I first heard about Peoples Temple in my student courses on New Religious Movements, and I remember that my first impression was that the people who belonged to the movement, with their fanatical beliefs, were guilty for the tragic results.
I just couldn’t believe that one person – Jim Jones – could be capable to persuade a large number of people to devote their life for the good of community. But my sociological thinking was guilty, that I decided to further examine the whole event.
Like so many others, my introduction to Peoples Temple was the shocking picture with 900 people lying on the ground. This picture is often used in many articles which describe violent religious movements. Even after reading a dozen articles and relevant books on this subject, I have to admit I still didn’t get a proper picture about this movement. There were many pro- and con- arguments, and I realized that I would have to explore the whole thing deeper.
I found out that I did make a big mistake at the beginning of my research; because – like so many others – I had reduced the Peoples Temple to the dead bodies, and therefore made them unhuman. I forgot, that all dead bodies were people with certain life stories, with families and wishes for the future. And because of one man they ended their lives. The question is, how they felt when they decided to commit suicide.
Second of all, the interesting question is: was this event was suicide, or was it murder? After reading some articles, I found out that it was a mixture of both. I believe most of the deaths were murders, because the people were subconsciously led by Jim Jones to do this.
Here, I would mention the fact, that children died before their parents. This was, I think, a planned psychological move on Jones’ part, because he must have known how painful it would be for parents to live without their children. So with their children dead, it was logical for them to end their lives too.
My personal reflections on this movement are relatively positive. In a way, I don’t put the whole blame for this tragic action on the people themselves. Instead, I treat them as victims of certain physical violence. As far as Jim Jones is concerned, I think that at the beginning he had good intentions, but further on he failed in his mission of creating a perfect community, which would work for the welfare of all people.
I really hope, that, with help of all the articles, books and, especially, this website, people will get a better idea about this movement. I cannot imagine how the relatives of those who died in this tragic event perceive this movement. But in my objective view, this movement was neither good nor bad. It tried, but failed its mission of building the perfect community.
What is interesting is that after this massive suicide – with a great help from the media – people started to look on all new religious movements as potentially threatening movements, in which brainwashing takes place. The result has been to now cause fear of all new religious movements. I have seen this many times. People who don’t know anything about movements just spout back ideas produced by mass media, and they don’t try to look any deeper. I took a first step by searching the many aspects of this tragical event and I found out, that the main factor in this story was a mentally unstable leader, whose wishes for better future failed completely, and who ended it by taking everyone with him.
(Manca Konjedic lives in Kranj, Slovenia.)