Peoples Temple will forever be remembered as a cult… or will it?

by Casey Strain

Few people who hear about the Jonestown tragedy realize that it was not Jim Jones but rather his leadership circle that prepared, distributed and administered the poison to Jonestown residents that fateful day, November 18th, 1978. But it was Jones who encouraged people to drink from the vat and give their lives for what he called a “Revolutionary Suicide.” But was it suicide? Or was it murder? The truth may never be known.

Over the years, a copious amount of audio recorded by the temple has began to surface over the internet that paints a detailed portrait for Jonestown and Peoples Temple. While the Temple did function like a cult, I can’t say they were evil people. They clothed the naked, fed the hungry, got people off drugs, housed seniors, paid for dental work, paid for medical work and most importantly, they changed lives.

And even though people died that fateful day. I still have respect for Peoples Temple.

Its members didn’t join the group with the intent to kill people, they started with the intent to change the world and show people that the counterculture movement was alive and well, that freedom exists within each individual. Jones really did try to change the world in a positive way. But I think the money and the fame went to his head. The influence he had over so many people – the “control,” if you will – was too much for one man to handle. When you have over a thousand lives in your hands, you must appoint others to your council. You must have more than one preacher. And I think Jones was too territorial for something like that. He very well should have tried to let go of some of his fears and man up, like he encouraged others to do.

That isn’t to say that Jones was a coward. He appeared to be very brave. I just personally believe that a leadership council – with real power, not the illusion of power that Jones could have swept away, as he did so often – would have helped the Temple survive. Even more baffling was Jones’ inability to allow disenchanted followers to leave. Why? If the Temple was discomforting to some, than it wasn’t the right church. And as he himself admitted, preaching about nuclear holocaust would make a lot of people uneasy.

My views of Jonestown went through a metamorphosis – became more nuanced – when I listened to some of the Jonestown tapes. In tape Q 734, for example, you can clearly hear Jonestown residents beating a child rapist. Rather than a group of blind followers, what we now see is a community of people who struggle to be independent by all necessary means, even creating their own laws to govern themselves. It makes you wonder if this self-governance made it easier to them to go along with the decision to murder their children and the seniors before killing themselves.

Another tape I found interesting was of a conversation over the Temple’s HAM radio between a female Concerned Relative and a Temple member named Mike. The woman pleads with Mike to come back home to the US. Mike under obvious orders is refusing, as you can plainly hear someone say “Good job” on his end. This makes me believe that Jones’ influence on temple members was rather intimidating.

With the tapes continuing to surface around the internet in places like You Tube and more documentaries being made, I figured I’d draw more attention to these tapes by incorporating them into my sound project, “Fecal Intolerance”. I gave it that name to warn people that they not like it. This project in experimental music transforms Temple tapes into something more than just a historical record of life in Jonestown. In the future, we might see more genres of music make use of this, and in so doing, to bring as much attention as possible to the larger story of Jonestown.

(Casey Strain can be reached at velheim@hotmail.com.)

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on April 18th, 2020.
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