American as Cherry Pie

The following essay appears in Millennialism, Persecution, and Violence: Historical Cases, ed. Catherine Wessinger (Syracuse University Press, 2000).

When H. Rap Brown observed in 1967 that violence was as American as cherry pie, he was justifying the civil rebellions erupting in black ghettoes across the nation, and criticizing the institutional racism which caused them. The 1960s and 1970s witnessed state-sanctioned violence in Vietnam, in Central America, and in the United States. Americans could watch sheriffs’ deputies beating up Freedom Riders in the South, U.S. troops dropping bombs and napalm on Vietnamese villagers, or police attacking demonstrators in Chicago, Berkeley, or on almost any American campus–all on the nightly news.

This is the historical context in which Peoples Temple developed.2 Jim Jones (1931-1978), its charismatic leader, established Peoples Temple in Indianapolis in the 1950s as a protest against a racially-segregated church and community. He moved the Temple to Redwood Valley, California in the 1960s seeking safety from what seemed like imminent nuclear war. It branched out into San Francisco and Los Angeles in the 1970s seeking new members from the ranks of the urban poor, many of whom were African American. It moved again in mid-1977 to a remote jungle in western Guyana on the north coast of South America, to escape the violence, poverty, and racism of life in America. And on November 18, 1978, the people living in Jonestown, Guyana, killed their children and took their own lives.3

Theology married ideology in Peoples Temple in a radical interpretation of the Gospel imperative to care for the poor, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned (Matthew 25:35-40). The Temple opened its doors in the heart of black ghettoes in San Francisco and Los Angeles, where members offered a variety of social programs which, in turn, attracted new recruits. Some joined because of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, others because of the Gospel of Karl Marx. In both cases the Temple’s activism appeared to offer a vigorous challenge to the culture of racism and classism which marked American society. It is important to remember that the optimism of liberation movements in the 1960s gave way to pessimism, rage, and despair in the 1970s, and thus Peoples Temple provided an alternative to mainstream American culture and to a moribund counterculture.

It is no exaggeration to claim that Peoples Temple and the violence surrounding it were as American as cherry pie. But Peoples Temple also belonged to a prophetic religious tradition that was utterly American as well. This tradition included abolitionism, social gospel progressivism, and civil rights activism. To suggest that Peoples Temple, or even Jim Jones, are anomalous in American culture is to misread and ignore history. America produced Peoples Temple and the tragedy at Jonestown, just as it produced the nineteenth-century slave trade and the twentieth-century civil rights movement; as it created the Vietnam War and the peace movement; Ronald Reagan and Robert Kennedy; Rush Limbaugh and Martin Luther King, Jr. Attempts to distance ourselves from what happened are therefore misplaced and misguided (Chidester 1988, 24-46).

In order to understand why over 900 people died in a jungle thousands of miles from their places of birth it is necessary to examine the growth of injustice against Peoples Temple and the rise of injustice within Peoples Temple. This essay argues that increasing external threats, which were quite real and well-documented, served to escalate the violence internal to the organization. The result triggered assaults on Temple members leaving Jonestown with Congressman Leo Ryan on November 18, 1978; the assassination of the congressman, members of the news media, and a defector at the Port Kaituma, Guyana airstrip; and the mass murders-suicides of members of the Jonestown community.

Violence and Peoples Temple:
A Reconsideration

In the twenty years since my sisters Carolyn Layton and Annie Moore and my nephew Jim-Jon Prokes died in Jonestown, my thinking about what happened in Peoples Temple and at Jonestown has changed. I wrote A Sympathetic History of Jonestown: The Moore Family Involvement in the Peoples Temple (Moore 1985) as a counterweight to the mass of quickie anti-cult books which popped up after the suicides (Kilduff and Javers 1978; Kern and Wead 1979; Krause 1978; Mills 1979; Nugent 1979). This means that I tried to explain and interpret the actions of the members of Peoples Temple in a way which would make sense of what had happened, both to the reading public and to myself. In the process, I downplayed the violence internal to the institution. This is most apparent in the chapter “For Every Good Thing, Something Bad.”

Evidence seems conclusive, however, that: 1) beatings and public humiliation sessions regularly occurred as part of the Temple’s means of controlling its members; 2) individuals were privately threatened or intimidated; 3) suicide drills were practiced as a way to test loyalty, and to prepare members for the “real thing;” 4) some individuals were controlled with drugs in Jonestown and an atmosphere of repression grew there as Jim Jones’ health deteriorated; and of course 5) violence broke out against Congressman Ryan and against the community itself. In 1985 I tried to contextualize these facts by calling them “paradoxes,” “double standards,” or “ironies.” There are several reasons why I am no longer willing to do that.

First, the credibility of the anti-cult movement (ACM) has been demolished and I no longer need to try to balance their biased accounts. The coercive tactics of deprogrammers have been exposed, the threat to the free exercise of religion by the ACM has been recognized, and perhaps most importantly, the crucial and negative role anti-cultists played in shaping government action toward the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas has been documented (S. Wright 1995; Tabor and Gallagher 1995). Second, books and articles by scholars of religion have critically assessed the accounts given by apostates, or “defectors” as they were called in 1985 (Hall and Schuyler 1998; Shupe and Bromley 1994; Shupe, Bromley and Breschel 1989), and similarly eliminated the need to put things in perspective. Third, the voice of Jim Jones’ biological son Stephan Jones has begun to emerge in articles (L. Wright 1993), books (Maaga 1996), and in personal conversations. His reports of what happened in Jonestown confirm the worst, yet appear neither self-serving nor judgmental. Finally, time has allowed me to face the fact that my sisters were involved, either explicitly or implicitly, in planning some of the violence which occurred in Peoples Temple. Maaga cites a letter Annie wrote in which she argues for the suicide of the community (Maaga 1996, 119-121).

How did Peoples Temple members rationalize their internal violence? Carolyn defended the security gate and armed guards at the Temple buildings in Redwood Valley by saying that local townspeople had fired shots into the area (Moore 1985, 115).4 Racial incidents in the predominantly white towns of northern California persuaded members that they were not safe. Peoples Forum, the newspaper of Peoples Temple, reported frequent harassment of members. The group excused the guards at the Temple on Geary Street in San Francisco because of conflicts with Neo-Nazis and the Nation of Islam.

Disciplinary actions against members came under the rubric “catharsis.” Catharsis sessions comprised confession and humiliation before the entire community. True catharsis required a change in behavior, such as repenting of an elitist attitude, or giving more time to the cause. Some of the behaviors requiring repentance included resenting decisions made by the Temple Planning Council (the decision-making body for the group), or calling someone names. It is clear that church members, not just Jim Jones or the Planning Council, vigorously participated in the discipline. One Temple woman kept a diary which noted that:


Glenn Hennington was on the floor for driving without a license for six months. He got a ticket. He had to fight with a girl who knocked him out, which exhilarated the feminine portion of the audience… (Moore 1985, 127).

Complicity in discipline, catharsis, fake faith healings, and other questionable, unethical, or illegal activities bound Temple members to each other.

Jim Jones mediated the news for members in the United States, but with the move to Guyana his control of information became virtually absolute. In Jonestown he could blow up a border skirmish between China and the Soviet Union into a major war. He could claim that America was herding blacks into concentration camps. The outside world, already threatening and hostile, became forbidding, dangerous, and closed. It became apparent to Peoples Temple that its enemies were successfully persuading the news media and agencies of the United States government to investigate the organization in ways which threatened its livelihood.

A dualistic worldview pitted the good guys–Peoples Temple–against the bad guys–a racist and classist society which epitomized the greed and selfishness which Peoples Temple members categorically rejected (Wessinger 1997, 282). Those who joined the group sought to create a new society, a utopia which my sister Annie described in her last letter to the world:


There were no ugly, mean policemen wanting to beat our heads in, no more racist tears from whites and others who thought they were better. No one was made fun of for their appearance–something no one had control over. Meanness and making fun were not allowed. Maybe this is why all the lies were started. Besides this fact, no one was allowed to live higher than anyone else (Moore 1986, 285-286).

Coupled with the egalitarian sentiments expressed by Annie, was an apocalyptic expectation which dominated Jim Jones and ultimately the entire community. Whether the end of life in the United States came by fascist take-over or nuclear annihilation, it was coming. The group shared and promoted Jim’s apocalyptic expectation in plays, in speeches, in confessions, and in songs. The night Leo Ryan stayed in Jonestown a young woman sang a song titled “1981:”


You will stand in line
With your passport to sign
And the government says no to your kind (Moore 1985, 157-158).

A journal by a Peoples Temple member declared that “Nuclear war is made certain” after Jim gave a discouraging, and biased, news report on the Middle East (Moore 1985, 158). Current events seemed to confirm the imminent end of the world.5 Aggression against Peoples Temple itself, however, also validated apocalyptic fears and expectations.

Violence Against Peoples Temple6

A body of literature about apostates from New Religious Movements (NRMs) and their influence upon government and the news media has arisen in the past decade (Hall and Schuyler 1998; Shupe and Bromley 1994; Tabor and Gallagher 1995). The fiery end of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas in 1993 also focused attention on the undue credibility which apostates received from government agencies handling the siege (Tabor and Gallagher 1995; S. Wright 1995). A critical approach to apostates did not exist at the time of Jonestown, however, and so a group calling itself the Concerned Relatives, comprised of former Temple members and relatives of current members, had virtually unchallenged access to the media and to the government.

The Concerned Relatives began to organize as early as 1976, but did not go public until an August 1977 article in New West Magazine presented its allegations against the Temple without much critical analysis. Spearheading the movement were Timothy and Grace Stoen. The couple sought to regain custody of their six-year-old son John Victor who they had legally entrusted to Jim Jones. Tim, a lawyer and top leader in the Temple, had assigned custody to Jones when Grace fled the Temple in 1976. When Tim defected a year later, he and Grace joined forces to try to get John Victor out of Jonestown. The custody issue was complicated by the fact that Tim had signed an affidavit which said that Jones was the biological father of John Victor. In January 1978 the Stoens traveled to Guyana to try to exert personal pressure on the U.S. Embassy, the Government of Guyana, and on Jonestown. When they returned without having seen their son, they began to lobby members of Congress, including Congressman Leo Ryan, whose own daughter was a member of the Rajneesh religious commune in Oregon.

The next major offensive from the Concerned Relatives came in April 1978 with the release of an “Accusation of Human Rights Violations by [the] Rev. James Warren Jones Against Our Children and Relatives at the Peoples Temple Jungle Encampment in Guyana, South America.” The group sent the document to the media, members of Congress, the U.S. State Department, and to Peoples Temple. They listed a number of grievances, such as denial of access to relatives, censorship of mail, and prevention of travel by family members. The “Accusation” also included affidavits from Steven Katsaris which related his failed attempt to see his adult daughter Maria, and from ex-member Yulanda Crawford, who lived in Jonestown for three months in 1977.

After the publicity surrounding the “Accusation” died down, a new strategy emerged: intensified legal action against Peoples Temple. Tim Stoen filed lawsuits seeking damages against Peoples Temple and Jim Jones on behalf of three other disgruntled relatives. In spite of a counter-suit filed against Tim Stoen in the summer of 1978, Peoples Temple still faced these three suits as well as the Stoen custody suit in November.

Most damaging, and ultimately most persuasive to U.S. government agencies and to Congress, was an affidavit Tim Stoen helped Deborah Layton (Blakey) prepare after her defection from Peoples Temple in Guyana in May 1978. In addition to describing the rough living conditions which prevailed in the community, Deborah reported that Temple members had conducted suicide rehearsals. It was Deborah’s affidavit and personal communication with Congressman Leo Ryan that convinced him to travel to Jonestown.

The access the Concerned Relatives had to the media and to government agencies helped create a hydra of federal, state, and local investigations into the activities of Peoples Temple. If these investigations had found any evidence of fraud or illegal activities Peoples Temple would have seen many of its financial resources dry up. The threat to the very existence of Jonestown from several agencies, including the U.S. Customs Service, the Federal Communications Commission, the Social Security Administration, and the Internal Revenue Service, was quite real.

The U.S. Customs investigation began in February 1977 at the instigation of ex-members and continued into 1978. The year-long investigation included surveillance of Peoples Temple property in Redwood Valley and San Francisco; lookouts posted in Houston, New Orleans, and Miami; and cargo searches. Nevertheless, the Customs Service failed to turn up any signs of smuggling or contraband. “At no time was there any evidence of a substantial enough nature to justify an affidavit for either a search warrant or a presentation to the U.S. Attorney for Federal Grand Jury Action,” a Customs agent reported to the House Foreign Affairs Committee investigating the Jonestown suicides (Moore 1985, 279-280). Nevertheless, U.S. Customs forwarded a report made in August 1977 to Interpol and to the State Department, which Peoples Temple members then received from the government of Guyana.

Aside from inaccuracies in the report, the most intriguing statement follows:


As a result of this action [Customs’ surveillance], a continuing series of magazine, newspaper, radio and television articles and coverage has been given to JONES and the Church. Subsequently, investigations have been initiated by San Francisco and Mendocino counties (Moore 1985, 281).

In other words, a concerted and planned effort existed to discredit and dismantle Peoples Temple. Peoples Temple members were concerned not only about the delay of needed items shipped from the United States to Guyana, but more importantly, about the effect the report would have on their relationship with officials in the government of Guyana. After all, they were in Guyana only at the pleasure of Prime Minister Forbes Burnham’s ruling party. Any unfavorable publicity or damaging incidents, they felt, could jeopardize that.

The custody case waged by Tim and Grace Stoen also threatened the delicate balance between the Temple and its supporters in the highest levels of the Guyanese government. A visit to Jonestown in September 1977 by the Stoens’ attorney from America, coupled with the absence from the country of some members of Guyana’s ruling party sent the community into a panic. The group threatened to commit mass suicide if John Victor were removed, according to Charles Garry, the Temple’s San Francisco attorney (Moore 1985, 285). My sister Carolyn later explained the political significance of the case.


If we do not get backing on this issue, how could we ever have confidence in the government backing us on far more controversial issues (Moore 1985, 286).

Further evidence of the coordinated attack on Peoples Temple came in the form of a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) investigation into the group’s use of the amateur radio waves. The FCC began monitoring Temple communications in April 1977 after receiving a tip from a ham radio operator. The chief of the FCC’s Enforcement Division urged the San Francisco office of the FCC to continue daily coverage between 1977 and 1978. By November 1978 the agency had logged between 40 and 60 hours of conversation.

The major communications link Jonestown had with Peoples Temple in San Francisco, and with the outside world, was through its ham radios. Radio conversations ranged in topics from continuing education and agricultural training to T-shirts and tractor parts. Sometimes members read political statements over the air. The biggest problem, as far as the FCC was concerned, was the fact that the Temple seemed to be conducting private business over the public airwaves, and was going out-of-band to do so. “We haven’t found anything wrong other than the business-type traffic,” complained one FCC engineer. “It’s the out-of-band bit we need to hang them” (Moore 1985, 293).7 In August 1978, the FCC warned Elton Adams, a Temple licensee, that revocation of his license, as well as fines, might occur if he continued to use his station to facilitate the administration of Peoples Temple.

Transcripts of the FCC’s communications show that the investigation was influenced by the negative publicity generated by the Concerned Relatives. One engineer told another about a TV talk show which aired charges against the Temple. “Make it an official observation,” was the response. Mirroring the crimes listed in the Customs Service report, an FCC report from August 1977 said that “the Peoples Temple may be engaged in nefarious acts on an international level” (Moore 1985, 294). The “nefarious acts” purportedly included gun-running, narcotics smuggling, and illegal transfers of funds out of the country.8

The FCC’s revocation threat of August 1978, coupled with a reiterated threat in November 1978, came on top of a new communications problem. The Maritime Mobile Net refused to carry phone patches from Peoples Temple, claiming that the FCC told it the calls were illegal (Moore 1985, 199). What this meant was that calls from Jonestown, Guyana had to be routed through the Temple’s San Francisco office. Direct calls could no longer be made.

The possibility of financial disaster from two sources overshadowed the potential disruption of the flow of supplies and communications. The Social Security Administration (SSA) office in San Francisco in the summer of 1977 asked postal officials to alert it immediately to any address changes marked Guyana. The Postal Service went a step further and, according to a USPS routing slip, ordered all U.S. Treasury checks destined for Guyana returned to the Treasury. It wasn’t until the late Congressman Phillip Burton (D-Calif) wrote several times, appending the Postal Service note, that SSA finally resolved the problem in December 1977. Normally, all SSA and SSI (Supplemental Security Income) checks are forwarded, and the Treasury Department notified (Moore 1985, 299). In the spring of 1978 more checks were misrouted. Letters poured in from Peoples Temple, and SSA quickly resolved the problem. But an SSA interim report detailed the “extraordinary lengths” it followed to prevent any sort of fraud on the part of Peoples Temple.

As of June 1978, about $37,000 worth of Social Security checks went to Temple beneficiaries each month. Repeated investigations by the U.S. Embassy staff in Guyana verified that those receiving the checks were in fact alive. Then-Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph Califano reported that handwriting analysis confirmed the endorsements of Peoples Temple members which were made on checks dated November 3, 1978 (Moore 1985, 265-266). Although one woman, Lisa Layton, died of cancer at the end of October, her checks were returned to the government, unsigned and uncashed.

The second threat to the Temple’s financial security came from the Internal Revenue Service. In February 1978 the IRS informed the organization that it was conducting an examination to determine if the Temple were receiving income from any activity subject to income tax. In other words, the agency was investigating, and had been investigating for two years, whether or not the Temple was adequately reporting unrelated business income, which was taxable (Hall 1987, 197-198). In the February letter the IRS District Director asked for organizational documents, financial statements, payroll tax returns, and copies of licenses and permits to operate commercial activities. The lawyer handling the IRS case for the Temple quickly determined that it was not an official audit and learned that it was negative publicity about Peoples Temple that prompted the most immediate IRS move against the church. In spite of the ad hoc nature of the IRS’ request, its investigation was still pending on November 18, 1978. The IRS finally revoked the Temple’s tax-exempt status after its demise, and sought back taxes for the last 30 months of the church’s existence from the Peoples Temple Receiver.

A number of events occurred in the summer and fall of 1978 which compounded the insecurity the community felt. On top of Deborah Layton’s defection in May, Terri Buford, another trusted financial officer in Jonestown, left in October. The departure of these two women, who had access to and control of millions of dollars of Temple assets, required a mad scramble on the part of Jones and his leadership group to protect the Temple’s holdings in various foreign banks.

The defections of Buford and Layton seemed evidence enough of a conspiracy against Peoples Temple. Mark Lane and Don Freed provided definitive proof. Don Freed, a writer and director whose Hollywood credentials included political thrillers like The Parallax View and Executive Action, visited Jonestown in August 1978 and encouraged Lane to visit in September. As far as Peoples Temple was concerned, Lane had impeccable credentials as a long-time supporter of liberal causes. The group hired the conspiracy buff to uncover plots against it, and that he did. “Mom and Dad have probably shown you the latest about the conspiracy information that Mark Lane, the famous attorney in the ML King case and Don Freed the other famous author in the Kennedy case have come up with regarding activities planned against us–Peoples Temple,” Annie wrote in October 1978 (Moore 1986, 282). Carolyn wrote that Don Freed told them that “anything this drug out could be nothing less than conspiracy” (Moore 1986, 272).

The conspiracy which Lane and Freed exposed involved a private detective named Joe Mazor which the Concerned Relatives had hired. Mazor confessed his sins to the community in Jonestown in September, explaining that he had had a change of heart when he realized that the Concerned Relatives had lied to him. Lane perhaps had persuaded Mazor to come clean. The lawyer announced in Guyana on September 20 that “We have also concluded without question that there has been a massive conspiracy to destroy the Peoples Temple and a massive conspiracy to destroy the Reverend Jim Jones…” (Moore 1985, 305). Lane repeated the charges in San Francisco on October 3. Temple documents show that Lane promised to file a lawsuit against various Concerned Relatives which would reveal details of a conspiracy against the Temple during discovery proceedings. Lane, in short, verified what Peoples Temple members had suspected all along.

Violence Within Peoples Temple

The concerted and well-organized effort of the Concerned Relatives to harass Peoples Temple had a devastating effect on the people in Jonestown. Between the time of the mass immigration of Peoples Temple members into Jonestown in summer 1977, and November 1978, internal dissent escalated, and along with it, repression and inner-directed violence. The Special Care Unit in Jonestown housed dissidents rather than rule-breakers. If someone broke the rules, he or she was assigned more work. If individuals dissented, however, they were assigned to Special Care, where the Jonestown medical staff administered and monitored intensive sedation. Charles Garry, the Temple’s long-time attorney, believes that Eugene Chaikin, a Temple member who was also a lawyer, might have been housed in Special Care. Garry was unable to see Chaikin during his November 1978 visit in spite of repeated attempts to do so (Moore 1985, 220).

The workload increased, as a relatively small number of able-bodied adults tried to farm and support children and the seniors (Maaga 1996, 138). With about a third of the Jonestown community under age 18, and another third over the age of retirement, all of the daily chores fell on the same group of people. Field workers never knew when their breaks would be scheduled; they never knew in advance when they might have a day off. The security force was ordered to patrol constantly. Eventually it got out of hand: one security officer cocked his gun and aimed it at people, presumably to intimidate them (Moore 1985, 309).

Tommy Bogue made one of the more dramatic escape attempts late in 1978. Caught by the security force, he and his friends were shackled in chains for three weeks and forced to chop wood for 18 hours a day. Bogue said that others who tried to escape were placed in a coffin-like box for several days (Moore 1985, 309).

Meanwhile, the suicide drills increased in frequency and intensity. At these drills, participants would drink fruit punch and pretend to fall down dead. It was a test, they were told afterwards, to prove their loyalty to Jim Jones, to the community, and to the cause.

It is clear now that the group rehearsed suicide many times. Members of the Jonestown community were mentally and physically ready to die. Carolyn and Annie had both told my family in letters that they were “prepared” to die. We interpreted their remarks as statements of their willingness to die for what they believed, not a willingness to kill themselves. But the rehearsals served a ritualistic purpose: everyone knew what was expected and what to do. During an earlier drill one person testified that:


Life is shit. What Dad [Jim Jones] says is true, life outside this collective is shit… I want to die a revolutionary death (Moore 1985, 333).

In the eyes of Jones, the enemies within threatened to subvert the entire organization. The enemies without –hostile government agencies, a skeptical press, angry relatives, disloyal apostates–remained distant. But the forces combined when Congressman Ryan announced on November 1, 1978, that he would visit Jonestown.

Ryan knew the trip could be dangerous. He had been warned by Deborah Layton and believed that mass suicide was a real possibility. On November 13, the U.S. State Department told him of the presence of weapons in the community. Ryan knew of alleged illegal activities because the Los Angeles District Attorney asked him to interview some Temple members about an extortion complaint. Moreover, in the briefcase he took with him to Jonestown, Ryan had notes concerning Jim Jones’ lewd conduct arrest in 1973. Nevertheless, Ryan was determined to go at any cost.

Equally threatening as Ryan’s trip itself was the congressman’s choice of traveling companions. In spite of warnings from the State Department and the U.S. Embassy, Ryan took with him every enemy of Peoples Temple. Tim and Grace Stoen, other opponents of Peoples Temple, hostile reporters, and people who had sued the Temple or had threatened to retrieve their children by force, made up Ryan’s entourage.

When Jones learned that the Congressman’s plane was en route to Jonestown on November 17, he announced over the loudspeaker: “Alert, alert! We’re being invaded!” (Moore 1985, 319). Ryan’s visit fulfilled Jones’ prophecies and verified his interpretation of the truth.9 Had Ryan not gone to Jonestown, or had he stage-managed his visit otherwise, the results might have been different (Hall and Schuyler 1998). Maaga’s study of the organizational structure of the Jonestown community indicates that Jim Jones may have been facing a coup led by trusted female leaders, which would have made him a powerless figurehead (Maaga 1996, 97-103). Stephan Jones claims that he and his brothers were ready to kill their father because of his destructive influence on the community (L. Wright 1993, 78; and in a personal conversation). Carlton Goodlett, Jones’ doctor in San Francisco, believed he would have been dead from drug abuse and illness within a few months (Moore 1985, 221). Instead, Leo Ryan’s arrival re-established the credibility of the faltering leader.

After Ryan left for the airstrip, taking 16 defectors with him, Jones sent security forces to kill the congressman and reporters. He then gathered the community into the central pavilion for instructions.

An audiotape of the final discussion indicates how well-prepared the community was. “We’re all ready to go,” declared one man. “If you tell us we have to give our lives now, we’re ready. All the rest of the sisters and brothers are with me” (Maaga 1996, 149). A woman reassured the group that:


This is nothing to cry about. This is something we could all rejoice about. We could be happy about this. They always told us that we could cry when you’re coming into this world. So we’re leaving it, and we’re leaving it peaceful (Maaga 1996, 153).

This woman’s comments indicate that members of the Jonestown community did not see themselves as participating in a violent act. On the contrary, they saw themselves taking their leave quietly, peacefully, and yet as an act of protest. Jim’s final recorded words demonstrate this:


Take our life from us. We laid it down. We got tired. We didn’t commit suicide. We committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world (Maaga 1996, 157).

Maaga argues that members of the Jonestown community saw their choice as being between loyalty to the group, which meant death; or betrayal, which meant survival (Maaga 1996, 121-123). Although the violence in Peoples Temple did burst forth against outsiders, it was primarily directed at insiders, at individuals within the group. While violence served as a form of social control, it also created bonds within the new family and new society Jim and his followers were trying to create. When people suffer together they either feel closer as a result, or they become alienated. People in Jonestown had suffered together, and some were alienated by that suffering. But the majority drew closer together.10 In other words, violence–from disciplinary sessions to suicide drills–served as the glue which held people together; not by death threats, but rather by participation in common rituals and routinization of the uncommon: suicide.


“We are not paranoid,” a Peoples Forum editorial declared. “We simply have found no other logical way to make sense of our experiences” (Moore 1985, 273). The Forum explained that a conspiracy against the Temple existed. Mark Lane, like Dr. Frankenstein, gave life to the monster. Paranoia existed within Peoples Temple, as evidenced by public and private confession, community security forces, and conspiracy discussions. But the group found its conspiracy theories validated in negative news accounts which uncritically reported the views of Concerned Relatives. The Temple’s perception that the U.S. government was involved in the persecution was also correct. This essay has tried to demonstrate that the Temple’s perception of being persecuted was not mere fantasy, but instead was a correct reading of a well-orchestrated effort that was mounted against Peoples Temple with the purpose of destroying the institution. The intention was surely not to destroy the members of the organization, but that is in fact what happened.

Relatives, the news media, and the government perpetuated violence against the group even after its death. News accounts sensationalized the rumors, innuendoes, and gossip provided by apostates and relatives. The media demonized Peoples Temple members by showing them over and over again in death, rather than in life. Time and Newsweek would have been guilty of libel had not my sisters been dead: but libel laws do not cover the dead and so anything, and everything, was said about them, including the accusation that my sister Carolyn was a member of a death squad seeking opponents of Peoples Temple. The U.S. government wanted to bury the bodies in Guyana, but when the Guyanese government loudly protested, shipped them to Dover Air Force Base, two thousand miles from the Temple’s home base in San Francisco.

The most egregious violence in my mind was the government’s failure to perform even the most rudimentary of medical examinations on the bodies. No blood, tissue, or urine samples were obtained. An autopsy is the very least society owes the victims of violent death, but neither the U.S. nor the Guyana governments conducted these in any meaningful way. This means that the real cause of the deaths in Jonestown is ultimately unknown, as the autopsy report on Carolyn prepared by the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology indicates:


Cause of Death: Probably cyanide poisoning.
Manner of Death: Undetermined (Moore 1985, 45).

The injury Peoples Temple did to itself is obvious. The injury done against Peoples Temple is equally obvious, but nowhere have I heard any words of remorse from those involved in the actions against Peoples Temple. In fact, members of the Concerned Relatives criticized my parents in January 1979 for not joining them. As recently as 1996 a Temple apostate, seeing my mother for the first time in twenty years, said “You could have prevented it!”

All of us who had relatives in Peoples Temple are involved in varying degrees with the tragic outcome. My parents, John and Barbara Moore, chose to affirm the good that they saw in Peoples Temple and in my sisters. They questioned the Temple’s secrecy and its adulation of Jim Jones. They chose not to side with either the enemies of Peoples Temple or with Peoples Temple itself, but rather with my sisters. While we do not know how this stance factored into the final equation, we admit that undoubtedly we played some role. I have never heard any of the Concerned Relatives make even a partial admission of responsibility for accelerating the conflict that exacerbated the tension in Jonestown, or for instigating the persecution of Peoples Temple.

It took almost ten years for a scholar to link the actions of the Concerned Relatives with the apocalypse in Jonestown, which Hall did in Gone From the Promised Land. “The key to understanding Jonestown,” he wrote, “thus lies in the dynamics of conflict between a religious community and an external political order” (Hall 1987, 296). Twenty years after Jonestown, Bromley put together The Politics of Religious Apostasy: The Role of Apostates in the Transformation of Religious Movements which further explored the role apostates play in affecting the internal dynamics of New Religious Movements (Bromley 1998). The essays in Bromley’s book document the effect ex-members have in shaping public perceptions of non-traditional–or, as he calls them, contestant and subversive–religions.

In spite of Hall’s earlier work, scholars of NRMs still have failed to take the Temple’s complaints against the government seriously, dismissing them as Temple rhetoric or conspiracy theorizing. The actions by Temple members on their final day seem to encourage a spirit of condemnation or indifference. The sympathy which scholars had for the Branch Davidians reflects a critical attitude toward apostates which did not extend retroactively toward the Concerned Relatives. In addition, scholars were critical of how the government handled the situation at Waco. I have yet to see outrage over government handling of Peoples Temple either before, during, or after November 18, 1978, and a full examination of what the U.S. government did, and did not do, has never been completed. The Staff Investigative Report on Ryan’s assassination may have information on this, but since a sizable portion of the document is classified, it is impossible to tell what the Committee may have learned.

The violence of society and government both molded Peoples Temple and later turned on the Temple itself. That violence exists today just as surely as it did in 1952, 1965, and 1978. While Peoples Temple initially rejected the injustice of its culture, it finally embraced injustice as a social necessity. It went further, however, in adopting self-directed violence as a means of political change. Although those in the group saw themselves as martyrs sending a message to capitalist America with their revolutionary suicide, the group actually destroyed its own radical foot soldiers. Given the society which spawned the movement,Peoples Temple’s adoption of violence as a way to redirect the course of human events was utterly American and seems almost inevitable.


  1. I want to thank the following readers for commenting on this paper: Fielding McGehee, III; John and Barbara Moore; Dr. Mary Sawyer; Dr. Scott Lowe; and Dr. Catherine Wessinger.
  2. One of the most complete histories of Peoples Temple is John R. Hall, Gone From the Promised Land, 1987.
  3. According to the Staff Investigative Group (SIG) to the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives (May 15, 1979), 909 people died in Jonestown. I add to that figure Sharon Amos, who killed her three children and herself in Georgetown, Guyana; and the five people murdered at the Port Kaituma airstrip as they attempted to leave Jonestown. This brings the total to 918 who died that day. According to a report filed with the SIG by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 188 Social Security beneficiaries died in Jonestown. A General Accounting Office audit states that 294 children under the age of 18 died (Moore 1985, 363).
  4. In December 1979 Chuck Beikman, a Temple member, told my father, John Moore, that he went outside after the shooting incident and found that another Temple member had fired the shots.
  5. Catherine Wessinger differentiates between catastrophic millennialism and progressive millennialism. The former “involves a pessimistic view of humanity and society,” while the latter, more optimistic, sees “humans engaging in social work in harmony with the divine will” to progressively create a new kingdom on earth (Wessinger 1997, 282-283). She identifies Peoples Temple as a catastrophic group, and I tend to agree.
  6. Much of the information for this section is drawn from Chapter Eleven, “The Vise,” in A Sympathetic History of Jonestown: The Moore Family Involvement in the Peoples Temple. Written in a journalistic rather than scholarly style, the book’s sources can nevertheless be documented in the Moore Family Collection of the “Peoples Temple Archives” located in the Schubert Hall Library of the California Historical Society.
  7. Ham radio operators are required to operate within certain designated band-widths. Peoples Temple members were conducting business on unauthorized wave-lengths.
  8. A two-year probe by the U.S. Customs Service failed to uncover any evidence of gun-running. The government of Guyana recovered 35 weapons from Jonestown: seven shotguns, fourteen small caliber rifles, ten pistols, and a flare-launcher. Three additional pistols were taken from Peoples Temple members fleeing Jonestown. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms ran a trace on the weapons and found that 25 of them came from a rifle shop in Ukiah, California. All but three of the weapons had been purchased before March 1975, while thirteen were bought prior to 1970. “Hardly an arsenal,” Skip Roberts, Guyana’s Chief of Police, told us (Moore 1985, 372-373).
    Drugs had been shipped to Jonestown, but they seemed to be primarily for medicinal purposes, except of course for the tranquilizers and potassium cyanide which were used to control, and eventually kill, people. These kinds of drugs were not what the Customs Service was worried about. Clearly U.S. dollars had been smuggled out of the country, given the fact that foreign bank accounts existed in Panama and Switzerland. Some of the Panamanian accounts were in my sister Carolyn’s name.
  9. This also seemed to be one of the lessons of Waco: the government’s actions demonstrated the validity of David Koresh’s prophecies.
  10. In a personal conversation (1997) Mary Sawyer notes that shared suffering describes, in part, the black experience in America. The suffering that Peoples Temple members endured strengthened rather than weakened their bonds of commitment.