The Textual Practices of Peoples Temple: How Did Texts Help to Build the Promised Land?

Header on a Peoples Temple Memo Pad

“Impressive” was the first word to come to mind when I was asked what
I thought of the project. The clearing of more than eight hundred acres from
the midst of the jungle, and the planting of crops is impressive. To imagine
more than a thousand Americans migrating to Guyana and working in
the project is impressive. Every aspect of the work and life there I found impressive.

Reverend John Moore, May 1978


In Hearing the Voices of Jonestown, M. Maaga (1998) describes Peoples Temple as “an intense organization that took itself very seriously” (137). This attitude is nowhere more evident than in the textual artifacts that the Temple left behind. These texts are fascinating in their number and diversity. The Peoples Temple archives comprise thousands of pages, and those pages represent a wide variety of genres, some of which may be unique to the Temple.

Scholars from several disciplines have studied Jonestown partly or wholly through these textual vestiges, and the resulting research has been illuminating. Social histories examine the interpersonal and social forces that allowed Peoples Temple to amass power in Indiana and California, as well as the events that propelled many members to relocate to Guyana (see, for example, Moore, 2009b, Chesebro & McMahan, 2006; Hall, 2004; Maaga, 1998; Harding, 1980). A sizeable group of analyses address a wide range of considerations contained under the umbrella of religious studies (see, for example, Moore, Pinn, & Sawyer, 2004; Chidester, 2003; Ahlberg, 1986; Robbins & Palmer, 1994; Robbins & Anthony, 1995; Hall & Schuyler, 2000; Levi, 1982; Wessinger, 2000). A smaller collection of studies examines Peoples Temple and Jonestown through the lens of psychology (see, for example, Stack, 1983; Rowe, 1980).

Missing from the collective work on Peoples Temple, however, is a sustained examination of how the Guyana settlement was established and maintained. Respected accounts of Peoples Temple do of course describe the events leading up to the creation of Jonestown, the migration to Jonestown, and events that occurred at Jonestown, but they generally present these topics as part of a larger arc about Peoples Temple history. Relatively little is said about the daily, mundane steps – the bureaucratic paper pushing – that helped to establish the agricultural mission.

This gap in the research is notable because the feat of establishing Jonestown is one of Peoples Temple’s greatest accomplishments. From my perspective as a technical-communication researcher, this accomplishment is all the more compelling because of the central role that writing played in it. A review of the materials in the Peoples Temple archives makes it clear that Temple members made extensive use of written communication to achieve their objectives in Guyana. Indeed, they seem to have put everything in writing. F. McGehee (2010) aptly sums up this state of affairs and is worth quoting at length:

[T]hey saved everything. There are the business records of Peoples Temple as a corporation, including receipts, tax records, bank accounts, and internal memoranda. There are the trappings of the Temple as a church, ranging from Jim Jones’ robes to donation envelopes, from prayer requests to testimonials of Jones’ healing powers. There are the ephemera from the community at large, such as copies of Peoples Forum, the Temple’s newspaper, membership and passport photos, handwritten requests for extraordinary purchases, and of course, more receipts. There are individual writings, such as the private journals of at least one Temple member, confidential memos to Jim Jones and other Temple leaders, papers with signed confessions to unbelievable crimes and just as many pages which are blank except for a signature at the bottom. There are flyers for political demonstrations protesting the treatment of minorities in capitalist America, and brochures heralding a new life in Jonestown. There are letters to the editor condemning the approaching police state in America, and internal surveillance reports of Temple members.

To McGehee’s description I would add this claim: the texts and their attendant social practices were not adjuncts to the Temple’s activities, they were to a great extent the Temple’s activities. The epigraph at the beginning of this article, “Verbal orders don’t go – Write it!”, appears on a memo pad used by Peoples Temple members during the planning and implementation of Jonestown, and its directive drives home the importance that the Temple placed on documentation.

Despite the fact that many signs point to their significance in Peoples Temple, these various documents and their attendant social practices have never been studied as an object of inquiry in their own right. Consequently, my research is motivated by following question: How did texts mediate the life cycle of Peoples Temple Agricultural Project? Or, more simply, how did texts help Peoples Temple to build and maintain – at least for a brief period – that remote jungle community that Reverend Moore described as “impressive”? As such, this study concerns itself not with the “why” of Jonestown but with the “how”.

Organizational Communication in Technical Communication

Defined in its simplest terms, organizational communication involves people working together through the medium of language to achieve individual or group objectives. Research on organizational communication is not confined to one discipline, and each discipline that studies it does so in a different way and with different goals in mind. Researchers in technical communication, one of the fields in which I claim a home, typically study organizational communication through an examination of the textual practices that occur within organizations. Textual practices is a concept that includes texts and the actions/behaviors linked to those texts. In other words, textual practices are viewed as material and social in nature. The specific texts chosen for study could include anything from meeting minutes to e-mail to design reports – essentially, any written product that is created by, modified by, or acted on within an organization. But to study the specific texts chosen, researchers would also study the social life associated with those texts.

Why study organizational communication? Technical-communication researchers study text use within organizations to understand how:

• textual practices mediate the creation of knowledge within organizations
• communicative practices – especially the circulation of texts – sustain organizations
• organizations have come to adopt particular textual practices
• textual practices are remade over time in response to an organization’s changing needs
• organizations are (re)shaped in response to textual practices

As technical-communication scholar M. Zachry (2000) notes, the overall goal of organizational-communication research is to “gain insight into not only the texts professionals have used to negotiate their daily tasks, but also into the ways we have come to order our social institutions around the production and reception of those texts” (p. 100). To put it another way, technical-communication researchers who study organizational communication want to find out how people in organizations use texts, why they use the texts they use, and what impact that text use has on organizations and on the textual practices.

Most research on organizational communication in my field describes textual practices at corporate and governmental sites. This narrow focus predisposes the field of technical communication to make certain assumptions about organizational communication that, more likely than not, do not hold true for all types of organizations. Therefore, one reason that an examination of the Temple’s communication practices is needed is to offer a view of organizational communication that is missing from the standard corpus of research.

Perhaps more importantly, a study of the Temple’s communication practices, and in particular those communication practices that helped to build and maintain Jonestown, will illuminate aspects of Temple practices that heretofore remain hidden.

Organizational Communication in Peoples Temple: Some Preliminary Thoughts

My research is in its infancy, and so I hesitate to make any definitive statements about organizational communication in Peoples Temple with respect to the establishment and maintenance of the agricultural mission (hence, the question mark in the second part of this article’s title). I can, however, share some observations that I have made so far.

First, even a cursory analysis of these documents impresses upon the reader how dedicated Temple members were to achieving organizational goals. By way of illustration, one could look to the June 30, 1975 minutes that resulted from a Shipment Coordinators meeting. Here, readers get a glimpse of the sheer amount of manual labor that Temple members contributed to the mission project, as well as the willingness of Temple members to push themselves for the cause:

[T]he craters were the first to quit each night and came up to the garage and sacked out, the all night workers up there felt demoralized because they had to step over the sleeping craters… Danny admitted that they worked only 8am – 11pm, hour off for lunch and dinner… It was agreed they should work longer hours, no specific hours were set (Shipment coordinators meeting minutes, n.d.; ellipses original).

This same document also evidences a related sense of urgency that is communicated by the recorder’s use of capital letters and underlining:

LONGER HOURS BY ALL will be necessary this time, because there is a MUCH HEAVIER WORK SCHEDULE. THE GARAGE ALONE HAS 6 ENGINES TO REPAIR OR OVERHAUL… a near impossible job for the time slot we have allotted to us.

Deadlines: Boat is scheduled to depart on July 25th; Shipment must be loaded on 24th; determined must depart here no later than midnight of the 17th and scheduled to arrive there on the 22nd.

What’s significant about this example, which is by no means unusual among the texts of this genre in the archives, is that the content goes beyond the normal function of meeting minutes – past the point of recording to the point of overt persuasion. In other words, the meeting minutes function as more than just a record of what occurred at a given meeting; they actively guide what will occur. Furthermore, these passages seem to serve a witnessing or testimonial function; through writing, the dedication of Temple members is inscribed and made material.

Second, an analysis of the documents reveals an optimistic attitude about the agricultural mission that deserves more page space that it has been given in many of the standard accounts of Peoples Temple. It’s not that standard accounts neglect this optimism entirely (see, for example, Hall, p. 194; Moore, 2009b, p. 44); rather, the focus of these accounts – whether they be histories of the movement or subject-specific analyses – does not permit a fine-grained examination of how this optimism is revealed on a number of levels in the texts produced by Temple members. In fact, so many of the texts are marked with an obvious sense of optimism that it is impossible to reconcile the images invoked by these texts with popular images of Jonestown as a solely, or even largely, destructive entity.

One of the most touching instances of this optimism appears in an undated report written by one or more of the first Jonestown settlers (Report from Jonestown, n.d.). In this missive, the member(s) write with pride of the group’s accomplishments, and the text’s author(s) highlight the collective good that the group has accomplished:

Things constructed by us:
3 tables for eating, of rough wood and finished lumber. more on way!
8 stools, from rough lumber and round poles. more on way: seats for all!
1 kitchen sink and drainer boards on both sides
wall desk on two walls in office, bookcase on wall too. Medicine cabinet in wall too.
1 cookhouse, behind kitchen attached to workshop shed. designed and built by Rev. Lester helped too.

It is difficult to ignore the pride and hope for the future in the quoted passage above. This hopefulness is something that may not be apparent in more public sources, especially survivor accounts. As R. Moore (2009b) notes, “[t]he trouble with survivor accounts is that they were all written looking backward, through the prism of the deaths in Jonestown…. The voices of those who died in Jonestown were silenced by the tragedy, so it is hard to know what they really thought and felt” (p. 45). The same might hold true of other after-the-fact accounts from non-members. In light of these limitations, the fact that the Temple’s internal organizational communication came into being before the deaths makes it all the more valuable in opening up characterization of Peoples Temple and Jonestown beyond the popular obsession with the events of November 18, 1978.

Third, the design of many of the Peoples Temple documents suggests an overriding concern with efficiency and order that can be interpreted as a desire for control. Bureaucratic control over Temple members, particularly through the leadership’s use of membership files, has been noted by other scholars and by former members (see, for example, Reiterman & Jacobs, 2008; Hall, 2004; Moore, 1985; Mills, 1979). Not surprisingly, these accounts often portray the control exacted through record keeping as negative. Certainly some of the practices were destructive, such as those in which Temple members’ finances were tracked and exploited. But other textual practices intended to track members served a much more beneficial purpose. For instance, prior to leaving for the agricultural mission, Temple members completed skills inventories that, in effect, served as resumes (Skills Inventory, n.d.). In addition, Temple members identified work assignments on the Promised Land Work Preference form that they might like to have at Jonestown (Promised land work preference, n.d.). The function of these texts seems apparent: they would be used to place Temple members into jobs for which they were suited and/or jobs that they desired.

In fact, Peoples Temple created a number of organizational documents that controlled the attention and activities of members planning to “go over.” Some of these documents seem to have evolved over time through revision. One of the best examples of this is the evolution of the Personal Effects Purchasing Guide, a checklist in table format (see Figure 1) that guided members in purchasing items needed for life in Jonestown.

08-03-Shearer-Textual Practices

Alternative and, I suspect, earlier versions of the purchasing guide appear in a simple list form devoid of table formatting. Some of these lists contain handwritten revisions that add or delete items on the list. The Personal Effects Purchasing Guide was not meant to stand alone, however. Other Temple-produced texts, such as those that explained why members needed to bring the items on the purchasing guide, reinforced and supplemented the purchasing guide’s directives. Thus, the suite of texts created a layering effect of written communication that reminded, reinforced, and ultimately guided members’ practices so that when they arrived in Jonestown, they were adequately prepared for life there, at least in the material sense.

Finally, the most notable characteristic of these documents is how very absent Jim Jones is from them. Certainly, he is referenced in many of the texts – for instance, business letters from Guyana are sometimes closed with a reference to “Father,” such as “Always thanking Father for his many gifts” (Grubbs, n.d) – but few of the documents that I viewed came directly from Jones’ hand or even specifically mention his name. In fact, if one were to read through the papers in the archive without prior knowledge of Peoples Temple or Jonestown, one would no doubt identify people other than Jim Jones as the engine of the machine that built Jonestown. Perhaps this absence is not really an absence; one could argue that his influence was so all-pervasive that his name need not be mentioned. One could also argue, however, that Jim Jones wasn’t the driving force behind many of the activities that helped to establish and maintain the agricultural mission. Instead, the Temple leadership generally speaking could be credited with the planning and the accomplishments that resulted from that planning. To a certain extent, this position echoes that expressed by Moore (2009a) with regard to the mixing of the poisoned Flavor Aid: “I have said on a number of occasions that Jim Jones didn’t mix the poison on November 18; he didn’t place the order for potassium cyanide; he wasn’t involved in the logistics of preparation and planning. The deaths could not have happened without careful organization by a leadership group in Jonestown.” Similarly, one could argue that it wasn’t Jim Jones’ labor that built and maintained Jonestown; instead, it was though the textual practices of Peoples Temple that the work was accomplished. Moreover, many of those textual practices were enacted at the hands of people other than Jim Jones.

A Cautionary Note

I want to emphasize that the claims made here about the textual practices of Peoples Temple are tentative and preliminary. Much more research is needed to see if any of these claims bear out. The future of this project will involve a systematic examination and analysis of the many genres that comprise the Temple’s collected documents, along with a study of secondary sources that can help provide the information about the social contexts that supported and were supported by the texts.


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(Heather Shearer can be reached at Her complete collection of articles for this site is here.)