When and where does the story of Peoples Temple begin and end? This is a primary question that John R. Hall’s book Gone From the Promised Land: Jonestown in American Cultural History (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 2004) raised for me when I first read it several years ago. This was before I had properly met any survivors, and as such, along with a couple other books (Raven by Tim Reiterman and A Sympathetic History of Jonestown by Rebecca Moore), it was my entryway into a deeper look at Jonestown. Reviewing the second edition, published earlier this year with a new introduction by the author, I think the book still stands as a superior volume, characterized by insight, lucidity, and, I believe, real love for survivors.
As anyone touched by it knows, Jonestown has been the subject of much speculation, sensationalism, simplification, distortion, and, most importantly for purposes of this book, myth. Hall opens the book by remarking that, “[i]f we are to learn anything of value from the tragedy at Jonestown, its history must be salvaged from myth before it passes from our collective memory. In this book I try to reason about what happened, why, and how it was tied to our ideals, our practices, and the tensions of modern culture” (p. xvii). Hall is uninterested in assigning blame for the deaths at Jonestown, but rather seeks reasons, causes, meanings, and significance in the whole of Peoples Temple.
Gone From the Promised Land acknowledges in the original introduction that “[t]he basic facts are well established” (xvii), then proceeds to summarize the circumstances of the Ryan visit and the deaths. For most people, the story of Peoples Temple is encapsulated in those few days, or in the person of Jim Jones. But Hall wisely uses this narrow public perception as a starting point to push out at the commonly-understood boundaries of the story.
Part One of the book discusses Jim Jones’ background and the early life of Peoples Temple. The conventional wisdom would have it that the story of Peoples Temple is merely an extension of Jones’ personal psychology or, some would say, his madness and deceit. While recognizing the centrality of Jones in the story, Hall goes beyond the conventional wisdom, here and elsewhere throughout the book. He discusses whether the archetype of “con artist” is sufficient to describe Jones. Not content to leave the matter at a simple yes or no, Hall concludes that “[s]omehow this man of obscure Hoosier origins stumbled across the keystone of a central contradiction of U.S. Protestantism: the perfectionist schism between the fundamentalist concern with individual salvation and the social gospel emphasis on saving ‘this’ world in God’s name” (p. 38). Jones, in other words, reveals tensions in the broader culture, and so the edges of the story are blurred and expanded beyond where they first lie.
Part Two contains a similarly fruitful discussion of the Temple organization starting in California-including its finances and administration, collective actions and solidarity, and public relations efforts. Here again, Hall is not so concerned with discussing these matters for their own sake, but for what they reveal about the culture that produced them. For him, “communal groups do not exist as entities totally alien from the society at large in which they occur. Instead, they offer refractions of culture, sometimes exposing dilemmas or developing the unfulfilled possibilities of an era” (78). For example, the Temple’s bureaucracy “mirrored the logic of the state and large corporations” (78), and its public relations strategies reflected standard practices in the industry (171). Hall deftly places Peoples Temple in the context of U.S. society – after all, it didn’t just come out of nowhere – and indicates how Peoples Temple reflects back on that society.
Part Three discusses conflicts within and over the Temple, the migration to Guyana, and the murders and suicides. Hall considers the move to Guyana in the context of religious migration more generally, such as in the examples of Marcus Garvey, Father Divine, Jews under Moses, and even the migration of Puritans, Quakers and others to settle in the North America. “[A]ll underscore the way in which religious migration is bound up in broader processes of history” (207). In a magnificent final chapter, “After Jonestown,” Hall suggests that the story of Peoples Temple did not end on November 18, for we – all of us, the general public and survivors alike – are left to “wrestle with the apocalypse they unveiled” (311).
Outstanding as it is, Hall’s book falls short in the same way that most other treatments of Jonestown do: its sources are primarily white, while Peoples Temple was primarily African American. White members have a great deal of value to say about Peoples Temple and Jonestown. Still, African American members and relatives have not been heard from enough in the many existing accounts of Jonestown. Hall does locate Jonestown in the context of black utopianism, religion, and civil rights organizing, but the importance of these and other factors would have been more proportionately figured had Hall had more African American historical sources. The issue is not just one of proportion, however; as more African Americans tell their stories and perspectives, substantially different insight is gained. The story of Peoples Temple remains to be extended further in this dimension. (An excellent new book, Peoples Temple and Black Religion in America, reviewed in this report at “PeoplesTemple and Black Religion: A Review by the Rev. Richard A. Lawrence” is an important step in remedying this shortcoming.)
Perhaps the most valuable contribution of the second edition in expanding the boundaries of the Jonestown story is this: the new introduction considers how the story of Peoples Temple changes over time, how its meaning shifts with new revelations, events, or perspective. By way of example, I would cite the recently-released tape Q875, discussed elsewhere in this report, which may change how people feel about Jim Jones’s sincerity or cynicism. Or personal events in a survivor’s life may cast new light on their experience. Or Jonestown may look different in the aftermath of September 11, as a prior example of violence and religious commitment, or as a public tragedy. Or, as Hall points out, we can now with hindsight see that the entire Peoples Temple era occurred during the Cold War, with all that implies. In short, where we see the story of Peoples Temple beginning and ending changes in relation to the culture in which we currently live.
One result of Hall’s approach, for me, was to suggest that “the story” of Peoples Temple is really many stories. Hall knows that what is private for survivors is private: some memories are not for public scrutiny, some sorrows are not to be shared. But in saying that Peoples Temple was a “scapegoat, bearing hidden cultural burdens of U.S. society,” he seems to say to and about survivors, “Come, let us carry that burden with you.”
(Paul VanDeCarr, a frequent contributor to the jonestown report, invites discussion of this review or the book. He may be reached at email@example.com or at 415-355-1327.)