Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple: Academic Yet Accessible

There have been numerous books over the past three decades that delve into the disturbing world of Jim Jones and the deaths of his disciples down in Guyana. Some were sensationalist potboilers, some were insightful investigative exposés, and some were autobiographical remembrances ranging from sympathetic to scathing. A notable few offer scholarly analyses, yet their somewhat academic language makes them less accessible. A solid effort to alleviate that last deficiency is Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple by Rebecca Moore.

In an introductory note, Moore makes no secret of her relationship to Peoples Temple: although she herself was never a member, two of her sisters were, and they were among the fatalities of November 1978. Much of her research into Jonestown for the past 30 years has been an attempt to come to terms with what happened. Fortunately for readers, a by-product of this has been the amassment of a vast storehouse of knowledge pertaining to Peoples Temple. Few would dispute that she ranks among the foremost experts on the topic of the Temple, and her latest book serves well as a sampler of what she has gleaned for anyone interested in learning, or learning more, about Jim Jones.

Almost by necessity, over half the book is essentially a biography of Jim Jones, though care is made to include descriptions of his ministry and especially the congregation that encompassed it. Moore does a competent job of placing events in their social settings and historical contexts to give readers a holistic view into what was a new, and admittedly unusual, religious movement. The scene begins to darken – disenfranchised dissenters, disgruntled members and relatives begin to voice concern and contrary opinions about the rose-tinted public façade of Peoples Temple – and this is dutifully included in the narrative. “No single source is perfect, of course, but through a process of triangulation it is possible to come up with a realistic and fairly idea of what happened” (p.102). The book describes the events leading up to the final and fatal White Night, of course, but then offers a lengthy discussion of what happened after the collapse of Peoples Temple. Moore concludes her book with an analysis of how Jonestown has entered popular culture; she identifies and briefly discusses four “canons” of impact: popular, scholarly, conspiratorial, and artistic.

The book does a good job of neutrally reporting facts and letting the reader draw his or her own conclusions. Every now and then, she will insert a personal reference such as “my sister.” While a bit jarring, it does effectively remind us that she isn’t just talking about faceless names, but actual people with families.

I don’t doubt that Dr. Moore could write an exhaustive magnum opus on the matter, but Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple serves more as an introductory sampler to the subject. At a comparatively slim 150 pages of prose, it seems more designed to pique readers’ interest into the matter and serve as a starting point for further research. Each chapter ends with a “suggested reading” section pointing the curious to more detailed sources that cover the topics previously discussed. The book also contains an extensive (30+ pages) bibliography and notes catalogue, making this an excellent and even-handed starting point for those interested in more detailed research.

Personally, I plan to eventually look into some of the sources she mentions. Occasionally in her effort to condense the narrative to a manageable bite-sized level, she glosses over subjects that I (as a casually interested researcher) have always had questions about yet never any satisfactory answers. For instance, lip service is paid to Jones’ use of phony faith healings and to his drug addiction, but I never have had a good sense about the extent and duration of these things. After reading this book, I find they’re still a mystery. Likewise, while the book confirms something I have long suspected – that Peoples Temple had been “infiltrated” by the FBI and CIA – detailed information on this is missing. Perhaps one of the most curious vagaries was the two-year period in which Jones departed to Brazil. Moore seems to share my speculation that something happened down there, given that his return marked a shift in his ministry towards Marxism and away from its Christian roots, but she leaves the matter largely untouched. Whether such glosses or omissions are missing due to a lack of detailed documentation or were cut for conciseness is unknown. Most readers – myself included – will probably be fairly forgiving towards such lacuna, especially given her apparent mission to neutrally present “facts” without any of the speculative commentary that permeates much of other works on the subject.

In all, Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple seems a respectable entry into the corpus of Peoples Temple literature. While geared toward neophyte researchers and “the curious,” it manages to be academic yet accessible.

(Matthew Farrell is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. His complete collection of writings for this site may be found here. He may be reached at saint@extremezone.com.)