More than 50 years after Jim Jones held his first healing service, even before there was a church called Peoples Temple, one of the most contentious questions still remains: Did he have the power to heal? There are a number of problems with assertions that he could – many healings were known to be faked, many of the cancers coughed up were bloody chicken parts, many of the “infirmed” were perfectly healthy Temple members in disguise, many were used as crowd-pleasers or as a way to bring people in (as Jim put it) so he could heal their minds – but the fact remains, he had a gift. Whether you wish to call it faith-healing or a paranormal faculty or an extra-dimensional power or a metaphysical consciousness, he had it, and it worked.
Let me start off by describing several of my own experiences with Jim Jones which I cannot explain:
• The first occurred just before I went into Peace Corps, when he responded to a question I had only thought. I had met Jim once, almost in passing, when I stopped to visit a friend in the Temple on my way to Washington state for my Peace Corps training. I was worried that I might not make it through, for several reasons. I took a walk in a forested area, and sat on a log next to a small stream, thinking – thinking, not writing – about what I should do. In my mind, I said, well, Jim Jones, if you know things, tell me: will I make it through training? Three days later, I received a letter from my friend in the Temple that Jim had called me out, said that I was sitting on a log next to a stream and worried about something. He had told her to tell me it would be okay. It blew my mind. I hadn’t told a soul about my question, yet I had a letter telling me how he was responding to it.
• The second one occurred during my time in South America with the Peace Corps. At the time, I was in Santiago, Chile over Christmas. I had gotten pretty sick, a flu or some bug, I thought, and I was in bed. One moment I was sick, the next moment I was fine. It was like a fever breaking, I remember thinking at the time. When I was talking to my friend in the Temple more than year and a half later, she told me that I had been “called out” a second time, that it was a year ago Christmas. Jim had told her, she had a friend named Don in Chile. She said she knew a Don in Bolivia. But he said no, he’s in Santiago, in Chile, and needs our help. So the congregation held hands and sent love, and then he said I was okay. And I was.
It wasn’t exactly a healing situation, in many respects. I wasn’t deathly ill, as so many people who attended healing services were. I was also far away, where no one could see the results, so there were no crowds to be pleased. No one knew about it – including me – for over a year. As I say, it felt like I was sick one moment and well the next.
• The third one is somewhat connected to the second, in that this is when I learned about my second calling out. I had returned from the Peace Corps. I was in grad school at Berkeley, but was disappointed in grad studies. I had dinner one night with a friend who made a casserole – unbeknownst to me – laced with pot. I tripped out into an Alice in Wonderland-falling-down-the-rabbit-hole-trip, wondering who I was, what I was doing in Berkeley, where was God, profound questions about my life. And I also thought – again, thought, but didn’t say – okay, where are you, Jim Jones? Three days later, my friend from the Temple showed up on my doorstep. She was visiting her parents, she said, and heard I was back, so stopped by to say hello. We started talking about her life in the Temple, and it seemed odd to me that the life she described was offering profound answers to the profound questions I had asked of myself three days earlier. I started attending services, decided to join the Temple, and moved up to Ukiah soon afterwards.
• The last incident is the most important to me, since it was about someone I loved instead of me. My friend and I married so we could bring foster children into our home. One was five years old, and had been battered – hit on the sides of his head – to such an extent that he’d suffered damage to his ears and a loss of hearing. It also meant he was quiet and had speech problems, not uncommon for a child with hearing loss. He could hardly say his name. We had him checked out: he had 20% hearing loss in one ear and 70% hearing loss in other. Since it was physical bone damage, it would not be able to be repaired. He was going to have to get hearing aids.
Danny had been with us about two months when he joined the other kids on the Temple’s annual summer bus trip with Jim. They spent one week in Oregon at a ranch of a member and another week at the beach in Baja California. When they returned, Danny got off the bus talking away, speaking clearly and understandably. It was amazing. I was just sort of staring at him when Jim walked by. He looked at me and then at Danny and then at me, smiled and said, “He’ll be fine.” Nothing more was ever said. We had him retested: the 20% loss ear was normal, and the 70% loss was now 20% loss. Hearing was never a problem again.
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This is an important piece of my history with – and perceptions of – Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. Jim knew things without being told, answered questions I raised only in my consciousness, performed one healing I was not even aware of until more than a year later and another that was neither sought nor revealed to anyone other than my family. Some might consider any one of these – especially Danny’s restored hearing – as a miracle. I guess I don’t. To me, “miracles” have a connotation of coming from an unknown source at a random time – that is, we can’t tell where they come from or who is behind them or why they’re there at that moment – as compared to someone being presented with an illness or problem, praying or contemplating over it, and then delivering the results. In other words, the question I would have is: Is a miracle performed on command, a miracle? I don’t think so. To me, they were just healings.
The more apt comparison would be between Jim and someone like Edgar Cayce, a man with some sort of power, consciousness, understanding, connection, some way to tap into something in a metaphysical sense. I have no name for it, but I struggle for one, because leaving it un-nameable conjures up assumptions I don’t believe or accept. Of all these, my closest understanding was that it was a metaphysical power. And that’s why I can’t dismiss the healings out of hand.
I recognize their limitations, though, the theatrics and deceits that Jim felt compelled to use. As I say, I know some healings were faked, just as I know some were not.
People often came to Jim initially more for the healings than for a message of helping your neighbor. We knew the healings were a way to draw people to the Temple for the first time, and some of them did stay. More and more embraced working for building a better world, putting religious doctrine questions more on hold. Jim spoke of his power as a gift, but one that had physical limits, made physical demands on his body. As we had more and more members, it was more of a drain on him to support those members and then “perform” for visitors.
That’s when faked healings came in – and that’s how those who knew of the faked healings participated in them ourselves and how we justified the subterfuge.
The power of healing was one aspect of Peoples Temple. There was the power of “providing counsel” for a relative in trouble or in jail, the power of finding a job for someone needing it, the power of finding a place to live, the power of finding clothing and food when needed. It was as though he (we) had decided to use his “insights” to bring people together to do more for themselves and others, to build a community. We were working together to bring about positive changes, to put hands and feet on prayers, to see what could be done by our own applied effort, to build a heaven on earth rather than expecting god to do so. If people cooperate, it is amazing what can be built – that was what we believed, that was what we found, and that was what we were acting upon.
I did – and still do – believe in an overall being-ness, but I would say we put aside the “god” debate, and in so doing, with less emphasis on doctrine and institution, we seemed to be able to get more done. Did that make us agnostic? Did that make us atheistic? I would say, it made us all part of a “living faith,” less mystical, more working, contributing, doing. There was room for people of all faiths, as there was for agnostics and atheists. Jim helped us put aside all the diversion and confusion and arguing about which brand of god was the correct one, so we could just get on with with working together.
That was Jim’s true power.
(Don Beck retired in 2002 and now live sometimes in San Diego and sometimes in Ireland. His other articles are A Peoples Temple Life;Afterwards;Foreword to Edith Roller 1978 Journals;and November 18, 9/11, Tsunami, &Katrina. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)