Reflections on Teaching about Jonestown

Times have changed. I began teaching about Jonestown in university-level sociology of religion courses soon after the murders and mass suicide. In the beginning, all the students knew some basic things about what had happened in November 1978, and many students could say exactly where they were and what they were doing when they first heard about it.

In 1989, when I moved to UC Davis, I found that a small but surprising number of students came from families who had known a member of Peoples Temple. Others, when we discussed Jonestown in class, came back to report that their parents had memories of the events of 1977 and 1978, or recalled seeing Peoples Forum, or had even attended a Peoples Temple service.

More than three decades later, an increasing number of students have never heard about Jonestown, and those who have heard of it rarely have any kind of direct knowledge about it. Beyond the superficial zeitgeist references to “drinking the Kool-Aid,” those few with any knowledge at all seem to have obtained it almost entirely from the mass-media documentaries or docudramas.

However, almost every time I offer a course on religion, a few students want to do their term papers on Peoples Temple. The difficulty is that, although some students may consult Wikipedia or other websites, such students typically come to their topic as something of a narrative set-piece that traces the story of Peoples Temple not as history, but as myth. Perhaps some of them have found the term paper entitled “The Jonestown Massacre” for sale for $60 on the internet, or the one comparing Jonestown and Masada, or a free paper on Jonestown as a “cult.”

When students want to write about Jonestown, I encourage them to do so, but I insist that if they already know the answers to the questions that they are posing, they write about a different topic. The biggest challenge for them is coming to see that Jonestown is not a “natural” pre-given “thing,” but a complex array of many events that can be considered from a variety of points of view, addressing a wide range of questions.

Thus, for students, writing about Jonestown is a wonderful opportunity to learn about conducting research, weighing evidence, considering alternative explanations, and coming to the humility of adulthood, in which we (hopefully) reach the understanding that we can’t know everything, even about something that has been subjected to intense scrutiny, and that our conclusions are at best provisional and open to further consideration.

Of course, most students do not take up the project of writing about Jonestown, so the larger question concerns teaching about the subject. Students today often seek to turn any sociological analysis into a moral narrative, and thus, whether they have heard of Jim Jones or not, when they begin to learn about the tragic events, they are often predisposed toward adopting a narrative viewpoint that casts Jones as villain.

Of course, there is a lot of evidence to support this view. However, it is not the whole story, and the major challenge I have faced is getting them to hold back from instant analysis and to avoid presuppositions. One sure way to do this is to provide them with resources – both original archival materials such as those available on this website – and scholarly and popular accounts of Temple history.

In the late 1980s, Tom Zaniello, an English writing teacher, published a set of documents in his book Explorations in Reading and Writing (New York: Random House, 1987). Zaniello’s book is out of print, I suspect, but his book suggests a great project: give students a series of materials, and ask them to write a brief reading report. I have modified the suggestion slightly: I have students read materials and then discuss them.

What I have found, for the most part, is that once students move away from free floating narratives to the study of actions and events, they can switch gears and become far more analytic, asking questions such as how many people willingly drank the poison, or whether Don Sly’s attack on Leo Ryan was staged, or whether the Concerned Relatives were concerned that their visit might precipitate violence.

Teaching about Peoples Temple and Jonestown is not easy, because it brings out the strongest tendencies to revert to preconceptions or simplistic mythological narratives. But precisely for those reasons, it is a subject that offers students great potential for moving to the next level of analytic reasoning in relation to the complex and morally uneven events of social life.

(For further reading, see Thomas Robbins and John R. Hall, “New religious movements and violence,” pp. 245-70 in David Bromley, ed., Teaching New Religious Movements (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

(John R. Hall, author of Gone from the Promised Land, teaches in the Department of Sociology at University of California – Davis. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. His e-mail is