(Katherine Klapperich is a student at the Graduate Theological Union working towards her Masters degree in New Religious Movements. She is conducting interviews with former Temple members to create a living history by those who comprised the Temple, including with Mike Touchette in 2021 and with Charles Johnson in 2022. Anyone who would like to participate in this project may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(This article was presented at the American Academy of Religion/Western region in 2020.)
Peoples Temple and its members over the years have come under the scrutiny of the public’s eye and become the poster child of what it means to be a cult. The media’s portrayal of Peoples Temple has managed to negate the influence of the membership within the organization and their power to sustain a lifestyle built upon community. Likewise, the scholarly literature has over-determined the role of Jim Jones, as well as under-represented agency of group members. Writings which concentrated on Jones have not only heightened his presence in history, but have managed to attenuate the value of those who comprised the movement. Rebecca Moore asked in her book, “Is the canon of Jonestown closed?” The answer is, “No.” There is so much more that has not been considered. For the purpose of this presentation, I shall focus on an area that has not been discussed in detail. According to Thom Bogue, there were three different ideologies at play: those who understood Jim Jones as a figurehead, those who viewed Jim Jones as a godhead, and those who understood the movement as a collective driven by a mission for which Jones was peripheral at best (Bogue). I investigate the means by which Peoples Temple created community and belonging through a sense of agency while traversing through these precepts.
For those who viewed Jim Jones as a godhead, people were willing to do whatever he asked without question. This included giving up worldly possessions, accepting whatever he did as suitable, and believing whatever he said as gospel even when he denied the validity of the gospel. Secrecy was inherent in the system and living a communal lifestyle was expected. This blind willingness to follow his wishes, commitment to his cause, and the spreading of his word was the basis of their community. The consequences for not following his rules were simple; banishment and/or shunning.
For those who viewed Jones as a figurehead there still remained a basic belief that he was necessary. This is the group I argue to be the strongest and largest faction. The simple fact he and his wife had founded the church could not be overlooked and a community to them needed a strong public figure with political and theological connections. His charisma and the connections made it easier for the group to survive and obtain that which was necessary to continue and grow. For the most part, his beliefs in socialism was in accord with theirs. Without his connections they would not have a place to worship in peace, legal protections, nor would they have the right to exist. He provided validity and recognition so the outside world would leave them alone. Through his garnishing of wages and acquiring personal property, he was able to provide housing, education, healthcare, and transportation for those within the community. Everyone was deemed welcome and he ensured inclusivity. All you need to do was follow his simple rules, such as: no drug use, no smoking, no drinking, sharing with everyone (Smith). They recognized he had flaws, but everything he did was for the betterment of the community. Someone had to keep people in place so as not to destroy the well-being of the overall infrastructure.
Finally, there were those who understood the movement as a collective driven by a mission for which Jones was peripheral at best. This group was the group most likely to cause trouble for Jones. They believed the community to be socialist based and that, in order to do so, there would be sacrifices, but they also saw his flaws as problematic and tended to be more openly defiant and vocal about them. The people should have been the focus, not Jones. They functioned because Jones started the project using the community’s funds to do so. But there should not have been favoritism nor a hierarchy. Any sign of that on the part of the membership was cause for punishment which Jones was exempt. The community was not as egalitarian as would have liked because of him, but he was there. When not around, everyone at the same foods and had the same privileges. When he was there, that changed. Not drastically, but there were differences. Jones had become a liability. His questionable antics within the organization were a concern and were harming the collective. The community’s best asset was its memberships’ willingness to work together. His drug use was obvious, and his rantings were tiresome and divisive. In this group were those who believed if Jones had stayed in the U.S., the Jonestown Agriculture Project in Guyana could have survived. The community was strong enough that his presence was more of an interference than a necessity. When he was present there was a militaristic style of running the camp which derailed its ability to function. Many could not wait for him to leave so things could return to what was considered normal (Bogue). The farm could have supported the people and the community had the pilgrimage been done over a longer period of time. The people did not understand farming or agriculture enough to support the sudden influx of members when Jones left California. The community was happy when there were only a few and they worked in conjunction with one another. It was both expected and an honor to be trained on certain equipment, or to be tapped teach the younger children.
Three groups functioning under one umbrella that formed a cohesive community. The one strand that held them all together was the belief that everyone was equal and, despite everything they had known as reality, was not true. Racism, disparity, and living in the margins of society were a social construct that could be broken down and forged into a functioning egalitarian environment. These are the people who made up the culture of the church. Those that made the numbers grow and, eventually, those that lead to its demise. Not Jones.