Success in the Peoples Temple Cult

by Caley Follmer

(An introductory note by the author appears here.)

Abstract

This essay is primarily concerned with different aspects of the Peoples Temple cult that generate the argument of whether the cult can be considered successful. It investigates whether or not the death of 918 people defeats the cult and its ideas, or if the successes they had early on are enough to substantiate its accomplishments. I had heard of this cult on the 30th anniversary of the tragedy and was compelled to learn more. This paper explores the ideas and beliefs that allowed for such a large following of the group, including the idea of integration of blacks and whites, the power of the social gospel, and the idea that capitalism is the root of all evil. The leader Jim Jones is examined as a leader and a madman, and close examination is given to the terror that many members experienced in Jonestown. Other topics include the suicide on November 18, 1978, the aftermath of the events, and the lessons learned. The process of investigation included many personal accounts and primary sources as well as several scholarly books, including many by professor of Religious Studies, Rebecca Moore. The essay concludes that in the long run the Peoples Temple cult was unsuccessful as their ideas and beliefs disappeared when they did. However, if they had not committed revolutionary suicide or had it been at a different time in history, their accomplishments would stand out.

Introduction

Peoples Temple was a religious-based organization under the leadership of Jim Jones. The church began in the late 1950’s in Indianapolis, but the congregation was later moved to Redwood Valley, San Francisco, and finally, to Jonestown, Guyana. The church believed in equality among all and was based on communalist and socialist ideals. Approximately 1,000 members made the trip to Guyana throughout the year of 1977, isolating themselves from the rest of the world. After hardship, terror, inspiration, and years of dedication, on November 18th, 1978 the members committed an act of “revolutionary” suicide in which 918 men, women, and children took their lives after being told by their leader that this was their time to die.

Can the Peoples Temple cult be considered successful? This question has been debated by scholars of New Religions since this tragedy occurred. Can the death of 900 people be considered successful in that those who died accomplished their goals in this world? Faced with new religious cults and sects in our day and age such as the Fundamental Latter-day Saints, we must understand what factors and events brought these people to commit suicide, so we can make sure that a calamity such as this does not occur again. It is important to never forget this event and to humanize those who died rather than cast them off as brainwashed followers.

Rebecca Moore is a professor of Religious Studies at San Diego State University and is a major contributor in this field. Her work will be consulted frequently in this comparative argument.

Recruitment and Membership

Peoples Temple used effective methods of recruitment and had the necessary ideals and beliefs to gather a large following of individuals in the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s. Jim Jones’ central idea for his new church was integration. This belief drew in most of the African American member population as integrated churches were unheard of, especially before the civil rights movement was in full swing. This idea grew the church immensely and produced dedicated followers, which is evidenced by the 68% African-American population in Jonestown (Moore, Pinn, and Sawyer 61). This source comes from an essay written by Rebecca Moore and provides statistical information on the members of Peoples Temple; however, with the statistics, margins of error must be taken into account. However, this idea also pushed away Caucasians because Jones demanded that they “make a conscious decision to abandon the race prejudice that permeated the culture in which they lived” (Moore 14). This source comes from Rebecca Moore, a professor of Religious Studies at San Diego State University for the purpose of humanizing those who died. This book provides insightful information from multiple sources on Peoples Temple but could potentially be biased as the author has a personal connection to Jonestown. Once white members made the decision to join the church, however, white and black relationships were made possible, bridging a gap well before Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech made its debut in 1963. This church was revolutionary in not just desegregating all services, but in breaking down prejudice and possibly coming close to abolishing racism in the church which we, even in the 21st century, cannot accomplish.

After the mass suicide in November 1978, Dr. J. Alfred Smith, a black pastor, wrote that “we as the Christian Community must shoulder a portion of the blame for Jim Jones’ success… If my African American pastor peers had met the needs of the people, instead of just preaching about them, Jim Jones would not have flourished in San Francisco” (Moore 116). The pastors failed “to question what it was within the Black church that Jim Jones addressed and that [they] didn’t” (Moore 116). This idea of integration was one of the steps that Jim Jones took to gain membership, and at least on the surface, create a better world. In this way, Jim Jones can, and should, be seen as an early success in the civil rights movement.

Apart from an integrated church, many were attracted to Jones’ message and his method of teaching the Bible. In the early days of the church, it could be categorized as Pentecostal. Services were always full of energy, a contrast from stereotypical churches of the 50’s and 60’s. “Even the most negative accounts of Peoples Temple generally start with an account of the excitement at having discovered such a lively, committed, and caring congregation” (Maaga 86). Maaga is a scholar of religious studies and wrote to put “a human face on an American tragedy.” She offers a deeper perspective on the lives the members led in Jonestown; however the writing may be limited in its scope. The church also had a message that appealed to all members, black and white, with an emphasis on the social gospel. In 1960, the church became affiliated with the Disciples of Christ which gave the church accountability and authenticity, as well as a new base from which to draw new members. As the church grew in members the group became more powerful and successful in that the church was able to convince a large group of people that its ideals were true.

Peoples Temple was successful in recruiting new members because they always provided what the community needed, a case of supply and demand. One thing that was in need was the expansion of social services. After the church’s initial development, it began to be based more and more on social and humanitarian efforts. In 1960, Jones set up a free restaurant near the church to help feed the homeless population of Indianapolis. Jones then started a social service center that helped members and non-members alike find employment, shelter, food and clothing. It ran much like the Salvation Army does today. Many people joined the Temple at this time to either help serve others or to be a part of the institution that had helped them get their feet off the ground. The church also offered drug and alcohol counseling and ran a nursing home. What is un-appealing about this? Most would jump at the chance to be a part of such a revolutionary and compassionate group.

During the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s, history was ready for Peoples Temple, leading to its successful attraction of members. The church developed in the heat of the civil rights movement making Jones’ emphasis on equality a factor to be desired especially for whites who believed in desegregation. Many may have been attracted to a “group which partook of the forms and energy of the civil rights movement, but which also provided an expanded perspective on events and the charismatic protection of its leader” (Moore and McGehee 17). This source from Moore and McGehee looks at religious movements more holistically and offers comparisons to other cults and new religions. A limitation of the source is that it was published in 1989 so it is not very up to date. It was also a time of religious experimentation by many young people, particularly educated white males. Many were looking for something their parent’s church didn’t offer, or, simply, for a way to rebel. The Branch Davidians and Oneida Perfectionists (Moore and McGehee 10) also both emerged during this time. In fact, there was a large increase of cult activity in general. Many sources also suggest that the counter-culture ideals of the 1960’s like free love and world peace, brought many to the cult dynamic (Moore and McGehee 17) . However, the individuals may have found the “counter-culture and the changes it was wreaking merely added to the dislocation they felt on the margins of society” (Moore and McGehee 17).

As the church began to develop, their ideas of communalism and socialism became more and more prominent. Jones had considered himself a communist for some time, but the ideas developed in the church more slowly. Communalism, a social organization based around the community, became what held the church together and eventually made it incredibly easy for the church to withdraw from society like many cults tend to do. Many were drawn in by the close relationships all members maintained and by the constant communication they had with them and with Jim Jones himself. The community shared everything from food and clothing to time, effort, and eventually their money. They were able to live in a bubble far away from the devil that was capitalism. B. Alethia Orsot, a surviving member of Peoples Temple, writes in a personal reflection that she “was deprogrammed by Jim Jones from a capitalistic mentality to a socialistic viewpoint, which, fortunately, is one of high moral commitment that supersedes money, illusion and geographical boundaries, and that places people first.” Orsot was not in Jonestown the day the suicide occurred but has reflected on being an integral member of Peoples Temple. She writes because she must “reflect what has been true for me and to show my indebtedness to the forgotten.” This reflection acts as a primary source into the lives of the temple members from someone who still believes in the greatness of Jim Jones, but it is inevitably biased by her opinions and prejudices towards the outside world.

Jones’ message, ideas, and beliefs all made his recruitment an undeniable success. If one were to solely read this section on Jones, he could even be perceived as a white Martin Luther King. He gave people “deprived of a fair chance, recognition, understanding, lasting friendship and love” (Orsot). Approximately 1,020 people made the journey with Jones to Guyana, a symbol of their dedication and belief in the message. Another 2,000 were members who chose to stay in San Francisco or Redwood Valley for some reason or another. Is this not successful? Jones knew exactly what it took to gain membership and he did just that. “The Temple was a classic American cult, organized around a charismatic leader, offering an alternative social and political vision, living communally, and addressing itself to the dispossessed of society” (Moore and McGehee 19).

Leader or Madman

Jim Jones led Peoples Temple from its instigation to its downfall but, was Jim Jones a leader or a madman? This debate continues still, 30 years after the tragedy, and an answer may never be found. To some, Jones was Christ, a divine prophet sent from God. He was dynamic and electrifying, known for his understanding, honesty, and unfathomable love for his people. He had his followers call him “Dad,” an extension of communalism. He was a man of action, not just talk, not merely preaching a new society, but requiring his members to be a part of it. Jones offered safety and the only escape from the outside world, preaching that soon there would be famine and race wars in the United States (Hall 31). Further, he preached that concentration camps would soon be set up and great suffering would come to all. By lacing together facts and deceptions, he created a world of horror that could only be escaped with his help and guidance. For this, the congregation was eternally grateful. Jones had said, “I don’t want you to worship me. I want you to become what I am… How much I have loved you. How much I’ve tried to give you a good life. This world is not our home” (Orsot). Jones was the answer to all their troubles, the savior that would bring them life. Many loved his character and devotedness to their community. His leadership and character allowed for the church to be successful as the members were devoted to a man who was “devoted” to them and were therefore willing to go to great lengths for him.

There was, however, another side to Jones which wasn’t made clear until the church’s later years. He could also be characterized as “mad, or as a power-hungry pragmatist and a self-serving cynic and fraud” (Hall 32) as well as the anti-Christ. Peoples Temple grew to have a hierarchal class structure, just what they had originally preached against. The elite few called themselves the Planning Commission and the group was 90% white and 60% of its members were women. Many defectors as well as members considered this group to be even more racist than the society from which they were trying to escape (Hall 33).

In 1977 and 1978, Jones deteriorated mentally and physically. He used a great deal of drugs, balancing out stimulants and depressants like amphetamines and the opiate Percodan to get through his daily life (Moore 75). Many guests to Jonestown noted that his speech was slurred and he exhibited erratic behavior and rambling orations. His personal doctor diagnosed him with a fungal disease in his lungs, and he suffered from frequent fevers. Jones also staged several deceptions, including healings and invasions from the CIA, Concerned Relatives, and other members of the opposition to keep loyalty strong among all of his members. He had great paranoia at all times which was heightened whenever defectors left the community. Many argue that he preyed on the vulnerable of society which is true to an extent. The majority of the congregation was impoverished blacks who had dealt with racism, abuse, and/or addiction. However, he also had extremely well-educated and intelligent members who followed him whole-heartedly. John Hall said this of Jim Jones, “No matter what his ideals, no matter how much his more devoted followers believed in his love, Jones was a man who succeeded as a prophet only insofar as he failed, by taking a tortuous path that buried his ideals and accomplishments in needless martyrdom” (Hall 311).

It is easy for outsiders to label Jones a madman and murderer, but by doing so we dehumanize those who died since they believed in Jim Jones and his cause. We can say 918 people were brainwashed and deceived, but it is much more complicated than that. Jones was also a leader, a person who motivates and influences a group of people to achieve, and want to achieve a goal. His ideas were revolutionary and many were sold on them. Whatever Jones was, leader or madman, he convinced 918 people to die with him for a cause that they truly believed was worth dying for.

The Terror

From the outside, Jonestown may have seemed like a quiet, peaceful village, but much terror went on behind the scenes. Punishment and discipline were a large part of daily life. One could be reprimanded for trying to escape, having unauthorized sex, not performing all of duties with a happy heart, or merely for the enjoyment of other members. If Jones sensed a hint of disloyalty, one would be in great trouble. For the first offense one would usually be assigned to the Learning Crew which did the most laborious jobs and worked the most hours. However, if this was not enough, they could be put into “extended care,” a hospital ward of sorts. Here they were kept under sedation. Usually the people here had mental problems or wanted to leave Jonestown (Moore 74). When Tommy Bogue and his friend tried to run away, they “came back in shackles, their heads were shaved, and they were forced to chop wood” (Moore 74) until Jones’ son intervened. These are only a few of the punishments Jones meted to keep all of his followers loyal, honest, and most likely fearful. These punishments can be seen one of two ways. Either they prove that Jones was losing his mind as he seemed to put his people into concentration camp-like circumstances which he was supposedly protecting them from, or that the sadistic treatments were what Jones legitimately thought would help his people.

As another way of ensuring his people’s loyalty, Jones required public denouncement of family, especially of defectors or Concerned Relatives (a group dedicated to stopping Peoples Temple) to guarantee full surrender to the cause. They were “required to describe the tortures they would inflict upon them” (Moore 73) if given the chance. Many, even young children, spoke in great detail about how exactly they would like to kill and torture their own families. The legitimacy of their claims is debatable, as they may have been contrived for Jones’ satisfaction, but others may have represented a genuine feeling of hatred.

Some of the most terrifying events that plagued the citizens of Jonestown were the occasional “White Nights” and “Suicide Drills” (Moore 76). These occurred when Jones sensed significant danger or when there was a crisis in Jonestown. An alarm would sound and the entire community would come together to resist an attack, which they were told was imminent. After this, Jones would hand out deadly poison and tell the congregation to drink, in order to “prevent the torture of babies and children” (Moore 76). Only after would Jones call off the “White Night” and explain that they weren’t in fact, going to die. This raises the question of whether or not on November 18th the members believed it was poison they were taking, or that it was in fact, another drill. These “White Nights” instilled in many members great terror and left them living in a state of panic and paranoia. Why would Jones want his congregation to suffer like this? For this reason, he can be seen as unsuccessful as a human being.

On November 17, 1978, Congressman Leo Ryan of California made a trip to Guyana and into Jonestown with seventeen other reporters, aides, and Concerned Relatives. They came to learn more about the community and report back to the U.S. on the conditions they found. The people of Jonestown grudgingly welcomed them in and put on a happy and prosperous façade. There was a nice dinner followed by entertainment. The reporters and congressman began interviewing members most of which provided a well-rehearsed explanation of town life (some of which may have been true). However, several people slipped notes to Ryan saying they wanted out. The next day, Ryan returned and took fourteen people with him back to the airstrip. While boarding the plane shots were fired from both the ground and from Larry Layton, a fake defector. Five were killed, some execution style including Ryan, and several more were wounded. Jones had been planning this for some time and his paranoia about loyalty finally got to him. The indirect murder of these people proved nothing to the world but instead reinforced the idea that the cult was incredibly radical and that Jones was a madman.

The Event

On November 18th, 1978, shortly after the congressman was killed, Jones called a meeting and announced that it was the time for them to die. He said that “the time had come to be kind to the children and the seniors and to ‘step over quietly’” (Moore 95). Only one person openly opposed this, Christine Miller, and she argued with Jones about the decision until the community stopped her from saying any more. She said, “I look at the babies and I think they deserve to live, you know? When we destroy ourselves, we’re defeated. We let them, the enemies, defeat us” (Moore 96). But, she was contradicted and that was that. Her words exemplify why Jones’ actions can be seen as unsuccessful, and the fact that she died despite her opposition indicates that Jones may have been crueler than he appeared. The children were given the poison first, experiencing a painful death with violent convulsions. The adults were next and some took it willingly while others tried to escape but were blocked by armed guards. Nurses forced it down people’s throats. 918 people died. It was the largest act of “revolutionary suicide” that we know of and it was used to protest the conditions of an inhumane world. Annie Moore, who died, wrote that “we died because you would not let us live in peace” (Moore 100). But in dying, did they accomplish what they set out to do?

One of the most chilling tales is of Sharon Amos who was in Georgetown, Guyana and heard the message to die on the radio. She then slit all three of her children’s throats and then her own. There are though, about 87 members who survived for some reason or another. Of those that did miss the suicide, there are mixed feelings. B. Orsot, who was at a dental appointment, “would have proudly joined the others who laid down their lives for what they, like me, believed to be right… In the end, we made a decision to die… rather than forsake the dream” (Orsot).

The Aftermath

After the deaths that occurred on November 18, the anti-cult movement exploded and the individuals were forgotten and left un-mourned. The tragedy reinforced growing opinions that cults were dangerous and all led to death. The threat of mass suicide and violence from this tragedy led the government to intervene with the Branch Davidians in 1993, which ended in a deadly standoff, and the Fundamental Latter-day Saints in 2008, in which hundreds of kids were taken from their families because of the “imminent” threat. As Rebecca Moore, a Peoples Temple scholar put it, our “society was reassured by scholars, journalists, and pastors that Jonestown had nothing to do with the rest of us” (Moore 118), it was merely crazy people convinced by a crazy man to do crazy things. Many Black church leaders were furious with the events even stating that “wherever Black life is disrespected, Jonestown is there” (Moore 115). It has been extremely tough for many survivors to acclimate back into society and for society to accept them as more than what the media has portrayed. Survivor’s guilt haunts many of them and paranoia causes many to lead difficult and even tormented lives.

Lessons Learned

Did we learn anything from those who lost or gave up their lives, or did they die in vain? Few people who were not alive in 1978 even know that Peoples Temple ever existed or that 918 people committed suicide on one day. It is when we forget the past that the past is repeated. Our society has shunned the survivors of this tragedy and kept the tragedy as quiet as possible. The investigations that took place were not prompted by the government but by those closely affected by the tragedy.

One of the goals of Peoples Temple was racial equality. This was the most successful idea that Jones preached. Though racism still riddles our country, we have made leaps and bounds to diminish it. New generations are some of the most accepting, who instead of fearing diversity, search for it. Socialism and Communism, however, have not been so successful. Greed has become an inseparable part of humanity and there is never enough money to satisfy any of us. The recent economic recession has opened up our eyes to the evil sides of capitalism. Perhaps, Jones was a genius if these were his two main ideals. The question is, why did he give up on society? Perhaps he had discovered that if his group couldn’t accomplish these two ideas, then they were impossible to achieve, and therefore happiness was impossible as well.

Conclusion

Peoples Temple saw both great success and great failure. The cult was extremely successful in recruiting and maintaining members, however the terror that was created was horrific. Jones can be seen as both a loveable leader and a crazy madman. Nevertheless, did Peoples Temple accomplish what they set out to do? Rebecca Moore sees it two ways. If the group’s ultimate concern was to stay together, then, “in that sense, they maintained their ultimate concern by dying and not witnessing the break-up of the community. But, if we are supposed to read the action as a protest of capitalism… then no, the action was a failure. Things have gotten worse, not better, since 1978” (Moore). In my opinion, they achieved their goals short-term when they lived together and thrived as a communal society without racism. However, towards the end of 1977 and into 1978 many members lost sight of this goal, and in the long run, I do not believe the cult can be considered successful. In death they were defeated, as Christine Miller said. If their deaths had started a movement promoting racial equality and communalism, perhaps things would be different, however, the way they died and the time period in which they died caused them to be swept under the rug and forgotten except by historians and scholars. With death, vanished their ideas, their purpose, and their ability to change the world.

Bibliography

Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple. Rebecca Moore, 1998. Web. Sept.-Oct. 2009. http://jonestown.sdsu.edu/.

Hall, John R. Gone From The Promised Land. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1987.

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

Moore, Rebecca, and Fielding McGehee, eds. New Religious Movements, Mass Suicide, and Peoples Temple. Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1989.

Moore, Rebecca, Anthony B. Pinn, and Mary R. Sawyer, eds. Peoples Temple and Black Religion in America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.

Moore, Rebecca. E-mail interview. Sept. 2009.

Moore, Rebecca. Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple. Westport: Praeger, 2009.

Orsot, B. A. “Together We Stood, Divided We Fell.” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple.

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on July 21st, 2019.
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