(E. Black’s complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here.)
The thirtieth anniversary of the Jonestown collective mass transition is upon us. In reflecting upon this perplexing and confounding event, I offer this, a brief summation of the movement that gave rise and context to the worldview and practice of those who left us, so abruptly, November 18, 1978.
On February 25, 1868 – three years in the aftermath of the Civil War and 110 years before Jonestown – Samuel H. Morris was born in Manor Township, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. In this world and time of old empires colliding, dying and new, profound world powers emerging, where interpersonal relationships surrounding areas of gender, sex, class and race were being challenged, Samuel was not content to live the conventional life of his middle-class northern “free black” community. Unlike his brothers, father and uncles, he would not be satisfied to live his life as a US Army war hero or a local pillar of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. A keen, sensitive observer of the world around him, with its hopes and disappointments intermingled, Morris decided to do as others – the Shakers and Quakers, utopian communities like the Amana, the Oneida and other communal/communist movements in America – did, but better. He was going to create a perfect, interracialist, communal family, based on the inward realization of God consciousness in every individual, a virtual, intentional community, full, in real time.
At age 32, and with this unshakable goal in mind, this “God in a body” gave his so-called “wife,” Callie, mother of his two so-called “children,” Arthur, 4 and Verna, 3, an ultimatum: either accept and recognize him as the highest degree of manifestation of what lesser minds called “God,” live a celibate life and follow him on his mission, or their life together in “mortality” was over. She made her choice. His mournful family and living descendents were perplexed and confounded to this day.
Setting out on his evangelizing tour alone, Samuel Morris left Pennsylvania and traveled to Maryland, preaching the same “God in a Body” gospel that would be better known when spoken from the mouth of his most prominent disciple, George Baker aka Father Divine and then from his disciple, Jim Jones, the founder of Peoples Temple. It was the beginning of the 20th century, and this radical Utopian message gained little traction and much outraged negative reaction.
Settling in Baltimore, Maryland, Morris, now known as “Father Jehovia” (Jehovah/God) did manage to raise and connect with the consciousness of a few who put away that silly belief in a “sky God” and came to recognize his “Divinity” (and thus their own). Prominent among them was a short, former Baptist Sunday school teacher in his early 20s, the son of freed, formally-enslaved Americans of African descent, named George Baker, Jr., who, casting aside his “mortal version” as a follower of Father Jehovia, took on the name and role of “the Messenger (of Morris).” Young Baker was so enthralled with the teachings and purpose of “Father in the ‘God ship’ degree” that he forever more merged his own person with the vision of Samuel Morris. “George Baker, Jr.,” as a named individual was assigned to oblivion.
Putting into practice what he learned, the Messenger set out to preach the message and expand the virtual, intentional community he had joined. His efforts gained fruit in Valdosta, Georgia, where he gathered a following primarily of women, many who left husbands (both common law and legal) to follow him. One such woman, older than he, and subsequently known as Peninniah would in the future be known as Mother Divine (in the first body), his wife.
As the group grew, so did the opposition, and during his stint in the south, the Messenger aka “God” spent time, not only preaching, but in court, jail and a mental institution. It was during these experiences that the radical utopian community of Father Jehovia, now in the incipient stages of its second manifestation, encountered the personnel of the state. Regrouping in New York State, the Messenger, now known to his small group of followers as Major Jealous Devine, set out to establish a base from which to consolidate, and then to grow the intentional community. He chose the predominantly white suburb of Sayville. Here he presided over a “Family” of intimates, who – like back in Baltimore under Father Jehovia – lived communally, recognizing his “God Consciousness.”
Tales of miraculous healings and the dead being raised, plus free meals, spread by word of mouth. Soon busloads of New York Harlemites were streaming into the quiet, residential neighborhood, holding raucous nightly services in praise of “the cause” of “Father Divine,” as he came to be known around this time. For his effrontery, Divine was thrown in jail. When the trial judge died days later, Divine’s followers were convinced that he had been struck down in a case of retribution for crossing Father.
It was the early 1930’s, and the second phase of the virtual, intentional, radical utopian community – inspired by the vision of Samuel Morris back at the turn of the century and now led by Father Divine and known world over as the International Peace Mission Movement – was in full throttle. In converted hostels and hotels, in the midst of legally-enforced racial segregation and full-fledged Jim Crow laws, followers of Father Divine ate, slept and bathed interracially and communally, separated only by gender. The Peace Mission sponsored mass meetings to confront racial terrorism in the form of lynching of blacks and to influence New York City and national politics in ways that were in harmony with the radical, utopian vision of the intentional community. Marches and meetings were held along side the Communist Party USA, to “Fight War and Fascism” and to promote racial integration.
It was in this decade the first “God in a body,” Samuel Morris, quietly passed away, and the third, Jim Jones, was born.
The high media profile of the Peace Mission Movement attracted both positive and negative coverage. Mixed among stories of racial integration and challenges to injustice were tales of fraud, fake healings, sexual improprieties, child abuse, and neglect, and a maniacal leader who hypnotized and controlled the minds of his gullible and mentally ill followers. The community’s response was the institutionalization of the group and the gradual retreat of the Peace Mission from the frontlines of the fight for social justice to the background. An agricultural effort in rural upstate New York, called “the Promised Land,” was created as a retreat for urban members and a way to have food independence. The headquarters was moved from New York state to Pennsylvania, the state that had given birth to the founder of the Vision.
It was also during this period that a white youth on his own social and political vision quest, seeking ways in which to be more successful at fighting for social change in the post-World War II era, went to visit the aging body that then held the pinnacle of “God consciousness.”
In his twenties and with a mind as deep and complex as a young Samuel Morris or a young George Baker, Jr., and just as determined, James Warren Jones, set out to be the 3rd Body to manifest and expand, with new vigor, the radical, utopian vision of Father Jehovia’s original intentional community, by joining the Peace Mission movement. Like the “Messenger” decades before him, he set out to travel. But he went even further, traversing the country and the western hemisphere, spreading the radical message of his Father to all who would hear, consulting and collaborating with Father Divine, all along the way. He not only preached, but modeled the interracialist vision of uniting all people together – the vision that the Peace Mission stood for – within his own immediate family by adopting children of all racial groups. Jim Jones’ initial activities and task after joining the Peace Mission movement were to find a secure location for the headquarters of the movement in case the forces of “the other fellow” (the devil, the imperialist) started a nuclear war. His travels at this time (including trips to Guyana) should be seen in this light.
Although Jim Jones was always upfront and clear about his intention to succeed the now-elderly Father Divine as leader of the Peace Mission, and since Jones was never rebuked openly by his mentor for saying it, thus implying tactical support, there was active, if quiet, opposition to any such move on the part of some high ranking Peace Mission members. This opposition to Jim Jones was centered in the one person who had the most to lose from any such succession: Mother Divine (in the second Body) aka “Sweet Angel” aka Edna Rose Ritchings.
Married in 1946 to the then-68-year-old Divine at the age of 21, the New Mother Divine was said to be the reincarnation of the previous, now-deceased Peninniah. The first Mother Divine had been an elderly black woman, who – it was claimed – wanted to be “reborn” as a youthful white woman to better model Father Divine’s and the intentional community’s goals of interracial and intergenerational union. This view certainly sought to undergird the new Mother’s position. And she needed it, for her marriage to Father Divine, though lauded in the Peace Mission Movement officially, caused some major defections from the movement and rankled many of the rank and file members for decades to come.
Jim Jones’ efforts to impress “Father” ran up against counter moves from the entrenched and resourceful Mother Divine. She encouraged Divine to “adopt” a young boy of mixed Mexican and Greek parentage as a son, and employed his mother as her own personal secretary and confidant. On Divine’s death, she quickly seized the reins of the Peace Mission Movement, saying publicly that Father Divine would indeed, reincarnate, but they would all have to wait for that to happen (thus canceling out Jim Jones’ contention that he was the reincarnation of Father Divine). She also carried out a purge of longtime secretaries (including the secretary that had been Jim Jones’ liaison to Father Divine), exiling some to locations far from the central headquarters and forcing others into early retirement. She even engineered the departure of the “son” she had had Divine to “adopt” as a foil to Jim Jones’ overtures for leadership, as he too may have developed into a potential rival.
Jim Jones’ response was to slowly and methodically build the third radical utopian, intentional community: Peoples Temple. From its base in rural California, a small nucleus of devoted followers worked day and night to embody and make real the vision that Jim Jones represented. Soon word of miraculous healings and the dead being raised, plus free meals, was being spread about. Eventually busloads of people traveled up and down the length of California, from Ukiah in the rural northern part of the state where Jim Jones had alighted after leaving Indiana, to inner-city San Francisco/Oakland and the ghettos and barrios of Los Angeles, to hold nightly, raucous services in praise of “the cause” of Jim Jones.
The 1960s turned into the 1970s and Peoples Temple grew by leaps and bounds much like Father Divine’s Peace Mission did in the 1930s, but possibly larger. The Temple was on the forefront of service to the people and manifesting, in real time, the interracial, radical social intent of the original community of the first “God in a body” born just over 100 years before.
In 1971 it was thus time for the showdown. Packing up over 200 members, Father Jones headed to Pennsylvania to claim what he knew was his: the remaining followers of Father Divine.
Father Jones reasoned that if black elderly Peninniah Divine could be reborn as a youthful, white Mother Sweet Angel Divine, then surely it was obvious by his life, works and above all his same mind, that black, elderly Father Divine, was reborn as the younger, white Father Jim Jones. Mother Divine would just have to accept that that the spirit of Peninniah had left her and had now come to rest in the body of Marceline Jones, the new and true “Sweet Angel” and “Mother” of Divine consciousness in this new, vibrant 3rd manifestation of the intentional community. Like all true believers in this “new version” of Father’s vision, she would have to gladly sacrifice herself to the will of the collective. If she didn’t and insisted on her old position? Well, that would be just further proof that the “Divine” spirit had left her!
Father Jones and his followers entered the Peace Mission Headquarters, where they joined in with the followers of Mother Divine in giving praises to Father Divine at the communal meal. Soon Father Jones’ followers were up at the tables giving testimony to the continuation of Father Divine’s life, work and healings through the person of “Father” Jim Jones! Mother Divine was mortified and insisted that Peoples Temple members leave. They did, but they took a number of former Peace Mission members in tow, many of them remembering Father Divine and Jim Jones’ collaborations of the late 1950s.
The following six years saw the continuation of the battle for succession and merger of the two manifestations of the single intentional utopian vision that both communities shared. It continued on many fronts, from letter writing campaigns, membership raids by Peoples Temple and defections from Mother Divine’s group to Jim Jones’ group, to counter infiltrations and spies from Mother Divine’s group into Peoples Temple to gather information and preempt Peoples Temple “hostile” overtures. This competition only came to an end 30 years ago, when, under circumstances and duress from many of the same causes and social and political counter forces that attacked and caused the decline of the Peace Mission in the late 1930s, the leadership of Peoples Temple saw fit to collectively take leave, all at once, as opposed to the Peace Mission strategy of programmed “decline over time,” from this plane of activity.
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