To Peoples Temple survivors and others who are familiar with Jonestown tragedy, David Conn probably needs little introduction. To casual researchers, he can probably best be described as a very vocal footnote from when Jim Jones rose to power in California during the late 1960s. Conn left the Disciples of Christ (DoC) shortly before Jones came into the California branch, but at the behest of friends who still had family in DoC (and who were concerned with the direction Jones was taking his congregation), Conn began to investigate Peoples Temple privately. He quickly became an outspoken critic — one of the first of a series of local whistleblowers — and things understandably got ugly for all sides involved. Around this time, Conn started work on a written exposé about Jones et al and was pitching it to publishers in 1978. After “grape” became the fatal flavor of the day down in Guyana, his book got an understandable update with the morbid coda, and became The Cult That Died.
Now, almost thirty years later, Conn has again taken to the typewriter, this time trying his hand at what is superficially a science fiction novel called Lednorf’s Dilemma that is largely about what he calls the “spiritual insanity” that he sees destroying society. Within this milieu, Jim Jones and the Disciples of Christ drama are essentially a subplot.
Divorced from the larger context of the novel, Conn’s “Peoples Temple thesis” is a synergistic four-part recipe that runs something like this…
The seed for mass tragedy was planted in 1946 when a well-intentioned social experiment was being beta-tested on the East Coast: inter-group sensitivity sessions. Since participants all reported positive experiences, the experiments were considered to be successful. Conn is a bit more skeptical, calling the positive experiences superficial at best, especially since they were conducted in a clinical—and secular—context. “Had they allowed their group endeavors to be conducted in a Godly context, the ultimate horror [of Jonestown] would not have taken place” (p.159-160). Although he concedes these experiments were initiated with the best of intentions, the potential for innocent misuse or (worse) malevolent abuse was very real. Whatever the case, the group encounter phenomenon left the lab and entered the mainstream of society. In his synergistic thesis, Conn calls the group-sensitivity “evil’s ignorant progenitor.”
It took a decade or so for the sensitivity session phenomenon to catch on, but it did. It spread westward, and hit California right around the Summer of Love. The two seemed tailor-made for each other. One group which enthusiastically embraced it was the Disciples of Christ. The church was already drifting away from what Conn calls “the God of the historical faith” and was flirting with various innovations that Conn quite understandably considers heretical, such as “nude encounters, dope and sex, including wife swapping” (p. 158). The Disciples of Christ was a denomination teetering on the brink of spiritual insanity, a camel that only needed one rotten straw to break its back. In his synergistic thesis, Conn calls this apostate incarnation of the Disciples of Christ “the facilitator of evil.”
The 1960s were a time of unrest, disgruntlement, and confusion, and California seemed to be the locus that exaggerated all these effects to the extreme. It was the right place at the right time for the wrong person to come along, and Jim Jones was just that person. Conn offers a quick biographical character study of Jones that paints a portrait of a very disturbed man consumed and controlled by his own ego. The situation is all the more menacing because Jones really believed his own brand of insanity. Anyway, Jim Jones had already made in-roads with the DoC in Indiana, so when he finally migrated to the Pacific Coast, he encountered a church firmly in the grip of the group-encounter gestalt and unable to see its own decadence and theological deviation because of it. Manipulating the situation, Jones essentially orchestrated a coup d’etat and subverted the DoC for his own nefarious ends. In his synergistic thesis, Conn calls Jones “the focus of evil.”
Since the DoC allowed huge amounts of autonomy to each individual branch, Jones had free reign within his Peoples Temple sub-sect to do his own thing while covered by the aegis of what was then the seventh-largest denomination in America. However, it was necessary to solidify his position within the community at large, especially since apostates and other outsiders had started to ask serious questions about just what Jones was up to. Again he was in the right place at the right time. It is no secret that Jones had a symbiotic relationship with San Francisco’s political apparatus, which Conn makes clear was as secularly corrupt as Jones was spiritually. The Moscone Machine proved to be a most effective buffer between Jones and his detractors, and presumably without it the downward spiral into disaster that ultimately befell Peoples Temple wouldn’t have been so epically tragic. In his synergistic thesis, Conn calls the San Francisco politicos “the systematic evil.”
Conn includes a coda to the story: the fallout for the Disciples of Christ after Peoples Temple self-destructed down in Guyana. The DoC happened to be having their annual conference of regional ministers in St. Louis just after the mass deaths in November 1978, and understandably the subject of Jim Jones came up. Despite one (unnamed) high official saying they should publicly make an honest and open acknowledgement of Jim Jones’s ties to the DoC — while at the same time stressing he had become an aberration to their orthodoxy — the rest of the ministerial officials overruled him and opted for a combination of damage and spin control. Conn’s commentary: “It was a cover-up of grand dimension. It involved outright lies, but in addition it was a theological disaster” (p. 159).
Within the context of Conn’s novel, Jonestown is a sub-plot (albeit an important one) that he specifically uses as the ultimate example of the larger “spiritual insanity” that seemingly has been growing on a J-curve within society. Indeed, he calls Jonestown a “metaphor” for it. To that extent, it is necessary to put his Jonestown material in perspective of the overall context of the book.
The plot of Lednorf’s Dilemma can be summed up as such: alien anthropologists have been passively observing Earth for 200 years. Unfortunately for humanity, too much Liberal activism and not enough love for Jesus have brought civilization to the brink of collapse. Finally, a faction of aliens (who are effectively Trinitarian Christians) feels the need to intervene so as to save mankind from itself. They find a group of sympathetic “Earthens” and provide them with a long list of problems with our society. They’re nice enough to offer solutions, too: stop being Liberals and start being Conservative Christians. The sympathetic people publish a manifesto (disguised as a sci-fi novel) about all this called “Lednorf’s Dilemma.” The novel ends by suggesting that the “right” people will read the book and that a grassroots movement has begun which will soon usher in a new era of peace, enlightenment, and Christian spirituality.
At 465 pages, the novel can probably be parsed like this:
Plot = 2 pages
Math proofs = 50 pages
Religious and social polemics = 400 pages
Filler (including, but not limited to, the Jones/DoC material) = 13 pages
A different way to divide the book up is to say that 90% of it is composed of character monologues, and the Jim Jones material is no exception (the speaker delivering the speech is one of the alien anthropologists).
That plot synopsis and parsing should probably tell readers of this recap if Lednorf’s Dilemma is something they want to read cover to cover. However, it’s probably obvious that this is a “novel” only in the loosest sense of the term: it is a vehicle for Conn’s social and theological commentary. Indeed, this is probably the only “novel” that has a subject index at the end of it.
Obviously, Conn makes some bold claims in all this — both about Peoples Temple in general and other “liberal outrages” — but it should be noted that both within the book and in personal correspondence with this writer, Conn insists he has hard documentation to back up his claims. Intrigued readers should probably contact him directly regarding this if his thesis has piqued their interest, as he quite likely will share it with qualified parties and let them assess the merit for themselves.
In personal correspondence, Conn identified the novel’s target audience as such: “(a) orthodox believers who are defenders of the historical Christian faith, (b) People (from moderate to conservative in their principles) who need to understand that radical liberals (in both SF political circles and in the new-age social activist California churches) were the ingredient evil that pushed Jones to the top of Bay Area leadership whereby he soon had Rosalynn Carter, Jerry Brown, and Ralph Nader completely snowed. In fact Rosalynn, Jerry, District Attorney Joe Freitas, and other high profile persons even spoke from his pulpit. It was only after the book came out that I was able to get the document that proved how Willie Brown had been the key instrument for allowing Mayor George Moscone to bypass the Board of Supervisors and appoint Jones directly to the Housing Authority chairmanship. And (c) liberals who are brave and open-minded enough to look into the mirror.”
Readers of this recap who feel they fall into any of those categories can get Lednorf’s Dilemma on Amazon.
(Matthew Farrell is a science fiction novelist living in Arizona. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. An excerpt from the book Lednorf’s Dilemma appears here. David Conn is the author of Jonestown, Its Portent Has Arrived and Jonestown: Spawn of the Disciples of Christ in this edition of the jonestown report.)