three meals a day and a roof over their head and a job. Jim Jones was providing that. (Fondakowski, 2013, 53).

The Temple was offering a safety net for those who fell through the cracks of the existing welfare system. In addition, it was allowing those with strong socialist ideals to live in an insulated community committed to social equality. In understanding what the Temple was offering citizens by way of welfare, one can begin to comprehend its attraction.

Chapter III: Escaping the Nuclear Family

A final tenet of Peoples Temple was the creation of an insulated, yet widely extended, family unit. With communal living and a complete devotion to the socialist cause came Jones’ understanding that the archetypal nuclear family model was incompatible with the church’s ideals and goals. Jones stressed that his religious socialism could not fully manifest in a community where families maintained individual autonomy. Instead, ‘the entire group was to be identified as your family and you were to try to feel that way as much as possible’ (Barbour, 2021). Through collectivising the family structure, Jones illustrated the importance of existing as a community in the Temple, where one’s commitments to others prevailed. This chapter will explore the role of individualism in the contemporary American family structure. In turn, it will explore how the Peoples Temple’s family differed from the mainstream structure and the sacrifices members had to make in abandoning the nuclear family model.

Individualism and the American Family

In Democracy in America, Tocqueville prescribes the American family as an integral institution which would act as a mitigating force against the threat of individualism (Tocqueville, 1835, 1157). The obligatory nature of family life would prevent the individual from drawing within themself, and would, as noted by Morton, induce a sense of concern for others (Morton, 1984). During Tocqueville’s travels to the United States, the ‘family’ inhabited an entirely different structure to that which we see today. In the mid-1800s, the average household size was six; in 1970 it was three (Kobrin, 1976). The family was a social network which did not abruptly end with one’s immediate bloodline, and oftentimes family and labour were closely linked. Over the past 150 years, the extended family structure has essentially disappeared in the United States (Ruggles, 1994). With industrialization came a rapid diffusion of the extended family and was replaced almost entirely in the mid-20th century by the ‘nuclear family’, a two parent and (oftentimes) two child household which was socially isolated from larger family interactions. In 1959, Sussman noted that the nuclear family perfectly fulfils the ‘needs of the American economy for a fluid and mobile labor market’ (Sussman, 1959, 333). Rather than mitigating against the threat of individualism as Tocqueville had hoped, the family unit has been reconstructed in order to fulfil the individualist ideal through the removal of wider social ties and to further the insulation of one’s commitments. As famously noted by Lasch in 1977, the family no longer remains the ‘haven in a heartless world’ (Lasch, 1995, 20).

The Peoples Temple Family

For many members, the Peoples Temple family was in fact a haven in a heartless world; isolated from the capitalism and social injustice that reigned throughout the United States. In dichotomising the two extremes, Jones frequently reminded the group that:

To think that we’ll have any support outside of ourselves is very foolish indeed. The only support we have is one another. Never think otherwise, or you’re going to be in for a great disillusionment (Jones, n.d.).

Temple members dancing, Redwood Valley, 1968

And for the most part, he was successful. Peoples Temple comprised of not only an extended family, but an extended interracial family, and this was extremely attractive to those who joined. Garry Lambrev was first introduced to the Temple by long-standing member Patty Cartmell in 1966. Cartmell explained that ‘she and her extended family, people who were not blood related, who were white and black’ had recently moved to Ukiah, California, from the Midwest (Fondakowski, 2013, 33). After accepting Cartmell’s invitation to go along to a Temple gathering in Redwood Valley, Garry entered a small room with a stove in the centre, with forty or more people singing and dancing to the music of Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye, with children and adults laughing and retelling shared memories. Garry recalls that Jones had created ‘a democratic revolution, an extended family, an all-American family in which all the races and social classes are represented’, and he desperately wanted to be a part of it (Fondakowski, 2013, 36).

Vernon Gosney joined the Temple with his wife Cheryl in 1972, at the age of 19. His mother was an alcoholic and he had been disowned by both of his parents for marrying an African American woman. Cheryl soon became pregnant with their son, Mark, but sadly died during childbirth. Vernon remained in the Temple, and Mark was raised by a woman from Indianapolis named Edith Cordell. Vernon lived in Jonestown until November 18th, 1978, when he decided to leave with the Congressman. He was badly wounded on the Port Kaituma airstip but survived. His son Mark died in Jonestown. Despite his traumatic experience, he articulated his attraction to the Temple in an interview with Fondakowski. Gosney recalled:

I had always been searching for a family. That was underneath everything. I wanted a family because, by the time I left home, all my brothers and sisters were either living in foster homes or juvenile homes, or with other relatives. So I didn’t have a cohesive loving family. Peoples Temple was everything that I wanted, as far as family goes (Fondakowski, 2013, 78).

Whilst the extended and collectivised family structure appealed to many, the disassembling of the archetypal family unit was a demanding ordeal. During her time in Redwood Valley, Kathryn Barbour recalled that any family members one had outside of the Temple had to be strictly referred to with the prefix ‘so-called’ (Barbour, 2021). One’s non-member mother was now their so-called mother, and the continued enforcement of such semantics helped create a division between the racist and corrupt American society and the insulated, racially harmonious community of Peoples Temple. Kathryn recalls bringing her 13-year-old brother to a service in Redwood Valley one evening in the early 70s. When Jim Jones began condemning the Vietnam War, her brother walked out in protest. In starting after him, Kathryn was stopped by Jones and other Temple members. This was her family now (Barbour, 2021).

Further, in order to break down existing family bonds in the Temple, children were often assigned to new households. The reassignment of Vernon’s son to Edith Cordell was just one example. Whilst this was a customary practice in the Temple, it caused significant distress to certain members. The most notable instance was the custody battle over six-year-old John Victor Stoen. Grace Grech and Tim Stoen, who joined the Temple in Ukiah in 1969, married in 1970, with Jones officiating. Tim was a lawyer by trade and provided legal aid services within the Temple. Grace gave birth to John Victor Stoen in January 1972. Jim Jones and Grace Stoen had been involved in a sexual relationship at the time, and soon after the birth of the child, Tim Stoen signed an affidavit which stated that Jones was the boy’s father. Grace left the church in 1976, and Tim departed a year later, leaving John in Guyana under the custody of several Temple members. Her decision to regain custody of her son in 1977 triggered a tumultuous period in which Jones ordered the tightening of security around the Jonestown perimeter. Jones was adamant that he would die before allowing John Victor Stoen to leave Jonestown. Sadly, John was amongst the 900 people who died on November 18th, and Grace never saw her son again.

From left to right: Harriet Tropp, John Victor Stoen, Jim Jones, unidentified guest, Carolyn Layton. Jonestown, 1977-78. (California Historical Society)

In many ways, the case of John Victor Stoen reflects the success of Jones’ plan to communalise the nuclear family structure. It cemented the idea that children belonged to the Temple, and more importantly, to Jim Jones, rather than individual members. If Jones had allowed for the return of John to his mother, it could have set the precedent for other custody cases and would have given way to further calls for information from the Concerned Relatives Group. In the words of Rebecca Moore: ‘he would have lost his claims of absolute power of protection for his followers’ (Moore, 2013). Given the taxing compliance required of the members to exist in this extended family, it is difficult to understand why people chose to stay. Why was there such complacency? I have reached two interrelated conclusions: people were fearful, and this was their family. Jones’ manipulation left members believing that they existed in a paradigm consisting of good and evil. The good was the racially harmonious, socialist commune of Peoples Temple. The evil was the capitalist, racist society that they used to call home. The us vs. them mentality which guided Jones’ sermons and was reinforced through education and welfare provisions convinced many that this was the only place that they could happily exist.

On the other hand, the bonds that people formed within the Temple were more familial than many had ever experienced. For survivors and ex-Temple members, the assimilation back into the United States in the years after Jonestown was difficult – coated in the trauma of losing their community, their family, all that many of them had ever really known. Kathryn Barbour wrote that ‘we scrambled for a footing in the outside world we had once scorned.’ (Barbour, 2013). In 2006, Kathryn noted that the survivor’s community was experiencing somewhat of a ‘thaw’, that people were enjoying, after years of shame and isolation, coming together to reminisce, to find comfort and to heal together. In my interview with Kathryn, I asked her if any of the members had decided to regroup and live communally. She said no, too much time had passed (Barbour, 2021).

Could it be that the sense of longing for a wide, extended, integrated family, is not unique to the members of Peoples Temple, but rather it pulls at our deepest human callings to be a part of something bigger than just ourselves? Notwithstanding the unprecedented scale on which it functioned, and the tremendous pain that resulted from its demise; one could argue that Tocqueville’s prescription for the family to safeguard against individualism was truly realised in the case of Peoples Temple.

Temple members in Redwood Valley, 1975

Conclusion

Over the past 100 years, individualism has infiltrated almost every fibre of America’s socio-political fabric. Given that humans are tribal by nature, it is unsurprising that throughout American history, religious groups have formed in order to seek communal refuge outside of the mainstream individualist society. Peoples Temple is just one example. This dissertation sought to explore the relationship between individualism and Temple membership so as to understand the movement as a product of American political thought, rather being dismissed as a fanatic, incidental event.

At its core, Peoples Temple was a socialist movement. Jim Jones was its leader, but the Temple’s composition held a vibrancy which far outweighed his leadership. The Temple attracted people from all walks of life: academics, doctors, manual laborers, pensioners, and young families. Though differing in backgrounds, the members were united in their desire to belong to a community. Born out of the nucleus of Temple life were provisions which did not exist in the United States at the time: an interracial church founded on socialist principles; free welfare services for every member; and an extended family structure which differed from the mainstream nuclear model. The American perception of racial inequality has long been characterised by the reticent belief that anyone can succeed through hard work. In contrast, Peoples Temple outwardly refuted such a stance, and thus attracted a large African American following. Welfare provisions in the United States, too, have been characterised by the belief that it is not the responsibility of the State to care for the poor, with the underlying belief being that hard work and determination will lead to eventual social mobility. Again, the Temple acknowledged the ineffectiveness of this system, and established free and reliable welfare services for all of its members. Finally, individualism has manifested itself in the structure of the American family over the past 150 years. The nuclear family model has minimized social ties and further insulated one’s commitments. In contrast, the Temple created an extended family, where one’s commitments to others prevailed.

From left to right: Dick Tropp, Marceline Jones, Jim Jones, Richard Dwyer, Jonestown, 1978. (California Historical Society)

The result was a movement which filled a significant void in American society, offering people an alternative to the mainstream individualist life. The movement was born out of American liberalism, which granted members the right to affiliate. However, liberalism, and by extension, individualism, also grants people the right to leave. On November 18th, 1978, the members of Peoples Temple did not have this choice. In the end, then, Peoples Temple truly was a holistic rejection of American individualism.

The tragic end of Peoples Temple will forever stain the impressive ways in which it challenged the status quo. In dismissing those involved as brainwashed followers, we fail to see why people wanted to join, and in turn, we ignore the intricate lives of those who sadly died. On November 18th, 1978, Dick Tropp left a final letter to the world, in which he wrote:

To Whomever Finds This Note:

Collect all the tapes, all the writing, all the history. The story of this movement, this action, must be examined over and over. It must be understood in all of its incredible dimensions… Look at Jonestown, see what we have tried to do – this was a monument to life, to the renewal of the human spirit, broken by capitalism, by a system of exploitation & injustice… I wish I had time to put it all together… I wish I had done it. (Tropp, 1978).

The members of Peoples Temple deserve to be humanised. Their deaths mark the tragic end of a community seeking to forge a different path. To dismiss this from our understanding would be a great dishonour to the study of American political thought.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Kathryn Barbour, for sharing her stories and informing my research; my parents, Sally Pearce and Paul Box, for loving and encouraging me; my uncle, Chris Redfern, for teaching me and making me stronger; and Sarah White, for picking me back up, every step of the way.

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Notes

[1] See: Feltman, D (2016). Rethinking New Religious Movements beyond a Social Problems Paradigm. Nova Religio, 20(2). 85 and Richardson, J., 1993. Definitions of Cult: From Sociological-Technical to Popular-Negative. Review of Religious Research, 34 (4).

[2] Unless otherwise stated, all photos used are from The Jonestown Institute’s Flickr page and can be found here: <https://www.flickr.com/photos/peoplestemple/> [Accessed 19 May 2021] The California Historical Society has granted permission for the use of any of their photographs.

Originally posted on July 25th, 2021.

Last modified on August 5th, 2021.
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