The Controversies about Peoples Temple and Jonestown

(Editor’s note: This article was adapted from its original publication as a chapter in Controversial New Religions, eds. James R. Lewis and Jesper Aa. Petersen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014). The changes made in 2023 include corrections and additional information learned in the intervening years.)

Even before November 18, 1978, when more than nine hundred people died in Jonestown, Guyana, in a mass murder-suicide ritual, the story of Peoples Temple had been characterized by controversy. The spectacular deaths, in which parents administered poison to their children before ingesting it themselves, represented the culmination of a quarter century of tumult, rather than a one-day cataclysm. From its beginnings in Indiana in the 1950s, through its migration to Northern California in the mid-1960s, its rise in San Francisco in the early 1970s, and its move to Guyana, South America, in the mid-1970s. Peoples Temple generated rumor, scandal, and outrage. The death of the organization was no different from its life.

Of the many issues and questions that emerge from the study of Peoples Temple, several appear again and again. They include the following:

What was the level of violence in the organization?
Was Jonestown a concentration camp?
Was Jim Jones, the group’s leader, insane?
Were the deaths in Jonestown suicide or murder?
Were the deaths in Jonestown the result of a conspiracy?
What are the lessons of Jonestown?

While this article treats these issues of controversy, it begins by providing background information about Peoples Temple. Events arise out of a particular social and historical context. Without knowledge of this framework, the conflicts described make little sense. Moreover, strife alone tells only part of the larger story of Peoples Temple. The background which follows provides the setting in which the controversies occurred.


Peoples Temple was founded by Jim Jones, his wife Marceline, and two others in 1955 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Jones (b. 1931) was raised primarily by his mother Lynetta Putnam Jones and grew up feeling like he was poor white trash. His oratorical abilities, coupled with a deep understanding of and concern for social inequality, led him to preach on street corners, where he attracted impromptu interracial groups of listeners. While working part-time as a hospital orderly, he met Marceline Baldwin, who was completing her nursing training, and they married in 1949. After serving as a youth pastor at a Methodist Church and as an interim preacher at a Pentecostal church, Jones incorporated the Wings of Deliverance in 1955, along with Marceline, and Jack and Rheaviana Beam, who liked Jim’s biblical message of the Social Gospel. The small church had several earlier names and incarnations before it officially became the Peoples Temple Apostolic Church. In 1960 the church was accepted into the Disciples of Christ, a mainline Protestant denomination with a liberal social agenda.

Under the able administration of Marceline Jones, Peoples Temple ran several in-home care facilities, which allowed it to help people and produce revenue at the same time. Jim Jones gained local attention for his commitment to desegregation and was named Chair of the Indianapolis Human Rights Commission, a position he held only briefly. A concern over nuclear war led Jones to take Marceline and their family of five—one biological son and four adopted children—to Brazil in 1963 (supposedly one of the safest places in the event of nuclear war), where they lived for two years. Their return to Indianapolis found the church in disarray. After reasserting his leadership, Jones announced that he had a vision of nuclear holocaust that would wipe out Indianapolis. He had sent several scouting parties to Northern California— another one of the nuclear safety zones—before he declared that everyone should move with him to the small town of Ukiah. This was a significant moment in the history of the group: those who believed that Jones had divine prophetic abilities chose to go with him; those who did not, stayed behind. About 140 followers, comprising both African American and white families, migrated to California with the Jones family.

Ukiah was an insular town with an overwhelmingly white population with provincial attitudes toward blacks and outsiders, so life in rural Northern California was difficult for the interracial group. Jones organized proselytizing trips up and down the West Coast, and eventually bought church buildings in Los Angeles and in San Francisco, which became the group’s headquarters in 1976. Although Peoples Temple began to attract young, affluent, college-educated white members, the group was especially successful in attracting African American members from Bay Area black churches. Soon between 80 and 90% of Temple members were black. Most came from the working classes, although some were middle class and some were extremely poor. The Temple provided a range of services to all its members, from legal advocacy to housing to medical care. In addition, the group began to focus on communal living, with the majority of committed members in San Francisco sharing apartments or housing in church-owned buildings.

The politics and culture of San Francisco were much more sympathetic to the aims of Peoples Temple, so the group’s cohesion and organization made it possible for Jim Jones and the church to play an important role in the city, especially among social activists and political liberals. Church members participated in a number of progressive groups, and the Temple itself hosted speakers from African liberation organizations, the American Indian Movement, the Chilean resistance to a military dictatorship, and other leftist crusades.

During this time, Jones’ religious message became infused with, and eventually yielded to, overtly political themes. On the one hand, he criticized the contradictions and brutalities in the Bible; on the other, he told his congregation that he was the incarnation of God. In addition to hearing political speakers and messages, Temple members witnessed miraculous healings, most of which later were revealed to be fraudulent. Members also participated in self-criticism sessions during which they received verbal and physical abuse. These abuses led a number of members to leave the church, departures which the organization called defections. The desertion of eight young adults in 1973 prompted the group to search for a safe haven abroad, in case defectors such as these decided to pursue their concerns in the media or with government authorities. The Temple feared that investigations at the local, state, and federal level might make it impossible to remain (Hall, 1987). The group’s leaders began negotiations for land with the government of Guyana, a small nation on the north coast of South America. Eager to open up its interior, the country was receptive to the Temple’s goals in its plan to establish an agricultural mission. By the time the Temple signed a formal lease in 1976 to develop an area of land almost 4,000 acres in size, small groups of pioneers had worked almost two years in clearing jungle and constructing the first buildings of what came to be known as Jonestown.

Several events in 1977 served to prompt a mass exodus to Guyana. The Internal Revenue Service was investigating the organization, with an eye toward revoking its tax exemption. A bitter child custody battle triggered the removal of a young boy to Guyana. Fears of a fascist takeover in the United States also provoked the migration. Finally, a critical article from New West Magazine revealed a darker side to Peoples Temple that outsiders had not seen. In the course of eight months, almost one thousand Temple members left their homes in the United States for Jonestown, crowding into housing intended for half as many people.

The Peoples Temple Agricultural Project was located in dense jungle along the Venezuelan border with Guyana. Living conditions were primitive, but spirits were high, at least initially. Residents cleared hundreds of acres in order to grow crops, both for sustenance and for sale. A community school was accredited by the Government of Guyana. Most teenagers and young adults worked in the fields, however. Adults who were trained in health care provided medical assistance. Others who had technical skills worked in carpentry and skilled crafts, animal husbandry, the kitchen, the laundry, or any one of a number of jobs required for maintaining the community. Although it was hard work to establish and maintain a village of a thousand people, there were also moments of free time in which residents watched movies, enjoyed homegrown entertainment—like the rhythm and blues band Jonestown Express—or studied language and literature.

It is undeniable that life in Jonestown was a far cry from the comforts of San Francisco. This meant that many residents—though by no means most—became disenchanted and wanted to leave. Public dissent was not tolerated, although privately residents wrote notes to Jim Jones complaining about issues ranging from the conditions of waterways to disruptions caused by dissenters (Stephenson 2005). Jones conceived a siege mentality by which he encouraged residents to believe that they were about to be attacked. Public safety drills, during which residents would be roused from sleep and urged to protect the community from real or imagined invaders, frequently occurred. White Nights—a more extreme exercise in civil defense—transpired more rarely; in another work, I estimate that a half dozen such incidents occurred between September 1977 and November 1978. During these White Nights residents announced their willingness to commit revolutionary suicide and thereby die for the cause (Moore 2009). At ensuing suicide drills, residents drank small cups of what they were told was poison.

Because of the remoteness of Jonestown and the lack of access to family members living there, an oppositional group called the Concerned Relatives arose to demand the return of their family members—children and adults alike to the United States. Members of the Concerned Relatives organized letter-writing and media campaigns to raise public awareness of the problems occurring in Jonestown. They succeeded in persuading California Congressman Leo J. Ryan to travel to Jonestown in November 1978.

At first the congressman’s visit seemed to be a success. NBC News videotape from November 17 shows him smiling and expressing a wish that the enthusiastic residents lived in his congressional district. But reporters who accompanied him received notes from a few residents who wished to leave. The next day, Saturday, November 18, a group of sixteen people, comprising primarily members from two families (and one man posing as a defector), left with Ryan and his party. A few young men from Jonestown followed them to the Port Kaituma airstrip, six miles away, where they opened fire, killing the congressman, three reporters, and one of the defectors.

Even as the shootings at the airstrip were taking place, Jones assembled residents in the central pavilion of Jonestown, where medical staff brought out a mixture of tranquilizers and poison. He exhorted parents to give the poison to their children. One resident, Christine Miller, argued on behalf of the children, but she was shouted down by other members of the community (Q042, “Death Tape”). Although accounts of what happened and the sequence of events conflict with one another, it appears that parents did in fact administer poison to their children, before swallowing it themselves. About eighty Temple members survived the deaths that day, mainly by being in the capital city, Georgetown, or on the Temple’s sailing vessels, the Cudjoe and the Albatross III. Of those who were in Jonestown at the beginning of the day, only thirty-three survived: fifteen people who left with the congressman; eleven people who escaped through the jungle that morning; and seven people inside Jonestown itself. Two people died of gunshot: my sister, Ann Elizabeth Moore, who shot herself; and Jim Jones, whose wounds were consistent with both suicide and homicide.

These are the bare facts of the story of Peoples Temple and Jonestown. Yet many of the facts presented are in dispute and remain controversial despite the passage of more than three decades. The rest of this article analyzes these ongoing differences of opinion.

What Was the Level of Violence in the Organization?

Some authors claim that the violence that occurred throughout the life of Peoples Temple was unremitting (Scheeres 2011). Accounts by some former members indicate a cruel degree of violence, including severe beatings and rape. (Mills 1979; Layton 1998). Still other reports, however, indicate that group members accepted a certain level of violence as necessary for self-discipline and group cohesion (Roller 1975, 1976, 1977). Elsewhere I argue that four types of violence occurred within Peoples Temple; discipline, behavior modification, behavior control, and terror (Moore 2011). Some types of coercion would be socially acceptable outside the norms of Peoples Temple (discipline and behavior modification), while other forms would be unacceptable (behavior control and terror). Several points can be made about this.

First, boxing matches, beatings with a “board of education” applied to the buttocks, verbal humiliation, and psychological abuse occurred in Peoples Temple. Shortly after the move to California, catharsis (or self-criticism) sessions occurred in which Temple members confessed to real or imagined crimes and accepted discipline or punishment as a deterrent against future infractions. Offenses ranged from stealing from the community, to making sexist remarks, to sleeping on the job.

One disciplinary case was handled, a young girl, 12 years old, impeded a teacher in a hallway and when confronted had called the teacher a “bitch.” She was asked what she should get. She suggested 35 swats (as a clever compromise between the 25 and 50 people were suggesting, which Jim said showed how bright she was) and raising $100 in 2 months (Roller 1976).

More serious transgressions included using or dealing drugs, and pedophilia. One member who had sexually abused a boy was beaten on the penis until it bled. “Perhaps where the psychiatrists have failed, a switch will succeed,” said Jones (Mills 1979: 269). This beating persuaded several members to quit the Temple.

This leads to a second point: the victims of the violence were also the perpetrators. Audiotapes, journals, and articles by former members demonstrate that punishment was a collective endeavor. Group members informed on one another, confessed to one another, and abused one another. They boxed, pad-died, and humiliated each other. While Jim Jones supervised the disciplinary system, the members themselves were the ones who acted as disciplinarians.

A third point concerns the belief of members that the cruelty they imposed upon themselves was preferable to state-sanctioned violence. Some members faced jail or prison time for things they had done; others simply faced the wrath of the collective for the social crimes of sexism, ageism, elitism, and racism. While living in California, members believed it was preferable to deal with problems within the group. While living in Guyana, however, the group’s internally directed violence, and violent rhetoric, escalated.

Was Jonestown a Concentration Camp?

The pioneers who constructed Jonestown from the ground up created a lovely settlement. Small painted cabins, flower-lined walkways, and a wooden basketball court all indicated the desire to make the community a utopian paradise. Workshops, a school, outbuildings for animals, all showed foresight and organization. But events conspired to undermine all of the hard work, planning, and dreaming that had transformed the raw jungle into a vibrant community.

Jonestown was extremely isolated. Getting there required a trip either by airplane over dense jungle, followed by a bone-jolting 35-mile ride in a four-wheel drive vehicle, or a 24-hour long trip in a boat from Georgetown along Guyana’s northern coast and up the Kaituma River to the village of Port Kaituma, six miles from Jonestown. This remoteness made it impossible for dissenters to walk away if they were unhappy, and thus allowed discipline to become more intense and more violent.

Upon arrival, residents of Jonestown relinquished their passports, their money, and their belongings. They also gave up privacy, solitude, and the ability to think critically. Because the project was dependent upon Social Security payments to senior citizens totaling about $35,000 a month, and upon money raised by those remaining in California, it was imperative that only good reports emerge from Jonestown. Outward bound mail was reviewed by a committee, which allowed only glowing, almost formulaic letters to pass; correspondence into Jonestown was also censored and sometimes withheld. Jim Jones mediated news from outside, reading stories from Soviet and Eastern Bloc newswire services and commenting on events—real, exaggerated, or imaginary—happening back home.

The two main crimes committed by Jonestown residents were shirking work and stealing food. Because these were offenses committed against the common good, the punishment was assignment to the “Learning Crew,” which meant more work and less food. People could earn time off the crew by showing a good attitude, voluntarily taking on a greater workload, or showing respect to supervisors. A lackadaisical attitude or disrespect might result in additional time on the crew. All decisions on punishments were made by Jim Jones, although residents of Jonestown reported the infractions and applauded his decisions.

More serious offenses consisted of dissenting against established policies, expressing the desire to leave the “Promised Land,” or—worst of all—attempting to escape. One punishment for dissidents was assignment to the Special Care Unit, where they were given heavy doses of tranquilizers. About half a dozen individuals are known to have suffered in the Special Care Unit. Another punishment was assignment to “the box,” a sensory deprivation chamber used to modify behavior of recalcitrant repeat offenders. Edith Roller suggested using this tool against another resident: “I proposed she be put in isolation where she would not have paper to write complaints and could not communicate with people. Jim said that if assignment to the learning crew did not cure her, we might try some form of sensory deprivation” (Roller 1978). Marceline Jones was concerned about prolonged exposure to sensory deprivation and required medical staff to check on people in “the box” (Roller 1978).

These methods were used to punish individuals. A more insidious form of violence was the terror Jones used to frighten children, especially children. He terrorized one woman by having an anaconda crawl over her until she begged for forgiveness (it is not clear what her crime was). He terrified two small boys by sending them into the jungle at night with the warning to watch out for tigers. On occasion Jones sentenced individuals to spend time in “the box” with animals they dreaded, like snakes or frogs. Jones repeatedly informed the community that a conspiracy existed against them and that death was imminent. Tired, overworked, and underfed, residents believed him.

It needs to be made clear that these radical conditions in Jonestown did not commence until Jim Jones arrived in 1977 and did not begin in earnest until 1978. Conditions deteriorated dramatically after the defection in May 1978 of a higher-profile leader, Debbie Layton, who reported to news media in California that group members planned to commit mass suicide. Morale spiraled downward the summer of 1978, and it was only in September— with the announcement that an actual conspirator against Jonestown existed, and that his disclosures might result in the end of the persecution that the community believed was orchestrated against them— that people once again had hope that things might improve.

Was Jim Jones, the Group’s Leader, Insane?

If, by definition, planning and arranging the deaths of almost a thousand people is insane, then Jim Jones was indeed a madman. But that appellation is not helpful for understanding events in Jonestown, given the fact that, as noted above, others put the plan in motion. It was members of the Jonestown leadership who suggested various ways to kill residents, eventually ordering the poison, testing it on farm animals, and mixing and distributing it on the final day. Jones did not execute the plan, but he convinced others to adopt his worldview, both through persuasion and coercion.

According to Reiterman and Jacobs (1982), Jones was mentally ill from the beginning. They report that as a child, he held funerals for animals he killed. They quote childhood friends who claimed that Jones threatened them. They detail the occasions on which Jones dissembled or evaded the truth, or told outright lies. The audiotapes on the Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple website clearly reveal when Jones is telling the truth, and when he is making things up as he goes along.

Rather than simply dismissing him as a lunatic, however, a more helpful analytic framework for understanding Jones is to assess his worldview and observe how it changed over time. As a young man, Jones seemed genuinely tormented by the social injustice he both experienced and witnessed. He fought against the currents of racism that existed in the 1950s, taking stands that required courage and conviction. After the move to California, two emphases emerged. The first was the outward and external stance of Peoples Temple against racism, colonialism, and global systems of domination. The second was the inward and internal stance of Jones, and then of his followers, against sex. At catharsis meetings, individuals “confessed” to being homosexuals or to engaging in homosexual behavior. Jones declared that he was the only heterosexual and that everyone else was homosexual. At the same time, Jones required members of his leadership team—both male and female—to engage in sex with him.

Jones used sex as a tool to maintain control. He railed against the bourgeois family and its insular concerns about self and children. He broke up partnerships, couples, and families, separating husbands from wives, and children from parents. A relationship committee approved, and denied, petitions to date or see other Temple members. Members were vilified for being unfaithful to partners, and upon rare occasions, required to perform sex acts before the entire group.

How could Jones get away with this, especially before the move to Jonestown? Smith (2004) describes the process of “audience corruption,” in which the interactions between leaders and followers are mutually destructive. “Followers learn to give the responses the leader wants them to learn; they feed them back to the leader on cue, who in turn believes even more in the power and rightness of his leadership” (Smith 2004: 48). Within a closed system, the leader is the sole authority because the people have given him, or her, that power.

For Jones, the discussion or consideration of love (or sex) was superseded by a focus—and eventually an obsession—with death. The necessity of self-denial was discussed in San Francisco, but in Jonestown a rhetoric of martyrdom was reiterated and suicide was rehearsed. Although the group researched re-location to a Communist country like the Soviet Union, Cuba, or North Korea, Jones desired only one translation: the one from life to death. Edith Roller reports Jones as saying “The last orgasm I’d like to have is death if I could take you all with me” (Roller 1976). Jones consummated that wish.

Were the Deaths in Jonestown Suicide or Murder?

Initial accounts of the deaths in Jonestown characterized the mass suicides beginning in the predawn hours of November 19 when a CIA memo reported mass suicides” (The NOIWON Notation 1978). News coverage during the first week followed the lead given by government sources, as indicated by references to mass suicide rather than mass murder. On November 24, the deaths were described for the first time as “mass suicide and killings,” although headlines still called it the “Sect’s Suicide Rite.” Three days later, on November 27, New York Times reporter Jon Nordheimer was the first to term it the “mass murder-suicide,” and other writers soon described the deaths as “killings and suicides.” Eventually these specific descriptors were replaced by “massacre” and “tragedy,” terms that reflect the writers’ attitude toward the deaths.

The mass suicide description was never accurate, of course, since the 300 infants and children could not choose to die in any meaningful sense of the word “suicide.” Still, early eyewitness accounts indicated that most adults voluntarily took the poison. As mentioned above, an audiotape made at the time revealed that only a single person, Christine Miller, verbally dissented, and she was shouted down by the crowd (Q 042). Odell Rhodes, who escaped from Jonestown on November 18, has consistently stated that most died willingly (Feinsod 1981). Stanley Clayton, a young black man who fled during the deaths, initially reported only a single person resisting, but later claimed that a number of others resisted (Wooden 1981). Dr. Leslie Mootoo, the Guyana government pathologist who went to Jonestown following the deaths, observed injection marks on the upper arms of at least eighty adults, and questioned whether these individuals died voluntarily. Citing Dr. Mootoo’s testimony, a number of writers have characterized the deaths as murder (Hougan 1999).

The 2006 edition of the jonestown report featured a forum titled “Was It Murder or Suicide?” in which a dozen writers, myself included, weighed in on the topic (“Was It Murder or Suicide? ”2006). Some authors argued strongly that it was murder, because Jonestown residents either did not seriously intend to kill themselves, or did not have any choice in the matter. As Josef Dieckman writes: “There was only one option: death. The only ‘choice’ they were offered was whether that death would be by their own hand or by someone else’s. That’s not choice, that’s murder” (Dieckman 2006).

However we may understand the nature of the deaths in Jonestown, we cannot escape the fact that events of the last day were carefully organized and rehearsed a number of times. My two sisters, Carolyn Layton and Annie Moore, are implicated in the planning process, as are a number of other leaders in Jonestown.

Even conceding that the death of a child could not be considered a suicide, the following question remains: How did the parents who killed their children in Jonestown view their own actions? On several documented occasions, the people of Jonestown openly discussed the possibility of killing their children. During one White Night on April 12, 1978, as recorded on audiotape, residents announce their willingness to take the lives of their children rather than leave them for the fascists to find. Jones elaborates, saying that they are already prepared to be “genuinely compassionate” in the case of such an emergency. If the child were over the age of 11, “she would take up a cutlass and fight till she was dead, unless it came to an overwhelming invasion, and then we would gently put them to sleep” (Q 637).

These facts undermine claims that adults in Jonestown did not voluntarily die that day. Would parents want to continue to live, once their children were dead? It seems unlikely that the armed guards who surrounded the perimeter of Jonestown (and who in the end committed suicide as well) were necessary at that point.

Were the Deaths in Jonestown the Result of a Conspiracy?

Because preliminary accounts of the deaths were conflicting—the body count rose each day that first week from an initial toll of 408 to a final number of 909—a number of conspiracy theories surfaced to explain the discrepancies. Elsewhere I identified three main groupings of Jonestown conspiracies: those by well-known professional conspiracists, such as John Judge and Mark Lane; Internet conspiracy theories by professional conspiracists, such as David Ickes; and nonprofessional conspiracy theories that focus strictly on Jonestown (Moore 2002). Conspiracy theories about Jonestown take a number of different approaches. Some claim that the CIA or a similar agency of the US government conducted a mind control experiment at Jonestown, using drugs to brainwash people into killing themselves. Some claim that Jonestown residents were actually murdered by British or American Special Forces who did not want to see expatriate Americans, especially African Americans, immigrate to Russia. Other theories hold that various government agencies murdered Jonestown residents in order to hide or cover up a larger operation, such as the development of the AIDS virus, or the murder of rogue CIA agent Jim Jones; or to mask the assassination of Congressman Ryan, who had co-sponsored a law which provided greater congressional oversight of the CIA.

A rumor that continues to circulate is that Jim Jones did not really die in Jonestown; instead, he escaped with the millions of dollars he had stashed in foreign banks around the world. A variation on this theme is that Jones planned to enact a right-wing coup in the United States, the first step of which was the assassination of Leo Ryan.

What the conspiracy theories have in common is the shared belief that no one in their right mind would either kill their children or commit suicide at the behest of an obvious madman. This leads to the logical and inevitable conclusion that the deaths must have been perpetrated by an outside agency. And so the question really turns only on who those perpetrators might be. Conspiracy theories, somewhat perversely, try to maintain the moral order by demonstrating that the universe operates according to the rules laid out by conspirators, rather than operating according to random or arbitrary stimuli.

Questions about what happened in Jonestown certainly remain. Freedom of Information Act documents indicate that the CIA had a presence in Guyana, whom most analyses identify as Richard Dwyer, the Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Georgetown. Dwyer had visited Jonestown several times and was there on the last day. A mysterious tape (Q875) found among the hundreds of tapes collected in Jonestown includes a radio news program from the Guyana Broadcasting Corporation made after the deaths. [Editor’s note: An analysis of that tape written in 2008 for the jonestown report appears here.] The most disturbing unanswered question is whether agencies of the US government knew of the plans to commit suicide and, if so, what they did with the information: did they actively promote or provoke the events of Jonestown’s last day, or did they cover up their decisions not to act on the intelligence? The fact that hundreds of government documents about Peoples Temple remain classified continues to lend credence to some theories.

What Are the Lessons of Jonestown?

“Jonestown” has become a shorthand way of alluding to the dangers of cults and new religions. In the 1980s, the anti-cult movement used the threat of “future Jonestowns” in attempts to promote restrictions on religious liberties These efforts failed. Shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, anti-cultists again tried to link terrorists with cultists, drawing parallels between Jim Jones and Osama bin Laden.

The most ubiquitous appearance of Jonestown occurs in the expression “Drinking the Kool-Aid,” a term that suggests either blind obedience or unswerving loyalty, especially to sports teams. Elsewhere I document the various ways “Drinking the Kool-Aid” entered American lexicon, arguing that “the only explanation for this radical shift in meaning—from Kool-Aid as deadly to Kool-Aid as desirable—is the incredible distancing from Jonestown that has occurred” (Moore 2003: 99). If anything, references to and variants on the phrase have only increased in the intervening decade.

Despite this distance, people continue to be intrigued by Peoples Temple and the events in Jonestown. Adolescents and young adults born long after 1978 find meaning in history reports and school papers about the subject. Artists of all kinds—poets, painters, novelists, musicians—interpret and reframe the events in a variety of media. The lessons of Jonestown are still being written as new generations take a second look at the complicated and controversial subject of Peoples Temple.

The controversies surrounding Peoples Temple do not tell the whole story of this fascinating and notorious group. In many respects, focusing on the scandal and outrage obscures other important and noteworthy elements of this new religious movement. These striking elements include: the idealism of thousands of members in California to develop a just and egalitarian society; the commitment of a thousand members to move to Jonestown to create a workable communitarian experiment; and the participation of women at the highest levels of leadership, to highlight just a few. The story of Peoples Temple and its members neither began nor ended on November 18, 1978; therefore, the controversies about Peoples Temple should be considered within the larger perspective of its complete and complex history.


Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple,

Dieckman, Josef 2006. “Murder vs. Suicide: What the Numbers Show.” the jonestown report. Vol. 8.

Feinsod, Ethan. 1981. Awake in a Nightmare: Jonestown: The Only Eyewitness Account. New York: W. W. Norton.

Hall, John. 1987. Gone from the Promised Land: Jonestown in American Cultural History. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Hougan, Jim. 1999. “Jonestown: The Secret Life of Jim Jones: A Parapolitical Fugue.” Lobster 37 (Summer):2-20. Also at Alternative Considerations,

Layton, Deborah. 1998. Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the Peoples Temple. New York: Anchor Books.

Mills, Jeannie. 1979. Six Years with God: Life Inside Rev. Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple. New York: A&W Publishers.

Moore, Rebecca. 2002. “Reconstructing Reality: Conspiracy Theories about Jonestown.” Journal of Popular Culture 36, no. 2 (Fall): 200-220. Also on Alternative Considerations,

_____. 2003. “Drinking the Kool-Aid: The Cultural Transformation of a Tragedy.” Nova Religio 7, no. 2: 92-100. Also on Alternative Considerations,

_____. 2009. Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple. Westport, CT; Praeger.

_____. 2011. “Narratives of Persecution, Suffering, and Martyrdom: Violence in Peoples Temple and Jonestown.” In Violence and New Religious Movements, edited by James R. Lewis, 95-111. New York: Oxford University Press.

“The NOIWON Notation.” 1978. Alternative Considerations,

Q042. “Death Tape.” Alternative Considerations.

Q637. Alternative Considerations,

Q875. Alternative Considerations,

Reiterman, Tim, and John Jacobs. 1982. Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People. New York: E. P. Dutton.

Roller, Edith. 1975-1978. “Edith Roller Journals.” Alternative Considerations,

Scheeres, Julia. 2011. A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown. New York: Free Press.

Smith, Archie, Jr. 2004. “An Interpretation of Peoples Temple and Jonestown: Implications for the Black Church.” In Peoples Temple and Black Religion in America, edited by Rebecca Moore, Anthony B. Pinn, and Mary R. Sawyer, 47-56. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Stephenson, Denice. 2005. Dear People: Remembering Jonestown. San Francisco and Berkeley: California Historical Society Press and Heyday Books.

“Was It Murder or Suicide: A Forum.” 2006. the jonestown report. Vol. 8.

Wooden, Kenneth. 1981. The Children of Jonestown. New York: McGraw-Hill.

(Rebecca Moore is Professor Emerita of Religious Studies at San Diego State University, and has written and published extensively on Peoples Temple and Jonestown. Rebecca is also the co-manager of this website. Her other articles in this edition of the jonestown report are Lowell Streiker: A Voice of Responsibility and Introducing Our Volunteers. Her full collection of articles on this site may be found here. She may be reached at