The Problem Is Totalism, Not “Cults”: Reflections on the Thirtieth Anniversary of Jonestown

by Catherine Wessinger

(Catherine Wessinger is the Rev. H. James Yamauchi, S.J. Professor of the History of Religions at Loyola University New Orleans. Her complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. She can be reached

New religions scholars, myself including, have argued against the use of the word “cult” to refer to unconventional religious groups (Barker 1993; Richardson 1993a; Richardson and Dillon 1994; Robbins 2008; Wessinger 1995; Wessinger 2000). The word is used to deny that certain movements are religions; “cult” is the term used by people who wish to reserve the category “religion” for the “good” and socially acceptable ones. The pejorative category “cult” imposes a stereotype on new religious movements with diverse characteristics, and the results can be disastrous.

• The “cult” stereotype serves to assign blame for alleged abuses solely on socially-despised religious groups and its leaders.

• Former members who claim they were in a “cult” can seek to absolve themselves of blame for poor judgment for participating in a despised group.

• When there is suspicion that a religious group’s members are engaged in illegal activities, the “cult” lens inhibits responsible investigation.

• Worst of all, application of the “cult” category promotes fear in the general public, and dehumanizes members of a group so the wider society may approve excessive actions taken against members, which harm innocents instead of protecting them. In the years since Jonestown, this has been the case with the Branch Davidians in 1993, Falun Gong members in the People’s Republic of China since 1999, and even the removal of 463 children of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-day Saints at the Yearning for Zion Ranch in 2008 (Wessinger 2008).

A number of new religions scholars have made a case for an “interactionist” perspective on violence involving religious believers (see Richardson 2001). The quality of the interactions of representatives of the dominant society with believers contributes to whether there is a peaceful or violent resolution to conflict. Rebecca Moore (1985), John R. Hall (1987), Mary McCormick Maaga (1998), and I (Wessinger 2000) have argued that interactionist analysis helps to explain the events in Guyana on November 18, 1978.

Taking my cue from Dick Anthony and Thomas Robbins (1997), I suggest here that instead of simply arguing for the shortcomings of the “cult” stereotype, scholars make public pedagogical efforts to highlight that deception, manipulation, coercion, and violence are associated with totalistic groups, and to point out that totalistic social organizations range from isolated religious and ideological communities, to prisons, concentration camps, and nations (Zimbardo 2008). The concerns of former members, relatives, news reporters, and Congressman Leo Ryan about abuse of residents in Jonestown in 1977 and 1978 were focused, not on its characteristics as a religious group, but rather on its characteristics as a totalistic social organization.

I suggest it is helpful to think of social organizations on a continuum, with some verging more toward the pole representing a totalistic environment under complete control of a dictator aided by complicit lieutenants. When assessing whether a social group poses danger to members and outsiders, it is best to include a determination of the degree to which it possesses totalistic characteristics.

Complicit Lieutenants and Followers

I wish to take the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of the deaths in Guyana to reflect on how no individual can become a leader with totalitarian control without lieutenants and other agents who implement that control. Well-meaning people can be so committed to an idealistic goal that they carry out coercive and violent actions against others to make them remain in the group and conform. They also may take violent actions against designated enemies. Unless this trajectory is stopped in its early stages, the group may become so totalistic that it is very difficult or impossible for dissenters to escape.

The deception and manipulation of Peoples Temple members by accomplices of Jim Jones began with the promotion of Jones as a “prophet” with psychic and healing powers (Hall 1987, 18-22; Layton 1998, 36-46). Rituals of violence (Wessinger 2000, 47) were repeated in Peoples Temple, from public beatings and boxing matches to punish infractions, to rehearsed suicides in the inner circle as loyalty tests, to repeated “White Night” drills in Jonestown, culminating in the final night of death. Each repetition of ritualized violence prepared members first to accept, and then commit, even more extreme acts of violence. Adults were punished for falling asleep during Jim Jones’ nightly “emergency meetings” by having a boa constrictor wrapped around their necks (Layton 1998, 175-76). Adults were punished for more serious offences by having to work at a frantic pace on the “Learning Crew” supervised by guards; or worse, they were confined in “the box” (Wooden 1981, 72; Layton 1998, 157-58, 176). Intractable dissenters were kept sedated in the “Special Care Unit” (Moore 2000, 132; Isaacson 2008; Layton 1998, 176, 300). Frequently Jones called the community together in White Night drills to swallow a liquid he said was poisoned in response to what Jones alleged were attacks by mercenaries sent to destroy them. The danger seemed very real to residents because they could hear gunshots coming from the jungle just outside the settlement’s boundaries (Layton 1998, 178-81). The confiscation of passports and money upon arrival in Guyana, and Jonestown’s remote location in thick jungle, made it difficult for dissenters to leave. None of this coercion would have occurred without members willing to carry out these activities. Even Jim Jones’ abusive sexual activities with members were carried out with the complicity of the leaders in the inner circle. In fact, subjugating oneself sexually to Jim Jones, and then enduring humiliation about it before peers, appears to have been the test of loyalty before an individual was entrusted with sensitive assignments (Layton 1998, 70-83).

The Last Night

The shootings at the Port Kaituma airstrip and the murders in Jonestown on November 18, 1978, were carried out by willing agents, who coerced or forced reluctant and unwilling participants in the mass poisoning. Kenneth Wooden (1981, 185) points out that the “death tape” was stopped and restarted about 47 times. Wooden draws on reports of eyewitnesses to indicate that the tape was turned off during the most coercive moments. Jim Jones’ dialogue with Christine Miller, who protested the killing, especially of the children, was much more coercive when the tape recorder was turned off (186). The “Mother, Mother, Mother.” portion of Jim Jones’ harangue was directed toward his wife, Marceline Jones, when she protested the killing of the children (187). Children and seniors were injected with a solution of tranquilizers and cyanide. Recalcitrant children had the poisoned liquid forced into their mouths (190). The sedated individuals in the Special Care Unit were likewise given no choice. Guards were on hand to make sure adults complied. Despite the intensive indoctrination by Jones and other teachers in Jonestown, despite the essays written by residents about their willingness to commit “revolutionary suicide” in response to imminent danger to the community (Maaga 1998, 108), and despite the many White Night rehearsals, there was no general consensus in Jonestown in favor of group suicide on November 18, 1978.

Why the Murders and Suicides?

A number of authors have been puzzled about why the departure of some Jonestown residents with Congressman Leo Ryan’s party on November 18 sparked the shooting deaths at the Port Kaituma airstrip and the murders and suicides in Jonestown. Maaga (1998, 128-31) has argued persuasively that the defection of fourteen members of the Bogue and Parks families, who had been members of Peoples Temple since the Indiana years and who were helping to run Jonestown, was a major blow to the credibility of Jones’ vision for the community. I have argued that their departure threatened the Jonestown residents’ ultimate concern: the preservation of the community at all costs (Wessinger 2000). I offer here another possible explanation.

We have learned from the 1995 case of Aum Shinrikyô in Japan (Reader 2000) that totalistic groups whose members have committed serious crimes are very fearful of defections and investigations that  can reveal those crimes. This hypersensitivity to revelation of the inner dynamics of a totalistic group can prompt members to commit additional crimes in their quest to avoid detection. Wooden’s sources suggested that the knife attack by Don Sly on Congressman Ryan as he was leaving Jonestown was a diversion aimed at preventing the departure of additional residents. The attack occurred just as Al Simon, his three children and father were seen moving toward Ryan’s party. Simon had earlier been punished for attempting to lead 50 people out of Jonestown (166-68). The continued defection of residents and additional investigations would have brought the Peoples Temple socialist experiment to a grinding halt and resulted in the convictions of Jim Jones and secondary leaders. Cuba and the Soviet Union had shown no interest in giving refuge to the Jonestown residents. There were no options for the leaders of Jonestown to move the community beyond the reach of the United States authorities. This reality may have been among the factors strongly motivating them to put an end to the community. [1]

The Lucifer Effect

Psychologist Philip Zimbardo, who conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971, argues in his 2008 book, The Lucifer Effect, and his other writings that under particular conditions, ordinary and well-meaning people can become torturers and murderers. Correspondingly, the same conditions can prompt other individuals to become more or less compliant prisoners. Zimbardo argues that situations and the characteristics of social systems matter in determining these outcomes.

Zimbardo also points out that within the same social context, which prompts some people to take actions “that demean, dehumanize, harm, destroy, or kill innocent people,” ordinary people may take a stand against the “evil” (2004, 3) promoted by “situational influences” (2008, chapter 16). Zimbardo calls these people “heroes,” and to stress that they are ordinary people, he highlights what he calls the “banality of heroism” (2008, 21-22, 485-88; Zimbardo and Franco 2006-07).  As examples of the heroism of ordinary people in responding to totalism, Zimbardo describes the actions both of Deborah Layton in her attempts to blow the whistle about the abuses and the rehearsals for group suicide in Jonestown (see Layton 1998, 235-36, 271-72, 277-80, 283-89), and of Richard Clark in leading eight other residents through the jungle to safety on the morning of November 18 (Zimbardo 2008, 478-80 and here in this edition of the jonestown report; see also Wooden 1981, 166, 182).

Zimbardo writes that statements he gathered from survivors indicates that Jim Jones derived the control techniques practiced in Peoples Temple and Jonestown from George Orwell’s novel, 1984. Zimbardo also accuses the President George W. Bush administration of practicing similar techniques (2005).

Totalistic Groups, Not Cults

In his publications, Zimbardo cites the classic study by Albert Bandura, which demonstrated that participants were much more willing to harm human subjects by administering electric shocks when the subjects were dehumanized by a label such as “animals” (2004, 9; 2008, 308-10). New religions scholarship has demonstrated that the word “cult” performed a similar dehumanizing function in the cases of the Branch Davidians and Falun Gong practitioners, so that excessively violent measures could be taken against them by government agents with social approval and legal sanction (Tabor and Gallagher 1995; Wright 1995; Wessinger 2000; Wessinger 2006; Edelman and Richardson 2003). The “cult” stereotype is a block to investigating and understanding the social, psychological, and religious dynamics that prompt some individuals to hurt others, while other individuals in the same context resist evil and attempt to prevent harm. Even when a religious group has strong totalistic characteristics, the label “cult” dehumanizes the innocent victims as well as the leaders and perpetrators. The category “cult” does not promote understanding of religious groups with diverse characteristics, even those groups whose members have committed violence. [2]

A more fruitful line of inquiry is to investigate the dynamics of totalistic groups, what factors help individuals resist efforts to extend totalistic influence, and how to deal constructively with totalistic groups to preserve human rights and avoid violence without contributing to the perpetuation of the abusive system. A skillful approach to the dilemma of totalism appreciates the humanity of all involved and reveals it to the general public, and does not contribute to the dehumanization of the believers either during their lifetimes or after they have died.

Works Cited

Anthony, Dick, and Thomas Robbins. 1997. “Religious Totalism, Exemplary Dualism, and the Waco Tragedy.” In Millennium, Messiahs, and Mayhem, ed. Thomas Robbins and Susan J. Palmer, 261-84. New York: Routledge.

Barker, Eileen. 1993. “Will the Real Cult Please Stand Up? A Comparative Analysis of Social Constructions of New Religious Movements.” In Religion and the Social Order, Vol. 3 (Part B), The Handbook on Cults and Sects in America, ed. David G. Bromley and Jeffrey K. Hadden, 193-11. Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press.

Edelman, Bryan, and James T. Richardson. 2003. “Falun Gong and the Law: Development of Legal Social Control in China.” Nova Religio 6, no. 2 (April): 312-31.

Hall, John R. 1987. Gone from the Promised Land: Jonestown in American Cultural History. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books.

Isaacson, Barry. 2008. “The Secret Letters of Jonestown.” The Spectator. 14 May.

Jonestown Community. 2005. Transcript, 18 November 1978. In Dear People: Remembering Jonestown. Selections from the Peoples Temple Collection at the California Historical Society, ed. Denice Stephenson, 127-42. San Francisco and Berkeley: California Historical Society Press and Heyday Books.

Layton, Deborah. 1998. Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the Peoples Temple. New York: Anchor Books.

Maaga, Mary McCormick. 1998. Hearing the Voices of Jonestown: Putting a Human Face on an American Tragedy. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

Moore, Rebecca. 1985. A Sympathetic History of Jonestown: The Moore Family Involvement in the Peoples Temple. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press.

______. “‘American as Cherry Pie’: Peoples Temple and Violence in America.” InMillennialism, Persecution, and Violence: Historical Cases, ed. Catherine Wessinger, 121-37. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

Reader, Ian. 2000. “Imagined Persecution: Aum Shinrikyô, Millennialism, and the Legitimation of Violence.” In Millennialism, Persecution, and Violence: Historical Cases, ed. Catherine Wessinger, 158-82. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

Richardson, James T. 1993a. “Definition of Cult: From Sociological-Technical to Popular Negative.” Review of Religious Research 34, no. 4: 348-56.

______. 1993b. “A Social Psychological Critique of ‘Brainwashing’ Claims about Recruitment to New Religions.” In Religion and the Social Order, Vol. 3 (Part B), The Handbook on Cults and Sects in America, ed. David G. Bromley and Jeffrey K. Hadden, 75-97. Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press.

______. 2001. “Minority Religions and the Context of Violence: A Conflict/Interactionist Perspective.” Terrorism and Political Violence 13, no. 1: 103-33.

Richardson, James T., and Jane Dillon. 1994. “The ‘Cult” Concept: A Politics of Representation Analysis.” Syzygy 3, nos. 3-4: 185-98.

Robbins. Thomas. 2008. Email dated April 25.

Tabor, James D., and Eugene V. Gallagher. 1995. Why Waco? Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Walliss, John. 2005. “Making Sense of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God.” Nova Religio: The Journal of the Alternative and Emergent Religions 9, no. 1: 49-66.

Wessinger, Catherine. 1995. “Religious Intolerance – Not ‘Cults’ – Is the Problem.”Communities: Journal of Cooperative Living 88 (Fall): 32-33.

______. 2000. How the Millennium Comes Violently: From Jonestown to Heaven’s Gate. New York: Seven Bridges Press. Available here.

______. 2006. “The Branch Davidians and Religion Reporting-A Ten-Year Retrospective.” In Expecting the End: Millennialism in Social and Historical Context, ed. Kenneth G.C. Newport and Crawford Gribben, 147-72, 266-70. Waco: Baylor University Press.

______. 2008. “‘Culting’: From Waco to Fundamentalist Mormons.” Religion Dispatches. 6 May.

Wooden, Kenneth. 1981. The Children of Jonestown. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Wright, Stuart A., ed. 1995. Armageddon in Waco: Critical Perspectives on the Branch Davidian Conflict. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Zimbardo, Philip G. 1997. “What Messages Are Behind Today’s Cults?” Monitor[American Psychological Association] (May): 14. Available here.

______. 2004. “A Situationist Perspective on the Psychology of Evil: Understanding How Good People Are Transformed into Perpetrators.” In The Social Psychology of Good and Evil: Understanding Our Capacity for Kindness and Cruelty, ed. Arthur Miller. New York: Guilford. Text here.

______. 2005. “Mind Control in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four Fictional Concepts Become Operational Realities in Jim Jones’s Jungle Experiment.” In On Nineteen Eighty-Four: Orwell and Our Future, ed. Abbott Gleason, Jack Goldsmith, and Martha C. Nussbaum, 127-54. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

______. 2008. The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. New York: Random House.

Zimbardo, Philip, and Zeno Franco. 2006-07. “The Banality of Heroism.” Greater Good (Fall-Winter): 30-35. Available here.

Zimbardo, Philip, and Cindy X. Wang. 2006-08. Resisting Influence. The Lucifer Effect.


[1]  See Layton 1998, 103-16, for a description of the panic in which Jim Jones and the other leaders moved most of the remaining members of Peoples Temple to Guyana when faced with the publication in July 1977 of Marshall Kilduff’s New West article about defectors’ reports of abuse and illegal activities.

There was a New Age movement in Peoples Temple as well as a Black Church (Moore, Pinn and Sawyer 2004). Members of the inner circle regarded Jim Jones as the most recent incarnation of a great revolutionary soul dedicated to helping the needy, who had previously incarnated as Jesus, the Bab, and Lenin. Jones taught that as long as Peoples Temple members stayed close to him and were in his “aura,” they were protected from sickness, accidents, death, and from backsliding from socialist ideology. He asserted that he knew members’ thoughts. Inner circle members believed that anyone who left Peoples Temple incurred extremely bad karma that would adversely affect future lives (Layton 1998, 41-42, 45, 50, 53, 56, 134, 161).

During the last White Night, while Jim Jones appealed to the Black Church tradition by asserting, “I’m speaking as a prophet today,” Jim McElvane appealed to the New Age worldview by recounting that in California he had been a therapist who did past life regressions “through Father.” He encouraged people to drink the poison by assuring them that he knew that “everybody was so happy when they made that step to the other side,” that it “feels good” there, and that after death, individuals obtain perfectly health bodies. Jones picked up the New Age theme from McElvane: “It’s just stepping over into another plane.” At the end of the death tape Jim Jones asked,  “Can’t some people assure these children of the relaxation of stepping over to the next plane” (Jonestown Community 2005,132-33,138, 140, 142)?

Thus leaders in Jim Jones’ inner circle possessed a New Age worldview that could be called upon to justify killing people and committing suicide to move everyone to a better existence on a spiritual plane. This utilization of belief in a spiritual reality and the omniscience of the teacher is similar to the members of Aum Shinrikyô who committed murders on the assurance of their guru that these were compassionate actions. This sort of justification was seen also in the cases of the Solar Temple in 1994, 1995, and 1997, Heaven’s Gate in 1997 and 1998 (Wessinger 2000), and perhaps in the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God in Uganda in 2000 (Walliss 2005).  The New Age movement in Peoples Temple bears further study and documentation in the primary sources.

[2]  Although Zimbardo utilizes the “cult” stereotype (1997; 2005, 142-43) and does quite a bit of fear-mongering about the alleged “plethora of more than three thousand nontraditional religious groups and cults in America, and untold numbers of them throughout the world” (2005, 143), he offers helpful suggestions to encourage critical thinking on the part of individuals to resist totalism (2008, 451-56; Zimbardo and Wang 2006-08, Chapters VII and VIII). See Richardson 1993b, 82-83, for a critique of Zimbardo’s construction of “cults” as a “socially acceptable ‘straw man'” (83).

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on October 19th, 2018.
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