Jonestown: The Search for Early Christianity

by Edward Cromarty

In the 30 years since the deaths in Jonestown, the relationship of the Peoples Temple movement to and with Christianity has been viewed through a number of exegetic lenses. Some have examined the early Pentecostal belief system of Jim Jones and his later affiliation with the Disciples of Christ. Others have analyzed it in the context of various “new religious” movements that arose in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Each of these approaches offers much to explore in considering the Temple’s early self-identification with the first Christians and – later – its attempts to emulate the true beliefs of “Christ.”

I decided to approach the concept in a way that perhaps the young minister that Jim Jones was in his early years, would have preferred: to consider the Temple he founded as a movement of action; to view how it related to early Christian philosophy; to compare the Temple’s tenets to early Christian writings; and to show just how close it came to achieving the beliefs of the earliest Christians.

All must be placed into the proper context. The 1960’s and 1970’s gave birth to a time of change in our view of the first Christians. This view was in contrast to the established conservative religious view that favored Pauline mysticism. Opposition to the new discoveries of science, history, and archaeology over the next 30 years was often harsh, and criticism of those that espoused these beliefs even harsher.

First, we must remove preconceptions. Jim Jones was a reader, a highly intelligent man who was a graduate of Butler University, a teacher, and an ordained minister. He explored not only traditional religion, but also the eccentric, the new religions or “cult” beliefs emerging in the 1960’s, as well as esoteric and occult beliefs around the world. This would likely have included the Gnostic Gospels and other historical finds that were beginning to emerge.

I believe a few important – but often overlooked – writings can explain the Peoples Temple of Jim Jones. Perhaps the best place to start is with the writings of the brothers of Jesus: James, his older brother; and Jude, his younger brother. John, who traveled with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene to Ephesus after the death of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene herself are among early church leaders. But we should begin with the Didache, perhaps the oldest writing of the first Jewish Christians and the family of Jesus.

The Didache refers to Jesus as the Servant of God, not the Son of God. It never mentions the resurrection, annunciation, virgin birth, or divinity of Jesus. To the contrary, rather than being divine, Jesus finds a balance with his humanity in the Didache. This is important when considering the foundation for the beliefs of Jim Jones and the Temple in later years.

The Letter of James, the older brother of Jesus and a leader of Jewish Christians after Jesus, is a testament to action. Like Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, James was the leader of a small group of believers surrounded by a larger society which was often hostile to their beliefs.

In James, as in the Didache, we see the term Servant of God (1.1), rather than Son of God. We don’t read stories about Jesus in James, but rather the lessons as Jesus would have taught them. For James, “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (2.17). James sees works as the “acts that spring from the love of the believer for God” (2.14). As James instructed in his teachings, Jim Jones and Peoples Temple showed their love through good works.

This contrasts with the Pauline view, in which salvation comes through faith not works. Paul himself never knew Jesus. Instead, he lays his claim upon a series of mystical visions. The Roman Emperor Constantine, based on his own visions, chose the Christianity of Paul, relegating the beliefs of the family of Jesus and the first Jewish Christians to the background of religious history for two thousand years. Jim Jones could claim the esoteric and other prophetic acts from this mystical base as well, but it is through these contrasting elements of early Christian thought – works and faith – that he could lead Peoples Temple to become a part of the religious struggle of the 1970’s.

This blend of faith, works, and forgiveness was a basis for healing – both spiritual and physical – for James as well as Jim Jones. “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has forgiven sins will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed” (James 5.15.)

The Letter of Jude, the younger brother of Jesus, begins again with the term servant. Jude warns of intruders, malcontents, grumblers, and “the dreamers” who are perverting the original faith of Jesus. Jude warns against those Jesus himself had predicted would use the faith for their own selfish advancement, and urges followers to hold steadfast to the original faith of Jesus. The conflict between social action to achieve the love of God and the mystical dreams Jude warns us of is the same conflict Jim Jones faced.

Finally, the early Christian leader John warns in his writings against false teachings that were emerging. Perhaps it was these biblical warnings that enhanced the fear of Jim Jones during his later difficulties.

Reflecting early Christian history, Peoples Temple placed great importance on racial and gender equality. Jesus had traveled with women as equals. After his death, Mary Magdalene became a leader – perhaps the primary leader – of the nascent Christian movement. Women, who were likely the majority of leaders and believers among the earliest Christians, preached to all, especially within their own groups of women. This was radical in the time of Jesus, and radical again when Jim Jones adopted his view of racial and gender equality. Interestingly, just as the Temple leadership was primarily white among a mostly black membership, the earliest Christians were mostly Jewish among non-Jewish converts.

The beliefs of the earliest Jewish Christians, intertwined with new ideas emerging in the revolutionary climate of the 1960’s and 1970’s, laid the foundation for Peoples Temple and Jonestown. Jones wanted to remove the racial and economic barriers as was taught by Jesus. He established his communities in Ukiah and Jonestown as early Christian Socialist communities. Jones often preached that Jesus Christ delivered the most revolutionary of messages when he said to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, take in the stranger, and minister to the afflicted and suffering. No one – except Peoples Temple – had ever really tried Christianity in the “Judeo-Christian tradition,” Jones said. “I think his brother James embodied pure religion undefiable before God … to minister to orphans and widows.”

Perhaps presciently – although not quoted by Jones – the Book of James also offers a description of the last days of Jonestown: “the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes” (1.10-11).

(Edward Cromarty’s previous article in the jonestown report was Liberation Theology and Early Experimentation in Latin American Agricultural Projects and their Relation to the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project. He can be reached at edwardcromarty@hotmail.com.)

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on January 17th, 2014.
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