One of the questions about Peoples Temple which former members hear most frequently has to do with its “theology”: what was our religious base and belief; what were our views on the Bible and the concepts of heaven and hell. I’d like to address this as it was in my own experience in Peoples Temple.
To begin with, I have to confess I am always surprised by questions about our theology. Such questions always seem odd and strange, since I don’t find myself thinking of us as theology-based, or as even being religious.
First, I would make a distinction between: (1) what drew me (and others) into becoming part of Peoples Temple and (2) what were the goals and essence of the Temple that kept me (and others) over a long period of time. As Jim Jones worked to build PT, he brought folks in by appealing to a wide array of experiences. Each service seemed like a different show, with Jones preaching to one or several theologies ranging from fundamentalist Christianity to atheism. Conversely, the common link of all who joined and stayed for the long run was simple and unchanging: we all had a belief in building a socially just and egalitarian community on earth, a rainbow family of folk from a wide diversity of backgrounds, experience and education. No pie in the sky, no expectation of heaven or an after life, no reward to some planet later. Reality was here and now. Whatever was hereafter would take care of itself later.
Scholars seem so fervent in trying to force PT to fit a theology that they miss the point I think PT was trying to make: we used religion as a point of departure, a politically and economically advantageous social station from which to try to play out a radical change in social order: to build a utopian socialist society free from the chains of religious doctrines which limit what can be built. We would either make American society be true to its founding democratic beliefs, or we would find a place to build such a society.
The theology of PT was to abolish theology. The closest Christian model might be an apostolic socialist one, based in the Acts of the Apostles, selling all possessions, sharing in common, etc., but moving far beyond the religious base. We had belief in good for the sake of good, rather than working for an “expectation” of reward in a heavenly hereafter.
Perhaps I need to explain more clearly my understanding of “theological.” Theology to me means “Based on a philosophy of God and belief… often bantered about relating to, but not necessarily limited to, Christianity.” The only aspect about Jim Jones which I saw as possibly theological was the metaphysical aspect, what he and others called his “gift.” Your agreement with that characterization would likely depend upon how you label someone like Edgar Cayce: if you consider Cayce’s reputed metaphysical powers theologically based, perhaps Jim Jones’ “gift” was as well.
Though Jones’ healings have been categorized as faked, my experience tells me that some were not. My own experience of his knowing or seeing things no one could have known, still make me believe that some things he knew and did were not faked. Especially in a context of a large number of people gathered in the name of concern and caring, the powers of love and healing are neither proven nor disproven. But my own experience makes me believe some “healing experiences” have happened.
When someone asks whether PT had a belief about a planet or place or heaven after death, I can only say categorically “No.” If any of us had such beliefs, they were leftover vestiges of what we had brought with us into PT. If there was any “salvation,” it was in the here and now. Today, not some pie in the sky. Perhaps it is more appropriate to speak of a PT ideology rather than a theology. Even the “metaphysical” was seen as a sidebar. Our intention – our “ministry,” if you will – was to forget metaphor and act now. We focused on building a heaven on earth by the way we treated each other and worked with each other to make a better place to live for us and our children, to give them a better place to live than we had been born into. We strove for integrity, honesty, abiding by the “golden rule” to do unto others as we would want done unto ourselves.
It is sad that Jim Jones was unable to live up to the ideals he instilled in so many of us. For whatever reason he was corrupted by drugs and or power and sidetracked from his own message. However, that sense of ideals we all aspired to is the sense of community that I remember and that I see in other survivors to this day.
(Don Beck was a member of Peoples Temple for ten years. He directed the Peoples Temple children’s choir during its Redwood Valley years and made several trips to Guyana during its pioneer days. Beginning about 20 years after the tragedy, shortly after this site went online, he became one of its most dedicated researchers, transcribing Edith Roller journals, reviewing and analyzing Jonestown records released through the Freedom of Information Act, and compiling them for the first section of documents on the Jonestown Research page. He also contributed numerous articles and remembrances. Most of those writings may be found here.)
(Don died on July 9, 2021, following a lengthy illness. He was 78.)