Most people understand Peoples Temple through its violent end in Jonestown, Guyana in 1978. Media coverage of the event sensationalized the group and obscured the background of those who died. The perspective that emerged thirty years ago continues to dominate people’s understanding of Jonestown today, despite dozens of books, articles, and documentaries that have appeared in the interim.
A new book from Greenwood Press, however, offers a fresh perspective on the tragedy. Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple by Rebecca Moore locates the group within the context of religion in America and provides a history that corrects the inaccuracies often associated with the group and its demise. The volume takes advantage of many resources that were unavailable in the decade that followed the deaths, including first-person accounts from survivors, government documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, and insights supplied by religious studies scholars.
“This is the book I’ve always wanted to write about Peoples Temple,” said Moore. “It updates much of the information in previous works, and presents a balanced historical account that reflects thirty years of thinking about the subject.” Moore lost two sisters and her nephew in the deaths at Jonestown.
Although Peoples Temple has some of the characteristics many associate with cults, it also shares many characteristics of Black Religion in America. Moreover, it is crucial to understand the organization within the social and political movements of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Race, class, liberation, gender, and other issues dominated the times, and so dominated the consciousness of the members of Peoples Temple.
Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple does not end on 18 November, but devotes three chapters to examining what has happened since then, analyzing the investigations that immediately followed the deaths, examining the ways in which survivors have responded to their losses, and reporting on the developments in the arts and culture relating to Jonestown.
“I don’t think this is the last word on Jonestown,” said Moore. “I don’t think there will ever be a last word, given the fact that each generation seems to find its own meaning and significance in Jonestown. This was an event that continues to reverberate throughout the world even today.”
Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple, Greenwood Publishers, ISBN: 0-313-35251-8, will be published early in 2009.