The Will to Believe: Hope and Peoples Temple

by Richard Gubbels

“Where miracles happen, all definite forms melt in the golden haze of imagination and feeling.”[1]

Hope is inside all of us – it is universal. Whether it is an innate aspect of society or an a priori element of human consciousness, it is there. But what is the function of hope, and where does it originate? More importantly, what are its ramifications and to what lengths are we willing to go to see its promises actualized? The answers to these questions are at the heart of what makes us a religious species – one that, no matter where or when we live, seems to be filled with an unnamed faith in something greater than ourselves. I use the word “religious” loosely here as a broad term to describe the combination of hope, faith, and love in our own human desires and dreams. In this sense, we may begin to better understand the example of Peoples Temple and Jonestown as less of an extreme cult, and more as an extension of the basic human idea of hope.

Jim Jones was a Marxist, but he preached his version of socialism with the flair and conviction of a devoted Pentecostal – a religion which, among many others things, believes in the literal manifestation of God. Jones took this belief and used it to create a powerful sense of love and faith within his congregation, as well as a terrible sense of fear. He claimed himself to be the human manifestation of God, and would regularly attempt to prove this by staging rehearsed acts of clairvoyance and miraculous healings. He used the idea of miracles to make believers out of doubters. And while the members of Peoples Temple may have either believed or denied these miracles, we must accept the notion that, if they were to believe that such miracles were actually performed, then their faith in Jim Jones would be limitless – as limitless as the miracles themselves.

Jim Jones learned to use these tricks to fool people into believing in the possibility of literally everything he said. But to better understand the reasons why so many were led astray, we must first understand the circumstances of their lives as well as the actual tactics used by Jones to instill such a passionate following. Peoples Temple was not actually religious, but it was a religion. It was a religion because of its affirmation of faith, its ritualistic practices and its paternal hierarchy which seated Jim Jones at the very pinnacle of unquestioned authority. He used the idea of a church to disguise his socialistic agenda, and to give credibility to his ideas. For the walls of a church are sacred to society, and anything taught within them is looked upon with a similar purity.

This idea of Peoples Temple as a religious group was paramount to Jones’ effectiveness as a leader. And religious belief has long been fueled by hope. It is placed at the forefront of religion as a motivator for disciplined and obedient behavior. Strip Christianity of the hope of its paradisaic afterlife, and suddenly many followers might begin to question the lengths of obedience and sacrifice which are asked of them. Jones played upon this idea of hope two-fold: More than just a practitioner of socialism and the utopian ideal which it ultimately strives for, he also posed as an actual preacher of Pentecostalism. By doing so he filled the hearts and minds of his followers not just of the possibility of human divinity, nor the idea of an idealistic afterlife, but of a literal heaven on earth. Hope that tangible is far more potent an opium than the one Marx warned about.

In The Essence of Christianity, Ludwig Feuerbach tells us that “faith, love, and hope are the Christian Trinity.”[2] But we can extend this line of thinking far beyond that of just Christian belief. These ideas are part of the basic foundation that builds any loyal following. Using this logic, we can gain a better understanding as to why so many people continued to follow Jim Jones. He gave his followers hope when he promised them paradise, and not just an ungraspable idea of heaven after death but a socialistic heaven on earth. He promised perfect equality, an unregulated and unperturbed society free of racism, greed and injustice. The result was that the members of Peoples Temple immediately began to feel a loving connection to their leader, as all the hope of their own paradise was ultimately wrapped up in him. They began to associate him with freedom, peace and happiness – one not being possible without the other.

In terms of faith, how could Jones possibly keep so many people believing in his promises? Other than social demonstrations, he knew that he had to give the people a reason to believe in his words. And so he did. Through the use of staged miracles and healings, he gave his congregation “the promises, the wishes, which are already fulfilled, which are historical facts.”[3] But he did more. He did not just preach of equality and love, he backed up his statements with actions that went against mainstream society. He spoke out against racism and capitalism and made clear that within his church neither were an option.

The Sixties and Seventies made visible the failure of a free capitalistic society, and members of the counter-culture as well as African Americans felt united in their persecution. Jim Jones welcomed these discriminated members of society into his church with open arms, giving them hope in the truly free and loving society which they longed for. He played upon their suffrage to make them loyal believers – for nothing makes us feel more human, more vulnerable, or more in need than suffering; and nothing takes these feelings away more quickly than hope.

But Jones was himself very insecure. He was never able to fully rely upon hope and faith to keep the members of his church together, and so he played upon that other human emotion of fear. He had to make the members of Peoples Temple fear him, and fear the repercussions of disobeying him. Beatings and ridicule were commonplace within Peoples Temple, as were threats of even worse to those who would dare break away. As time passed, he became more and more reliant upon fear than anything else, and after he moved his group to Jonestown, it reached a boiling point.

But why did everything begin to fall apart when the members of Peoples Temple relocated to Jonestown? This was supposed to be the ends to which they were striving; it was supposed to be heaven on earth; it was supposed to be the materialization of all the deepest wishes of their hearts. Instead it became a prison. The promises Jones had made were actualized – the people of Jonestown had reached their ultimate goal, they had reached their heaven – and all realized that there was no more hope to grab onto. There was nothing beyond the reality they now lived in. Moreover, their reality was far different from the one they had hoped and dreamed about. Jones no longer resembled a loving father but more a paranoid and malevolent authoritarian leader. His only recourse left to control his people was fear, and so he inundated them with lies and paranoia. He kept a running broadcast of all the evils of the outside world, while organizing daily lectures on the good of socialism. He warned that the evil members of the capitalist societies were coming for them and their children, and that they must be ready to make the ultimate sacrifice for their cause when the inevitable invasion occurred. He had beaten his people into submission by stripping away everything from them that had once made them alive: their family, their society, their freedom, and their individuality.

The members of Jonestown and of Peoples Temple were not brainwashed into committing suicide, and such terminology is not only offensive but is also blind to the fact that their behavior was only slightly more extreme than the accepted beliefs and practices of all religious faith. The people of Jonestown died of hopelessness. Hope is what kept them together; hope is what allowed them to go against the odds; hope is what drove them away from their country. They had given up everything for hope – hope in a better and more free and loving society than the one they had been persecuted in. And when, in the final days of Jonestown, they realized that all hope was lost, they had nothing left to hold onto.

(Richard Gubbel’s collected articles for the jonestown report are here. He can be reached at richardgubbels84@gmail.com.)

Notes

[1] Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Prometheus Books, 1989), 133.

[2] Feuerbach, 128.

[3] Feuerbach, 128.

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on March 20th, 2014.
Skip to main content