Responsibility for Jonestown Deaths Falls on Us All

by John V Moore

“First the people destroy their leader. Then the leader destroys the people.”

Krishnamurti

“No man is an island… don’t send to know for whom the bells toll, they toll for thee.”

John Donne

“The functional meaning of the word ‘G-o-d’ is that the nation is not God.”

Sydney Mead

“It is paradoxical that some fanatical movements, as destructive as they are, play a role in bringing social changes for the better.”

An English philosopher quoted by Eric Hoffer at the end of his book, The True Believer.

“It wasn’t that something went wrong at the end. There was something wrong at the beginning.”

Sermon of November 26, 1978

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I do not find it difficult to answer the question, “Was it suicide or murder in Jonestown?” It is more difficult to understand why the people died or who was responsible for their deaths? The foregoing quotations suggest my perspective.

Barbara and I were friends to many who died. When asked to talk about Peoples Temple, both of us talked about the people – the good times they had, the diverse membership in age and race and class, their care of the elderly and children. Jim Jones and I shared deep convictions about social justice. I write these things, because the following vignettes reveal a darker side of Jim and the Temple.

Barbara and I had never heard of Jim Jones until we received a letter from Carolyn. In 1968 she and her husband Larry Layton moved to Ukiah where she would teach in Potter Valley and Larry would do his alternative service in the state hospital. Although they liked the Methodist pastor when they visited the church, the man sitting next to Carolyn refused to shake hands during the Passing of the Peace. Carolyn wrote that when they visited Peoples Temple they immediately liked the pastor, the people and the church. It was an upbeat letter, but I was uneasy with a recurring refrain, “Jim Jones says this and Jim Jones says that.” I replied saying, “I would rather hear what you think about these issues than what your pastor says.”

Later when we had not heard from Carolyn or Larry for a month, Barbara and I drove to their home near Potter Valley with our other daughters, Becky and Annie. Larry was in Reno getting a divorce. After a few minutes Carolyn said that she wanted us to meet her pastor. She called Jim, who came to the house. I had uneasy feelings about what was coming. Becky and Annie waited outside while the four of us talked. No sooner had the conversation begun than I thought, “My God, he’s another Elmer Gantry.” Carolyn expected us to feel as good about Jim as she did and was disappointed with our response. Jim said, “I told you that they wouldn’t understand.”

During the summer of 1971, Annie lived with Becky and first her husband in Washington, D.C. where Annie volunteered in Childrens Hospital. She had such a good time that she planned to return after her high school graduation a year later. Before leaving for Washington, though, she visited Carolyn in Redwood Valley for a weekend. When she returned home, she told us that she had changed her mind and would be joining Peoples Temple. I thought, “Oh God, isn’t one child enough?” She pleaded with us to join with her. I could see myself in Annie, for when I wanted Dad to make a commitment to Christ, he said, “No.” Annie and I were both teenagers when our commitments involved a changing of our relationships with our parents. But there was one significant difference in our choices. Annie placed her trust in and gave her loyalty to a human being. I acted in the same way, except that my trust and commitment were in relation to a transcendent being or power who in my mind did not share our human frailties.

Several years later we attended Annie’s commencement exercises at Santa Rosa Community College where she had completed her nursing program. At the beginning of the service, a faculty member announced that the Rev. Jim Jones could not come, but that his assistant, Tim Stoen, was present to offer the invocation. The girls had mentioned Tim, but we had never met him. The invocation was the strangest that I had ever heard. His prayer was ten minutes of adulation of Jim Jones.

Barbara and I attended the Peoples Temple performance of A Raisin In The Sun. It was entertaining and fun. Barbara was ecstatic in her praise. My feelings were mixed. The tension between mother and daughter mounted through the play and came to a climax when the daughter said to Momma, “There is no God.” and Momma replied, “There is no God.” This was exactly the opposite of the original script, where Momma answers, “In this house, there is God.” The Temple version just didn’t ring true to me. I could not see Momma agreeing with her daughter in spite of the injustices her family had suffered.

We were living in Berkeley and I was teaching a course at the Pacific School of Religion. Various new religious movements and the human potential movements were flourishing. I thought that the students could learn something from Jim if he would talk about Peoples Temple. I was shocked and disappointed when Jim and Carolyn spent the entire time showing news clippings about Jim. It was all about Jim, with nothing said about the members and what they did.

I received a call one day from the editor of Christianity Today. He asked me why I had allowed Peoples Temple to use my letterhead for a public relations mailing for Jim Jones. I said that I had no idea what he was talking about. When he sent me copies of the mailing I asked Carolyn how this had happened. I told her that I wanted Jim to send a letter correcting the error to all who had received the mailing. Later Carolyn told me that Jim had no record of the letter’s recipients. We were at an impasse. Carolyn took the blame on herself, saying it was her responsibility. I didn’t believe her. Then, as on other occasions, she said that Jim had high blood pressure and he couldn’t take too much pressure. Many times through the years Barbara would ask Jim, “When are you going to get a divorce and marry Carolyn?” Jim never answered the question, and left it to Carolyn to explain why that would not work in Peoples Temple.

It was my experience that the community never held Jim responsible for his actions. They took the rap for him.

We visited Jonestown in May, 1978. I assumed that Jim knew that we would be looking for signs of paranoia, adulation, healings and talk of conspiracies, for he had heard our views many times. There was no adulation of Jim during our visit. I have no recollection of “the throne” in the pavilion. I suspected Jim had told the people to cool it during our visit.

On the other hand, I never saw others disagree with Jim. We had meals with eight or ten leaders. At lunch one day Jim made a statement which I would have challenged if it had been a personal conversation. All of the leaders who spoke agreed with Jim. No one asked a question. That same week Jim reported the news over the p.a. system. He talked war breaking out between the USSR and China. When we returned to Georgetown, I searched the Guyana Chronicle and found a two-inch column referring to a border skirmish.

*

In retrospect, of course, I will always lament my own failure to explore what Carolyn and Annie meant when they said to me, “We are willing to die for what we believe, but you aren’t.” I assumed they meant they would stand up for themselves, their principles, or their community, even if that resulted in their deaths at the hands of an enemy. I didn’t understand they were contemplating suicide.

*

I saw positive forces working in the community. I also saw destructive forces at work such as the adulation of Jim which I call idolatry, Jim’s and the leadership’s control of the members, Jim’s manipulation, the test of loyalty to Jim, individualism suffering because of the priority of the collective, fanatical believers, and the absence of power within the community to stand against Jim and the leadership. The functional definition of “G-o-d” in Peoples Temple was spelled “J-i-m.” The people destroyed Jim, and he then destroyed them.

There were other possible scenarios for the end of Peoples Temple. Jim Jones was crumbling. Financial pressure upon the community was mounting. It was questionable whether any such community could succeed for long in the jungle.

The deaths in Jonestown on November 18, 1978 did not happen in a vacuum or without a history. I look at the story of Peoples Temple as a tragedy with hundreds of characters in the cast. The leadership and the other members were obviously actors. But there were other actors in the tragedy, including the Concerned Relatives, Congressman Ryan, the media and federal agencies.

I include myself as one who played a role in the tragedy. If we point with pride at out children when they achieve, we cannot separate ourselves from them when they fail or end their lives as they did in Jonestown. Carol and Annie lived with us for eighteen years. Surely they bear the imprint of our influence.

Jim Jones bears primary responsibility, but the leaders and the people, except the children and the elderly, were actors in the tragedy. The others I have mentioned weren’t responsible for the deaths, but they were responsible for contributing to the conditions – Jim’s paranoia, the community’s isolation, the overall atmosphere of persecution – that led to the deaths.

There is a truth in John Donne’s words that when a part of the land slips into the sea the continent is the less; and when anyone dies we all are diminished. The bells do toll for all of us. We are all part of a living and dying web.

(John Moore is a retired Methodist minister living in Friday Harbor, Washington. He is the father of Rebecca Moore, the manager of this website.)

Last modified on January 12th, 2017.
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