Liberation Theology and Early Experimentation in Latin American Agricultural Projects and their Relation to the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project

by Edward Cromarty

(Edward Cromarty can be reached at edwardcromarty@hotmail.com. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here.)

There were many influences on Peoples Temple and on Jonestown. Peoples Temple was a blend of the beliefs and movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s, and Liberation Theology was one the most influential of those beliefs, a belief that still shapes the world we live in today.

The purpose of this paper is to show the theological concept behind the Jonestown Agricultural Project – Apostolic Socialism – as cutting edge for the generally conservative Protestant theology of its time, but which was not out of line with the new Liberation Theology that had emerged during that period. Jonestown was not the only such mission in Latin America at the time, nor was it the only one birthed in religion. Indeed, if there is a difference, it is that Jonestown ended in spectacular failure, whereas others have quietly succeeded. Its legacy is that it was an early experiment in exploring the foundations for Protestant missions – a tradition established long before by the Roman Catholic Church – and now considered commonplace by mainline Protestant Churches today.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s Roman Catholic Liberation Theology was finding favor with liberal Protestant ministers and denominations who had been experimenting with the doctrines of Liberation Theology, Black Liberation Theology, and Christian Communism (Roman Catholic and Orthodox) that were the underlying theological principles of both socialist and Marxist revolutionary thought in Latin America, and elsewhere, and upon which these “new” religious Agricultural Communes in Latin America, including Jonestown, found their theological and political expression in the liberation of the oppressed, both in concept and “praxis” (practice).

There are few resources of these still-revolutionary and experimental early Protestant Communal Projects from the 1970’s. The Disciples of Christ had briefly “officially” closed their Latin American missionary program in the 1970’s during the time of Jonestown, but apparently still had working missions, of which Jonestown would be affiliated. Nevertheless, evidence exists that Protestant ministers had begun to work with Roman Catholic missionaries in Latin America by the late 1960’s. There were Agricultural Projects associated with several Protestant churches including the Disciples of Christ, the Pentecostal Movement, and the Methodists in Latin America previous to and at the same time as Jonestown. The Agricultural Project in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, for example, was run by Rev. Ralph Quincy Adams for the Evangelical Pentecostal Union of Venezuela, as an “experimental cooperative ministry of church and community development.” (Like his contemporary Jim Jones, Rev. Adams graduated from Butler University in Indiana and was an ordained minister in the Disciples of Christ denominations, although there is no evidence of a relationship between the two men.) Today these churches have established highly organized Global Ministries, with similar ideals as Jonestown, with the idea of helping oppressed peoples the world over.

The conceptual basis for Apostolic Socialism and the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project is found in the concepts of early Christian Communism, and in the established brand of 1970’s Liberation Theology promoted by the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church was a leader among the labor, socialist, and communist movements in Latin America, and – at the time – most of the continent was Roman Catholic. By the late 1970’s, then, Liberation Theology was Latin American Theology. Even the Communist nation of Cuba remained Roman Catholic despite its communist political beliefs.

The founding of Protestantism itself was an attempt to move back to these early Christian belief systems. The first Christians often lived within Christian communes for protection from persecution. The Essenes of Mount Carmel, the movement of Jesus, differed from those of Qumran, in that they were extremely liberal. The Essenes were strictly vegetarian, forbade animal sacrifice, and adhered to strict gender and racial equality. Women dressed in men’s clothing and wore men’s haircuts. They lived a communal lifestyle. They were healers and teachers. In fact, the term “Christ” comes from the Greek interpretation of the leader of the Essenes, and was not at all intended to have a messianic interpretation. Thus the Essenes by title may have had several “Christs”: John the Baptist (Mandean), Jesus (Christian, Manichean, Gnostic, Essene), James (Manichean, Essene), and Mary Magdalena or Miryai (Manichean, Gnostic, Essene).

The idea of a modern religious commune originated with the early Orthodox and Roman Catholic Monastic movements.

“The history of the Church in apostolic times reveals that, in those times, it had its own Christian communism and the faithful held everything common, as the Acts of the Apostles says. Even now, this Christian communism exists in the form of Koenobitic monasticism. Both the concept and reality of communal property is a bright, idealistically elevated type of Christian inter-relationship, examples of which have always existed in the Orthodox Church.”[i]

The Orthodox scholars continue,

“How great is the difference between such Christian communism and Soviet communism! One is as far from the other as the heavens are from the earth. Christian communism is not an independent self-motivated goal to which Christianity might strive. Rather, it is an inheritance bred of that spirit of love by which the Church has breathed from the first. Moreover, Christian communism is totally voluntary. No one says, ‘Give us what is yours, it belongs to us,’ rather, Christians themselves sacrificed so that ‘none of them considered any of their possessions to be their own.’ [Emphasis in original]

“The communalism of property in Soviet communism is a self-motivated goal which must be attained no matter what the consequences and regardless of any considerations. The builders of this type of communism are attaining it by purely violent means, not balking at any measure, even the slaughter of all those who do not agree… The bases of this communism are not freedom, as in Christian communism, but force; not sacrificial love, but envy and hatred.” [Ellipse in original]

“Traditional communism is the common ownership of the means of production. The reference to communism in the book of Acts is having all things in common. ‘And all that believed were together and had all things common and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.’ To explain the kind of communism that the early church practiced it is necessary to understand the sense of brotherhood that the members of the Jerusalem Church had toward each other. It was not, to be sure, an arbitrary communism and bears little relation to communists of today but the principle on which it was based was communistic. They held jobs, bought and sold and made a profit on their earnings, much like you would see in an ideal social democracy. This was the spirit of Pentecost; the beautiful outpouring of unselfishness that was soon to be lost. It was the result of a spiritual oneness that should be an example to us today.

“It was not just altruism that was practiced in Jerusalem, the claims of the Christian family were recognized as of a higher order than the claims of the individual. This was for the relief of the necessities of the brethren, not just because they were in need and suffering, but because they were brethren. Of course many were in need but it was the power of the Holy Ghost in the hearts of the believers that prompted them to such selfless acts of charity – and it worked. ‘Neither was there any among them that lacked, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold. And laid them down at the apostles’ feet and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.’ The Essenes also practiced communism.

“Saint Benedict’s vision was a monastery with its fields and workshops that was self-contained and self-supporting. A monk was to think nothing as being his own property but all belonged to all. This ideal was a type of Christian communism like the apostles practiced. It was the early Christians in Jerusalem that Benedict cited for his precedent, all shared in the common stock. This same type of communalism still exists among the best Christian groups today.”[ii]

In the above statement I see the thought and “praxis” idealized by the people of Jonestown. The people of Jonestown displayed the virtues of Christian Communism, a sharing of love and possession, in the creation of their utopia, while the leadership of Jim Jones, having evolved from its origins in Christian Communism, to that of the more political communism of the state, became concerned with control over the commune or community. This divergence of views between people and leadership is one cause, and only one cause, of tension between the people and leadership of Jonestown itself.

The Orthodox scholars continue,

“The idea of ‘brotherhood’ was borrowed from the Christians who call each other ‘brother.’ Apostle Peter said, ‘Honor everyone, love the brotherhood’ (1 Pt. 2:17). In practice, communism exchanged the word ‘brother’ for the word ‘comrade.’ This is very indicative, since comrades can be co-participants (but not brethren) in any activity, but one cannot really speak of ‘brotherhood’ anyway, there where class struggle, envy and hatred are preached.”[iii] [Emphasis in original]

The origins of Liberation Theology can be seen as emerging from these traditions, located in the Catholic Church and Missions since the earliest days of Latin America. The Church has long questioned the treatment of the urban and rural poor, black, mestizos, and first indigenous peoples. The belief that God favors the poor and oppressed is central to biblical and Catholic theology.

But Liberation Theology questions the traditional view of religious belief and practice. Jesus was seen as a revolutionary. Marxist activism was used in religious practice. Rev. Jones also questioned these concepts in his theology and practice, and in Liberation Theology it was praxis (practice) that was the essential ingredient.

Rev. Jones was certainly well-read in Liberation Theology and its Christian, Socialist, and Marxist principles and practice. As the Theology of Latin America, Liberation Theology was so prevalent in the 1960’s and 1970’s that it would be naive to ignore the fact that Rev. Jones would have thoroughly understood its concepts and practice. In practice Rev. Jones was a living example of this theology at work. Liberation Theology was very much a theology of earthly reality, humanism, and social personality.

Peoples Temple and Jim Jones were very much a part of this movement. Liberation Theology was moving revolution of the oppressed to a “religious plane,” a term used by Rev. Jones.

While some may point to the relationship between Father Divine and Jim Jones as a main conceptual influence – and it was one of those influences in the early years of Jim Jones – Christian Communism is a belief that is thousands of years older. But I should make note about the relationship between Jim Jones and Father Divine. The fact is that the opulent and elegant lifestyle of Father and Mother Divine were in direct contrast to the Apostolic Socialism of Rev. Jones. Rev. Jones visited Father Divine in 1958 and the Peace Mission in Long Island in 1971. In 1965 Jones invited Mother Divine to his home in Indiana should a war occur, even though there was no threat of war. In 1971 Jones arrived at the Peace Mission with 200 followers but was asked to leave twice because of a conflict in beliefs and attitudes.

The relationship between Jones and Divine’s movement was rocky and tumultuous. In 1972, Mother Divine wrote:

“We have entertained Pastor Jones and the People’s Temple,” She stated. “We were entertaining angels of the ‘other fellow’! (the term followers use to denote the d – v – l) We no longer extend to them any hospitality whatsoever! Not a one of them is welcome in any Church under the jurisdiction of the Peace Mission Movement, here, or in any other Country! They are not welcome in any of our public Hotels; they are not welcome in any of our public dining rooms. They are not welcome!”[iv]

Rather than the Peace Missions of Father Divine, then, I believe it was Liberation Theology – and the Protestant/Catholic competition over its concepts – that provided the quasi-religious, quasi-social, quasi-political underpinnings for Peoples Temple and especially the origins of its Agricultural Mission.

* * *

In the 1950’s with the rise of the USA after WWII, and social and economic development in Latin America, the masses of oppressed peoples were becoming attracted to populist movements based on Liberation Theology, movements such as “Young Christian Students, Young Christian Workers, Young Christian Agriculturalists, the Movement for Basic Education, groups that set up educational radio programs, and the first base ecclesial communities.[v]

As Protestant Missions were being established in Latin America, Catholic Bishops responded by encouraging the revolutionary practice of Liberation Theology to the oppressed masses of the people in order to promote the Catholic Church to the masses. These missionaries were raising the issues of social revolution, and it was not unnoticed by governments and organizations which wanted to repress the movement and which responded with police or military force.

The liberation of oppressed peoples was not limited to racial classification. Liberation Theology included women in what is called Feminist Theology, blacks in Black Liberation Theology, homosexuals, technocentrism, environmentalism, militarism. It included all groups and forms of oppression. Names such as Bartolomé de Las Casas, Antonio de Montesinos, Antonio Vieira, Brother Caneca and others were viewed by the masses as liberators of the oppressed, and Catholic Priests were being assassinated in Central America for organizing the masses against poor labor and living conditions.

Marxism was used as a base for this new theology among the more radical elements of the Catholic clergy. The militarism of WWII and the nuclear arms race added a new element to both sides. Social and economic development, coupled with repressive regimes in Mexico, Argentina, Venezuela, Guatemala, Brazil and elsewhere led to the use of government force through the police and military to control and repress populist movements by the masses. The response was often violent protest and organization of populist groups to combat this repression. Through the murders of El Salvador’s Monsignor Oscar Romero and Ignacio Ellacuria, and other members of the clergy, governments tried to kill Liberation Theology. Guerilla movements were formed to support Liberation Theology and in Cuba there was revolution. We know that Rev. Jones visited Cuba early in his career, and also visited Brazil and other Latin American nations. Jones talked of moving the Peoples Temple Project to Cuba, and in fact the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project was located in Guyana, the hemisphere’s other socialist government at the time.

* * *
The praxis of Liberation Theology is well described by the Center for Socinian Studies:

“Injustice, the exploitation of some human beings by others, the exploitation of the human being by the state, institutions, and mechanisms of economic systems, must be called by their name… liberation must be inserted into the entire contemporary reality of human life… liberation is a faith reality, one of the basic biblical themes, deeply inscribed in the salvific mission of Christ, in the work of redemption, and in his teaching.”[vi]

In 1968, in Medellin, the Latin American Church Council, encouraged by Vatican II’s acceptance, and encouraged by Father Trigo of Venezuela, came out in unanimous support of the poor. Now the theology of liberation enjoyed the acceptance of the Church hierarchy. Medellin made the poor central to theology, and according to Father Bazarra Marxist ideology was openly used and encouraged. Priests went to the poor, not in theory but in practice, just as Rev. Jones went to the poor under his care. By 1979, at the Puebla Council, one year after the Jonestown tragedy, some resistance had formed among conservative bishops in Latin America, and the “centricity of the poor” became “favoritism of the poor.” In 1980, the Pope began to discourage the Marxist ideology of Liberation Theology. Today many of the concepts of Liberation Theology are considered normal within daily theology.

Black Liberation Theology deserves special mention especially in its relation to the Peoples Temple. In 1969, James Cone published Black Theology and Black Power in which he asserted that black power was aligned with the message of the gospel, that every message of the gospel was aligned with black liberation, and that this message was the message for 20th century America. Cone wrote that black people, in America, must be liberated from multiple forms of oppression: social, economic, religious, and political. That Christian theology is an expression of liberation which in the case of black liberation must liberate itself from white oppression. To Cone, Black Theology was a theology of the here and now, not an afterlife, in which black people are looking for freedom and justice. To Cone’s theology, Jesus was black, he was not a European, and God is whatever color he needs to be to let the people know they are important. The United Trinity Church of Jeremiah Wright is the closest modern proponent of Black Liberation Theology.

To truly understand Peoples Temple and Jonestown, one must place them in time perspective, and place Rev. Jones within the societal influences of his day. Only then can we come to a more thorough understanding of the many forces that were interacting within Peoples Temple and on the theology of Rev. Jim Jones.

To quote a worker named Berta Perez, “It all comes down to seeing God in each other and acting accordingly. As Father Bazarra puts it, “Jesus insists that we’re all brothers. No one saves themselves alone, but we save each other together.” Or as Perez puts it, “To feel like a son [of God], you must be a brother.”[vii]

List of Liberation theologians (From Wikipedia)

See also: Category: Liberation theologians

Notes


[i] Christianity and Communism, OrthodoxPhotos.com, 2008

[ii] Communism, by Jay Atkinson, The Latter Rain Page 2008

[v] A Concise History of Liberation Theology, landreform.org, 2008

[vi] “Liberation Theology: Religious Response to Social Problems. A Survey”, Center for Socinian Studies, July 18, 2000, p. 4.

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on December 29th, 2021.
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