The first time I learned about the history of Jim Jones and Peoples Temple was in 2004 or 2005, during my first visit to the United States. By that time, I had read quite a bit about Charles Manson and his family, a case in U.S. history which was – and still is – far more well-known in Europe and which is often depicted as a similar story over here. However, when I got to watch a documentary about the events at Jonestown, it instantly caught my interest. On the surface, there seemed to be some similarities between the two stories, and at first, it took me a while to grasp the history of Jim Jones’ movement and its differences with Manson’s family. After I got more into the Jonestown subject, however, I understood that there were some fundamental differences between the two. From that point onwards, I read more pieces about Jones and Peoples Temple, mostly English-language articles and books, as the subject was – and still is – rarely covered in German publications. Even as I learned more and more, my confusion also grew as to why the Peoples Temple story was never really discussed over here in Europe, especially as German media dissects so much of U.S. culture in its highs and lows.
After having worked through everything I could find about the story of Peoples Temple, I set it aside until early 2023, when I was part of a team that launched a history podcast project at German newspaper WELT. Even though the single podcast episodes are usually limited to 10-to-15 minutes, I felt like this might be a great format to tell the story of Jonestown, Peoples Temple and the things that happened on that day in November 1978. I tried – and initially failed – to find German-speaking experts on the subject, although I eventually found a religion expert I could talk to. So I broadened my research to American resources. That’s when I learned about the Jonestown Institute at San Diego State University. Through Rebecca Moore, the website manager, I got in contact with Fielding McGehee, her husband and Research Director for the institute, who consented to an interview on the basic parts of the Peoples Temple movement for my podcast. Through the interview and other resources available on the site, I gained some new perspectives on the events back then and the impacts of the Jonestown tragedy. Now, almost 45 years later, the whole story is still an important subject that, in my humble opinion, should be studied more as an example of the dynamics in religious and social communities. Without having the deeper expertise of someone working in the field, I am still convinced that there are many conclusions that can be taken out of this extreme example to deal with potentially elusive and radicalized groups in today’s societies, be it in the United States or elsewhere – including in Germany.