Peoples Temple – A Church On The Margin And Then Over The Side

(Author’s Note: I presented this paper on October 1 at part of a three-person panel on “Marginalization, Communities, and Survivalism” during the annual meeting of the Communal Studies Association, held this year at the Shaker Village at South Union. Auburn, Kentucky. Unlike the other papers I have done at CSA for the past four years, this paper dwells on Jim Jones. When looking at churches in our society, we often look to the top echelon to see the vision from the top. A leader in any area set a tone and a balance. A president does, a pope does, a corporation president does, and a teacher does. And everyone falls somewhere on the continuum between effective and not, courageous and not, corrupt or not, etc. In the institution of the church, the leader has the role to set the course of his parishioners. A discussion of the position of a church “on the margins” therefore has to study the leadership. An interesting aside about Peoples Temple is that many of the newer and more educated members did not consider it a church at all. We considered it a political movement. In fact, even as that – a political movement – it was well beyond being considered “on the margin.”)

Peoples Temple ignored societal boundaries in social, political, religious, cultural, and geographical areas as it fine-tuned its unique personality. From the earliest days, Jim Jones and Peoples Temple drew people from all backgrounds, in spite of the practice of segregation throughout the United States. Political activism was part of the religious ritual. Serving our fellow man and creating a heaven on earth for all was the practical application of our religion. The Peoples Temple culture merged the histories of blacks and whites, Asians and American Indians, Hispanic and mixed members, and embraced them all. And then, after living communally in the United States, Peoples Temple members moved out of the country as the ultimate statement of non-compliance with the norm.

Undoubtedly, many of the communal societies that CSA scholars study were formed as a reaction to their times. The members frequently faced antagonism and consequently moved into a more protected community. We too circled our wagons and moved into safer and economically-advantageous communes. But Peoples Temple was different from these other communities because it jumped into the middle of the fray. The fight for civil rights and racial integration became the foundation and core principles of Jim Jones’ teachings, and of Peoples Temple. People are surprised when I say that Peoples Temple was more of a progressive political movement than a religious one. Just as Jim wanted to be more than a Disciples of Christ Minister, we all wanted Peoples Temple to be more than simply a D of C church. Some parts of our society might have wanted church and state to remain separated from each other. In our case, Jim wanted to end the passivity of many churches and to ignite political activism.

There are two ways to approach what a church or community “on the margin” might mean. I will discuss it based on the premise that many churches worked hard to ignore the divisions based on race and socioeconomic status that were so dividing our nation.

There is a common, even stereotypical, view of a generic church community. Certainly as the years moved beyond the Civil Rights Act, it has been harder to ignore the issue of race in our country. Even though it is now 2011, I have to turn the clock back to the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s to see what the norm was at that time, and to see how Peoples Temple reflected and responded to it. Although many religious communities then and now are unaffected by political and social currents in the society, that wasn’t the case with Peoples Temple. We were absolutely affected, and ultimately became a catalyst in some of the societal changes.

A Brief Overview of the Political Dynamics of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s

It is possible to think that the politics during three decades of the mid-20th century were irrelevant to the religious institutions. For moderates and liberals of all colors – and of all faiths – the issue of race had begun to be an issue in the late 1950s. Our society was segregated in every aspect. Churches, schools, restaurants, modes of transportation, housing, jobs, and even drinking fountains were labeled or acknowledged as belonging to one race or the other. Even within the military, the brave soldiers of all races who fought in WWII and Korea were segregated within the services, and tasks were assigned based on race. Anyone who was non-white was included in the “black” group.

Race first became a part of national politics during the 1960 election between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. When Reverend Martin Luther King was arrested in Atlanta, Kennedy called to offer his sympathy. This garnered Kennedy substantial black support.

In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King told a gathering at the Western Michigan University that, “We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning, when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation.” So the norm of that time spoke to the continued segregation – for some people at the moment of their best behavior. Some of the most militantly anti-integration forces over the years have been devout church attendees. Indeed, a part of our country with the highest percentage attendance at church has also been the most vocal critic of efforts to integrate.

Lyndon Johnson, who became president after Kennedy’s assassination, advocated for and signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Race and issues of integration were by then very much part of the public dialog, and Johnson’s support of this civil rights legislation, contributed to his election in 1964. By 1968, however, the anti-integration forces were beginning to organize and vote against racial integration, and attempted to disrupt the progress. This is best illustrated by the fact that a segregationist governor – Alabama’s Governor George Wallace – not only ran for president, but carried several Southern states.

It was in this setting that Jim Jones started his rise. In the mid-1950s in Indiana, he studied the Bible and began preaching on human rights and integration. He integrated his church, and lost many followers as a result. He nevertheless stood by his views on inclusivity and slowly began to gather new members throughout that decade and into the next. In the meantime, he and his wife Marceline were the first white couple in Indiana to adopt a black child. His public defiance of racist policies challenged prevailing social mores in a state with significant KKK influence. But Jim would not be confined by rules of his denomination. He didn’t seek their approval and took little notice of any lack of support from them. He rose as a meteor and he was well outside the firm controls of any authority. His healing ministry had been expanded to include all races, ages, economic levels, and many victims of other ministers. Even by the time he moved west from Indiana in the mid 1960s, he was listening only to his own voice, and to those of his close allies.

As he left Indiana with his line of cars carrying about 100 members, he traveled along with a unique flock of loyal, if somewhat eclectic, followers. When he settled in Redwood Valley, California – a mostly white rural area – he was immediately identified as “on the margin” or beyond. He was flamboyant about both his church and his message. He worked to accommodate requests of those around him minimally, and used the Bible to preach his interpretation of the “word of God” as he moved forward. Even at this relatively quiet time of Peoples Temple’s development, as he re-grouped for his program in California, there was no way that he would be considered mainstream. His healing ministry was an affront to many in the white churches, and his integration was often more than they could bear. His particular ministry was popular and not unique in black churches, but his message of activism and advocating for “Heaven on Earth” instead of waiting for the “sweet bye and bye” was more irregular. Although he met and got to know other preachers and ministers, none became a colleague. More likely, as with the Church of the Golden Rule in Willits, California, he would try to persuade the members to follow him.

After settling in to the Ukiah and Redwood Valley area of Northern California, he began to travel around the West Coast, taking his Healing Ministry up to Seattle and down to Los Angeles. Eventually, he began a regular schedule of alternating weekends in San Francisco and in Los Angeles. He kept that schedule for nearly six years, with additional trips around the country several times a year to expand membership, solicit donations, and find willing believers for the blossoming mail order business built around his healing gifts. This combination of activities seemed not to be evident in any other church. Pastor Jim Jones was far from being one of the Disciples of Christ ministers who followed the norm. He was his own leader.

Once he moved into San Francisco, and into the public eye, he could control and impress elected officials by arranging for nearly instantaneous and always enthusiastic supporters at the drop of a hat. His position on the San Francisco Housing Commission and his other activities received positive treatment in the news media. He became a San Francisco hero to rich and poor, white and black, official or voter. In no way was he one of the “meek” who was to inherit the earth. He was like no preacher ever seen before in San Francisco. A natural ally might have seemed to be Glide Memorial Church which strongly supported social programs in the City. Glide fed and housed people, educated them and advocated for them. Yet Jim was never interested in a close fellowship with other leaders. He was determined to make his way without sharing any credit with anyone. Although he was effective in his efforts to feed and take care of the members and visitors to Peoples Temple, his ego would not allow him to proselytize for any mainstream church. This too was outside the norm.

In the mid-1970s, Jim worked with the Peoples Temple Planning Commission – a group of some of the hard workers, the professionals, and the “connected” members within the Temple – to come up with a plan to create a sanctuary in Guyana, South America. The primary reason was purportedly to provide for a safe, free, and independent community which could live with the socialist ideals of a truly utopian society. While more mainstream churches also articulated plans to provide for the needs of members on a smaller scale, the Temple worked hard to realize Jim’s elaborate idea.

Jim enjoyed a five-year honeymoon of good reception from local politicians and the media. His political clout and leadership in San Francisco had seemed to be a precursor to some powerful position in the city, beyond that of Chairman of the Housing Authority.

By 1976, though, his prestige and position were becoming tarnished in some circles, even if not yet in the press. His efforts around town had eclipsed his ministry, and his enormous ego seemed evident to all. Instead of masking it in good works, he became a power broker. His desire to manipulate other leaders in the San Francisco area, and his previously successful attempts to keep his personal life and activities from the press began to fail. In some churches, that might have signaled to the parent church – The Disciples of Christ denomination – that his leadership was corrupt and should be brought back into some semblance of the norm. However, by that time, Jim was more than a maverick within the Disciples of Christ, he was virtually a complete entity unto his own. It was likely that they knew that they had no control over Jim, since they never approached him.

In mid-1977, the media had found witnesses to Jim’s insatiable need for power and sex, and were about to make their findings public. Jim was able to coerce and threaten the corporate owners of the media to stop the exposé, but only for a short time. Just before the news broke, he scooped up his 1,000-member group and moved out of the country to his remote village in Guyana, a village that was still incomplete and – more fatefully – never designed to accommodate that many residents.

In Guyana, Peoples Temple moved into a new stage of being a non-church. Known as Jonestown, it billed itself as an agricultural project, admitting to religious affiliations only in order to elicit special treatment from the national government. Jim was still the sole leader, and often called “Father” or “Dad,” but there was little reference to any other religious belief system. He wanted us to believe in him, a person with supreme powers, but a person here on earth. Jonestown no longer fit into any of the standard definitions of a church. It was beyond the margin.

In looking back, it is possible to say that the only margin he didn’t cross was early in his ministry when he married Marceline, adopted his big family, and finished his study to become a minister. From then on, he was constantly testing the possible consequences of wandering too far afield.

Internal View Of Lives Of Individuals In Peoples Temple

The early members of Peoples Temple who came from other churches found themselves at home in Jim’s integrated church. He preached about having heaven on earth, now, instead of waiting, and spoke of living simply. His message was not outrageous or even unusual to his early members. As long as he was living in Indiana, he and his congregation were within the norms of the time and of his Disciples of Christ denomination.

When he moved to California, he uprooted all of those faithful members and brought them with him. That was unusual, but still not outrageous. Throughout history, groups of believers have moved from point A to point B looking for their own refuge. However, once in California, the group of members became alienated from those they left behind. Jim was working on forging a new family of believers – and only believers. Although some churches do consider themselves to be the “chosen ones,” this effort to abandon family members and loved ones was a further strategy of Jim’s to gain control over the lives in his flock. In Redwood Valley, and then later in all of his services in his home territory of California, his rhetoric became more inflamed. He wanted all to have heaven on earth. He wanted everyone to give everything to the Temple so that he could create the utopia that people deserved. He was God incarnate, and had to be obeyed in every circumstance. He could see the future and the review the past and was all-powerful, with friends in high places. Hymns and other songs were rewritten to give him the ultimate praise and credit for all things good. Bad things happened because people were not dedicated enough, giving enough, or didn’t believe enough. He took no responsibility for those things.

The ultimate price came when people moved to Guyana, leaving their families, their own personal possessions, and their homes. They could no longer communicate with non-members, and in fact, Jim mediated all contact with the outside world. He had passed over the margin long before this. But it was with this change that the members knew that they had crossed the line and could not go back. No group of 1,000 in history, certainly modern history, was asked to move on faith to a remote village just based on the hope and leading of one individual.

In the last twelve months in Guyana, Peoples Temple – in the form of the Agricultural Project at Jonestown – had abandoned the church. We became a socialist community in name only, as we were led by an insane man who exempted himself from any attempt to be on equal footing with the members. The need to be associated with a respected ministry was set aside. By the time Congressman Leo Ryan of San Mateo came to Jonestown on November 18, 1978, Jim had become the fallen leader who had his staff sworn to secrecy, both about his insanity and about his final plan. He had infected a small but trusted group of people to carry out their assigned roles. And the community was destroyed.

Only a church which had always required the ultimate commitment of time and resources could have asked and received that final act of total commitment. We survivors always felt judgmental of other churches which asked so little of their members – no activism, no service to mankind. We thought we were so much more lofty. We had given our all, working day and night. We had been so delighted to make a better world. In a way, it makes sense looking at it from that perspective since we had always been asked to be totally dedicated. On the final day, we were asked to make the ultimate sacrifice.

(Laura Johnston Kohl, who had lived in Jonestown but was working in Georgetown on 18 November, died on 19 November 2019 after a long battle with cancer. She was 72. Her writings for this website appear here.)