Why Peoples Temple and Jim Jones?

by Professor G. Maynard

“This so-called new religion is nothing but a pack of weird rituals and chants designed to take away the money of fools. Let us say the Lord’s Prayer 40 times, but first let’s pass the collection plate” – Reverend Lovejoy from The Simpsons, from the episode “The Joy of Sect” – 9th season.

In the summer of 2010, I chose to use the events and history of Peoples Temple and Jonestown to illustrate many of the major concepts in the field of Social Deviance. Many times in the Social Sciences we describe things in very abstract and general terms. This is done in formulating concepts, social categories and theories of why social phenomenon occurs and in describing the larger social impacts of social deviance. The creation of general concepts that can be applied to multiple, similar cases in order to systematically explore social facts and realities is crucial to the advancement of Sociology and the development of effective explanatory theories. These general concepts and theories – like cults and why people join cults – need to be reified and illustrated so that they can be understood not only by social scientists, but by undergraduate students, the media and the public at large.

Reification is the process of making a specific model or using a seminal case study to illuminate and illustrate a set of general concepts and theories. In the world of sub-cultural deviance and deviant religious groups (cults), there is no more reifying or illustrative group and set of events as Peoples Temple and the mass suicide/killings at Jonestown.

Why are the events, thoughts, experiences and ultimate demise of the group so fitting to help students understand the complexity and reality of what happens in deviant sub-cultures like Peoples Temple. In this essay, I hope to answer this question and many more.

The first part of the essay focuses on how the terms “cult” and “deviant group” are defined and – just as importantly – who has the power to define which groups are deviant and/or cults. The second part focuses on the macro and micro theories that are used in sociology and the world of social deviance to explain why people joined the group, stayed and ultimately gave their lives for their beliefs. I will then move to examine the public perception of the group compared to the details and reality of the group, separating the stereotypes of the group from fact. Lastly, the essay explores the multiplicity of deviant acts that occurred in the group and how I used this in my class to explore issues over and above Peoples Temple; and how the demise of the group harmed and still harms other fringe groups by allowing a convenient label of “Jonestown-like” group, which many times leads to the government, media and public to seek to eliminate or neutralize the group. Some have suggested the 1993 standoff with the Branch Davidian group in Waco, Texas was made worse by the labeling of the group as another “Jonestown” (Armageddon in Waco, edited by Stuart Wright, 1995).

The first issues that I discussed with my class were: what is a cult? who decides which groups are considered to be cults? and why? These are very important questions in the area of deviant religious groups. There is a divergence of opinion within sociology and in the larger world of public opinion over the issue of how to define a cult.

The debate in sociology centers on the differing views of essentialists and social constructionists/relativists in the world of social deviance. Essentialists argue that groups considered to be cults are dangerous and that they all share definitive characteristics that can be identified and operationalized. They believe that cults are deviant groups that use manipulation, intimidation, deception and other forms of guile to fool, bamboozle and brainwash people to get them to give up all allegiances except to the cult and to surrender their will to the cult leader. According to essentialists, a cult is a cult, no matter if it does some good, if many people willingly join it and if those in the group do not define the group as a cult. Additionally, essentialists maintain that groups considered to be cults harm people by separating them from their families and friends, and by forcing group members to perform deviant sex acts, to believe deviant concepts, to commit crimes, and to otherwise act in a manner that in the end is harmful to themselves, their social networks and society as a whole. To this list, many religious essentialists and mainstream religious groups, like Catholic and Protestant churches – who rightfully see cults and new religious movements as a threat to their dominance in society – would add that their actions and beliefs are violations of God’s law.

According to the essentialists, all cults end up badly, with many of these groups engaging in mass suicides (Peoples Temple, Heaven’s Gate and the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas), criminal acts, physical/emotional/sexual abuse, financial theft/exploitation and devastation for anyone who survives. Some specific charges that essentialists suggest as occurring within all groups considered to be cults include sexual deviance (rape, group sex, polygamy, child sex abuse, etc.), excessive/ritualistic drug use, a hostility to the outside world that the leadership uses to hold the group together (many times accompanied by a belief that the world is coming to an end) and a mixing of belief systems that seemingly do not fit together (socialism and Christianity, Heaven’s Gate’s belief that Jesus was coming to save them in space ship, and the Branch Davidian belief that David Koresh was the “Sinful Messiah”). This definition of all cults as easily identifiable and ultimately “evil” is ensconced in the way the media, government, mainstream religious groups and the general public view the concept of a cult.

Peoples Temple, which fit into and in many ways helped to create this definition, is used by powerful social institutions to illustrate and reify what a cult is to the general public. Jim Jones and his followers’ story is told as a educational and cautionary tale for parents, educators, government authorities and mainstream religious groups. But is it always that clear and simple to define and identify a group as a cult? Are the deviant elements of these sub-cultures always that clear? If so, why would anyone join such a group? Finally, if we operate with the definition of a cult given by essentialists, what should society’s response be?

Many say that, if the above definition of a cult is a reality, then these groups should be monitored, charged with their various crimes and eventually broken up/destroyed. But there is another school of thought on how terms like “cult” are constructed in the public eye.

The social constructionist school of thought suggests that a “cult” is any group that threatens mainstream cultural beliefs and institutions, like the Catholic and Protestant churches in America. If all religious groups in America had the essentialist definition applied to them, then one could easily accuse those same mainstream religious groups of being cult-like and deviant themselves – for example, the child sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church or the behavior of those in the Protestant mega-churches that have been accused of brainwashing followers and stealing their money. If the Catholic Church was smaller and not normalized into mainstream society/culture, government agents might have beat down their doors and filed charges against all involved with crimes of sexual abuse of children instead of allowing the group to continue to operate openly in mainstream culture. In the minds of many people, this re-examination of which groups are considered to be “cults” calls into question the idea that a “cult” is a “cult,” and that all of these groups defined as cults – to the exclusion of other religious institutions – in the public sphere are dangerous.

Deborah Layton’s book, Seductive Poison, opens up by saying that no one joins a “cult”: you join a community group, a church group or a charity group, and then the group changes, and before you know it you cannot get out (Deborah Layton, Seductive Poison, 1998). Even when members of the group start to realize the deviant direction of the group, many times those inside feel that they cannot leave. They have too much invested, their social network is there, their life is there, and their identity is tied up in their membership in the group to the point that they feel they have no where else to go. Layton’s argument that Peoples Temple did not start out as a cult and gradually became one, calls into question the essentialist ideas about what a cult is and how they start. Social constructionists would argue that part of what is occurring is that the groups that get labeled cults by the media, government, relatives of group members, and the public at large has more to do with the fact that the group is insular and separated from mainstream society. Facts and acts of the group are selectively and negatively presented to the public in order to make the group conform to most people’s reified definition of a cult. On the whole, this ignores the fact that many of these groups do not fit the classic definition of a “dangerous cult.” It also ignores the good works these groups perform, as well as the fact that many in these groups do not abuse or exploit others, nor do they violate the law or harm others and society by committing criminal acts. As a case in point, most people in Peoples Temple/Jonestown did not harm anyone nor did they break the law. This fact and other facts about those in group never seem to come out and are still not considered by most in the mainstream media and by historians. Instead, they seem to view Peoples Temple/Jonestown in black and white terms. The reality is that, for all the deviant acts many members of the group were engaged in, there seems to be an omission of many facts that call into question the universally harsh portrayal of the group.

In other words, if everyone in the United States had subscribed to or agreed with the beliefs of Peoples Temple, then the group would have never been defined as a cult, no matter how weird and deviant its behavior and beliefs of the group. In the United States right now, groups like the Mormons, Quakers, New Age religions like the Baha’i and the Hare Krishnas are considered to be “cults” or “cult like groups” in the minds of the public and the media.

One of the main ideas that I tell my students is that it is not always clear what a cult is, nor whether a specific group is a cult or not. Leading to the idea supported by social constructionists, if the major social institutions, the elites that run those institutions (especially religious, media and government officials) and the public believe and selectively define a group as deviant, then it will be treated and dealt with as a cult. If you knew nothing about Christianity and someone told you that they believed that a magical carpenter from Northern Israel died and then came back to life to make up for the mistakes of all of humanity and in the afterlife people who followed this guy went to a place called Heaven and that we honor this magical carpenter’s life by eating his flesh and drinking his blood wouldn’t you think that I was in a cult? Certainly the Romans – with their pagan belief systems – did. So if early versions of what are now considered to be major religions at one point were considered to be dangerous cults, then isn’t the definition of what constitutes a cult dependent more on how powerful groups in society define and interact with the group. In fact, it took the conversion of Constantine, the leader of the Eastern Roman Empire, to Christianity before it was even allowed to be practiced out in the open, but once the leaders and elites of Rome accepted it, it was no longer a cult.

This difference in views about defining a cult is how I started the lectures and discussions in the first part of the series of classes on Peoples Temple in the social deviance class. With that in mind, I am not suggesting that essentialist don’t have some good points and arguments about cults, but those arguments are weakened by their insistence in supporting the view that cults are cults and so are relatively easy to identify. The experience of Peoples Temple and other groups suggest something else at work, that there is more gray area in the definition than most care to think about. In my interview with Jim Jones, Jr. in class, I asked him about his current religiosity. He said he was now Catholic, then added “I left one cult and joined another.” He laughed when he said it, but the point is real: how do we decide what is a cult and what is not?

The next issue that I discussed with my class was why someone would join a group that was outside of the mainstream of American culture/society. Peoples Temple mixed socialism, some aspects of Christianity and even elements of Eastern religions, such as Jim Jones’ belief in reincarnation. The theories explaining why someone would choose to join a group that deviated from the mainstream, center on the social psychology of the members and macro theories that look at historical patterns of social anomie and confusion within mainstream institutions like Christianity and society in general. The social psychological reasons that someone would join a group with little history and a small membership base when they know they will most likely face ostracism and stigmatizing labels from the larger society, center on the early life experiences and socialization of the members and leaders of the group. Debbie Layton describes a pervasive feeling of alienation, confusion, lack of connection with her parents and shame over her upbringing, family life and relationship with her mother. She recalls her feeling that she had no place of security, safety, or even social identity, and she was desperately searching for these things. Like many others, she had turned to smoking, drinking and drugs, behavior which alienated her from her family and society even more (Layton).

Many others in Peoples Temple had issues with childhood abuse, drugs, divorce, violence and feelings of not fitting in with others and with society as a whole. Jim Jones’ background is similar to that, having grown up poor and dealing with the stigma that comes with severe poverty in America, but Jones used his feelings of isolation and alienation from society as inspiration and motivation to build his own belief system. He did this in an effort to bring together those who had been downtrodden and forgotten by society. This drive explains Jones’ focus on civil rights, integration, tolerance and other aspects of his belief system that many liberals and disillusioned Christians found attractive. It also explains the influence he had on members of his group.

To illustrate this for his own followers, Jones used Mr. Muggs, the chimpanzee that he had saved from a medical research lab. Even if no one else cared about you, Jones said, he still would, just as he cared about Mr. Muggs. This was very attractive and alluring to many who felt alienated and alone, like Debbie Layton (Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, 2007). She describes how Jones made her feel secure and special, how she believed she had a place where people cared about her, where what she wanted for her life was important and would be fulfilled (Layton). Many members that joined the group and stayed did so because many of them wanted to recreate their lives in a more positive direction. Jones gave them an outlet for the expression of the “love” and “charity” that many of them felt internally. Jones filled a hole in the lives and souls of many followers, and in a number of cases, helped to turn their lives around. The members of Peoples Temple that they were special and chosen, he said, and the rest of the world was wrong, stupid, and brainwashed. American society was filled with self-aggrandizing hypocrites who were headed for Armageddon. By defining his group as moral and correct and the outside world as poisonous to the soul and enemies of the group, Jones could achieve his goals. This feeling of in-group love and safety strengthened the resolve of the members of the group and discouraged many from leaving, even when the group and Jones started to change. Leaving would be “death” to those in the group, and Jones told them as much, concocting grand conspiracies that government authorities/agents were plotting with hostile relatives to destroy Jones and the whole group.

As for the large, macro social forces that assisted the development and rise of Peoples Temple, the theories center on the concept of anomie, which is a general feeling of confusion, institutional illegitimacy, normlessness and hopelessness in the broader society. These aspects of anomie, which many historical sociologists suggest existed in the late 60s and into the late 70s, damaged the reputation of mainstream churches; the government was damaged by the assassinations in the 60s, the Vietnam War and the pervasive sense that the government was harming society and the American people, instead of helping. The youth sub-culture of the 1960s felt animosity and disrespect towards mainstream American values and institutions, which in turn led to the development of the hippie sub-culture and other counter culture groups like the yippies, who rejected nearly all elements of mainstream society, especially the ideas of what their parents’ generation thought was right and wrong. Jones recognized these pervasive social feelings and used them for his benefit. He defined the current state of American culture and society in a way that attracted many people, especially young people. He articulated a massive society-wide conspiracy that he felt was eventually going to lead to worldwide destruction in the form of a nuclear war. One of the reasons he moved to Ukiah was that it was considered to be one of the safest places in case of a nuclear war. He rejected the traditional Christian church, attacking it for being rigid and inflexible by not responding to the needs and wants of many Americans.

At one point in the early 1970s, Jim Jones was considered by many to be one of the most powerful religious leaders on the West coast, meeting with mayors, legislators and even the President of the United States. This was all made possible partly by the conditions in society during the late 60s and early 70s. Many theorists feel that without the confusion of the 60s and the concomitant decline in the trust that people had had in mainstream religious organizations, Peoples Temple would not have enjoyed such a meteoric rise in status and membership.

Additionally, I taught my students that the disruptions in American culture and its impacts on social institutions created a situation where those who felt alienated and anomic felt that their family and friends had abandoned them, that they just did not fit in anywhere. This made them easy pickings for people like Jim Jones to convince them that being a member of Peoples Temple could provide a place of certainty, safety and belonging.

I emphasized in my lectures to my students that both macro and micro forces were at work in the history of the group. In the beginning, the Temple did “do good” things by performing community service, making the members feel like their lives were better inside the group, and impacting political/governmental policy. The believed that they, as a group, could change not only themselves, but all of American culture. In the end, they did change American culture: they helped to define for many Americans what a cult is and why people should be concerned about them. That may be not what Jones or many of the others wanted to happen, but that is one of the major social/public legacies of the group and its demise.

The other questions that I sought to explain, teach and discuss with the social deviance class include: What was the group doing that most in mainstream society thought was so deviant? How did members of the group get so engrained into the sub-cultural world of Peoples Temple that many of them did not think anything was wrong? Jones told his followers they had to separate itself from American society in order to organize a new one, one without racism, classism, sexism or elitism. The group had to go off on its own to become the city on the hill for all others to look at and emulate. Inside the tight knit group that consistently defines the outside world as wrong, Jones and the Peoples Temple leadership created explanations, rationalizations and belief systems to justify their attitudes and behavior. Without outside influence and/or intervention, these beliefs tended to strengthen over time by a process of in-group intensification: more and more members of the group believed more and more intensely the ideas of leaders of the group. The group members accepted what Jones was saying – and what they believed – as the only truth, and any attempts by outsiders or insiders to attack the belief system constituted treason which endangered the future of the group. Those on the outside were considered enemies who had to be neutralized by any means necessary, including intimidation, verbal attacks and even physical violence and murder. Within this sub-cultural pressure cooker, acts committed by the leadership and members – especially Jim Jones in this case – that would be defined as deviant and potentially criminal by the outside world are either ignored or re-defined as right and moral inside the group. This was one of the most fascinating aspects of Peoples Temple to me and to my students, that drug use, rape, attempted suicide, physical and emotional abuse could all take place and just seem normal. But was it? Jim Jones, Jr., said that many in the group knew that bad things were happening, and they were uncomfortable and fearful, but the intimidation and threats of Jones and others prevented many from speaking up or attempting to leave the group. Even in this intensive and insular sub-culture, then, people’s ideas of right and wrong were still operating in many members. This does not support the concepts of essentialists that suggest that members of a cult are brainwashed or that the members believe what is occurring within the group is normal. Instead, this tension of knowing that deviant acts were occurring is what eventually led many people, including Debbie Layton, to escape and try to expose the Temple to the press and the government.

The question now becomes, what was the group doing that was so bad in the view of the mainstream media, the general public and institutional elites? Many felt that the group was brainwashing people and holding them against their will, and there is some evidence of this. Physical abuse and depravation, food withheld from members, people worked to the point of absolute exhaustion, beatings and sexual abuse, it was all there. In addition, Jones was saying one thing to the group in public, but in private he was cheating on his wife, drinking, taking drugs and hoarding money. Jones’ ideas that all men were homosexuals and that sex was wrong and selfish, to many, was highly deviant. His maniacal control over the group by keeping the members of the group up all night long conducting mock mass suicide drills that he called “white nights” is not a convention that is repeated in mainstream religions or other groups. Most in the group did not know about this, but a few did and some of them attempted to leave the group.

Obviously, one of the most deviant acts/thoughts that was undertaken by Jones and the group was the idea of revolutionary suicide. Coined by Black Panther leader Huey Newton, Jones redefined the term to mean that it was better to be dead and protest the unjust conditions of the world than to be destroyed by the hands of their enemies by murder or incarceration. Many in the group didn’t not agree with Jones on this point, but many did, and even though it is difficult to tell how many believed that mass suicide was an appropriate action and how many thought it was the stupidest thing that they had ever heard, it is clear that Jones was able to convince enough people that day to do it. He was also able to convince some of his followers of the notion that those who threatened the group should and must be killed in order to protect the group and its goals. It is suggested that this is what led to Congressman Ryan being killed. Ultimately, it was the assassination of Ryan and four others at the Port Kaituma airstrip that led Jones to initiate the end game of mass suicide. If the group did not commit revolutionary suicide, he said, then outside forces – the Guyanese Defense Force, the American military, the CIA – would come in, torture their babies, and kill them all. To most people in American society at the time and in my class this summer, the idea of revolutionary mass suicide was clearly a deviant act and could not be defined in any other way. This begs the question: if it was clearly deviant, then why did so many willingly follow that path? That speaks to the power of sub-cultures.

In the final analysis, the impact of Peoples Temple and Jim Jones have reified the concept of a cult in American society, which has allowed mainstream social institutions and their leaders to use the example of Peoples Temple to vilify other groups that have come along since the late 1970s. The Branch Davidian group was roundly described as a “Jonestown like group” and David Koresh as a Jim Jones-like figure and in the end this created a negative attitude towards the group in the media and the public. This demonization of the group and statements about the suicidal tendencies and Koresh’s brainwashing of his group’s members helped to justify the behavior of the ATF and FBI. After the group was labeled a Jonestown cult, very few people in the media or the public cared about the real details of the case. In the course of negotiating with the FBI, Koresh even mentions that he understood that people considered the group to be a cult, and he expresses his fear that this would allow the government to eliminate the group without a proper hearing or trial before a judge (Wright). When the group refused to come out of their ranch compound and the building caught on fire, there was little sympathy in the government, media and the public. Many in the public were happy that the group “killed themselves”, but evidence has come out that the group may have been the victims of the Jonestown labeling and the harsh tactics of the FBI that used flammable CS gas to force them out. The gas caused a fire and the people had no way out of the building, and they died not by their own hands by the hands of the FBI (Waco: The Rules of Engagement, 1997).

Even though Jonestown took place over 30 years ago, the story still resonates with the public, impacts how we view other groups similar to Peoples Temple, and prevents many in the public from really gaining a deeper insight into how these small groups start, why they are considered deviant and who the members were as people. This is part of the legacy of Jonestown that I could use to illustrate the ideas, concepts and theories of deviance, as well as to separate the fact from the fictional stereotypes of people like Jim Jones and the groups like Peoples Temple.

Works Cited

Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (New York: Firelight Media, 2007)

Layton, Deborah, Seductive Poison (New York: Anchor Books, 1998).

Waco: The Rules of Engagement (Los Angeles: SomFord Entertainment, 1997)

Wright, Stuart, ed., Armageddon in Waco (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

(Professor Gary Maynard is an Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. He may be reached at Gary-Maynard@utc.edu.)

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on December 4th, 2013.
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