Jonestown: Looking Back over Thirty Years:
What Have We Learned?

by Archie Smith, Jr.

Jonestown, Guyana, was an isolated commune, where over nine hundred people were murdered or committed suicide on orders from their pastor and leader, Jim Jones on November 18, 1978. Looking back, I wonder what I have learned from Jonestown? What continues to elude us? Or – as I fear – has Jonestown been largely forgotten?

A new generation has now come to adulthood since the tragic events in Jonestown. I often draw a blank when I ask my theology students about Jonestown. Some have never heard of it. Jonestown was something that happened before they were born. If it did not happen in their life time, then is it myth? They may not see the relevance of Jonestown for their ministry. How then, can we transmit the tragic lessons of a failed utopian dream to the next generation of leaders?

Howard Thurman, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jim Jones were ministers who dealt with race and spoke to utopian dreams in American society. Each sought to better society and saw the importance of offering a critical social analysis from their different religious or theological perspective.

Reinhold Niebuhr was a realist and sought to interpret American society by identifying a real difference between individuals and the collective. He brought a renewed interest to sin and challenged an overly optimistic emphasis on humanism. Niebuhr believed that individuals, though driven by self-interest, were capable of uncommon empathy and justice with compassion. He did not think this was possible for groups that tend to be predatory and driven by self-serving collective interest. Niebuhr offered strong criticism of international, social class and power relations. His written analysis of race relations was less than strong. However, Niebuhr publicly supported Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights struggle of the mid-20th century.

Martin Luther King, Jr., the younger, referred to Niebuhr’s social prophetic outlook, especially in his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” King reminded us of Niebuhr’s adage that those in power rarely if ever voluntarily give up power to the oppressed. Power has to be demanded. King spelled out his utopian vision for the future in his 1963 speech, “I Have a Dream.”

It was Jim Jones’ pragmatic interests that sought to make King’s dream come true. Jonestown, in its ideal form, sought to create a community where the barriers or race, class, gender, age and religion would be broken down and no longer serve to divide people into warring camps. When I first joined the faculty at the Pacific School of Religion I was encouraged by well-meaning colleagues to visit the Peoples Temple. But they were suspicious and warned me to be careful and not to go alone. Jim Jones, a charismatic figure, may not have been sufficiently informed or influenced by Niebuhr’s realism and concern for collective egoism and corruption.

Howard Thurman, the philosophical theologian, though ill, was living in San Francisco when the tragedy at Jonestown occurred. Looking back, it was Thurman’s ideas about the kinship with all life and an ancient quest for harmony that made sense of the appeal Jim Jones held for idealists and social activists of the 1960’s and 70’s. Wittingly or unwittingly, Jones had tapped a deep hunger in people that drew them to his vision of a new, egalitarian, just and harmonious society embedded in the American dream. In such a society, Thurman offered the insight that the contradictions of life may not be overcome, but they do not have final say. Something deeper and universal stirs within the human condition and works to transform the powers that separate. This nameless, “something deeper and universal” can be experienced in and through human cooperation, religious and secular. It gives rise to hope and utopian dreams.

We still have much to learn about the initial utopian appeal that Jim Jones held for people, their dashed hopes and cynicism. What may elude us is that these are related to the deeper hunger and sense of kinship with all life. Utopian appeals are relevant to our work and development of wisdom. They influence the desire for a better society.

(Archie Smith Jr. is the James and Clarice Foster Professor of Pastoral Psychology and Counseling at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. He may be reached at either archiesmith84@comcast.net or asmith50.as@gmail.com.)

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on December 30th, 2020.
Skip to main content