My first encounter with Peoples Temple occurred in my second year as an undergraduate student, when I heard about Jim Jones’ movement in a theology course that examined the nature of saints, martyrs, and heretics. The events of November 1978 in Jonestown were used to raise the issue of martyrdom and suicide, although they could have offered commentary on the concepts of saints and heresy as well.
My final years as an undergraduate student provided further opportunities to study and research Peoples Temple from the perspective of Christian history and theology. My research areas included examining the fervent apocalyptic motivation of Peoples Temple in relation to Christian apocalyptic literature and, separately, the notion that the political, social, and religious climate of 1950s and 1960s America provided an incubatory climate that allowed Peoples Temple to grow and thrive. As I delved deeper into the birth, life, and death of Peoples Temple, I became more convinced of the validity of surveying the Temple from a Christian theological and historical vantage point.
“Peoples Temple as Christian History” grew out of my desire to evaluate this validity, or to measure the relevance of researching Peoples Temple from the perspective of Christian history and theology. While studying the Temple, I became more and more certain that the Christian perspective on the topic had been, at least in the past, represented in a manner that was different or contradictory to my own. Thus my paper was also a way to investigate the discontinuity between my stance – that it is valid to non-judgmentally study Peoples Temple from a Christian perspective – and the stance of past Christian approaches to the Temple. Rather than dismissing or condemning the movement, I came to see Peoples Temple as a fascinating case study of how religion works and how external societal pressures influence the medium and message of religion. Beyond this, examining the Temple in “Peoples Temple as Christian History” offered many insights in the area of church dynamics. Sermon deliverance, biblical textual criticism, the relationship between a pastor and their congregation, religious persecution, and missional theology were all aspects of church behavior and thought for which Peoples Temple offered enlightening examples.
While the subject matter is interesting in its own right, one enduring undercurrent of Peoples Temple scholarship that has fascinated me throughout my research has been the nature of the primary and secondary source materials themselves. Specifically, I have found the motivation behind the writing of the secondary literature – which ranges from cathartic to convicting – to be intriguing. I have come to see each author’s reasons for writing about Peoples Temple – some of which are omitted from the text – to be as informative on the topic as the written material within their work. There seems to be an almost ironic connection between the writing of scholars and authors on the Temple and the primary source material, especially recorded sermons, left behind by Jones and the Temple. Jones’ sermons which were recorded on tape were intended to promote a particular understanding of the movement; thus the motivation behind the message revealed nearly as much about the subject of the message as the message itself. In the same way, the authors who have written works analyzing or historicizing Peoples Temple reveal almost as much about Peoples Temple through their own implicit opinions, ideas, and biases as the facts or interviews they recount in their pages. Recognizing this has helped me to glimpse changing attitudes towards Peoples Temple in media and changing emphases within academic Peoples Temple scholarship.
Since I first began investigating Peoples Temple, my interest in the topic has moved beyond the simple desire to learn the historical narrative of a new religious movement to the more intricate and demanding task of comprehending Jones and his followers in light of their connections to Christianity. Researching Peoples Temple from a Christian historical and theological perspective has proven – and continues to prove – to be a task that demands not just critical analysis and inter-disciplinary methodology but also understanding, patience, and sympathy. I hope to cultivate these necessary methodological characteristics through continued interest in Peoples Temple and its points of continuity with Christianity.