On Normalising the Study of Peoples Temple

(Connor Ashley Clayton is a Ph.D. candidate at the Queen Mary University of London, and a regular contributor to the jonestown report. His other articles in this edition are Thomas Partak: A Jonestown Life in Turmoil, and A Status Check – and A Clarion Call – for Jonestown Researchers. His complete collection of articles for this site is here. He can be reached at connor.a.clayton@qmul.ac.uk.) 

“Nobody joins a cult,” former Peoples Temple member Deborah Layton says in the opening shot of Stanley Nelson’s 2006 documentary, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. “Nobody joins something they think is going to hurt them. You join a religious organization, you join a political movement, and you join with people that you really like.”

Layton wasn’t the first and – holding myself up as an example – certainly isn’t the last to realize how normal it all was, until it suddenly wasn’t. Although the academic study of Jonestown and the tragedy of November 1978 will continue to reveal a more complete picture of what happened, it seems clear that the history of Peoples Temple – the social movement, political organisation, religious commune, and utopian collective – has a story far wider to tell than of religious violence alone. The primary sources already available to us provide an unparalleled glimpse into the lives of congregants as they participated in the collective endeavour that was Peoples Temple. Importantly, almost nothing in the Temple was sui generis. The Temple was above all a product of its time: a product of the Cold War, of the Civil Rights Movement, and of Black social, political, and religious traditions that found traction in modern America. Studying the Temple can better inform our understandings of these influences, and as such there exists few better microsocial opportunities with macrosocial implications.

Both in the US and in Great Britain, where I live and study, Peoples Temple is virtually unknown to the general public beyond its vague place in history as “the suicide cult,” and even less is known about the group’s heritage and participation in some of the defining aspects of 20th Century America. In some ways, the history of “Peoples Temple” has been cordoned off from regular history, perhaps reflecting the general distancing that has occurred in the wake of the tragedy. This is unfortunate. Historians can only benefit from integrating Peoples Temple into histories of modern America, as it proves to be an important nexus for improving our understanding of some of the greatest tensions – domestic, racial, and political – that characterised much of America’s late 20th Century.

If we expand our gaze, we may learn a lot about America’s domestic Cold War, including how internationalist and ideological narratives (such as those implicit within the Cold War paradigm) were understood and mediated at the local level. The Temple – being a self-described socialist movement, in part – undoubtedly saw itself as part of a wider, global revolutionary moment. Through their actions – communal living and redistributive welfare, for example – the Temple demonstrated its commitment to the ideal of socialism, believed by most to run counter to the values of America. The relationship between Black political movements in America and both native and international socialism has been underlined across a variety of scholarship. For all these reasons, Peoples Temple should be considered alongside other Black political movements who utilised socialist rhetoric and Cold War discourses to pursue domestic agendas. This remains true in spite of the Temple’s white leadership and the issues of racism prevalent in its structure.

We typically date the Civil Rights Movement between the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision on Brown v. Board of Education and the assassination of Martin Luther King and resulting riots in American cities in 1968. However, historians such as Jacqueline Dowd Hall have long questioned this chronological bookending. The religious and political syncretism which formed the broad basis of the Civil Rights Movement was reflected within the Temple’s own structures and aims. I don’t suggest Jim Jones was a Civil Rights hero – even though his struggles to integrate Indianapolis’ public facilities and institutions are well-documented, and the entire foundation of Peoples Temple was based on the radical notion of racial equality – but I do believe that collectively the Temple was an active participant within the Movement, and as such historians are doing themselves a disservice by not appropriately including them as such.

The Temple offers historians such a wealth of study precisely because of its syncretic nature. It was not an exclusively political movement, even in Guyana; and it was not an exclusively religious movement, even in Indianapolis. Throughout its lifetime, the Temple organisation blended religious, social, political, economic, and emotional rhetoric into a unifying discourse of Black, socialist resistance. The commitments made by Temple members – in time, money, effort, and more – reflect a genuine belief in the cause. That cause was one that many of us share today: a commitment to racial equality and economic and judicial fairness. Whilst we should be careful not to overemphasise the Temple’s ideological line and underemphasise the private or personal commitments of its members, the fact remains that through their active participation Temple members collectively constructed a unique and attractive blend of religion, politics, and practicality that appealed to Americans from across the country, and across lines of colour.

I would like to see more study of Peoples Temple across the academic world, and from my own discipline of History in particular. The history of this group has so much to offer for our understandings of modern America, far beyond the field of new religious movement scholarship (of which it will always remain a vital case study). As a culturally and demographically Black organisation, future analyses of Peoples Temple have the opportunity to tell a story broader than the group’s radical end has typically limited it to. As a social movement, political organisation, economic cooperative, and new religious movement, the fruits of Temple study are borne from many trees. We might find even more value in studying how these factors – political, social, religious, and economic – were syncretised into a heterogenous and malleable worldview which appealed to full-time members and part-time attendees alike.

Above all, then, Peoples Temple was a product of its time. It participated as an actor in pushing for Civil Rights, often at the local or regional level. It perceived of itself as a domestic actor in the Cold War, championing the merits of socialism in the face of the evils of capitalism which surrounded it. Although many would consider the Temple abnormal, in several ways it reflected the wider normative trends of the society from which it was drawn.

How might we enrich our understanding of the Civil Rights Movement and America’s domestic Cold War by considering Peoples Temple as a normative participant in these discourses and conflicts? How are we to rectify the Temple’s tragic end with the noble causes it originally championed? It can be said that not everything about Peoples Temple was normal, but there was a lot more that was normal than wasn’t.