“I’d Like To Thank Father”: The central role of positive thinking and thankful testifying during the ritual meal of the Peace Mission and the final night of Peoples Temple

by E. Black

(E. Black is a frequent contributor to the jonestown report. Her other article in this edition is Ever Faithful. Her previous writings can be found here.)

On that fateful afternoon of November 18, 1978, in the jungles of northwest Guyana, while members of Peoples Temple were lining up to drink a brew of grape flavored drink and cyanide mix, another ritual – curious, but not as lethal – was taking place at the same time.

The focus of this mass suicide ritual, the culmination of preparation for suicide known as a “White Night,” was located in the pavilion at the center of Jonestown, which had served as the town hall or meeting place. There, the “Father” of Peoples Temple, Rev. Jim Jones, held what he termed a “revolutionary suicide council” convened to collectively decide and carry out the course of action to take in light of the deaths of Congressman Leo Ryan, three members of the press, and a Temple defector. They would not await an invasion of the community and possible massacre by Guyanese and/or American armed forces, but rather, they would commit “revolutionary suicide” or collective death of the community at its own hand. Thus the ritual began: the children died first, then adults and seniors, and finally the administrators.

While there was a public discussion about the course of action to take, and about consequences and alternatives proceeding the actual lining up and drinking of the deadly brew, [1] it is the other ritual, the ritual of those members who walked up to the microphone to offer testimonials of affirmation and thanks, even as the final White Night suicide ritual was underway, that is the focus of this paper.

That mass suicide was rehearsed at Jonestown on numerous occasions is well-known. A number of tapes feature residents of Jonestown making heartfelt statements about why they were taking such a step. Some of these statements have been challenged – including by some former Temple members – as being the coached, rehearsed, or merely parroting what others had just said and what individuals thought was expected of them – but the testimonials during the final event have a much more personal and spontaneous sound and feel to them. Why were such testimonials made? And why then, at the very precipice of collective death? Of all actions, why would men, women, youths or anyone stop to speak into a mic, while facing the imminent end of all they knew and loved? And of all things, why do all these testimonials express positivity and thanks for what is about to happen? [2]

This author has already written a foundational paper to establish why Peoples Temple and the Peace Mission can and should be studied together and thus juxtaposed for a fuller understanding of both. It is from the premises in that document and others that the following flows. [3]

Origins in New Thought:

Much has been written about Father Divine and his connection to New Thought. [4] Much less documented is his mentor’s, Father Jehovia’s, New Thought connections, though his documented statement that “I Am God” and his teaching that the “indwelling of God’s spirit” was in “everyman” – thus implying that all people had “Godhood” potential – was and is consistent with New Thought thinking as expressed in the saying “As a man thinks so he is.” [5] Jim Jones’ teachings and practices were also in line with this thinking. [6] Understanding the impact of New Thought and positive thinking as a default worldview in both the Peace Mission and Peoples Temple, along with the explanations below, can help the student, researcher and interested reader in understanding the sometimes-bewildering and seemingly-contradictory and bizarre thinking and statements labeled by some “(Peoples) Temple Logic” that flowed from it.

Character and Conceptualization Of The Leader: In both Peoples Temple and the Peace Mission, the leader, known as “Father,” was seen by the members and promoted to them by the leader’s staff and movement literature as incredibly and super humanly self-sacrificing, selfless and dedicated to the “cause” of social justice, as well as to the personal transformation from “unrighteousness” to “righteousness,” from “bad” to “good” and – in the case of Jim Jones in the final year of the Temple – from capitalism to socialism. Indeed, it was taught and understood that it was through this very leader, and only by harmonizing with him, that all the truly “good” to be experienced in life could and would come about. [7]

The “Condescension Of God” and Thankful Testifying During the group ritual meal: One result of this is that the very presence of such a highly “evolved” leader in their midst was seen by those who accepted his exalted self-identification as a sort of “favor” to them, the less evolved, or “student.” [8] But even though the terms imply a rigid hierarchy of relations and expectations from top to bottom, members of Peoples Temple and the Peace Mission felt well served by a “Father”, a “God in a (human) body” that not only dined with them but who also provided other services for them as well. Besides the central communal meals, other services included but were not limited to communal clothing and shelter, specialized and focused communal child and senior care, individual counseling and divine healing. [9] In that way, both leaders followed the Bible’s command from Jesus: “But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant.” [10]

This contextual framework of New Thought language, ideas and ideological default, given by a teacher, leader and guide who personified “divinity” and “Godhood” in the “Fathership degree” and who condescended to be with and serve his followers, is necessary to understand the central role that “thankful testifying” played in both organizations, some times even during odd or awkward junctures.

Presiding over similar high intensity, totalistic groups, both Father Divine and Jim Jones gave long, extemporaneous speeches, often during ritual communal meals, that served the multiple purpose of personal instruction, exhortation, history lessons, cosmic threats – to internal dissenters and outside enemies – and praise for those that were successfully living up to Father’s expectations. But these were not just mere dinner monologues. Both leaders expected and encouraged responses – testimonials – from their assembled followers, thus fostering a sense of “dialogue” with them. [11]

This leader/led type of exchange during these ritualized communal meals fostered their internalized self-images as large extended families – built around a Father and Mother “Divine” in the Peace Mission, and around Jim Jones and, to a lesser degree, Marceline Jones, in Peoples Temple – in which the members were “brothers and sisters” whose goal was to be like the parents in all ways possible. Thus the members’ testimonials about the fundamental and absolute correctness of whatever Father said about any given subject during the meal/meeting served to both underscore what he was saying or doing as well as signifying to Father and all others present, the members’ complete agreement and union with what was being done or taught by him. This was important for group cohesion and facilitation of the ritual meals/meetings process.

Summary:

It can be understood then, that the ritual of testifying with expressions of thanks during ritualized settings in both the Peace Mission and Peoples Temple context served both the purpose of allowing the member to affirm his or her appreciation for and agreement with “Father.” In such instances, members, in New Thought fashion, turned supposed “negatives” into “positives” in the context of Father’s teachings based on positive thinking. [12] This then is why, even in time of adversity, members of both groups were known to exclaim “It’s wonderful!” “Aren’t you glad?” and, of course, “Thank you, Father” or “Thank you, Dad” praising and thanking the leader for the “good.” For, to the faithful, just the privilege of being served by and being in “God’s actual Presence” was ultimately what they were happy and thankful for. [13] This phenomenon of positive thinking and thankful testifying in both groups – in the “ritual meal” setting, in the face of tragedy or misfortune, even, as on Jonestown’s final tape, as the community around them dies – which is so odd to the ear and sensitivities of outsiders, further ties the members of each group together.

Sources

Books and articles

Black, E. The Three Virtual Intentional Communities Of God In A Body In Real Time (1868-2008). 2009.

Burnham, Kenneth E. God Comes To America. Boston: Lambeth Press, 1979.

Chidester, David. Salvation and Suicide: An Interpretation of Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple and Jonestown. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

Divine, Mother. The Peace Mission Movement. New York: Anno Domini Father Divine Publications, 1982.

Feinsod, Ethan. Awake in a Nightmare: Jonestown the Only Eyewitness Account. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1981.

Harris, Sara. Father Divine: Holy Husband. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1971.

Holy Bible, New King James Version.

Jones, Jim. Pastor Jones Meets Rev. M. J. Divine, 1959.

Lincoln, C. Eric. “Daddy Jones and Father Divine.” Peoples Temple and Black Religion in America. Moore, Rebecca and Anthony B. Pinn, Mary R. Sawyer, eds. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.

Layton, Deborah. Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the Peoples Temple. New York: Anchor Books, 1998.

Maaga, Mary McCormick. Hearing the Voices of Jonestown. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1998.

Mabee, Carleton. Promised Land: Father Divine’s Interracial Communities in Ulster County, New York. Fleischmanns, NY: Purple Mountain Press, 2008.

Mills, Jeannie. Six Years with God: Life Inside Reverend Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple. New York: A&W Publishers, 1979.

Orsot, B. Alethia. Together We Stood, Divided We Fell. The Need for a Second Look at Jonestown, Moore, Rebecca and Fielding M. McGehee III, eds. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1989.

Pethrus, Lewi. The Condescension Of God. Woodmont, PA: Peace Mission, Inc., 1936.

Rose, Stephen C. Jesus and Jim Jones. New York: Pilgrim Press, 1979.

Watts, Jill. God, Harlem, U.S.A.: The Father Divine Story. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Weisbrot, Robert. Father Divine. Boston: Beacon Press, 1984.

White, Mel. Deceived. Old Tappan, NJ: Spire Books, 1979.

White, Ronald M. New Thought Influences On Father Divine, 1980.

Periodicals

The New Day, International Peace Mission Movement

The Living Word, Peoples Temple

Websites

http://peacemission.info/


Footnotes


[1] Accounts of the last day of Peoples Temple at Jonestown, Guyana are numerous. Many are available here. This page includes Mary Maaga’s transcript of the death tape, also found at Mary McCormick Maaga, Hearing the Voices of Jonestown (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1998), appendix B, pp. 147-164.

[2] For examples of “Thankful testifying” on the final White Night of November 18, 1978, see Ethan Feinsod, Awake in a Nightmare: Jonestown the Only Eyewitness Account (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1981), p. 198: “Meanwhile, over the public address system person after person – all ages, all races – rises to add another vote for death. The theme is the same: his followers want to thank Jim Jones, thank him for bringing them to “this land of freedom,” thank him for this “chance to die with our brothers and sisters.” Other examples of positivity and thanks are of a faithful male Peoples Temple member’s White Night testimony, on November 18, 1978 “I[‘d] just like to thank Dad for giving us life and also death.” Faithful female Peoples Temple member Irene Edwards’ chimed in, “I think we should be happy about this… And just thank Father… We should all be happy. At least I am.” A different female voice adds, “I’m glad to be here.” Maaga, pp. 160-161; Feinsod, p. 197.

It is this researcher’s perspective that the “Thankful Testifying” recorded during the final White Night was consistent with my belief that the “suicide ritual” itself was in reality a form of the “communal ritual banquet,” aka the “Holy Communion Meal” in the Peace Mission, that was a central feature to both the Peace Mission and Peoples Temple (see note #11 for cited sources on the “meal” in both groups).

[3] See The Three Virtual Intentional Communities Of God In A Body In Real Time (1868-2008) by this author. Other accounts about the relationship between Father Divine and Father Jim Jones and their followings are: Stephen C. Rose, Jesus and Jim Jones (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1979), Chapter 5, “Father Divine,” pp. 75-85; C. Eric Lincoln, “Daddy Jones and Father Divine,” Peoples Temple and Black Religion in America (Moore, Rebecca and Anthony B. Pinn, Mary R. Sawyer, eds. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), pp. 28-46; and Jim Jones’ own account in Pastor Jones Meets Rev. M. J. Divine (1959).

[4] See Ronald M. White, New Thought Influences On Father Divine, 1980; Carleton Mabee, Promised Land: Father Divine’s Interracial Communities in Ulster County, New York (Fleischmanns, NY: Purple Mountain Press, 2008) pp. 13, 15-16, 93, 119, 142; and Jill Watts, God, Harlem, U.S.A.: The Father Divine Story (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), pp. 21-24, 37, 51, 58-60, 69-70, 83-86, 103-104, 110; and Doctrine of Father Divine.

[5] On New Thought ideas in Father Jehovia’s group, see Watts, p. 29. Also, New Thought.

[6] On the role of New Thought/Positive Thinking in Peoples Temple, see Mel White, Deceived (Old Tappan, NJ: Spire Books, 1979), p. 153.

[7] On praise to Father Divine during and after his ministry, see Kenneth E. Burnham, God Comes To America (Boston: Lambeth Press, 1979), pp. 86-96. See also testimonials printed in the Peace Mission periodical The New Day. Also see www.peacemission.info, another website on Father Divine and the International Peace Mission Movement. On praise to Jim Jones during his ministry see the Peoples Temple periodical, The Living Word. For a posthumous account of testimony and praise to the deceased Jim Jones, see B. Alethia Orsot, Together We Stood, Divided We Fell, (The Need for a Second Look at Jonestown, Moore, Rebecca and Fielding M. McGehee III, eds. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1989).

[8] On services provided for members in the Peace Mission, see Mother Divine, The Peace Mission Movement (New York: Anno Domini Father Divine Publications, 1982, 23-32. On services provided in Peoples Temple during its existence, see in the Peoples Temple periodical “The Living Word: An apostolic monthly,” the articles “Brotherhood Is Our Religion” and “…Thy Will Be Done.” For an appreciative recollection of the services of Peoples Temple and a reflection on life without them, see B. Orsot’s Together We Stood, Divided We Fell.

For the centrality of communal communion meals during which and when much of the “thankful testifying” would take place for the Peace Mission (called “Holy Communion Services” in the Peace Mission ) see Mother Divine, 27-28, 30 and 50; Sara Harris, Father Divine: Holy Husband (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1971), 10 and 11, Robert Weisbrot, Father Divine (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984), 52-57; and Mabee, 104, 210 and 222. For Peoples Temple, see Deborah Layton, Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the Peoples Temple (New York: Anchor Books, 1998), 34-44; and Jeannie Mills, Six Years with God: Life Inside Reverend Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple (New York: A&W Publishers, 1979), 117; and The Living Word, July 1972, 35 (photo caption).

[9] Matthew 23:11.

[10] This idea, or teaching, of the condescension of God is a key distinguisher that serves to delineate the followers of Fathers Jehovia, Divine and Jones from the numerous other schools of New Thought. While all such schools taught and teach that “God is in everyone,” it is a defining characteristic of the movements led by the above three leaders which emphasized that those unconscious of their own personal and individual “Godhood” needed the example of a highly evolved person, i.e., a Samuel Morris, a George Baker Jr. or a Jim Jones, respectively, to serve as “God” for them, until that individual either grew in parity with or surpassed the “Godship degree” of the leader. Interestingly, each of these related radical utopian gurus, Father’s, Jehovia Divine and Jones, felt and taught that they had each surpassed the previous “God” before them. On Peace Mission views on the condescension of God, see interview of Father Divine by Dr. Lewi Pethrus, The Condescension of God (Woodmont, PA: Peace Mission, Inc., 1936) and Mother Divine, The Peace Mission Movement (New York: Anno Domini Father Divine Publications, 1982), p. 62.

On Peoples Temple’s views on Jim Jones as the condescension of God, see David Chidester, Salvation and Suicide: An Interpretation of Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple and Jonestown (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 60-61. See also the title and lyrics of the hymn, “Down From His Glory” from the Peoples Temple gospel album He’s Able.

On the teaching of the “Degrees of Godship” as understood in the Peace Mission, the following is from an email that an associate received from a former follower of Divine and shared with this author: “There was a three degree system taught by Father Divine similar to masonry. God in the father degree, God in the sonship degree and God in the angel degree. One achieved each degree more or less due to their adherence to his teaching and their nearness to his presence. Emphasis on his presence. This was not simply his physical presence. While it did include it, it was his occult presence, similar to the holy spirit in Christian theology.”

On the teachings of the “Degrees of Godship” in Peoples Temple, see Chidester, 62-63.

[11] For Father Divine’s speeches see www.peacemission.info. For Jim Jones’ sermons, see here. In both the Peace Mission and Peoples Temple, every speech, sermon and lecture given by the leader was either written down, taped or otherwise recorded for later study. At both Father Divine’s various headquarters and in Jonestown, the leaders’ various sermons or speeches were played repeatedly over loudspeakers located throughout the facility, regardless of time of day.

[12] Though there are numerous accounts of the phenomenon of members (and the leaders) turning “negatives” into “positives” in both the Peace Mission and Peoples Temple, two accounts – one from the experience of each group – should suffice for illustrative purposes.

Account number one is taken from Harris’ chapter 20 “Rosebuds of My Heart,” 290-291, 298-230. On her way to a Peace Mission function in the late 1940’s, Miss Sweet Time, a 19-year-old attractive white female follower and “Rosebud” (i.e., a young female virgin Divinite) was physically assaulted and nearly carjacked by a mob of anti-white, racial epithet-spewing black males in Philadelphia, a very frightening and potentially life-threatening experience. She characterized it as “wonderful.”

Then, on November 18, “Father” Jim Jones exhorts his dying and soon-to-be-dead followers, that the White Night that they are experiencing is not suicide (as suicide was a selfish and incorrect thing to do in Temple ideology), and that he was (and thus they should be) “happy” and “glad” it was all over. “We didn’t commit suicide, we committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world” (Maaga, 163-164).

[13] For examples from Peoples Temple see footnote #2.

The words of a printed hymn and pledge from members of the Peace Mission to Father Divine could easily have come from faithful Peoples Temple members to Jim Jones on November 18, 1978.

“We pledge our hearts to love you, Our strength to serve you, Our minds to be focused directly upon you, Our lips to praise you, Our lives to be sacrificed unto you, Our sacred honor to acknowledge you in all our ways, That we may be with you throughout all eternity, One spirit, one mind and one body, Lost and absorbed, once and forever, in your holy will!” – Rosebud pledge, Harris, 297.

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on May 30th, 2020.
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