Preparing to Sell Jonestown

When I began my work researching Peoples Temple and Jonestown, I had no idea how big the project was in scope and size. I set out to explore memoirs and letters to get some insight into the members of Peoples Temple, but I was fortunate enough to meet Laura Kohl, a former member herself. Laura and I discussed in some detail the ideology of Jim Jones, the Temple’s leader.

I have always been of the mind that Jonestown was less a religious movement than it was a political one. Laura claims to have been an atheist during her years with Peoples Temple, and this was compatible with Jones’ message, particularly in the later years of the group’s existence after the move to Ukiah and then Guyana. She was drawn to the communal living and socialistic aspects of Jonestown, characteristics which contrast with popular portrayals of the group as a cult of like-minded, blindly-obeying followers of their religious leader Jim Jones. I’ve often questioned why Jonestown is primarily considered a religious event, for there were other, more pressing goals than religious salvation. I do not mean to suggest that Jones’ socialistic views led to the deaths of over 900 people in the jungles of Guyana on November 18, 1978. What I mean to suggest is that the study of Peoples Temple is a complex issue, and may be better explained by an examination of political ideologies and historical context, rather than dismissing it as a religious cult full of unquestioning, brainwashed zealots. It is my hope that I can do the survivors and the lost ones of Peoples Temple proud through my analysis.

This paper was written for an upper-division history class, Historical Methods in Writing.

(Catherine B. Abbott can be reached at Her complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here.)