Teaching “Jonestown”

(Eugene V. Gallagher is the Rosemary Park Professor of Religious Studies at Connecticut College. He can be reached at evgal@conncoll.edu.)

I devote a week and a half to Peoples Temple and Jonestown in my course on new religious movements in the U. S. Although the course is listed at the intermediate level, it draws many students who have never taken a college-level course in the study of religion. Consequently, the first challenge I face is helping the students develop a shared analytical vocabulary that can then be used to interpret a variety of case studies. Over the years I’ve relied heavily on the first two chapters of Peter Berger’s classic, The Sacred Canopy, to encourage students to think of all religions as socially-constructed attempts to give meaning to human life. That theoretical approach helps me to address two kinds of resistance that students typically have to taking new religious movements seriously. On one hand, they have absorbed – often without much reflection – the popular sentiments that portray any “cult” as being led by a dangerous nut case who puts unwitting followers in harm’s way. On the other hand, a more muted strain of popular sentiment treats “cults” as laughable in their bizarre eccentricities. Either way, many students don’t come prepared to examine any new religion as what David Chidester in Salvation and Suicide calls an “experiment in being human.”

A course on new religions often intersects with students’ own indirect or direct experiences with such groups, but I prefer to sneak up on contemporary examples by first studying a few cases from the 18th and 19th centuries. I usually include the Shakers, Mormons, and Theosophical Society in that section of the course. By the time they get to groups in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, then, students have had ample acquaintance with radically alternative ways of living, dramatic challenges to established religious authority, and claims to esoteric wisdom. One of my central questions is always “what benefits would someone perceive in living or thinking this way?”

Thus, when I get to the case study of Peoples Temple about half way through the course, students have the rudiments of a theoretical approach to studying religion and a number of possibilities for comparing Peoples Temple with other new religions. Both of those strategies are responses to Jonathan Z. Smith’s imperative that academics cannot leave “Jonestown” in the realm of the unintelligible. Because it’s what students are familiar with – if they know anything at all about Jonestown – I devote the first 75-minute class session to a close reading of the “death tape.” I want students to develop hypotheses about the dynamics of the relationship between Jim Jones and his audience, the convictions that Jones and others are voicing, and the motivations of those who took their own lives. In the next two sessions we review and discuss the development of Peoples Temple’s worldview in the decades leading up to 1978.

“Jonestown” now is largely of historical interest to my students, nearly all of whom were born more than a decade after the dissolution of Peoples Temple. But the anti-cult argument, for which Jonestown is such a powerful example, subtly informs their expectations. Statements like Rev. John Moore’s assertion that “Jonestown people were human beings,” however, direct students beyond easy stereotyping to the conscious acts of comparison and application of theory that can lead them to deeper and more complex understanding of members of Peoples Temple as both like and unlike themselves. To the extent that they can do that, they are engaging in the type of learning that the Liberal Arts aim to foster.