Could Peoples Temple Have Survived?

(Bonnie Yates is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her complete collection of writings for this site is here. She may be reached here.)

There are many questions that linger on in the wake of the deaths in Jonestown. For this particular article, I will be looking at whether or not Peoples Temple could have survived without Jim Jones, if, for example, he had died a couple of years earlier while Peoples Temple was still in the United States. I will also be looking at the same question regarding Jonestown.

Peoples Temple existed in California from 1965 to 1977. The membership was stable in Redwood Valley from 1965 on, but really began to explode in 1970 when the Disciples of Christ denomination began holding church services in San Francisco. More importantly, the group also provided many social services to the community. According to Laura Johnston Kohl:

We provided free legal advice, free advice from medical people, assistance appealing disability and welfare rulings, a phone tree to our members notifying them to make calls to let judges and probation officers know of our interest in and support of people who had gotten into legal trouble. We fed everyone who came, and then members also cooked scrumptious food that they sold afterwards, to raise more money to donate into the temple. We assisted some people in coming off of drugs, we provided housing for kids who were getting in trouble or who wanted an education outside of SF city schools. We assisted many of the folks who were raising grandchildren because their own kids were in jail or gone. We protested en masse on local issues when people were begin put out of their homes or were harassed. We arranged rides for people to get medical attention and to get to appointments. We wrote letters to the editor to support local activities. And we encouraged people to live communally so that those with more resources could help those with less income so that everyone could live a better life. We arranged for many of our high school kids to go to Opportunity High School in San Francisco, where they had great teachers and did well. We recycled clothing so that everyone had what they needed and shared the rest. (Johnston Kohl 2010).

Peoples Temple thrived under the watchful eye of Jim Jones. But what if Jones had died? Could Peoples Temple have survived? The answer to that question, according to Mike Cartmell and Laura Johnston Kohl, is no.

Laura’s reasoning is rather simple, yet concise. In San Francisco, Peoples Temple was “too spread out” (Johnston Kohl 2010). The congregation was simply housed in too many different places for it to have held together had Jim Jones died.

Mike Cartmell points to other reasons. First and foremost are the Temple “healings,” great theatrical events in which Jones would call out a member of the audience who had an “illness” and would promptly use his “divine power” to heal the individual, be it of cancer or some other problem. In Mike Cartmell’s case, the “healings” were fake, and he was asked to perform a round of “healings” himself (see Temple Healings: Magical Thinking by Mike Cartmell). However, these “healings” filled seats, infused the congregation, and, Cartmell argues, were “vital to the unity of the Temple” (Cartmell 2010). The “healings” also brought in “large and necessary amounts of money in the way of donations” (Johnston Kohl 2010).

With Jim Jones gone, no one would have been able to fill his shoes when it came to the “healings”: Mike says that he “doesn’t know of anyone who could’ve conducted them without at the very least laughing out loud” (Cartmell 2010). This would have been a major blow to Peoples Temple.

Another problem was that there were many separate and disparate constituencies in the Temple which would have led to conflict. It was “the glue of Jim’s self-proclaimed celestial superiority” that held the Temple together (Cartmell 2010). Simply put, without Jim Jones as the leader, the Temple constituencies would have broken apart.

Jim Jones intentionally had a succession plan that was unclear, so that no alternate loyalties could develop within the Temple. Many people were told that they were next in line, including Marceline Jones, Stephan Jones, Mike Cartmell, David Wise and Hue Fortson, Jr.. among others. In Mike’s mind, if Jim had died, Marceline, Stephan and Mike “would have tried to work together” along with the help of Carolyn Layton, but they “weren’t psychopaths and couldn’t have pulled it off.” In addition, they would have been a ruling committee, and Mike believes that “committees lack charisma and Peoples Temple was all about charisma” (Cartmell 2010). The membership of Peoples Temple would have fallen apart, even with the ruling committee.

Simply put, without Jim Jones to conduct the healings to bring in people and cash, without Jim Jones to keep the constituencies together, and without Jim Jones to provide leadership, Peoples Temple, as it was in the United States, would not have survived.

* * * * *

Jonestown was another story. Jim’s leadership style changed in Jonestown, going from meta-physical to practical. At the same time, he became a figurehead, and not much more.

The other change in Jonestown was more profound and significant. The members of a group became the residents of a community, and very industrious ones at that. They created many things, such as stuffed animals, wooden toys, soap, cloth for clothing, and they bartered by boat. They were working towards bartering their produce and medical services in exchange for supplies or services they needed. There were seeds and pig feed to trade, and other things probably would have emerged for sale as time went on.

The people of Jonestown attempted to set up a triumvirate of leadership, but Jim Jones was not willing to step down. As Laura Johnston Kohl stated, “Jim Jones wanted to be appreciated and to have the glory for himself” (Johnston Kohl 2010). The people could have tried to force Jim out of power, but it would have resulted in a bad split among the different constituencies in Jonestown. There was also the fact that Jim Jones could not leave Jonestown due to the Stoen custody battle, so there was no way to physically remove him from Jonestown and therefore from power.

We know that Jim Jones would never have willingly handed over the reins of power, but what if something had happened to him? It is well known that Jim Jones was very sick in the last months in Guyana. What if he had died in the night? Could Jonestown have survived without him?

The answer to that, I believe, is yes. Jonestown was set up so that it could have been run by others. They were self-sufficient in many ways and making strides towards being more sufficient (such as the eventual barter of produce grown in Jonestown). The question is, though, who could have taken over? In the mind of Laura Johnston Kohl, the best man for the job was Johnny Brown, who had been with the church for a long time and who showed the type of leadership qualities needed to keep Jonestown running (Johnston Kohl 2010). Johnny and his wife Ava were also very well-respected. They would have needed help with the finances, which would have required the help of another individual, perhaps Tish LeRoy, but Johnny himself inspired people in Jonestown with his abilities and natural leadership qualities.

Marceline Jones, Stephan Jones, and Carolyn Layton would have also been involved in leadership roles. Although he was named as a possible successor, Stephan would not have made a very popular leader on his own because he was, in the words of Laura Johnston Kohl, “not enough of a kiss-ass” to effectively lead (Johnston Kohl 2010). Marceline also would have had a difficult time leading on her own, no doubt for the same reason. They would have remained in the background – much as they did under Jim Jones – but they would have been under Johnny and Ava Brown instead.

I don’t believe Peoples Temple could have survived in California without Jim Jones, something which would have no doubt delighted him. The same cannot be said for Jonestown, which could have survived and flourished without him. Perhaps that is why he chose to end it for everyone that final day, in order to keep the glory for himself.

(The author wishes to gratefully acknowledge the input of Laura Johnston Kohl and Mike Cartmell for assistance in this article.)