If you read only one book about Peoples Temple, this should be it

by Rikke Wettendorff

The seasoned student of Peoples Temple may already be familiar with some of the primary source material in Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple, by Rebecca Moore. However, more than just retelling the story of Peoples Temple through these sources, Dr. Moore offers something never before seen in a book about the Temple: an invitation to look at the sources the way a scholar would. This means that the book is both an introduction to Peoples Temple as an object of study and an introduction to the scholarly field of religious studies. This is primarily by way of example, but in the introduction “Framing the Subject,” Dr. Moore addresses the conditions for the production of a large part of the body of knowledge of Peoples Temple: that much of the press coverage and the first books about the Temple were based on information from defectors (because the vast majority of the community had perished in Jonestown) and thus were quite biased. Dr. Moore also underlines the importance of being critical of our own language, because the terms we use to describe the object of study guide what we look at and therefore shapes what we learn. In other words, the introduction provides the reader with tools to evaluate information about Peoples Temple and to be critical of the way we construct Peoples Temple in our research – tools that Dr. Moore herself applies throughout the book.

The book is comprised of the introduction described above, and nine chapters:

• Chapter 1 provides a short biography of Jim Jones;

• Chapters 2 and 3 outline the history of the organization, including the change in focus from religion to political goals, and the early history of Jonestown;

• Chapter 4 analyzes the opposition against the Temple: defectors, the Concerned Relatives, the media and different government agencies;

• Chapter 5 analyzes the deteriorating conditions in Jonestown, especially during its last year;

• Chapter 6 looks at Congressman Ryan’s visit to Jonestown and the tragic events of 18 November 1978;

• Chapter 7 describes the handling of the bodies and the process by which the people who died at Jonestown were dehumanized;

• Chapter 8 examines how Jonestown has re-entered American culture and outlines four canons for this re-entry: the popular canon, the scholarly canon, the canon of conspiracy theory and the artistic canon; and

• Chapter 9 examines how survivors – loyalists and defectors – have put their lives together after the tragedy.

Dr. Moore draws on a wealth of sources, including primary source material recovered from Jonestown and released under the Freedom of Information Act, first hand knowledge from her own experience as a family member of two women in the Temple, first person accounts, news coverage and popular and scholarly resources. But instead of burying the reader in information, Dr. Moore carefully connects the dots and presents the story of Peoples Temple with all its ambiguity and contradictions without letting the reader get lost at any point.

If your ambition is to understand Peoples Temple and Jonestown – not judging, not condemning – then Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple is the book for you.

(Rikke Wettendorff is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her complete collection of articles on this site is here. She may be reached at Rikke@Wettendorff.Net.)

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on January 3rd, 2014.
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