Coming from a Christian background, I always felt safe and secure in my house of worship. Church has always been my foundation for spiritual education, my source of energy, my sense of relief, my place of restoration. However, church as I knew it and Peoples Temple were not parallel. So then, one might wonder why I took on the project that I did into the followership of Peoples Temple.
I began this research with a desire to understand a phenomenon that has puzzled me for years, one that’s basic to any understanding of the events of November 18, 1978. The more fundamental question was, why did people follow Jim Jones in the first place? My approach to the research necessitated focus groups which introduced me to former members of Peoples Temple. The participants in this study shared their deepest emotions and some of their most painful moments in order to contribute to the study of followership, sacrificial leadership, and charisma… and yet we also enjoyed laughter.
I often found myself immersed in the data for days on end, every time seeing something new or different. I had mixed feelings about reaching the point of saturation. Part of me shouted “Hallelujah” and the other part of me was in disbelief. Maybe it is the fact that qualitative research brings life or, better yet, gives a voice to the otherwise abstract numbers in quantitative studies. Perhaps it is because the shared experiences molded my research. In any event, conducting this research led me to reflect, not only to be grateful to everyone who so willingly helped to get me to the finish line, but to also understand that followership and charismatic leadership have a dark side too.
(Wendy M. Edmonds was awarded her doctorate in the spring of 2011 and is now an adjunct professor at Bowie State University in Maryland. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)