Nearing the Center:
Successive Waves of Jonestown Scholarship

by Karen Stroup, Ph.D.

Jonestown Construction
Courtesy of the California Historical Society PC 010.0832. Image from the new slide collection. Jonestown, c. 1977. Text on slide mount: Central housing – office, storage, shop

Whatever scholars of Jonestown have decided is the “answer” to its mysteries a hundred years from now, that answer will not satisfy the popular mind; such pronouncements from academia never do. It is hard to know what “Jonestown” will look like in that mind – or whether it will even have a place there. It might be possible to get a glimpse of what people might be thinking about Jonestown in the future by examining the trends that have already occurred in its study, and determine whether those trends lead to a natural path for the future.

Thomas Robbins[1] suggested the idea of interpretive “waves” in Jonestown analyses. First wave examinations, he said, were published dating from the immediate aftermath of the suicides through 1982. They included Henry Bowden’s suggestion that members of the church committed the sin of idolizing Jones;[2] Steve Rose’s decision to put the blame squarely on the congregation’s denomination for not curbing it when it went beyond “healthy” Christian theology;[3] Archie Smith’s suggestion that Jonestown “worked” because the mainstream black church had failed its constituents;[4] Ken Levi’s representation of the popular “cult scholarship” movement of the time with Jonestown placed square within it;[5] and Tim Reiterman and John Jacobs’ representation of what was perhaps the most popular theory of the time, the one I like to call the “Jones was crazy hypothesis.”[6]

Obviously these are not the only treatments of the suicides in those years, but they are representative of the three perspectives that seemed to dominate first wave interpretations: the theological, psychological, and the cult. Each of these perspectives suggests that the critical factor that led to the suicides was something that set the members of Peoples Temple apart from mainstream America. This was a distancing from the horrific events; it was important for individuals and institutions to say, in effect, “That couldn’t have happened to me,” and the treatments in the first wave support such a belief.

While most people fall into idolatry at one time or another, readers could easily say, “I would never idolize someone to the extent that I would die for them,” and the wave of analyses in the first few years after Jonestown would affirm that belief. The vast majority of Rose’s readers worshipped in a polity very different from the congregational form he saw as the cause of the suicides. They could say, “That would never happen to me because the synod or bishop would prevent it.” African-Americans could respond to Smith with, “That could never happen to me because my church has not failed that badly and I would never attend a white-run church.” Finally, Reiterman’s readers might say, “I could never get involved in such a thing because I know enough to stay away from crazy people.” Each of these approaches imposes on the members of Peoples Temple an otherness that was protective of Americans left behind to try to understand it.

Second wave examinations took a very different view. John R. Hall suggested the suicides occurred because of Peoples Temple’s similarities to the wider American culture.[7] David Chidester concentrated on the Temple’s theology,[8] and Barbara Hargrove considered the way in which that theology was put into practice.[9] These treatments sweep away some of the “otherness” Americans apparently needed to feel immediately following the suicides. Every American who is affiliated with a church has some sort of theology and participates in some path designed to realize that theology’s goals. The otherness that separated a safe life from one that ends in mass suicides disappeared. There were suddenly many connections between the members of Peoples Temple and the horrified Americans who survived them.

It would not stretch Robbins’ theory too much to suggest there have been further waves of interpretation; unfortunately, space precludes examining them in detail here. But at the very least, it is possible to say that the latest wave has created yet another perspective on Jonestown and the suicides. This website, Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple, represents a sea change in Jonestown interpretation. It offers to anyone interested, from casual inquirer to determined scholar, a plethora of primary sources. While the site certainly includes scholarly articles, and offers a forum where almost anyone can publish their thoughts on the event, the bulk of its material – and the tenor of the site itself – is focused on first-person accounts. On this site, people who survived Jonestown or who were close to someone who was there are able to give their remembrances and interpretations. While one may agree or disagree with postmodernism’s contention that there is no pure text, it is at the least true that the texts now available are as close to the thoughts of Jonestown’s own people as they could possibly be.

This has many implications, but perhaps primary for this short reflection is what it says about the trend in interpretations of Jonestown, an event that surely will be remembered as one of the most remarkable of the American 20th century. While first wave interpretations tried to distance “normal” people from those who lived and worked in Jonestown, and second wave work attempted to bring mainstream American culture into the midst of the members of Peoples Temple, this most recent wave has, in an important shift, brought the members of Peoples Temple into the center of American culture.

This last sentence may seem nothing more than a play on words, but it is not. The second wave of interpretations allowed that the members of Peoples Temple were, indeed, partakers of American culture. That meant scholars and others needed to examine the culture to see what about it could have produced the Jonestown phenomenon – not just the suicides, but the remarkable history of the congregation as a whole. This latest wave does not say that the members were consumers of American culture, but instead that they are American culture. Peoples Temple was not some odd manifestation of popular culture, like MTV, Starbucks shops, and Heaven’s Gate. Its people were the people next door. In this interpretation, Peoples Temple was not a strange concatenation of weird American features that produced a horror; rather, it was one example of a phenomenon that can and does happen all the time in American culture.

In at least one way, this website is remarkable. It is difficult to think of parallel collections of ordinary peoples’ interpretations of a major event. The projects working to gather stories of the Holocaust survivors is on the sublime end of the spectrum; The Vagina Monologues could represent the spectrum’s other end, though it is surely not ridiculous. It will be interesting to see whether Jonestown scholarship as a whole moves in the direction of Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. My hope is that someone will make a point not only of studying the event and people themselves, but the way people have talked about them and what that says about the changing perspective of Americans.

(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.)

Notes

[1] Thomas Robbins, “Reconsidering Jonestown, Religious Studies Review 15 (1989): 32.

[2] Henry Bowdin, “Jonestown: The Enduring Questions,” Theology Today 36 (1979): 66.

[3] Stephen Rose, Jesus and Jim Jones (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1979), 13.

[4] Archie Smith, Jr., “An Interpretation of the Peoples’ Temple and Jonestown: Implications for the Black Church,” Journal of the Interdenominational Theological Center 10 (1982): 1.

[5] Ken Levi, “Jonestown and Religious Commitment in the 1970s” in Violence and Religious Commitment: Implications of Jim Jones’ People’s Temple Movement (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1982).

[6] Tim Reiterman with John Jacobs, Raven: The Untold Story of The Rev. Jim Jones and His People (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1982, 9-10.

[7] John R. Hall, Gone From the Promised Land: Jonestown in American Cultural History (New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1987), 313.

[8] David Chidester, Salvation and Suicide: An Interpretation of Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and Jonestown (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988), xiv.

[9] Barbara J.W. Hargrove, “Jonestown and the Scientific Study of Religion,” in New Religious Movements, Mass Suicide, and Peoples Temple: Scholarly Perspectives on a Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Moore and Fielding McGehee, III. Vol. 37 of Studies in American Religion Series (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1989): 25-6.

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on December 30th, 2020.
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