A Status Check – and a Clarion Call – for Jonestown Researchers

(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 On Normalising the Study of Peoples Temple. His complete collection of articles for this site is here. He can be reached at connor.a.clayton@qmul.ac.uk.) 

Peoples Temple and Jonestown in the Twenty-First Century, by Rebecca Moore. Cambridge University Press, 2022.

It has been more than forty years since the tragedy at Jonestown, and those forty years have seen wave after wave of academic research dedicated toward understanding Peoples Temple and the mass-murder/suicides which shook the world from Guyana. With dozens of books, dozens more articles, and a wealth of secondary and primary material to wade through, examining Peoples Temple can be a daunting task for any researcher. Thankfully, the work reviewed in this essay does a tremendous amount of the legwork for us. If the question is “Where does research on Jonestown currently stand?” then the answer can be found in Rebecca Moore’s Peoples Temple and Jonestown in the Twenty-First Century (2022).

My own academic research into Peoples Temple began just short of five years ago – and a portion of that time was spent getting up-to-date with the scope of the material. While this addition to the Cambridge Elements series would have proven invaluable to me five years ago, it proves just as equally valuable today: whether you are a junior researcher, a senior academic, or anyone interested in history or religion in America, Peoples Temple and Jonestown in the Twenty-First Century provides an engaging read supported by the latest research in the field. We know a great deal more about Peoples Temple and Jonestown now than we did forty-odd years ago, and Rebecca Moore has done a fantastic job of synthesising a wide breadth of scholarly material into a comparatively short, yet nutritionally dense, addition to the Elements series.

Moore approaches the task of reappraising Peoples Temple first by providing an overview of the Temple’s history from its founding in Indianapolis, through to California and its eventual demise in Guyana. The three sections that follow approach the Temple from separate analytical perspectives: religious, political, and economic. The concluding section considers the afterlives of Peoples Temple, and the way the legacy they left has remained with us today and been utilised for better and for worse. In each section of this easily navigable structure, a broad variety of research is called upon with a key theme of pluralism central throughout. Although traditional and popular narratives have created the image of monolithic followers beholden to their leader, Moore’s latest work challenges the notion of strict homogeny in Temple religious, political, and even economic life.

Three organising principles run through the course of the Element, which offer novel suggestions for current and future researchers. First, Moore moves away from the sect-cult-church typology, in which Peoples Temple was recast as three intrinsic groups-in-one: a sect which formed in Indianapolis; a new religious movement, which formed in Redwood Valley; and an urban Black Church which developed following the Temple’s expansion into San Francisco and Los Angeles. In contrast to this approach, Moore encourages scholars to think in terms of the major transformative environments of Indiana, California, and Guyana in which the Temple found itself operating. This approach is meritable because of the flexibility it offers, whilst respecting the transformative potential of its various locales. With the move to Guyana, Moore emphasises that the Temple became “no longer a church, but rather an experiment in communalism and a realization of socialist ideals.”[1] The geographical theme persists throughout the work, as it investigates the religions, politics, and economics of the Temple alongside their migrational movements. This helps us better understand how and why the Temple changed over time whilst avoiding inflexible and anachronistic frameworks.

Race accompanies migration as the second major underlying principle of the work. Several researchers over the years, Moore included prominently among them, have highlighted the importance of Black religious, cultural, and social forms within the Temple as an organisation that was demographically Black by a wide margin. Alongside this assessment, Moore also highlights the tensions evident in the Temple’s own elements of racism. This expands beyond the person of Jim Jones, and scholars might be prompted to ask how, in the pursuit of racial equality, did the Temple collectively create structures that reinforced elements of racism, and how did these structures change over time? We might also ask whether congregants themselves saw aspects of racism within the Temple, and whether the things we might consider racist in hindsight were understood in different contexts by the majority Black congregation.

The final organising principle of Peoples Temple and Jonestown in the Twenty-First Century is the author’s commitment to remove Jim Jones from his central position in Temple narratives. While I can think of no better perspective from which to study the people of Peoples Temple, the Element highlights the issues and tensions present in accomplishing such a task. Within the Element, the organisational history of Peoples Temple is interwoven amongst elements of Jim Jones’ own biography. This isn’t a dramatic flaw with the work, but it does raise the question of what a history of Peoples Temple might look like with Jones as a secondary, rather than primary character. To be sure, Moore is completely correct in acknowledging that “the movement began and ended with him and his vision,”[2] which means a history of Peoples Temple without due attention to Jim Jones wouldn’t be much of a history at all. Following the migrational approach, rather than examining how Jones wielded his authority in adjusting his ministry from locale to locale, we might ask what drew individuals and families from these differing locales and how they, in turn, changed the character of the Temple. Here, I am reminded of the scholarship on Father Divine, and how the Los Angeles contingent of the Peace Mission Movement influenced the organisation in a more political direction. Whilst we can be certain that the politicisation of the Temple was part of an intentional project by Jim Jones, we also have to acknowledge it would not have been possible without receptive audiences.

In synthesising current research for a broad audience with sympathetic clarity and pointed analytical insights, Peoples Temple and Jonestown in the Twenty-First Century is already an invaluable resource for scholars of Temple history new and old. The strength of the work goes beyond the ideas it harmonises into a coherent narrative, however. In bringing the reader up-to-date with the most current research, Moore also accomplishes the task of pointing readers and scholars towards further avenues of profitable examination that remain to be fully tapped. For undergraduates, graduates, independent researchers, seasoned academics, and casual readers alike, a great deal of value will be found within this short Element. Peoples Temple and Jonestown in the Twenty-First Century distilled much of what all of us have learned in recent years. More importantly, it left me eagerly anticipating what the remainder of the twenty-first century may bring for the study of Peoples Temple.


[1] Rebecca Moore, Peoples Temple and Jonestown in the Twenty-First Century, Cambridge University Press, 2022, 42.

[2] Moore, 9.