Jonestown And Disciple-Dom:
Effects On A Denomination

The recently-published Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, an 850-page reference meant to be the definitive work covering the three denominations – including the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) – that came out of the 19th century unity movement, has no entry for the subject “Jonestown.” Nor does it reference “Peoples Temple.” Nor “Guyana.” The only article concerning Jonestown is entitled, “Jones, Jim,” and it runs fewer than 100 words. To me, this says everything you need to know about the Disciples of Christ’s attitude toward Jonestown.

Right after the deaths, the denomination made a public announcement and wrote a letter to church members. In 1979, Steven Rose published Jesus and Jim Jones, which laid the blame for the deaths largely at the feet of the denomination. Then nothing about it was said until the last ten years or so. For the Disciples, it has always been, “out of sight, out of mind.”

As far as polity goes, Jonestown had one major effect on the Disciples: the ordination process became formalized and gained at least some accountability. Before Jonestown, an individual congregation would hire a minister, and if he were not ordained, they would do that in a Sunday morning worship service. It was very informal: all the elders (most elders in the Disciples are lay persons; a minister is seen as an elder among elders) who happened to be present that day gathered around the minister-to-be, laid hands on him, and said an extemporaneous prayer. That was that. This is just the kind of ordination service Jim Jones had, except that rather than occurring in Sunday morning worship, it was held at a fellowship meeting for Disciples ministers in the Indianapolis region. Basically, he was ordained because his congregation loved him and one of the ministers in the region was willing to vouch for him.

Today, hopeful ministers are required to be mentored by a committee on ministry on the regional level. Ordinands are expected to have been deeply involved in a congregation before they seek ordination; they are interviewed three times over three years by the regional committee; they are required to write an extensive paper about their theology; and they must be approved by their congregation. In an unusual relationship between academia and ecclesia, denominational seminaries keep close contact with the regional committees and make their own decisions as to whether students may continue in seminary with the expectation that they will be ordained. While this decision on the part of the seminary is not binding on the regional committee, I have yet to hear of a committee that countered the seminary’s recommendation.

Were one to ask a theologically-sophisticated Disciple about the ordination process, she would say that ministers are chosen by the congregation, educated by the seminary, and approved by the region, and then the congregation ordains the new minister. In reality though, it goes much more like this: a congregation chooses a ministerial candidate; a seminary not only educates but evaluates her fitness for ordained ministry; and the region usually takes the advice of the seminary and hosts an ordination service that is often presided over by one or more seminary professors. Again, while they do meet with individual candidates, three meetings over three years is not enough to truly get to know someone.

The purpose of all this is, of course, to head off the possibility of someone like Jim Jones becoming a Disciples minister in the future. Before Jones brought his congregation into the Disciples, he applied to be ordained in the United Methodist Church. That denomination has an extensive and intensive ordination process, which includes not only their equivalent of congregation and region, but also a bishop. They require all candidates to take a battery of psychological tests and meet with a psychotherapist. United Methodists in the know about their ordination process often suggest that their process is better than most because “we wouldn’t ordain Jim Jones so he had to go to the Disciples.”

The number of members in the denomination who know about its connection to Jonestown depends solely on how whether ministers tell them about it, and in my experience, most ministers find it easy to skip this difficult topic. I have made a point of preaching about Jonestown in every congregation I have pastored. The theme of the sermon can differ: evil is not something “out there,” but is instead “in here,” not only in our denomination, but also inside individuals; the cult of personality is a form of idol worship, and it is very easy to allow a charismatic leader to think for us; and it is important for us to see ourselves as members not just of our congregation, but of the “church universal” as well. Especially on the last subject, I point out how “outsiders” can often see things that have become normal and quotidian to us but are truly frightening in a church body. Jonestown is good food for thought, and as they leave worship, many parishioners shake my hand and comment positively on the sermon. But very often members seem to miss the point – or at least they forget very quickly that Jim Jones, Peoples Temple, and the Jonestown tragedy were a part of our denomination and could happen again today.

There are several reasons for this. People do not like to think that they could come under the sway of a charismatic leader; they think of themselves as too rational, or too “sane,” or too something. There is a bit of hubris in that, I think, which is one reason I feel ethically obligated to preach on Jonestown. When I have the opportunity, I also teach about it.

Most of the adult education classes I know of use the denominational curriculum on Sunday mornings. The curriculum follows the lectionary, so there is no opportunity to have a topical lesson, and virtually impossible to draw people away from lessons they admit are rather boring but that are certainly less frightening than talking about Jonestown.

Perhaps it should not be surprising that the youth of the church are the ones most intensely interested in Jonestown. At their developmental stages, they are very aware of the binary nature of the world: good/bad, wrong/right, evil/goodness. They are fascinated by the evil they see in the deaths at Jonestown and don’t know what to make of this person Jim Jones. Unlike many of their elders, they are often not willing to assign just one side of a binary to another person or event. Jim Jones was good, they tell me, because he created a true multiracial worshipping community and took good care of the elderly members of the congregation. Jim Jones was bad, though, when he claimed a sort of divinity for himself and oversaw the deaths during that White Night. The youth are willing to struggle with paradoxes, something many of their parents are not.

I am quite aware that I have largely written about how Jonestown has affected Disciples in the context of congregational life. That is because I do believe that is the only place members hear about it, if at all. The Jonestown story is “old news” in today’s news-entertainment environment. Movies about Jonestown are available, but they are not the sort of thing one watches for entertainment. And if the clergy do not present it as something important from which to learn, most members of Disciples congregations will never see it as such.

In a very important way, members of the Disciples are much like members of other Christian denominations: they would rather concentrate on the happy than the sad; optimism rather than pessimism; life instead of death; and their feeling of invulnerability that comes from the denial of death.

The leaders of the Disciples on the national and regional level have not, to my knowledge, suggested to their clergy that they take the opportunity to remember Jonestown with their congregations and struggle to discover what it means for today’s followers. Parish Disciples ministers understand that they are only allowed a few “negative” sermons a year – why waste one on Jonestown, something that was long ago and far away, and has so little effect on us today.

(Karen Stroup, Ph.D. was an ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) – serving on the board of trustees of the Disciples Historical Society for six years – and was a professor in religion and psychology. She was also a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her articles appear here.

(Dr. Stroup died on January 21, 2012 at the age of 54.)