The Jonestown Tapes: History or Propaganda?

(Ed. note: Those of our visitors who have spent any time on the website or who have contacted its managers looking for primary historical sources about Peoples Temple have learned about the scores of audiotapes that have been transcribed and reviewed, and the hundreds of tapes which still remain. The tapes range from sermons of Jim Jones and recorded telephone calls in the States, to meetings of the Jonestown community and performances by the Jonestown Express in Guyana. [For information about the tapes themselves, visit the FBI Audiotape Project page.]

(But should we consider the tapes as legitimate primary source documents, or are they nothing but examples of choreographed performances by the Temple leadership, illegitimate because of the selectivity in both occasion and content during their creation? In other words, should the tapes be considered as history or as propaganda, or perhaps a mixture of each?

(We asked these questions of Magne Godberg, a student who plans to make extensive use of the Jonestown tapes in his pursuit of a Master’s degree in Religious History at the University of Oslo in Norway. The following is his reply. We invited others – espeially those who have heard some of the tapes – to participate in this conversation, and will publish additional answers to this question in future editions of the jonestown report.)

There are at least two aspects to the Jonestown tapes for me.

Jim Jones and Peoples Temple came alive when I listened to these tapes. To hear voices chattering off mike, the approving roar of the crowd, and individual testimonials of Jones’ healings made a powerful impression on me. Rightly or wrongly, the tapes gave me an idea of the discourse in the Temple that written sources or pictures could not convey. I believe this has also been the case for a number of others interested in the subject.

I hold that all sources are valuable, given that they can undergo meaningful and reasonable interpretation. The Jonestown tapes are no different. Some of the literature published about Jonestown lacks a necessary criticism of sources, and this brings me to my second point, and this is a continuing danger today.

Far from being a dispassionate scholarly pursuit, any study of Jonestown is still controversial. Vested interests hold stakes in the still-unraveling legacy of November 1978. This makes a proper criticism and contextualization of all sources extra important. In any study of value-laden subjects, this must be borne in mind.

Some might say that the tapes are not very useful as sources. This is supposedly because the tapes were made for propaganda purposes. I accept that point of view as entirely possible. However, no matter what one may think of the tapes, I think the following points are also valid:

  • No source can be taken at face value.
  • It is critical to determine why the tapes were made and how the Temple itself used them during its history. Different tapes were made for different reasons. We know, for example – because some of the tapes tell us – that numerous sermons Jones recorded one week would be played over the p.a. system at another Temple location the following week.
  • Even if the tapes were made for propaganda purposes, they tell us important things about the workings of the Temple and its relation to the wider public.
  • Despite the edits, there is much on these tapes which does not put the Temple in the best light. Like a camera photographs unwanted background features, so too does the microphone pick up everything Jones said, not just things he might have thought he was saying.
  • It is equally important to date the tapes and, as far as possible, identify the voices, if only to give the Temple additional human context.
  • Survivors and others with first hand knowledge can properly contextualize the tapes and provide additional long-forgotten details of the circumstances of their recording.

I plan to write about the rhetoric of Jim Jones in Jonestown, and I think that the tapes can shed light on this subject, no matter why they were made.

(Magne Godberg may be reached at