Culture, Charisma and Peoples Temple

[Editor’s Note: In the years since this article was published, it has been learned that the denomination with which Jim Jones was associated early in his career was the Independent Assemblies of God, not the Assemblies of God. The doctrinal beliefs between the two are virtually – but not completely – identical: the main difference between the two is that Assemblies of God is denominationally-based, whereas Independent Assemblies of God is more congregationally-based. That aspect would fit in with Jones’ way of doing things. It also accounts also for his new home in Disciples of Christ, which is also congregational.

[With the exception of a single paragraph – which is noted in the text – the description Jones’ relationship with the Assemblies of God would pertain to the Independent Assemblies of God as well. With that caveat in mind, the balance of the paper stands.]

(Author’s note: I first began working on this project without even knowing it. The monograph that proceeds after this preface had its inauspicious beginnings in a muddled 20 page paper on charismatic leadership that was quickly forgotten. A sudden need for a new thesis drove me to dig up the paper, and thus I embarked upon Culture, Charisma and Peoples Temple.

(Conducting this research allowed me to gain and grow in many ways. This paper was a requirement for my graduation from my undergraduate program at Antioch College, completing it was the last major hurdle in front of my diploma. I was able to find my academic voice and learn the process of creating an original work. The background work required for the creation of several sections of this paper allowed me to explore fascinating accounts of charismatic leaders, as well as to fully immerse myself in the history of Peoples Temple.

(Looking back, I most appreciated the opportunity to become familiar with and comprehend the complex internal and external interactions between the Temple members, Jones and the outside world. I feel privileged to have been allowed the opportunity to learn the “code” of the Temple by using theories of charismatic leadership. I hope that this paper, published in its entirety on the Jonestown Institute website, will allow others the chance to understand the Temple through the lens that I have created.)


On November 18, 1978, 918 people committed suicide (with the exception of children and some seniors) in one single ritual spanning half of a day. The majority of these deaths occurred in an isolated agricultural mission in the jungles of Guyana. These people were members of an organization known as Peoples Temple (which resembled a church until the last sixteen months of its existence). Peoples Temple was created and led by a man named James Warren (Jim) Jones. The Temple existed in three different geographical locations over the 23 years of its existence. The Temple began in Indianapolis, Indiana, relocated to California, and finally moved to the settlement known as Jonestown near the Venezuelan border in Guyana.

The members of Peoples Temple committed suicide on the same day that defectors from Jonestown, traveling with a congressional delegation led by U.S. Representative Leo Ryan, were ambushed by a Temple security detail. Ryan, three members of the media covering the delegation and one defector from the Temple were killed in the ambush while boarding a plane at a nearby airstrip in Port Kaituma, Guyana. Their deaths marked the beginning of the suicide ritual several miles away in Jonestown.

Peoples Temple is largely remembered by the last day of its existence. This is due both to the large number of people who seem to have willingly taken their own lives and to the assassination that day of a U.S. Representative. While it is understandable that the shocking incidents that occurred on the final day garner so much attention, this focus excludes the 23 years of history of the Temple. An understanding of this history, which focuses on the relationship between the members of the Temple and their leader, Jim Jones, may allow for an explanation of what occurred on that day.

The Sensationalistic Response

Several explanations of Peoples Temple focus on the relationship between Jones and his followers. While Peoples Temple was still located in California, the media in the United States had taken an interest in publishing sensationalistic tales about life in Peoples Temple. This treatment of Peoples Temple by the press was assisted and encouraged by a loose-knit group of defectors and family members known as the Concerned Relatives. Media interest increased significantly when Peoples Temple began a mass migration to Guyana, immediately after publication of the most significant expose on the Temple. As the first reports of deaths at Jonestown reached the United States, the media was saturated with speculation about the Temple. Theories about the nature of the organization were published even before the completion of the body count in Jonestown. These theories focused on the most sensationalistic aspects of Temple life, such as “deviant” public sex practices amongst the Temple elite or harsh disciplinary procedures.

A discernable theme underlies the majority of this first wave of work published about Jonestown. Temple members were described as helpless victims of mind control or brainwashing. For example, a prominent Jonestown conspiracy that developed soon after the tragedy involves brainwashing. This conspiracy theory states that the Jonestown residents were part of a CIA program named MKULTRA, an infamous program run between 1950 and 1980 that involved developing a drug suitable for mind control (Whittle). Similarly, other theories state that members were brainwashed by Jones’ oratorical style and were physically coerced until they were vulnerable enough to acquiesce to Jones’ plans (Concerned Relatives). Still more explanations hold that the members were all being held against their will by threat of death from the Jonestown security team (Kilduff), which actually consisted of only about 60 members (Moore 2004).

In this first wave of analysis, Jones was sometimes credited with full responsibility for the incident. For example, in the movie Guyana: Crime of the Century (released less than a year after the suicides), Jones is depicted as having complete control over the Temple congregation. The members are depicted as emotionless, passively following Jones’ orders. Often Jones was portrayed as possessing unexplained abilities that allow him to exert total control over Temple members.

The first wave of works attempting to explain Jonestown have one thing in common: They obscure the experience of the members in Peoples Temple. Regardless of whether they are portrayed as brainwashed, drugged or trapped by Jones’ mysterious powers, the members are portrayed as having little agency or ability to make rational decisions.

Reviewing a history of member participation in Peoples Temple, one can see that the members of the Temple were actively listening to Jones’ vision, and, through rational processes, were choosing to interpret that vision as truth. Those who chose to stay in the Temple after each geographical shift, as Jones’ portrayal of himself and his powers became progressively stranger, were making a conscious decision to accept Jones’ leadership. The theory that members were held against their will in the Temple contradicts a large amount of evidence that suggests the opposite. Primary sources and firsthand accounts by survivors point to the fact that members stayed in the Temple because they believed in the goals of the Temple and received tangible benefits from remaining in the organization. Importantly, this evidence also indicates that members played a significant role in shaping the destiny of the Temple.

Jones as a Charismatic Leader

Less sensationalistic work following the initial flurry of interest in Jonestown supports the idea that members played an active role in the life of the Temple. This work manages to examine the intricacies of the Temple’s existence more thoroughly, rather than catering to morbid fascination by publishing only the most sensational details. At times Jones is referred to as a charismatic leader in this work (Chidester, Hall). The term “charisma” was popularized by Max Weber, and indicates a unique form of leadership. The relationship between a charismatic leader and his/her followers is based on the followers feeling obligated to follow the leader due to their perception of the leader as a savior endowed with great power. The leader’s authority depends on the follower’s belief in these traits. As the authority of the leader is dependent on the beliefs of the led, the followers are just as essential as the leader in the formation of charismatic authority (Weber).

Work that does claim Jones was a charismatic leader is not supported by extensive research. Associating charisma with Jones’ authority is normally done in passing and is not relevant to the main objective of the research (Chidester, Hall). The authors who do utilize this term are not dedicated to fully explaining how Jones was charismatic. Rather, this term is used merely to denote the unusual authority vested in Jones by his followers.

The intentions of this paper are to examine whether Jones could accurately be described as a charismatic leader, and how this type of authority emerged. The researcher believes that the process of determining the relationship between Jones and his followers was based on charismatic authority. If the results of the research suggest that Jones was endowed with charismatic authority, then the argument for understanding members in the Temple as active participants in their fate will be supported.

A striking characteristic of the bulk of the literature on charismatic leaders is that there are no generalized measures for charisma. The term is applied differently by various authors. The lack of measures makes it difficult to uniformly attribute charismatic authority to leaders. It also leads to wide use of the term, which diminishes its significance.

In addition to providing a new understanding of Peoples Temple, this research will attempt to address this problem in the body of existing research on charismatic literature by applying measures that have been created for charisma. This will be done by the applying the theory of charismatic leadership, developed by Philip Smith, in order to develop generalizable measures for charisma. Smith attempts to do this by examining leaders’ use of symbols, especially threatening symbols. The presence of these symbols and the specific manner in which they are used and understood provide measures by which charismatic leadership may be gauged (Smith).

In order to apply Smith’s theory to Jonestown, it is necessary to turn to primary sources that detail the life of the Temple. Specifically, these sources are transcribed audiocassette tapes that were recorded by Jones and other Temple members. These tapes contain segments of sermons and meetings that occurred throughout the history of Peoples Temple. The researcher will investigate a sample of these transcriptions for evidence of the measures of charismatic leadership contained in Smith’s framework.

The researcher has a central question that this paper will address: Under what conditions do certain elements identified by Smith (the use of threatening symbols by the leader; the members understanding of the leader as the only solution to those threats; and the impact of those threats on the followers interpretations of their surroundings) create charismatic authority? If Jones is found to be charismatic by Smith’s standards, the researcher will determine the conditions that allowed this type of authority to appear by identifying phenomena in the tape transcripts that enabled the elements identified by Smith to emerge.

While determining the conditions that allow for the emergence of charismatic authority, the researcher will also explain two hypotheses. These hypotheses were constructed to reflect Smith’s framework for charismatic leadership. Investigating them will help to understand whether Smith’s theory is applicable to Peoples Temple. The researcher believes that [1] in order for a bond of obligation to be formed between a leader and the led, the leader must be associated with threats in a manner that makes the leader appear to be the only solution to those threats. In addition, [2] these threats must shape the way followers interpret their surroundings. The researcher also believes that an increase in both the amount of threats referenced in the daily activities of a group, and the number of times followers interpret their surroundings as affected by those threats, will lead to an increase in evidence of a charismatic bond of obligation between the leader and the led.

By finding what conditions allow for the elements of charismatic authority identified by Smith to coalesce, testing these hypotheses mentioned above, the researcher intends to develop a new explanation for what happened in Peoples Temple. In addition, the researcher hopes to help develop measures for charismatic authority by applying Philip Smith’s theory.

Descriptive History

Indiana 1954-1965

The organization known as Peoples Temple began when one young man, James Warren (Jim) Jones, received the calling of Pentecostal religion in Indiana. At 21, Jones obtained a position as a student pastor in the Sommerset Southside Methodist Church in Indianapolis, about 80 miles away from his hometown of Lynn.

Jones’ time at Sommerset was characterized by his firm insistence on preaching to an integrated congregation. His vocal stance on integration made his position at the church short-lived, as such sentiment was not welcome in most parts of Indianapolis in the early 1950’s. He was asked to leave within the year. Through attending churches and conventions in the period after his dismissal, Jones became aware of the popularity of demonstrations of “gifts of the spirit,” a phenomena that was rampant in Pentecostalism. These gifts of the spirit are described in 1 Corinthians 12: “…the word of wisdom, prophecy, the divine tongue and the interpretation of tongues” (Hall 1987).

Jones soon discovered he had a capacity for demonstrating these gifts. Jones’ considerable talent in expressing these “gifts of the spirit” was soon noticed in Indianapolis and he was frequently invited to be a guest speaker at the Laurel Street Tabernacle, an Independent Assemblies of God Pentecostal Church. However, Jones soon took issue with the all-white, segregated congregation of the church and left once again, this time taking around 10 followers with him. The followers’ decision to go with Jones was essentially based on their willingness or desire to participate in an interracial congregation (Hall). Jones and his followers established a church in 1955 named Wings of Deliverance, which was soon changed to The Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church with their acquisition of a larger church.

A specific theme underscored the development of Peoples Temple in its early years as an integrated church in a section of Indianapolis that was beginning to feel the adverse affects of white flight. This theme was the radicalization of the Pentecostal faith. This entailed breaching the gaps between the views of Pentecostals and Protestants who adhered to the Protestant Christian intellectual movement of the Social Gospel. Specifically, Pentecostal views were predominately “other worldly.” That is, the second coming of Christ was believed to be imminent and Christians should devote their energies to preparing for it, rather than addressing social evils that exist in the current world. Conversely, the Social Gospel stated that that the Second Coming could not happen until humankind rid itself of social evils by human effort (Weightman).

One outcome of this radicalization became one of the most significant aspects of Peoples Temple in these beginning years: the development of a human services ministry by Peoples Temple. In 1960, Peoples Temple opened up a free restaurant, which served about 2,800 free meals a month (Reiterman), as well as a social service center in Indianapolis. The establishments were well regarded and they represented a first concrete step by Peoples Temple in proving that the institution was capable of providing effective social programs as well as otherworldly religious preaching in the Pentecostal style. This process was accelerated in 1960 with the official affiliation of Peoples Temple with the Disciples of Christ, a Protestant denomination. The Disciples of Christ, among other things, stress social ministry far more than Pentecostalism (Weightman). This affiliation served to link the Temple with socially active liberals in the city. Peoples Temple also gained notoriety through the continuation of Jones’ uncompromising stance against segregation. In multiple cases, church members were organized to integrate churches as well as other institutions in Indianapolis (Hall). The rising credibility of Peoples Temple in Indianapolis can be seen most clearly in then-Mayor Charles Boswell offering Jones a position as the Executive Director of the Human Rights Commission of Indianapolis in 1961 (Jones accepted).

Jones’ sermons for Peoples Temple in its Indiana years reflected the actions that the Temple was undertaking in Indianapolis. Jones preached a type of Christian Socialism, a movement which applies Christian principles to social problems. Jones often railed against other Christian churches in his sermons for failing to remain socially active. He accused them of losing the spirit of Christ, which, for Jones at this point, was synonymous with Christian Socialism (Hall). At this point in the history of Peoples Temple, Jones did not portray himself as a deity, and held to a recognizable, although radical, Pentecostal style of preaching. This period of Jones’ ministry can be distinguished from later periods in that he still regarded the Bible as authoritative, and, although he may have occasionally disputed the existence of what he called a “Sky God,” he still gave deference to God and Jesus Christ. This can be seen in a sermon he delivered at an unknown time in Indianapolis in which he corrects himself after mistakenly calling Peoples Temple his own: “It’s His church. Who shed the blood for us? Who shed his blood for us? Who shed his blood? Who died for us? It’s His church” (Q1058 part 2).

The Indiana years of Peoples Temple saw the emergence of another common theme in the history of the group: the threat of nuclear holocaust. Jones first began describing his vision of a nuclear holocaust to his assistant minister, Archie Ijames, in 1961 (Reiterman). Soon, the threat of nuclear destruction became a constant theme of Jones’ speeches, and even developed to the point that he was predicting the date of the nuclear apocalypse (Chidester). Catherine Thrash, who remained with Peoples Temple until the end, recalled: “Jim predicted the nuclear holocaust would come June 15, 1967, but I didn’t believe it. Some older people did. They were so afraid” (Towne 1995).

Jones’ belief in this danger led him to investigate areas of the world that would be safe from the effects of radioactive fallout in the case of nuclear attack, and he spent a significant amount of time attempting to find an appropriate place to relocate his flock. Four years later, escaping this danger would be one of the prime reasons for the migration of Peoples Temple from Indiana to Redwood Valley in California, which Esquire magazine identified as a “nuclear safe zone” in its January 1962 issue (Chidester). Although Jones was making references to a nuclear apocalypse, at this point in the history of Peoples Temple, the threats that Jones and the members perceived were relatively few in comparison to the multitude of dangers that would appear in the future.

Those who joined Peoples Temple during this time period appeared to be attracted to the benefits of the Christian Socialism and the human service ministry that Peoples Temple provided. Thrash recalled that her initial interest in the Temple as being due to both the interracial congregation and to the ability to receive and as well as provide services through Peoples Temple (Towne). Another member, Ross Case, disturbed that “Eleven o’clock was the most segregated hour in America” (Weightman 1983), was attracted to the potential of Christian gospel being used to promote desegregation. At this point, those who joined Peoples Temple were interested in the human service ministry or in Jones’ engaging sermons that addressed social inequalities in his characteristically uncompromising terms (Hall).

The strain of developing a following, participating in healing conventions across several states and working as a city official city adversely affected Jones’ health, to the point that his doctor ordered a change of pace (Hall). Between 1962 and 1964, Jones would spend time in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, one of the areas identified by Esquire magazine article as a nuclear safe area. There, he would work with orphanages while also investigating the city’s potential as a possible emigration location. A notable stop Jones made between Brazil and the United States during this period was in Guyana, then known as British Guiana. There, Jones decried the financial excesses of Christian churches in the United States, arguing that the money could be better used by giving it to “developing countries such as British Guiana” (Hall 1987). Perhaps coincidental, this statement gains significance in retrospect, as 10 years later Jones would finance the infamous mission to aid the Guyanese known initially as Peoples Temple Agricultural Project.

Upon Jones’ return to Peoples Temple in Indiana, he found the strength of the church greatly diminished under the care of his assistant ministers. Splits in the leadership of Peoples Temple led more conservative white members to leave, due to problems stemming from their racial prejudice. In addition, Peoples Temple was becoming increasingly alienated in the Indianapolis community from both conservative white anti-integrationists and black clergy, who viewed Jones’ interracial congregation as a threat to their own flocks. Jones realized that these hostile circumstances threatened Peoples Temple’s ability to expand, and upon his return in 1964 began to make plans to leave the state (Hall).

In addition to providing shelter from the nuclear apocalypse that Jones was more frequently referencing, the move was described as a means to continue the human services ministry of Peoples Temple in a more receptive environment. Ultimately, this desire was realized in the creation of a commune in Redwood Valley, California. After the disposal of most of Peoples Temple assets in Indiana, Jones and the most loyal of his congregation sold their personal property and prepared to move west. In the spring of 1965 a group of about 70 people, of whom roughly half were white and half were black left for California.

California 1965-1977

The years that Peoples Temple spent in California – 1965 to 1977 – were characterized by two general themes. One was the emergence of Peoples Temple as a great political, financial and moral power in California. The other was the significant shift in Jones’ ministry regarding the ways he defined himself and the dangers that threatened his congregation.

The initial period that Peoples Temple spent in California was an inauspicious start for an organization that was to gain formidable political clout in the urban centers of California over the next decade. After arriving in Redwood Valley, California, in 1965, Peoples Temple undertook a year-long effort to be incorporated as a church in the state. After their incorporation, it took over two years for Peoples Temple to build a place of worship, which ended up being on Jones’ own property in California. During this period, the membership stayed small at about 90-150 members, with a very slow trickle of new members (Hall).

The people who joined Peoples Temple between 1965 and 1968 formed a core of mostly white, middle-class professionals or students. They were attracted to an activist communal group that offered the structure of a family and the goals of a social movement organization, in contrast to the alienation of the larger counter cultural movement of the 60’s. Peoples Temple also provided a career opportunity for some professional whites, especially in the new fields of Temple expansion, notably real estate and other business ventures (Hall).

The action that primed the organization for expansion was the establishment of churches in San Francisco and Los Angeles in 1970. Los Angeles’ and San Francisco’s large populations of urban African Americans made them much more receptive cities to Jones’ stances on integration and racial equality than the rural, primarily white Redwood Valley. The importance of this move can be seen in the explosion of Peoples Temple members, from 300 people in 1969 to 712 in 1970-71, and then around 2,200 in 1972 (Hall).

The increase in members can be explained as a result of both the expanded facilities and what Peoples Temple offered to its new members. Members often were initially attracted to Peoples Temple services due to the healing ceremonies that Jones conducted. The healings were featured in the handbills Peoples Temple distributed to advertise upcoming Temple services (Weightman). Temple lawyer Tim Stoen estimated that as many as 50,000 to 100,000 people came to hear Jones speak and conduct healings during the California period. However, at its greatest, the membership of Peoples Temple was only 3,000 (Hall).

While the healings attracted new members, the wide range of services and activities that the Temple offered usually served to retain them. The blossoming financial power of the Temple during its time in California allowed it to support such programs as the provision of clothing, shelter, food and medical care; entertainment; scholarships and housing for college students; bus services for seniors, and more. As stated above, the Temple also provided an interracial congregation, familial structure and an effective means by which people could work for positive social changes (Hall). A comment from the personal correspondence written by Temple member Annie Moore supports this point:

The reason that the Temple is great is not just because Jim Jones can make people cough up cancers but because there is the largest group of people I have ever seen who are concerned about the world and are fighting for truth and justice for the world (Moore 1986).

Part of the reason for Peoples Temple’s rapid expansion was the economic success of the human service ministry model that the Temple brought with it from Indiana. At the same time Peoples Temple moved to Redwood Valley, the state of California began deinstitutionalizing its overcrowded mental health hospitals, which housed the elderly, drug addicts, handicapped as well as the mentally ill. These hospitals were emptied in favor of a plan of decentralized locations, to be run by private owners and funded by the federal government in the form of Supplemental Security Income. A large part of Peoples Temple human services was realized in the conversion of numerous houses into care centers. This practice became an especially lucrative source of income when it expanded to resemble a franchise, with members acting as independent owner/operators of centers and sending the bulk of the profits back to the Temple (Hall).

Along with the care giving business, an exceptionally wide range of financial activities, including farming, mailing schemes, sales of objects blessed by Jones, members donating their possessions, and aggressive pushes for donations at services, gave the Temple a large amount of wealth. This allowed the Temple not only to establish a ministry in Los Angeles, but also to purchase a fleet of buses in 1971 that transported members from all over California to Peoples Temple locations (Hall).

The organizational structure of Peoples Temple became very well defined at this point. This definition was a direct result of the Temple’s vastly expanding scope of operations and its increased range of services. It took a tremendous amount of work in order for the Temple to properly manage its assets and daily activities. This structure can be described as a series of concentric circles, with Jones at the center. Jones was surrounded by a circle of confidants and close staff, who, in turn, were surrounded by loyal administrators. Next came the working organizers and the Planning Commission of Peoples Temple, which could be about 100 people at times. The rest of the organization consisted of the “rank and file” members (Hall).

The growing membership of Peoples Temple, coupled with the ability of Jones and Temple staff to mobilize their membership, began to pay off in the form of political clout. It is widely rumored that many officials owe their positions to the organizing efforts of Peoples Temple in the San Francisco elections of 1974 and 1976. The most significant of these elections was liberal George Moscone’s victory in the San Francisco mayoral race in 1976, which was widely speculated to be the direct result of Peoples Temple organizing (Weightman). As a result, once again Jones found himself legitimized by a city mayor, this time through appointment to a regulatory committee for the San Francisco Housing Authority.

At the same time that great changes were occurring in the physical and organizational structure of Peoples Temple, changes were also occurring in the way Jones was perceived and in the nature of the threats that Jones believed Peoples Temple faced. The threat of a nuclear apocalypse was a strong motivation for the uprooting of Peoples Temple from Indiana. While nuclear apocalypse was still referenced as an evil force in Jones’ sermons, it began to be supplanted by another threat in the California years: a right-wing takeover of the United States.

This change can be seen as the Temple members’ understanding of the world needing to change to address contemporary events. Anne Kane’s observations about group interpretations of surroundings are relevant here: “if these understandings are ineffective in explaining conditions, the culture [read threats] is subject to change” (Kane 1991).

In the 1950’s and 1960’s Peoples Temple was concerned with a nuclear apocalypse. This corresponds with the rise of the Soviet Union as a nuclear power, with its first test of a nuclear weapon in 1949, and with the Cold War. This also corresponds with the height of nuclear brinksmanship during the Cold War, represented by the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The decrease in tension between the US and USSR in the resulting years led to the threat of nuclear apocalypse becoming less plausible. Therefore, the emphasis had to change. Jones needed to justify the move to California and refocus the origins of the threat, especially after the specific dates he predicted for the apocalypse came and passed. This can be seen clearly in the following statement by Jones, taken from a sermon from 1972: “So I’ve got an emergency plan for whatever. I know that there’s going to be a great holocaust. I know the date of that. In the meantime, there may be a dictatorship take over” (Q1032).

The shift in dangers from nuclear Armageddon to a fascist takeover was represented in the political content of Jones’ sermons. Once a man who, in 1957, had called communism a “challenge to God’s people” (Q1058), Jones now became an uncritical supporter of communism and the USSR (Hall) As a left leaning power, the USSR became a potential ally in the event of a fascist takeover of the United States, rather than a nuclear threat. References to this new fascist threat are apparent in the sermons that Jones delivered from 1972-1977 and the activities of Peoples Temple while it was in California.

In sermons delivered at this time, Jones made several references to disturbing developments in the United States that supported this theme of an emerging right wing. For example, in front of a Los Angeles congregation in 1972, Jones voiced concern over a current rumor, that Nixon was moving to call off the election of 1972. Jones accused the CIA of assisting with this plan. Jones referenced the growing strength and boldness of the Ku Klux Klan, the creation of secret concentration camps, and evidence that “says the military has a plan to destroy every minority [with] ethnic weapons” (Q1032). This concern was reflected through other means in Peoples Temple as well, such as in the plays presented by the loose-knit vaudeville Temple group, the Skitsophrenics. These plays sometimes recreated Klan lynching scenes and portrayed them in front of an audience that was mainly elderly and black (Naipaul).

The inner circle of Peoples Temple was used by Jones as a testing ground for ideas he had to deal with these new threats. It was in Planning Commission meetings in 1973 that Jones first mentioned committing revolutionary suicide, after the defection of eight members of the Temple [1]. Furthermore, and perhaps more significantly, the first “suicide drill” was conducted in a Planning Commission meeting on New Year’s Day in 1976. Jones offered the members what he told them was poisoned wine, and explained that they faced imminent death at the hands of the FBI and CIA, who at that point had become symbols of a fascist/right wing threat (Weightman). Although the wine turned out not to be poisoned, this incident was the first time that Revolutionary Suicide was utilized as a way to cope with threats. It was a practice that was to reemerge later, albeit in a more public form.

While the evil threats facing Peoples Temple were shifting, the way Jones described his powers was also dramatically changing. The manner in which Jones defined himself in the California period of Peoples Temple history was often contradictory. During this period, Jones was transitioning between two identities: being a preacher of God’s word in Indiana to being a self-proclaimed deity in Guyana. The movement between these two positions was often paradoxical. In California, Jones remained reliant on traditional religious imagery and used the Bible to justify his logic in sermons. Simultaneously, Jones would discredit the Bible and position himself as a powerful being in his own right in opposition to religious figures, such as God.

The beginning of this change can be seen in the circumstance of Ross Case’s leaving the Temple in the period shortly after the migration to California. He stated that he left because Jones “no longer accepted the Bible as true or authoritative…and he sought to replace Jesus Christ in the devotion of Peoples Temple by himself” (Weightman 1983). The changes that Case observed in the move from Indiana to California would be characteristic of Jones’ ministry for the remainder of the California years.

Over the next decade, Jones’ sermons would have several recognizable themes.

One theme was the discrediting of mainstream religion. While Jones had always criticized churches for corruption or ineptitude, he went further in California, criticizing the main text of Christianity, the Bible. It was not uncommon for Jones, in the middle of a sermon, to throw the Bible onto the ground and stomp on it (Hall).

Another theme was the positioning of himself in opposition to the “Sky God,” the God worshipped in the three monotheistic religions. Jones accused the Sky God of allowing all of the cruelty of the world to occur. This allowance, in Jones’ opinion, was effectively condoning the suffering of the people of the Earth (Chidester). Jones also admonished his followers and others for believing in a God that they could not see: “You can’t believe in this Sky God! You’ve got to believe in something you see” (Q356). Jones placed himself in opposition to the Sky God by modifying the way that he described the powers he possessed. While in Indianapolis, Jones had mainly recognized the existence and primacy of God and Jesus Christ, attributing his powers of healing to “gifts of the spirit.” However, once in California, Jones began a transition, which ultimately concluded in Guyana, from being a mere conduit to God’s powers to portraying himself as a deity with powers that equaled those of God. Jones’ new powers included telepathy, immortality, and abilities both to prevent the deaths of Peoples Temple members and raise the dead (Chidester).

The use of these powers was a direct challenge to the Sky God. Jones was effectively subverting the Sky God’s powers every time he used his abilities for good (Chidester). This can especially be seen in how Jones’ powers of healing came to encompass not only healing but also the ability to raise the dead. This ability eventually came to be the most important of his powers in Guyana. Jones made frequent mentions of this power. In front of his congregation in San Francisco in 1972, he said, “You’ve seen three people drop dead and you saw them resurrected” (Q1035).

Members joining Peoples Temple in California soon became aware of Jones’ status as a deity. As Odell Rhodes recalls: “you couldn’t be around there [Peoples Temple] very long at all without picking up that you didn’t thank God, you thanked Jim Jones” (Feinsod).

Although Jones rejected the Sky God, and positioned himself as a deity of equal power while in California, this time period is only indicative of a larger transition in Jones’ depiction of his power. While at this point Jones had moved away from being a traditional preacher of God’s word, he had not yet completely abandoned the use of the Bible to legitimize himself. As Fielding McGehee III states:

He criticizes belief in what he calls the Sky God, yet he invokes many passages of the Bible to grant Peoples Temple the authority to act as it does. He blasts King James as a slave owner, and says the Bible was used to enslave African blacks, yet he himself uses the King James version (McGehee 1999).

While rejecting the legitimacy of the Bible as God’s word, Jones did not move into a totally atheistic frame of logic while in California. Although Jones positioned himself as a savior during this time, his use of religious imagery and logic ensured that he was not the only solution to the threats that faced the Temple. Rather, Jones at this point was still a conduit to a larger power, the power of God. This power was the same power shared by the Sky God. The implications of Jones not being the only source of power were that members would be able to seek the same benefits that Jones’ powers represented from other beings, such as God. For this reason, Jones’ significance as a deity was not yet absolute.

While members were being taught about the threats of a right-wing, fascist takeover, very tangible and practical problems began developing for Peoples Temple in the mid-to-late 1970’s. Peoples Temple Redwood Valley outpost, in its rural, isolated location, had initially appeared to be a suitable solution for the threats of both nuclear apocalypse and a fascist takeover of the country. However, defections and negative media attention that began to occur in 1973 represented cracks in the organization, and grew into problems that threatened the life of the group.

In the wake of eight defections in 1973, the leadership of Peoples Temple began considering finding another location (Weightman). The leadership feared that these defectors would discredit the name of the Temple. In addition, a newspaper article that was critical of the Temple was published in the San Francisco Examiner in September 1972 – the first of the mountains of bad press that the Temple was fated to receive. Acting quickly, in October of 1973, the leadership decided on establishing a mission in Guyana, as Jones had favorably recalled the country from his travels a decade earlier. In the winter of 1974, a trusted contingent of inner circle members were sent to Georgetown, Guyana to negotiate a large lease of jungle land from the government. Simultaneously, a group of pioneers, organized and financed by the Temple, began to prepare the future site in Guyana for settlement (Hall). This event also marks the growing importance that defectors would assume in the history of Peoples Temple.

Several factors increased the urgency of preparing a place for migration, as well as preparing a plan to redistribute the Temple’s wealth in a manner that would protect it from the U.S. Government. The primary reason involved Peoples Temple’s wealth and their tax status according to the IRS. For a long time the Temple group had operated in a “grey area” of religious tax exemption. For example, the franchised home care services and the substantial real estate that the Temple owned were not necessarily covered by religious tax exemption, although the Temple paid no taxes on either of these assets. Peoples Temple attempted to create a tax exempt corporation which would manage these assets. However, the IRS denied this proposal in 1976. Temple Lawyer Gene Chaiken warned in 1977 that, since 1971, the Temple had been conducting financial activities which were indeed taxable. This liability and the IRS’ increasing scrutiny of the Temple were serious issues that threatened the longevity of the church (Hall).

Several secondary reasons for the move existed. For example, a much more detailed series of critical articles were poised to be published in the magazine New West in 1977. The pieces by Marshall Kilduff incorporated damning allegations and testimonials from defectors from the Temple (Weightman). In addition, the activities of the press were allowing different defectors to become aware of each other, and some of the defectors began to organize against Peoples Temple.

The settlement that was being created in Guyana, originally named Peoples Temple Agricultural Project and then later known as Jonestown, was portrayed in several different ways to the members of Peoples Temple. Jonestown was presented as a location where the members could avoid the main threats purportedly facing the Temple, a nuclear apocalypse and a fascist takeover. The Temple was also presented as a society free from the oppression and difficult circumstances that had plagued the majority of Peoples Temple members. As Odell Rhodes recalled, Jonestown presented an opportunity to stay clean and away from addictive drugs, as well as offering the opportunities of a worker’s democracy (Feinsod). Pat Grunnet, a schoolteacher who was a member of the Temple, extolled the virtues of the community and the comparative safety it offered to seniors and children: “They don’t have to worry about walking at nite – like in the city. I guess they even mug folks nowadays in the daylight!” (Grunnet 1978).

Another benefit that Jonestown represented to Peoples Temple members was the ability to continue providing the human services that characterized Peoples Temple. Jonestown would serve as an agricultural mission that could feed the hungry in Guyana (and the world) where members could serve a specified amount of time. Temple member Catherine Thrash recalls that she and her husband “were supposed to be in Guyana just one year, to help the Guyanese get on their feet” (Towne 1995). In 1975 the mission in Guyana was described as a “direct action which will make food available in the time of need” (Melton 1990).

Demographic information on Jonestown reveals a few more details regarding who chose to migrate. Of the 1020 Temple members who lived in Guyana, 68% were African-American; 24% were white; 5% were of mixed race; and 3% were Latino/a, Native American, Asian, Pacific Islander or, as a few cases were, an unknown race. A geographical study of the birthplaces of the members reveals that the majority of the members who came from outside of California were from the south. There were a large number of family ties as well, with 100 family units present, the majority of which consisted of three family members. The majority of all of the members who lived in Guyana came from working-class jobs (Moore 2004).

It has been argued that Peoples Temple was both a racially and culturally black organization (Moore 2004). This is due to its striking similarities with other black religious movements. This is especially true with the movement known as the Peace Mission, led by self-proclaimed black messiah Father Divine, the movement that Jones initially modeled Peoples Temple after.

The southern roots of many of the African-American Peoples Temple members allow for further speculation about the appeal of Peoples Temple to its members. Authors such as Joseph Washington found that blacks moving from the south found the established northern churches inadequate to their spiritual needs and irrelevant to their material circumstances. Culturally black cults, which were seen as a “creative, imaginative and indigenous (if insufficient) response to the failure of churches and society to satisfy the immediate needs of black people” (Washington), were more appealing to this group. Other observations about black cults, consistent with the history of Peoples Temple, support the idea of the Temple as a black cult: “There is an indication that as American Negro cults become more intent upon social, economic, and political problems the literal adherence to the Bible as a book of reference diminishes” (Faust as quoted in Moore 2004). As the Temple’s scope of humanitarian operations increased in California, the legitimacy of the Bible as God’s word decreased.

Understanding Peoples Temple as a black cult allows one to make assumptions about the motivations of some of the members for traveling to Jonestown. Black experience in the post-Civil War era in the United States was characterized by migration. Occasionally, some blacks would receive calls to migrate to kingdoms of god under the leadership of black messiahs, such as Father Divine. There were three basic migration patterns: movement from the south to Kansas and Oklahoma, movement from the south to the cities of the north and the west, and the more radical back to Africa movement that was embodied in Marcus Garvey’s movement, in which some Peoples Temple members participated. Before the move to Jonestown, Jones often referenced the settlement as the “Promised Land.” Some argue that this is indicative of Jones playing into a tradition of African Americans as God’s chosen people and appealing to the theme of black migration in order to mobilize his congregation (Hall).

Demographic information, testimonials by survivors, and evidence gleaned from sermons and church documents all allow the reader to understand the variety of ways Jonestown was portrayed and who went. While some general assumptions can be made, it is difficult if not impossible to construct the specific reasons why each member migrated. This is due to the fact that the vast majority of those who went to Jonestown did not survive.

Migration from California to Jonestown began in earnest in July of 1977, with the Temple providing plane tickets to those who were interested. In August the largest number of members (348) would depart for Jonestown although there would still be newcomers arriving to the mission in October 1978 (Hall). By September 1977, it became clear that Peoples Temple had shifted its base of operations once again and the Temple in California was merely a skeleton force left to conduct Temple affairs in its former home country.

Guyana 1977-1978

The steady arrival of members to Jonestown over the summer of 1977 strained the settlement community. Housing shortages were an immediate consequence, and children were required to share beds due to lack of space (Hall). Other logistical difficulties emerged for the leadership of Peoples Temple, such as the complications of feeding the population three times a day. Reports indicate that the diet was mainly rice and beans, and conflicting information exists regarding whether or not the diet was adequate for the difficult work the members were doing (Weightman). Allegations that the residents of Jonestown were starving and malnourished were a frequent accusation made by the Concerned Relatives, a group described below. In addition, life at Jonestown required a level of activity that some new residents were not prepared for.

Despite the many ways in which Jonestown was marketed to Temple members, it was in reality an agricultural mission in the middle of Guyanese jungle. The most grueling work was found in the master plan for the settlement, which was to clear 2,500 acres of jungle surrounding the center of the camp. In addition, exposure to sunlight and extreme heat taxed the residents (Towne). Disciplinary procedures took a much more public form in Jonestown. Once reserved mainly for the Planning Commission, these methods, which consisted of beatings and public humiliation for transgressions, were employed on the entire population (Weightman).

In addition to field work and other duties that the residents were expected to undertake, planned recreation time and meetings made up the rest of daily life. As pressure from the outside increased, these meetings would become more of a central point of life at Jonestown. Throughout the day, Jones would make addresses on the public announcement (PA) system. During these addresses, he would discuss and interpret current events of the world and those which affected Peoples Temple. Given the lack of any other contact with the outside world, these announcements were often the sole source of news for the members. Peoples Temple settlement in Jonestown became increasingly isolated from the rest of the planet in the middle of a jungle, and existed in relative autonomy even from the Guyanese government (Hall).

As Peoples Temple adjusted to its new life in isolated Guyana, back in the United States some of those who had defected from the Temple, as well as family members of some Jonestown residents, had organized into a loose group known as the Concerned Relatives. The Concerned Relatives could best be described as a group united through their fervent desire to see Peoples Temple closed down and Jones taken out of power (Hall). Although they had many concerns about Peoples Temple, the Concerned Relatives focused on retrieving loved ones from the Peoples Temple settlement at Jonestown.

Although the methods of the group were diverse and personalized, this goal was generally realized through two approaches. The main way in which the Concerned Relatives impacted Peoples Temple was through a child custody suit involving former members Grace and Timothy Stoen. The child in question, John Victor Stoen, was likely conceived by Jones and Grace Stoen, and had been taken down to Jonestown with Jones and Timothy Stoen. Grace Stoen had defected from the Temple before the migration to Jonestown. The custody case arose after Timothy Stoen defected from Jonestown. The Stoens demanded that Jones allow them to retrieve their son. This child custody case would ultimately stagnate due to the difficulties of conducting such a case internationally and the lack of an extradition treaty between the US and Guyana. These conditions allowed Jones to ignore California court orders to appear in the United States, and allowed the Guyanese government to largely ignore arrest warrants for Jones and John Victor Stoen issued by the United States (Hall).

Although the custody case was largely unsuccessful, it had a great impact on Jones. This can be seen through his discussions of the case in meetings and in his daily announcements; the case also increased the lexicon of threats utilized by the Temple members and Jones.

Another strategy emerged from the Concerned Relatives that was ultimately more successful, involving the allegation that members of Peoples Temple were being held against their will. The Concerned Relatives used the US media, which was responding to the success of the New West magazine article by publishing sensationalistic accounts of Peoples Temple, in order to build popular support against the Jones. In addition, the Concerned Relatives sought the support of the US government through such measures as the affidavit prepared by Jonestown defector Deborah Blakely which was presented to the US Congress. This affidavit described the harsh conditions at Jonestown, and as described below, the repeated references to mass suicide made by the members and leadership of Peoples Temple (Reiterman).

The Concerned Relatives found the greatest promise in Leo Ryan, a U.S. Congressman from San Mateo, California, who was approached by members of the group in spring 1978. During the spring Ryan entered into a working alliance with the Concerned Relatives. This alliance culminated in a congressional fact finding delegation headed by Ryan in the fall of 1978. It would serve two purposes: to investigate the living conditions in Jonestown, and to offer a safe and official way for any members to defect (Hall).

While the Concerned Relatives in the United States were starting a process that would help determine the fate of those at Jonestown, descriptions of the threats that faced Peoples Temple and of Jim Jones changed once again in Guyana.

The threats that faced Peoples Temple in California were mainly related to a right wing takeover and a nuclear apocalypse. They usually were indirect and distant signs of danger and were more indicative of future events. The threats that faced Peoples Temple in the time it spent in Guyana became significantly more tangible, and they symbolized a direct and immediate threat to the lives of the members far more than they did in California. Gradually, all of the threats used in the vocabulary of Peoples Temple in Jonestown came to represent death in one form or another.

As stated above, the isolation of Jonestown allowed Jones and his leadership staff to control the sources of information that reached the residents. This control was used to disseminate information about threats both immediate and distant that faced Peoples Temple. The right wing takeover predicted back in California was made to appear as if it was accelerating. “Communards were told that…the Ku Klux Klan was marching in the open throughout San Francisco streets and that race wars had broken out across the country” (Weightman 1983).

The Concerned Relatives were discussed in a slightly different way, as an more immediate threat. Rumors about Concerned Relatives hiring mercenaries to violently raid the settlement (which was the actual intention of some relatives) led Jones to increasingly associate Concerned Relatives with death in his addresses and meetings. When describing the propaganda and plans of the Concerned Relatives in a meeting at Jonestown, Jones spoke of the relatives’ callous disregard for the lives of other community members in favor of their own kin:

They have turned so bad, that they say we are communist, we are degenerate, we are against Christ, and if we have to killsome of them and even some of the children, it’s worthwhile to save some other children. (Q313)

The amount of threats that were referenced by Jones and Temple members increased exponentially in Jonestown. A review of the meetings and speeches given at Jonestown reveals a pool of common threats or categories of threats. The Concerned Relatives posed a significant threat to Peoples Temple, which became more serious as the time went on in Guyana. There were threats related to the fate of members if they left Jonestown. These were threats that either represented the current state of affairs in the United States or the jungle surrounding the settlement. Outside Jonestown, there were concentration camps, emboldened hate groups, a world soon to be destroyed by a nuclear apocalypse and death by dangerous animals.

Another category of threats was related to U.S. power and imperialism, as represented by the U.S. government, and the CIA (and their trained mercenaries). In addition, the threat of a fascist takeover followed Peoples Temple from the United States; during Jonestown period the threat of the Guyanese government being overthrown by fascists emerged. Following this logic, the Guyanese Defense Forces (GDF) – as the military tool of the fascist Guyanese government – also became a threat. The GDF came to be referenced in the same manner as mercenaries or the CIA.

At the same time, Jones’ powers again shifted in their nature. As was mentioned earlier, throughout the history of Peoples Temple the way in which Jones described his power and the way that it was understood by his members changed. This usually correlated with geographical shifts. In Indianapolis, Jones was a preacher of God’s word; in California, Jones began transitioning from being a traditional preacher into being a deity in his own right. This transition was completed in Guyana. Jones’ use of religious symbolism or references to religion to justify his own powers ceased almost completely.

In Guyana, Jones not only dropped the use of religion but became openly contemptuous of any form of religious practice, and encouraged his followers to do the same. For example, during discussions of current events Jones often referenced revolutionaries whose potential was undermined by their belief in a religion. Jones and Temple leadership attempted to instill this rejection of religion in the members. Members were forced to mock Pentecostal preachers as public punishments (Feinsod), and they were forbidden to pray (Towne).

Instead of tracing his powers back to religious symbols, Jones described his powers as originating from himself. Jones claimed to be the living embodiment of socialism, which gave him the paranormal abilities that he had once ascribed to a gift of the spirit. Although Jones claimed to be the embodiment of socialism in California, it is more significant in Guyana as this claim coincides with the removal of religious language from his vocabulary. In Guyana, Jones was no longer a conduit to a great power, but the tangible, god-like realization of the power of socialism. As Jones remarked angrily in Jonestown (in reference to himself): “Why do you keep playing with that which men call God and we call socialism incarnate?” (Q050).

With his powers now emanating from no other source, Jones became the sole protector of Peoples Temple from the perceived dangers that faced them. Jones propagated the belief that Jonestown was protected from danger by “the benefit of a paranormal dimension that the Soviet Union is spending a million dollars a day to try to understand” (Q757). Physical ailments, bodily harm and even nuisances were believed to be prevented by the powers Jones received as a result of being the embodiment of Principle [2] (Chidester).

A discussion of how Jones represented his powers or the threats against Peoples Temple would be irrelevant without analyzing the extent to which his members believed and acted upon them. As Anne Kane states: “the correlation of a symbolic system with the material circumstances of a particular social group does not mean that the social group is actually motivated to action by the symbol system” (Kane 1991). The majority of the time that the able-bodied members spent in Jonestown was spent either working or sleeping. The meetings, which increased in frequency and length over the time Peoples Temple spent in Guyana, were the primary social outlet of the settlement. By analyzing the meetings and especially the participation by members, one can see the members of Peoples Temple accepting the perceived dangers as real and acting out opposition to those dangers.

In one meeting held just after Concerned Relatives staged a media event in front of the Peoples Temple church in San Francisco, Jones led a discussion on what members would like to do to those that defected from the Temple. In one striking example, Joel Cobb describes what he would like to do to his mother, father and son. “Okay, um, well, I’d like to do to Terri and Jim Cobb, I’d like to go back there… I’d like to um, tie a wire up to Jim Cobb’s balls and just pull it off” (Q594). He goes on to discuss shooting his mother and his brother in the stomach. The Cobbs were deeply involved with the Concerned Relatives, and met with Ryan in the spring to discuss his delegation to Jonestown. Joel Cobb’s willingness to torture his own family indicates an acceptance of the danger that the Concerned Relatives represented.

A special type of meeting that emerged in Jonestown in the winter of 1978 deserves specific attention. These meetings were called during the various crises that occurred during the life of Peoples Temple in Jonestown and were called “White Nights.” The duration of such a meeting varied; it could last for just one night, or up to six days. During a White Night meeting, the threats that were understood to face Peoples Temple would become real and immediate. Members, acting on this perceived imminence, would treat the threats as tangible.

The first White Night was in response to a specific action conducted by the Concerned Relatives. In October 1977, a lawyer representing the Stoens arrived in Georgetown, Guyana with a court order from the United States for John Stoen to be returned to Grace and Timothy Stoen, as well as an order for Jones to appear in court in the United States. That night Jones staged an assassination attempt on his own life. As members were gathered at the central pavilion of the settlement, they were informed that the Concerned Relatives had hired CIA trained mercenaries to attack the camp and seize the child John Victor. Over the next six days until the “all-clear” was given, members would position themselves at the edges of the clearing with weapons, ready to fight off what they perceived to be an imminent invasion (Feinsod).

White Nights would become an important part of life in Jonestown after this incident. More than just making threats appear to be imminent, White Nights also served the function of helping members associate their surroundings and events with the dangers that faced Peoples Temple. For example, one White Night was called specifically to deal with the fact that the American Medical Association (AMA) refused to certify the Jonestown doctor without first touring the facilities at Jonestown. While normally this incident might have been interpreted simply as hesitation on the part of the AMA to blindly certify doctors, the White Night meeting served it as attributable to the enemies of Jonestown. According to Jones, the trouble was to be blamed on capitalists, in that “The doctors are rising up, which a number of them are capitalist, and that’s why we’re not getting a license on our doctor” (Q643). Furthermore, and more threateningly, the AMA was allegedly infiltrated by the CIA, and the desire for the AMA to tour the facilities was understood as only a pretense for a CIA invasion.

The effect of this reasoning on members can be shown through the actions that they took during such meetings. Members arming themselves for six days or screaming into the jungle to frighten the mercenaries they believe to be lurking there, is indicative of members accepting the threat of immediate danger. In order for them to do so in the context of these White Night situations, the members must also have interpreted the events the meetings addressed as influenced by the threats that they perceived to face Peoples Temple.

The elevation of events like these to matters of life and death made Jones, with his heavily emphasized powers over death, appear to be the only solution to the problems that Peoples Temple encountered problems were seen as the result of enemies working against them. Often, Jones would present himself as the only solution to the specific problem that was being addressed with the White Night, “we’ve come through every White Night, and I’ve found a way through every White Night” (Q635).

Members’ understanding of Jones as the only solution to these issues can be seen in their willingness to follow Jones’ proposed solutions to the threats that faced them, and their belief that there were no other alternatives. Through the White Night rituals, the concept of revolutionary suicide reemerged, but this time outside of a private setting in group meetings. Revolutionary suicide, as Jones argued, was the only solution available to Peoples Temple in light of the threats that they faced. From its first mention, some discussion was necessary before the idea of revolutionary suicide was accepted by members. As Rhodes recalls:

Sometimes we’d talk fighting, and then he’d remind us that we couldn’t fight the Guyanese, and then other people would bring up various alternatives, but he’d just keeping shaking his head and ruling them all out for some reason or other (Weightman 1983).

Gradually, revolutionary suicide came to be commonly referenced by members inside and outside of White Night meetings as a solution to which they would inevitably resort. In some instances, the residents of Jonestown participated in “suicide drills,” in which they would practice mass suicide during White Night crisis meetings. In other instances, members would pledge themselves to committing revolutionary suicide. During these commitments, members would often refer to the threats and the situations that they perceived to be created by those threats. In one such meeting in October 1978, Temple member Michael Prokes refers to revolutionary suicide as the only response to specific threats: “because the conspiracy will not leave us alone to build, to serve and to live in peace, I have decided to commit revolutionary suicide, because I see no other viable alternative” (Q245).

While the people of Jonestown were accepting these drastic means by which to respond, the Concerned Relatives were poised to test their resolve by creating the most real and threatening event to occur to the Jonestown community. Congressman Leo Ryan, working with Concerned Relatives, had been preparing to make a fact-finding trip to Guyana for five months since he had first met with the relatives in May. Not discouraged by Jones’ refusal to grant him access to Jonestown, Ryan departed on November 15th, 1978 with a delegation consisting of congressional staff, members of the press, and several Concerned Relatives hoping to convince their family members to leave with them (Hall).

The people of Jonestown dealt with Ryan’s impending arrival much as they dealt with other external events – by understanding Ryan only through the threats that they perceived. In different meetings and announcements in November, Jones linked Ryan to several different threats. In one such announcement, the Concerned Relatives relationship with Ryan was discussed by Jones over the PA system: “They [Concerned Relatives] are cooperating with Congressman [Leo] Ryan, who has voted sharply in racist terms and fascist terms, who is a supporter of [President Augusto] Pinochet of Chile” (Q323).

In another instance, Temple member Etta Thompson was recorded yelling “Yankees go home” (Q050), in reference to the imperialistic power of the United States during a discussion of the impending arrival of the delegation.

Before his arrival, Ryan was also accused of being a catalyst for a CIA invasion; an imperialist with powers as a result of the Monroe Doctrine; and the leader of defectors who were intending to murder the residents of Jonestown.

After touching down in Georgetown, Guyana, and dealing with hostile Temple staff in the capital city that were determined to stall them, the Ryan delegation eventually secured permission from Jones to visit the settlement. The delegation arrived on November 17th, 1978. On the second day, November 18th, the Ryan delegation attracted 16 people who wanted to defect from Jonestown. The visit was cut short after a Temple member attempted to stab Ryan, precipitating a rapid departure of the delegation and the Temple defectors. As the Ryan delegation waited to depart from a rural airstrip in Port Kaituma, six miles from Jonestown, they were ambushed by Temple security personnel that had followed them to the airstrip. In the resulting attack, five people, including Ryan and one defector from Jonestown, were killed (Hall).

Back in Jonestown, Jones initiated a White Night crisis meeting. Relaying information about the massacre that had recently unfolded in Port Kaituma, Jones reported that a retaliatory attack was imminent in the form of paratrooping Guyanese Defense Forces. Jones urged members in the pavilion to drink the poison that was being set out in front of them.

It’s simple. It’s simple. There’s no convulsions with it. It’s just simple. Just, please get it. Before it’s too late. The GDF will be here, I tell you. Get movin’, get movin’, get movin’ (Q042).

As they had practiced in suicide drills, members compliantly lined up and drank the poison offered to them. Seniors and children were also given poison, which arguably equates to murder, as it is questionable whether or not they understood the consequences. In addition, during the death ritual, members would take the microphone from Jones and offer their support. One member stated:

And the way the children are laying there now, I’d rather see them lay like that than to see them have to die like the Jews did, which was pitiful anyhow… Because, like Dad said, when they come in, what they’re gonna do to our children – they’re gonna massacre our children (Q042).

At the end of the day, 909 people lay dead in Jonestown. Their bodies were a testament to Jones’ final recorded words:

We didn’t commit suicide, we committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world (Q042).

Literature Review

Many attempts have been made to explain the disaster at Jonestown and the behavior of the Peoples Temple members in the decades leading up to it. There are differing opinions on how a large group of people could have been convinced to commit suicide in such a manner. Some argue that it was a result of brainwashing – that, as a result of coercion and various forms of persuasion, the members of Peoples Temple had little agency in their decision (Singer). Others blame external pressure from the outside world that affected Peoples Temple. They view the disaster at Jonestown as a result of the increased pressure on the organization from groups such as the Concerned Relatives, the media, and, ultimately, Congressman Ryan’s delegation. In this argument, this pressure also happened to come at a time when the revolutionary fervor and apocalyptic worldview in the Temple was strong. These external pressures impacting the Temple led to the mass suicides, an act which was assisted by the internal dynamics of the group (Hall). Explaining what happened at Jonestown by focusing on external forces, and discounting Jones’ followers as brainwashed or coerced, fails to address the unique and significant relationship between the members of Peoples Temple and Jones. As others have pointed out, by neglecting the internal dynamics of the group, the experiences of the individual in Peoples Temple is lost (Maaga).

Charisma and Peoples Temple

This study endeavors to explain the fate of Peoples Temple as having been caused by charismatic leadership. In order for charismatic leadership to exist, there must be a unique bond of obligation between the leader and the led that is uncommon to other forms of leadership. Max Weber was the first to coin the phrase “bond of obligation,” and also was the first to popularize the term “charisma.” Charisma is important due to the extent to which it is different from other forms of power. Weber differentiated charisma from other types of authority through outlining a system of leadership which he called the “pure types of legitimate authority” (Weber). This system embodied different forms of authority: legal, rational, traditional and charismatic. According to Weber, legal authority is based upon a belief in the legitimacy of rules and the right of persons who occupy positions of authority in society to give orders based on those rules. In a system of rational authority, loyalty is owed to the established legal order and extends to the persons exercising that authority, but only by acknowledgment of that order. Traditional authority is based in a belief in the sacredness of traditions. In this case, loyalty is given to the person who occupies the traditional role of authority, but only due to the traditional obligation to do so. In the case of charismatic leadership, loyalty is given to the leader, that loyalty is related to the followers’ belief in the leaders’ abilities. Charisma, as used by Weber, applies to a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities (Weber).

Aside from differentiating charisma from the other forms of leadership, one of Weber’s most crucial conclusions regarded the nature of the relationship between the followers and the leader. This relationship, Weber asserted, is a unique bond of obligation that forms between a charismatic leader and his/her followers, in which both parties believe that it is the duty of the follower to recognize the quality of the leader and the mission (Weber). This differs from the concept of authority espoused by the traditional, legal or rational forms, as the authority of the charismatic leader is never dependent on election or heritage, but on the ability of the leader to instill this sense of obligation in his/her followers.

The origination of this bond of obligation has been the focus of the bulk of research on the subject of charismatic leadership following Webers’ initial observations. This research is dominated by one main school of thought, which understands the bond of obligation between a follower and the leader as the result of social interactions. The phrase “social interactions” can be understood as the effects of society on a group of people or on interactions between people, institutions, or organizations. These social interactions can be understood as either external or internal to the leader and followers. Examples of external interactions include such things as the effects of moments of crisis in society, economic systems or changes in mainstream culture on a group. Internal social interactions include such things as group interactions, personality traits of the leader, or the relationship between the followers and the leader. Whether external or internal, the main body of work on charisma holds that these social interactions create the need for the led to follow the leader.

The purpose of this literature review is first to study this dominant group of thought regarding the formation of the charismatic bond, as well as limitations that are present in this work. Understanding this particular school of thought will provide a departure point from which to introduce a way of thinking about the phenomena. This new way of thinking represents a departure from the bulk of the literature. While showing the ways in which the new theory departs from the bulk of the literature, this review will show the ways in which the theory embodies elements of the existing literature.

The theory, created by Philip Smith, addresses the inability of the bulk of the literature to develop measures for charisma. Smith identifies a generic, measurable element of charisma that involves the importance of symbols. Symbols can be understood as either tangible or intangible things that represent something else, and are recognizable by most people. Smith believes that a generic element of charisma involves followers understanding leaders as the only solutions to symbols that represent perceived threats. This element has the potential to serve as a measurable indicator of charismatic leadership.

After the introduction of Smith’s theory, suggestions regarding how to strengthen this theory will be advanced. This new theory is important in that it serves to rectify some of the inconsistencies in research of charismatic authority. Specifically, these inconsistencies are the result of a lack of general measures by which to test for charisma.

The limitations of Smith’s arguments appear when Smith attempts to ground his theory in case studies of charismatic leaders. Smith is unable to reach the necessary depth in exploring how leaders portraying themselves as the only solution to specific threats affects the interpretations and actions of their followers. Smith’s theory needs a more careful examination of the experience and actions of followers. His theory must be grounded in a thorough case study of a charismatic leader and his/her followers in order for all of its aspects to be properly elucidated.

For this reason, this project will serve to ground Smith’s theory in an in-depth case study of the charismatic leadership of the Reverend Jim Jones and his relationship with the organization he led, Peoples Temple. This application of Smith’s theory will test its core arguments by how followers interpret the symbols, which enable the formation of a charismatic bond.

The Focus on Social Interactions

The bulk of the literature regarding charisma is very diverse; however, diverse as the literature is, it has some common themes. One of these is the denial or downplaying of the role that symbols play in the formation of charismatic authority. When the presence of symbols in a charismatic relationship is mentioned in the bulk of the literature, it is described as merely a creative response to prevailing social situations. Another theme of the literature is the primacy given to the role that social interactions, whether internal or external, play in the formation of charismatic authority. In short, the bulk of the literature asserts the superiority of social interactions over the use and understanding of symbols by the leader and the led.

Charisma as the Result of Internal Social Interactions

Within the literature regarding charisma, some have opined that the charismatic bond of obligation is formed through the personality traits of the leader and through the ways the leader utilizes those traits during the course of interpersonal interactions (Conger, McClelland, Hoffman and Hoffman, Schlucter). These arguments focus almost entirely on the role that internal social interactions play.

According to some, these traits can elicit a specific emotional response that creates a bond of obligation between the led and the leader. The argument follows that this bond is the result of the leader empowering his followers through different methods (Conger, McClelland). This argument focuses on group interactions – that is, on internal social interaction between the leader and the led. Jay Conger has asserted that an intense bond can be formed between a leader and a follower that can result in the follower’s perception of self-worth being defined by his/her relationship with the leader. He argues that the connection of the follower’s self-efficacy is the result of a specific process. This process involves the leader developing and articulating a vision, building confidence in his/her followers abilities, and empowering those followers. Conger found that this process creates a bond of obligations between follower and leader through a cycle in which the follower becomes reliant upon the empowering praise of the leader to determine self worth. This leads followers to seek more praise through pledging themselves to follow the leader (Conger).

David McClelland has also examined the process by which empowerment can create a bond of obligation. McClelland’s analysis differs from Conger in that he chose to focus on different styles of leadership in order to show the benefits of charismatic leadership. McClelland attributes charismatic power to a leader who empowers audiences to be confident, and locates the formation of the charismatic bond in the ability of the leader to do so (McClelland). He justifies his findings by explaining the merits of this approach in comparison to more examples of non-charismatic authority that utilizes more forceful, coercive methods. McClelland and Conger use similar arguments to explain how charismatic leadership forms from a process of empowerment. Conger focuses on a process which utilizes empowerment and explains how that process creates a bond due to the followers’ sense of self-worth becoming intertwined with the leader. Similarly, McClelland focuses on how empowering followers can create a bond of obligation between followers and their leader. Both McClelland and Conger relied on individual followers perceptions of leaders (obtained through interviews) in their research to determine if a leader was charismatic. As their results are derived from the subjective perceptions of followers, it difficult to use the findings derived from their studies to investigate other cases of leadership for signs of charismatic authority.

Much research that focuses on internal social interactions to explain the formation of charismatic authority does so without any reference to the phenomena of empowerment. In the study of charismatic leadership, some researchers focus on the ways in which a leader interacts with a group of people. For some, the way a leader addresses the concerns of a group of people, or the ways in which a leader utilizes oratorical abilities are significant (Lindholm). In a study of Charles Manson and his following – known as “The Family” – Lindholm explains the effect that alienation of the youth from society in the mid-to-late 60’s had on Manson’s followers. This explanation is also coupled with a description of Manson’s oratorical abilities and his specific indoctrination program, which served to draw people to him in a tightly-knit community with well-defined boundaries from the mainstream world. However, there does not appear to be a clear link between Manson’s leadership style and the effects of an alienating society. Although Lindholm describes both, he does not show how Manson’s leadership was interpreted and acted upon by his followers. Therefore, while Manson’s leadership style corresponds with the needs of his followers, there is no clear link between the two factors.

Charisma as the Result of External Social Interactions

While some researchers believe that the formation of charismatic leadership is dependent on the ways in which leaders utilize their personality traits in internal social interactions, others believe the leaders’ use of personality traits is less relevant than how their followers perceive those traits. This perception is shaped by the effects of external social interactions. In other words, some studies hold that leaders’ charismatic authority is decided by their followers’ perception of them as capable to address issues that face society. This belief privileges the effect of external social interactions on leaders and their followers. Such an argument was made through a specific case study of Charles DeGaulle by Hoffman and Hoffman. In this study, DeGaulle was found to have portrayed himself in a manner that made him appear most useful in periods of emergency. Specifically, DeGaulle was able to embody vague concepts such as sacrifice, duty, responsibility and prophecy. This made him most salient as a leader to the French during periods when French society was in crisis. When French society was not in a crisis mentality, DeGaulle’s perceived relevance was found to drop dramatically. Hoffman and Hoffman argued that, in order for DeGaulle to maintain his charismatic authority, he was forced to keep French society in a state of crisis (Hoffman and Hoffman). Other researchers have come to similar conclusions by also finding that charismatic leadership can only emerge when society is experiencing periods of material or inner crisis (Schlucter).

Analyses which state that charismatic authority depends on followers’ perception of the leader in relation to a specific crisis are lacking in some regards. Although studies may give examples of leaders being perceived to possess traits relevant to a society in crisis, they are unable to show that that leader is understood to be the only solution to that crisis. In other words, while the leader may have traits that correspond with the specific crises, this type of study is unable to show that it is onlythose specific traits that encourage a bond of obligation between the led and the leader. In order to determine that the perception of a leader as a crisis solution is the only factor encouraging such a bond, it would be necessary to examine the elements that the led interpret as indicators of a crisis. An understanding of those elements would allow one to determine if the leader was seen as the only solution to those elements of crisis.

Attempts to Create Measures for Charisma Within the Social Interaction Camp

The inconsistencies in the way that “charisma” is used and defined have led some who privilege the importance of social interactions to attempt to develop measures for charisma (Friedland). William Friedland attempted to develop “clear-cut indices of charisma” in order to address this problem, and found three such indicators. The first indicator appears when the leader is able to articulate the repressed, shared beliefs of the group of people whom he/she is addressing. The second indicator requires that the leader must be risking harm by articulating these beliefs. The third indicator stipulates that the leader must also create a successful movement that acts on these shared beliefs (Friedland). Friedland’s indices are based on the belief that external social interactions, such as the shared beliefs in the culture of the society, explain the emergence of charismatic authority.

This attempt to create objective measures of charisma has some flaws that can be seen in later work that was fashioned around these indicators. In a study of union leaders, Thomas Dow presented these leaders as charismatic due to his perception of them as having reached the aforementioned indices. The union leaders appealed to the concepts of freedom and independence, at great risk to themselves, with an ultimate success in realizing their goals (Dow).

Although Dow may have shown adherence to Friedland’s set of guidelines, some shortcomings emerged in his argument. Following the measures, Dow described the leaders’ appeals to freedom and independence as their charismatic legitimacy, which drew great levels of support. The primary focus of the research was on what the leaders were stating; however, there was little evidence of what the statements of the leaders meant to the followers. Although there was evidence presented in Dow’s work that showed the abilities of the union leaders to draw a crowd, a more thorough analysis of the extent to which the statements made by the leaders affected the crowd members is necessary to describe the leaders as charismatic. This can be done through reviewing the symbolic nature of elements in the leaders’ statements and determining if they had significance through how their followers interpreted them. Without analyzing what the leaders were saying and how that was received by their audience, it is not possible to determine if the relationship between the leader and led was charismatic.

A review of the literature that gives primacy to social interactions reveals shortcomings that appear in the work. These are the inability to adequately explain why the leader appealed so strongly to their followers; why the leader appeared to be the only solution to followers that felt threatened, and the inability of the literature to develop general measures by which charismatic leadership may be tested. Focusing solely on social interactions excludes a key element of charismatic leadership that could more thoroughly explain those interactions. A relatively new branch of research on charisma has emerged that addresses these shortcomings by incorporating the importance of symbols into the discussion of charismatic leadership.

The Dual Focus on Social Interactions and Symbolic Meanings

This new body of research presents an understanding of how the bond of obligation is formed. This bond is not solely a product of internal or external social interactions. This recent research serves to bring attention to the significant role that the use and interpretation of symbols plays in the formation of a bond of obligation. The attention to symbols is based on the belief that their role in the formation of charismatic authority is as important as the role of external or internal social interactions. More specifically, in internal social interactions, leaders portray themselves to their followers as either exemplifying or opposing certain symbols in order to build charismatic authority (Smith, Willner). The choice of these symbols will depend on their relevance to external social forces that impact followers and the leader – for example, an economic depression. If there is a change in the external social forces that impact the led and the leader, there will be a change in the symbols utilized by the leader.

Understanding the Importance of Symbols

The understanding of symbols as an equally important factor in the formation of charismatic authority represents a departure from the normal understanding of charismatic leadership. However, it is grounded in elements from pre-existing research conducted on charismatic leadership and the historical importance of symbols. There has been work published that suggests that the use and interpretation of symbols is always a determinative power in events (such as the formation of a charismatic bond) but the degree to which symbol usage affects events varies. In order to properly understand the significance that the use of symbols has in a specific case, it is necessary to identify the symbolic structure. “Symbolic structure” refers to the way symbols are represented and interpreted, including the rituals that allow symbols to lead to action. In order for a symbol structure to inspire action, it must first be incorporated into a ritual. When structures are incorporated into rituals, followers are able to act out the symbols that are presented to them by their leader. Followers interpret these symbols as tangible after using them in rituals. This structure shapes the way people think and interpret events, and the acceptance of this structure by followers motivates their actions (Kane).

Understanding such a structure must be coupled with examining the way this structure interacts with, and is affected by, outside social forces. When attempting to explain why charismatic authority emerged in a historical case, it is important to flesh out not only the symbol structure but also the interactions that the structure had with external social forces. These social forces could be as broad as an emergence of a counter-cultural movement or a time of social unrest. Showing these interactions ensures that the symbol structure is actually relevant to the experiences that the followers have with the world outside of their relationship with the leader; that is, the “identification of a symbolic system [structure] does not mean that the latter is a determinative structure on the specific historical processes being examined” (Kane). If the symbolic structure is not relevant to the follower’s experiences with the outside world, its use will not lead to the emergence of charismatic authority. By understanding the interactions between symbolic structures and larger social forces that surround them, it is possible to gauge the effects created by a leader’s use of symbols and the followers’ interpretations of those symbols (Kane). In the case of charismatic authority, this effect would refer to the emergence of a bond of obligation between the followers and the leader.

The Importance of Evil Symbols

The type of symbols that are used by the leader affects the outcome that the use of symbols by a leader will produce. If the leader is to gain charismatic authority, she/he must represent a solution to what those symbols represent by portraying themselves as in opposition to those symbols (Smith). If leaders portray themselves as opposing certain symbols, those symbols must represent evil, not good. The importance of evil threatening symbolism to charismatic leadership is supported by work which recognizes the necessity of creating tangible evils in order to create a loyal following. Evil threats, especially when external to a group, serve to unite a community. In this manner, evil symbols have an ability to unite several different groups together against a common external threat, whether real or imagined (Hoffer). The perception of a leader as the only solution to these threats unites these groups of people to that leader. Work that examines the charismatic authority of shamans shows that, when a leader’s perceived abilities are relevant to threats that face the people, they will follow that leader by forming a bond of obligation (Lewis). The shaman’s abilities allow the shaman to “incorporate potentially dangerous spirits into his own body, thus neutralizing or mastering them” (Lewis). This gives the shaman charismatic authority due to the threatening nature of the spirits that he confronts. An interpretation of Weber also supports the importance of threatening symbols. It holds that charismatic leadership is buttressed by the belief that the leader is the only solution to extraordinary situations which have been determined to be threatening through the presence of evil symbols (Bendix).

The Importance of Binary Oppositions for Charismatic Leaders

By presenting themselves as a solution to threats, leaders portray themselves as a symbol of good. As stated above, for leaders to become charismatic, they must present themselves as opposing evil. This creates a binary opposition of good and evil involving the leaders and the threats that they oppose. Binary oppositions of good and evil are common in society. Durkheim has stated that all of society is divided into such oppositions: “things are above all sacred or profane, pure or impure, friends or enemies, favourable or unfavourable” (Durkheim and Mauss). When leaders position themselves as countering threatening symbols, they are, in effect, defining themselves as the solution to those symbols by creating a binary opposition of good and evil.

This belief is supported by other researchers, who recognized that the use of binary oppositions of good and evil allows leaders to exercise control over their followers’ interpretations of situations (Mills). When people understand themselves as following a leader who is the solution to evil threats, and accept the symbols that represent the threats as real, they develop a uniform way of understanding (Geertz). When this understanding is created by the recognition of a leader as a solution to threatening symbols, that leader is able to develop charismatic authority (Tiraykian).

Attempts to Create Measures for Charisma Within the Dual Focus Camp

When considering the role symbols play in the formation of charismatic authority, it is important to note that symbols are often used in recognizable ways by charismatic leaders during internal or external social interactions (Smith, Willner). In other words, there may be a specific way that leaders must position themselves in relation to other symbols in order to develop charismatic authority. The presence of this specific method of symbol use might serve as a measure for charisma. The development of such a measure would allow one to test cases of leadership for charismatic authority by viewing how the leader uses symbols and what the effects of that usage are.

A theory created by Philip Smith integrates this concept with elements of the bulk of literature regarding charisma. Smith’s theory of charismatic leadership is another step in the path to understanding the role that symbol structures play in charismatic leadership. Smith maintains that the charismatic bond is as much a result of symbol structures as it is of internal and external social interactions. Smith also focuses on the importance of threats and the ability of the leader to appear as a solution to those threats.

In the emphasis that he places on the use of threatening symbols, Smith represents a new progression in research on charismatic authority. Traditionally, charisma was understood as a result of the positive personality traits of the leader, or of the positive merits of the leader’s mission that appealed to followers. The role of threatening symbolism was largely overlooked. The exclusion of this element of the formation of charismatic bonds has led, in Smith’s opinion, to the neglect of half of the reason a charismatic leader appeals to followers. Smith asserts that the appeal of the charismatic leader does not rest in the desirable qualities of the leader’s mission. Instead, Smith argues that the evils that the charismatic leader confronts are more important than the ideals the leader exemplifies. Smith believes that the bond between the leader and the led is affected strongly by threats. He argues that the bond is a result of the belief that the fate of society relies on the ultimate worth of the leader (Smith).

By entering into a binary opposition with evil, the leader is perceived as a solution to threats. In addition, this understanding affects the way followers uniformly interpret current external events. This interpretation is affected by the perception of the world being composed of threats and of the leader as the only solution to those threats (Smith). This uniform interpretation of events causes the followers to follow an action strategy that ultimately results in the formation of a bond of obligation to the leader.

In short, the theory created by Phillip Smith argues that charismatic authority results when a leader is portrayed as the onlypossible solution to specific threats. In addition, those specific threats and the understanding of a leader as the only solution to those threats must affect the way followers interpret their surroundings in a uniform manner.

Furthermore, according to Smith, in order to accurately label a leader as charismatic, the threats, the idea of the leader as a solution to those threats, and the followers’ interpretations of their surroundings must be utilized by the followers to form a strategy for action. This strategy must be relevant to the threats; to the idea of the leader as solution; and to the followers’ interpretation of their surroundings. The strategy must also serve to create of a bond of obligation to that leader.


Philip Smith provides several measures for charismatic leadership. These are the presence of threats; the portrayal of the leader as the only solution to those threats; events and surroundings as interpreted by those threats, and relevant strategies for action amongst the followers, which ultimately creates a bond of obligation to the leader. I utilize these measures as they pertain to Peoples Temple through a content analysis of the primary documents left behind by the organization. Specifically, these primary documents will be in the form of audiocassette tapes, which document the sermons, meetings, and miscellaneous events that occurred during the 23-year history of the Temple. These tapes were transcribed by Fielding McGehee III, the primary researcher at the Jonestown Institute, who obtained them from the F.B.I. through Freedom of Information Act requests. These tapes show the various ways Jones defined his powers and the threats facing the Temple, as well as the effect that those definitions had on Jones’ followers.

Preliminary Review of Transcripts

An initial review of these tapes will allow the identification of the vocabulary of Peoples Temple. This vocabulary consists of the specific threats that were perceived to face the Temple and the specific ways that Jones referred to his powers, Peoples Temple, or Jonestown. This vocabulary also includes the ways that members express the belief that events affecting the Temple were caused by threats, as well as the rituals practiced within the Temple. An understanding of this vocabulary will allow for the interpretation of findings to be discussed below.

Sampling Plan

After the preliminary review it will be necessary to revisit the tape transcripts of Peoples Temple, focusing on a specific sample of those transcripts. This sample consists of sermons and meetings from the three distinct phases of Peoples Temple. This sample includes two sermons delivered by Jim Jones to a congregation of Peoples Temple members from the Indianapolis period of Peoples Temple’s existence. These sermons will both be from the year 1957. The sample includes nine sermons delivered by Jim Jones to a congregation of Peoples Temple members from the California period of Peoples Temple’s existence. These sermons span the years of 1972 to 1976, with two sermons from 1972, three sermons from 1973, three sermons from 1974, and one sermon from 1976. After Peoples Temple migrated to Guyana, Jones ceased delivering formal sermons. Jones’ interactions with his followers were primarily through large group meetings which he led, known as “Peoples Rallies.” Eventually, a second type of meeting emerged, crisis meetings known as “White Nights.” These meetings occur during the final 16 months of Peoples Temple’s existence, from 1977 to 1978. Additionally, nine meetings from the time period that Peoples Temple spent in Jonestown, Guyana will be included in the sample.

Transcriptions from sermons that were given to congregations not composed of Peoples Temple members were not included in the sample, as Jones appears to modify both the content and style of his sermon when he is speaking to an audience of strangers. Transcripts selected from the period while Peoples Temple was in Jonestown, when the phenomenon of White Night meetings was occurring, involve an equal amount of non-crisis meetings and crisis meetings. This is important in order to determine if actions agreed upon during White Nights were referenced outside of a crisis meeting. The transcripts in the sample are selected from sermons or meetings that do not deviate from the “standard operating procedures” of the Temple. That is, the researcher identified transcripts that appeared to be from typical Temple gatherings. The transcripts that did not follow the typical structure of Peoples Temple meetings or sermons were discarded. This was done to ensure that the transcripts selected were representative of the majority of the Temple gatherings.

The samples are divided into three distinct periods of the Temple. These periods are marked by the geographic location of the Temple. Less importance was placed on obtaining a uniform amount of tapes per year of Temple history than was per period of Temple history. Clearly there are far fewer tapes from Indiana than there are from the California or Guyana periods. Only two tapes were selected from the Indianapolis time period, which spanned nine years. This is due to the limited availability of transcripts from that era, and the physical disintegration of the audiocassettes over the decades between their creation and the time of my study. I will be studying an equal amount of transcripts from Guyana as I will from California, although the California era lasted for 12 years and the Guyana era only 16 months.

A review of the tape transcripts from California show a gradual transition in Jones’ career, a time period characterized by repetition of common themes that slowly change. The 16 months that Peoples Temple spent in Guyana was quite the opposite, as threats came to be rapidly introduced, with their definitions fluctuating which had an effect on the members’ perceptions of events. This period of rapid change is indicative of the significantly increased internal and external pressure on the Temple after the migration to Guyana.

Data Collection and Method of Analysis

During the review of the sermons and meetings contained in the sample, the amount of times each threat in the vocabulary of the Temple is mentioned by Jones or the members during sermons or meetings will be recorded. The references will be recorded by statement. The ways in which Jones refers to his powers will be recorded and each specific reference he makes will be noted. The amount of times external events are mentioned by members to be the results of the threats present in the Temple vocabulary will be recorded, and each time an association is made linking external events to threats by members will be noted. In addition, the amount of times members reference strategies for action in these meetings or sermons will be recorded. This will be done by recording each reference of strategy made by members. These strategies will be determined to be indicative of a bond of obligation if they arise as a response to a specific threat or threats, are predicated on the belief of Jones being the only solution, and are a relevant course of action to certain situations that are believed to be created by specific threats.

This method of data collection will be employed while reviewing tape transcripts from the three time periods of the Temple. These periods will be organized by the geographic location of the Temple. The three periods are: Indiana during the years 1954-1965, California during the years 1966-1976 and Guyana during the years 1977-1978. These periods are both convenient and relevant ways by which to organize this data. As was seen in the descriptive history above, the changes in the relationship between Jones and his followers generally corresponded to geographical moves from Indiana to California and California to Guyana. Recording the time period that the references and statements detailed above are made is equally important to recording the amount of references that are made. In order to determine how these elements create charismatic authority it will be necessary to explore how they evolved over time. If there is a discovery of charismatic authority that is consistent with Smith’s theory, it will be necessary to show how each measure of charisma developed to produce that authority. In addition, it is important to show when the individual elements of charismatic authority coalesced in order to determine why that authority emerged.

Collecting this data will enable the researcher to determine the nature by which all of the references and statements are connected. Relationships between the elements and what is evidenced by the references and statements will then be analyzed to determine how, when, and why these elements could lead to the establishment of charismatic authority.

There are five important relationships between the elements measured in this study which will determine how they could form charismatic authority. The first relationship between the elements tested in the sample should allow the researcher to determine whether Jones appeared to be the only solution to threats. Focusing on the amount of references Jones makes to each of the powers he claims to possess will show which power Jones stresses the most, if he does indeed stress some over the others. While noting which power he stresses the most, it will be important to determine to what source Jones attributes his power, that is, whether Jones claims that the power is a result of some other being or whether he claims that the power emanates only from himself. At the same time, the nature of the threats will be important to this relationship. To find the nature of the threats, it will be necessary to examine what threats existed in the vocabulary of Peoples Temple at the time. By examining all of these elements, it will be possible to determine whether the powers Jones stresses are relevant to the threats that face the Temple and whether or not there are other sources of those powers that followers can turn to beside Jones.

The second relationship will allow the researcher to determine if the members of Peoples Temple interpreted external events as caused by a specific type of threat perceived to face the Temple. The nature of the threats being referenced in each period of time will be recorded. If the members begin to understand external events as caused by threats, the time period in which they do so and the nature of the threats that they believe to cause external events will be noted. Using this information, the researcher will examine whether the threats being referenced in the period are the same threats that members perceived to cause external events. If so, it will be determined which, if not all, of the threats are understood to cause external events.

This relationship will allow the researcher to determine if the leader is perceived to present the only solution to the type of threat that members believe to shape their surroundings. This will be done by noting the time period in which threats that are perceived to cause external events and the nature of those threats. The powers that Jones references and the source that he attributes these powers to will be noted in this same time period. This will allow the researcher to determined if Jones’ powers appear to be relevant to the type of threats that are perceived to cause external events and if Jones appears to be the only solution to those threats.

The third relationship will allow the researcher to determine if there is a relationship between threats perceived to face the Temple and the creation of an environment in which a bond of obligation can be formed. If there is evidence of a bond of obligation in the sample, the specific context in which this bond is referenced will be recorded. The way by which this context is created is important. Specifically, if there is a certain type(s) of threat that is understood by the members to cause external events, and if the leader appears to be the only solution to the same type(s) of threat, the researcher will determine whether this type of threat influences the context in which a bond of obligation is created. This determination reflects Philip Smith’s understanding of charismatic leadership.

The fourth relationship will allow the researcher to determine if the amount of references to threats or evidence of members believing external events to be caused by these threats increases the amount of times members undertake actions indicative of a bond of obligation. The researcher will examine periods of the Temple history where there is evidence of a bond of obligation. The researcher will also determine whether, in that period, there are increases in the amount of threats referenced that coincide with increases in the amount of evidence of members believing external events to be caused by these threats. If this is found to be true, the researcher will explore if increases in the evidence of a bond of obligation also coincides with increases in the amount of references to threats and the interpretation of external events as caused by those threats.

Discussion of the Symbols and Rituals of Peoples Temple

Threat Categories

The threats that were perceived to face Peoples Temple that are revealed from this review can be summarized into two broad categories. These were the threat of a nuclear apocalypse, and the threat of a fascist takeover. The threat of a nuclear apocalypse was used in two contexts over the history of the Temple. A nuclear apocalypse was an impetus for migration while the Temple was in the United States. Once the Temple migrated to Jonestown, Guyana, the threat of a nuclear apocalypse was regarded as a reason not to return to the United States, or to migrate to any other nation.

The second theme, the threat of a fascist takeover, is a loose grouping of threats that are all related. The United States government was perceived as either succumbing to fascists, or actively propagating fascism. The US government was understood by the Temple to be supporting several initiatives to destroy the Temple. One of these was the Central Intelligence Agency. The perceived danger that the CIA posed to the Temple was that of infiltration by CIA spies who could both collect and disseminate secret Temple information or possibly act as provocateurs. Another menacing possibility of a fascist government was the creation of concentration camps which would serve to detain and possibly eliminate the poor and African Americans, both of whom made up the primary membership of the Temple. Often, historical examples of concentration camps in the United States were referenced when this threat was discussed in sermons, meetings or elsewhere, such as the detention centers that Japanese-Americans were forced into during World War II.

The danger of a fascist takeover also found forms in threats that were not specifically linked to the United States government. Capitalists or fascists that were not necessarily affiliated with the U.S. government posed a danger to the Temple, and were often seen as supporting other threats that were perceived to face the members. For example, the terms “capitalists” and “fascists” were used synonymously to label enemies of the Temple who were believed to be encouraging and funding the Concerned Relatives. The members that defected from the Temple were seen as threats as well. This is especially true for those defectors who engaged in efforts to discredit the organization, either individually or as a part of the Concerned Relatives. A review of the transcripts shows that the Concerned Relatives were often understood as working for the capitalists or fascists. Both the relatives and defectors as well as the CIA were at different times thought to be funding, training or hiring mercenaries. These mercenaries constituted a threat in their own right, and at different times in the Temple history were believed to be poised to conduct operations against the Temple. Notably, it was the threat of a mercenary attack that was the reason for the first White Night crisis meeting.

Hate groups posed a threat to Peoples Temple as well. The nature of this threat was similar to the threat of a nuclear apocalypse. While in the United States, the Temple used hate groups as a reason to migrate to Guyana. Once in Guyana, the Temple used the threat of hate groups in the United States as a reason to not return to the country. After the migration of Peoples Temple to Jonestown, the GDF emerged as a threat. The GDF only became a threat once Peoples Temple began to believe that the Guyanese government being taken over by fascists. Perceived to be under control of a fascist government, the GDF were imagined as poised to be deployed to Jonestown.

Threats existed in the lexicon of Peoples Temple that did not necessarily relate to the threat of a nuclear apocalypse or threats posed by the fascist right. These threats were embodied in anonymous enemies and dangerous animals. A preliminary reading of transcripts of Peoples Temple will provide evidence of the Temple members or Jones referencing enemies outside of any context. The nature of these references suggests that the Temple believed that vague, undefined enemies were a threat as well as enemies that were more clearly defined. The threat of dangerous animals appeared after the migration to Guyana, and this threat appears to have emerged from fear of the unknown that the jungle surrounding the perimeter of the settlement represented. It also served to prevent members from venturing into the jungle without authorization.

References to Power

A preliminary reading of the primary documents will reveal that the powers that

Jim Jones held out as possessing changed significantly. The greatest change in Jones’ powers involved the type of powers that Jones emphasized and the source from which they emanated. The most important powers that were consistently attributed to Jones over the history of Peoples Temple were the powers of healing, telepathy and prophecy, and the power over death (as represented by Jones’ claim to possess the ability to raise the dead and be invulnerable). In addition, Jones often mentioned his powers in a more general sense without context.

The shifts in the way that Jones described the origin of his powers are important to understanding the ways in which Jones was understood as a solution to threats that faced the Temple. In the transcripts, the way that Jones’ powers were described can be grouped into three different categories. For a period of time, when they were put into context, Jones’ powers were understood to emanate from a higher power. Later this power was understood to be a result of Jones embodying the true essence of socialism and the true essence of God, a mixture that he referred to as the Principle. Finally, Jones’ powers were understood to only emanate from Jones.

During the period of time that Jones’ powers were understood as emanating from a higher power, they were attributed to a religious source. These sources were usually Jesus Christ or the essence of Christ, God, or the essence of God. As a result of describing his powers as resulting from another source, Jones did not appear to be only source of these powers. Although possessing these abilities made Jones powerful, this power was less than the power of the source from which it originated. As a consequence, he was not understood as the only solution to threats.

When Jones’ powers were described as a result of Principle, the root of his powers became based in the essence of socialism as well as the essence of God. When Jones derived his powers from this mixture, the root of his powers was both based in a higher power and in himself. As a result, Jones was still not seen by his followers as the only solution to threats.

Later, Jones’ powers were described as deriving from the living embodiment of socialism without any reference to an essence of God. When Jones claimed to derive his powers solely from his embodiment of socialism, there existed no other source from which the benefits of his powers could be obtained. During this period, Jones did not attribute his powers to any other source that could be regarded as a solution to problems facing the Temple. Therefore, Jones would be understood to be the only solution to threats in cases where his powers were relevant to the threats in question.

In other cases, Jones did not specify whether his powers were the result of a higher religious source or as a result of his embodiment of socialism. Due to these powers being referenced out of context, and with no clear way of determining their source, the researcher will count references to these powers and will list these references under the label “no specification.” These instances also provide source of information by which Jones’ powers may be understood. The references to Jones’ powers that lack context are useful to record in that they help indicate how the nature of Jones’ powers did or did not coincide with threats in a specific historical period. However, the lack of a source for those powers makes it difficult to understand their significance. Without understanding where Jones claimed his power originated from, it is impossible to determine whether Jones is the only solution to the threats perceived as affecting Peoples Temple.

A preliminary reading of the tape transcripts from the period of time Peoples Temple spent in Guyana will reveal the existence of two types of meetings which composed the majority of Jones’ interactions with his followers in Jonestown. The meetings that occurred in Jonestown were unique to any other period of time in Peoples Temple. In Indiana Jones had meetings with loyal administrators, and in California he conducted meetings with the Planning Commission. In both places, his method of interacting with the general members of Peoples Temple was through sermons. In Jonestown, Jones utilized large gatherings of all the residents of Jonestown (instead of using sermons) to interact with the body of the membership and administrative and house-keeping issues, as well as any other subject of importance. There also were crisis meetings, which were initiated in response to events external to the Temple that were perceived to be associated with the threats that faced the group.

As they were in response to events understood to be caused by threats and were led by Jones, the White Nights offered an opportunity for members to internalize the vocabulary of Peoples Temple. This internalization would be coupled with members reacting to the specific situation the White Night confronted, which served to give the relevant vocabulary of the Temple embodied in the crisis tangible significance. An example of this phenomenon can be seen in the first White Night crisis meeting. This type of meeting emerged only in Jonestown, and does not appear to have precursors of its kind in other periods of the Temple. In this meeting, members took up arms and defended the fields of the settlement for six days from what appeared to be imminent attack by mercenaries. Through brandishing weapons in the expectation of fighting the threats that faced the Temple, the members understood the threats involved in the White Night to not only be symbolic but real and immediate.

The White Night crisis meetings also served as an environment in which members would be able to develop a plan for action. The plans for action that emerged were a result of the belief in Jones as the only solution to threats that faced the Temple and the understanding of external events as a result of those threats. These plans were often indicative of a bond of obligation between the followers and the leader.

An important strategy for action eventually emerged from the White Night meetings in Jonestown. This strategy was the practice of Revolutionary Suicide, which eventually would result in 918 deaths on November 18th, 1978. Revolutionary suicide was initially introduced by Jones during the course of White Night meetings. While Jones initially introduced the concept, members came to accept revolutionary suicide, through a rational decision-making process, as an appropriate course of action. In addition, revolutionary suicide came to be referenced by members both inside and outside of the context of White Nights, which is further indicative of its acceptance as a strategy of action by the members.

Findings and Discussion

This project began with the question: Why did 918 members of Peoples Temple die on November 18th, 1978 in the jungles of Guyana? This project attempts to answer this question by exploring the possibility that the fate of Peoples Temple was, in fact, a product of charismatic leadership. Philip Smith provides a general framework that can be applied to the historical case of Peoples Temple. Smith argues that in order for charismatic authority to emerge, a leader must be understood as the only solution to threats, and that these threats must be interpreted by the followers as causing events that impact the group. In addition, followers must utilize these understandings to create a strategy of action that is indicative of a bond of obligation to their leader.

In order to properly apply this theory to a study of Peoples Temple, one must discover what conditions enable this framework to emerge. Specifically, the question must be asked: under what conditions do the use of threats, the understanding of Jones as a solution to those threats, and the members’ belief that external events were caused by those threats, effect the formation of charismatic authority?

Peoples Temple existed for over 20 years. By investigating Temple history for these elements of charismatic leadership, this project will determine whether Jones possessed charismatic authority in the Temple since its formation or whether this authority emerged over time. Determining when Jones’ charismatic authority appeared will make it possible to determine what conditions existed that allowed the elements of charismatic authority to coalesce.

As stated above, this paper applies Smith’s framework to the case study of Peoples Temple in order to obtain a better understanding of the organization. This research attempts to determine if the formation of a bond of obligation between a leader and the led is reliant on the leader being perceived as the only solution to threats, threats that are also believed to be causing external events that face the group. Equally important is determining whether an increase in the amount of both the amount of threats perceived to be facing the group, and the amount of times external events are perceived to be caused by threats, will lead to an increased amount of evidence of an external bond of obligation.

General Findings

A review of the sample taken from the collection of tape transcriptions from Peoples Temple yielded results that can be grouped into the following categories: threats, the sources of Jones’ powers, evidence of external events being associated with threats and evidence of a bond of obligation. The total amount of times these categories are represented in the transcripts and a specific breakdown of what is referenced in each of the categories will be reported. Observations regarding patterns of increasing or decreasing amounts of references and the existence of differences between the geographic periods of Peoples Temple will also be noted. Due to a desire to round percentages up to the nearest whole number, some of the percentages listed below may not add up to 100%.


The threats perceived to affect Peoples Temple fell into two categories. The first category of threats involved any threat in the vocabulary of Peoples Temple that appeared to endanger the organization. The second category of threats specifically implied a threat to the lives of the Temple members. As a result of the discovery of these two categories, the references to threats were separated into these categories and were coded as distant threats or deadly threats.

Distant threats that were perceived to face Peoples Temple were referenced 151 times by Jones and his followers in the sample, covering all periods of the Temple existence. The breakdown of the amount of times each threat was referenced is detailed in the table below:

References to Distant Threats

Anonymous Enemies Concerned Relatives Capitalists Fascists C.I.A. U.S. Government Concentration Camps Hate Groups Mercenaries Guyanese Defense Forces Total





















There are no references to these threats in the transcripts taken from the Indiana period in 1957. The frequency with which these threats were mentioned increased slowly between 1972 and 1977, when Peoples Temple was in California. The references to all threats increased significantly in 1978 during the period the Temples spent in Guyana, with the exception of the threat of hate groups and to the threat of concentration camps. This can be seen in the table below:

References to Distant Threats by Location







In addition to the aforementioned distant threats, other threats were of a more immediate nature and specifically menaced the lives of the members. Threats of death were referenced 56 times in the sample. The number of times each threat was referenced is detailed in the table below:

References to Deadly Threats

Nuclear Apocalypse Anonymous Enemies Guyanese Defense Forces Capitalists Fascists Mercenaries Dangerous Animals U.S. Government C.I.A. Concerned Relatives Total





















There are no references to deadly threats that from the Indiana period of the Temples’ history identified in the sample. However, it bears noting that this fact is inconsistent with firsthand accounts and secondhand sources that detail the history of Peoples Temple. In his work which details the history of Peoples Temple, John Hall provides evidence that the threat of a nuclear apocalypse (a deadly threat) was often referenced in Indiana (Hall). As will be mentioned in the conclusion, a limited amount of information available from the Indiana period most likely contributed to this discrepancy. A nuclear apocalypse was the only deadly threat referenced in the California period. With the exception of the threat of a nuclear apocalypse, the references to deadly threats appear only in 1978, in Guyana. This can be seen in the table below:

References to Deadly Threats by Location







External Events as Caused by Threats

In the sample there were 13 statements made by members indicating a belief that an external event that affected Peoples Temple was caused by one of the threats in the Temple’s vocabulary. These 13 statements were taken from six different transcripts, five of which were from transcriptions of White Night crisis meetings and one which was from a transcription of a regular meeting. The breakdown of the number of times each threat was referenced is detailed in the table below:

References to External Events Being Caused by Threats

Capitalists Fascists


U.S. Government

Anonymous Enemies












The phenomenon of members understanding external events as the result of threats did not appear until Peoples Temple had migrated to Guyana. All of the 13 statements were made in 1978 in Jonestown. In addition, it is significant to note that all of the threats that were thought to cause external events were also understood to be deadly threats.

Sources of Jones’ Powers

The sources of Jim Jones’ power represent another important category of results. Jones claimed different sources for his powers during different points in the history of Peoples Temple. Jones also made many references to his powers without indicating the source of his powers. Jones claimed that his powers originated from a religious being 87 times in the Indiana and California periods of Peoples Temple (1957 to 1976). This religious being was usually God or the essence of God, Christ or the essence of Christ. All of those terms were used interchangeably by Jones at various points. There are no discernable patterns of increases or decreases in the amount of these claims over the years. The amount of times that Jones claimed all of his powers came from a religious being was highest in 1973.

The amount of times and types of powers Jones claimed emanated from a religious source is as follows:

References to Sources of Jones’ Powers as Emanating from Higher Religious Being

Powers of Healing

Powers in General

Powers over Death

Powers of Telepathy












Of the amount of times Jones attributed his power to a higher religious being, 1% of these references occurred in Indiana. The majority (99%) of these references occurred in California.

In addition to claiming that his power came from religious sources, Jones described his powers as a result of his embodiment of the essence of socialism. In the sample Jones claimed his powers were a result of this embodiment 32 times. Jones first began verbalizing this claim in the California period in 1974, and continued until the end in Guyana in 1978. There are no clear patterns of increases or decreases of this type of claim over the years. While Jones was claiming that his powers emanated from himself in California, at times he also claimed that his powers emanated from God or Christ. Jones’ claims that socialism was the root of his powers increased in Guyana in 1978, at the same time he stopped claiming that his powers emanated from God or Christ. The amount of times Jones attributed his powers to his embodiment of socialism are listed in the table below:

References to Jones’ Powers as Emanating from Socialism

Powers of Healing

Powers in General

Powers of Death

Powers of Telepathy












The majority of these references were made in Guyana, however, a significant amount of these references were also made in California. This can be seen in the table below.

References to Jones’ Powers as Emanating from Socialism by Location







As mentioned above, sometimes Jim Jones would speak of his powers without indicating their source. In the sample, Jones referenced his powers without specifying their source 43 times. These references span the time periods that Peoples Temple spent in California and Guyana (1972 to 1978). There is no discernable pattern of increases or decreases in these claims over the years, and there does not appear to be a year where Jones referenced his powers without specification the most. The amount of times Jones did not specify the source of his power are listed in the table below.

References to Jones’ Powers with no Specified Source

Powers of Healing

Powers over Death

Powers of Telepathy

Powers in General












The majority of times that claims of this nature were made were in California, although occasionally claims of this nature occurred in Guyana. This can be seen in the table below.

References to Jones’ Powers with no Specified Source by Location





Bond of Obligation

Another significant category of results from the study of the sample is evidence of a bond of obligation between Jones and his followers. There were 55 statements made by members that can be understood as a bond of obligation in the sample. Specifically, these statements all involve member pledges to commit revolutionary suicide. All 55 statements were made in Guyana, and all of these statements were made in the year 1978.


Information regarding each individual category of references is telling. A significant result gleaned from a review of these individual categories is the fact that only in Guyana is there evidence of a bond of obligation. This result implies that only in Jonestown was there evidence that suggests Jones was a charismatic leader, as Smith defines it. However, noting this result here is, in a sense, premature. To fully appreciate the significance of this discovery, it is necessary to view how these categories interacted in the Guyana period. This will help to determine whether Smith’s framework for charismatic leadership is completely represented in the formation of the bonds of obligation found in Guyana.

As stated in the methodology, there are four relationships between the categories of references that will allow one to determine if the bond of obligation evidenced in Guyana was created by processes that are consistent with Smith’s concept of charisma.

Relational Categories

Jones as the Only Solution to Threats

This first relationship will allow one to determine whether Jones was found to be the only solution the threats facing the Temple. In the Guyana period, Jones stressed his powers of healing and claimed that his powers were a result of his embodiment of the essence of socialism (except in a few cases in which he did not specify the source of his powers). There were more references made to threats during the Guyana period than there were during any other period. The vast majority of deadly threats were referenced during this time. The significance of this last statement lies in the fact that while the perception of deadly threats facing the Temple were the highest, Jones was simultaneously stressing his powers of healing the most. Furthermore, Jones was also portraying himself as the only source of these powers. In this way, Jones appeared to be the only solution to the deadly threats facing the Temple.

The Perception of External Events as Caused by Threats

This second relationship will allow the researcher to determine if the members of Peoples Temple interpreted external events as being caused by a specific type of threat. In the sample, the phenomenon of external events being perceived by members as being caused by threats appears only in 1978. Significantly, the threats that were perceived to have caused external events in this time period were deadly threats. In addition, Jones was perceived to be the only solution to the deadly threats that were perceived as causing external events.

The Context in Which a Bond of Obligation May be Formed

This third relationship allows the researcher to determine if the understanding of threats causing external events, and the understanding of Jones as the only solution to those threats, creates a context in which a bond of obligation may be formed. In the sample, the first evidence of a bond of obligation occurs during a White Night meeting in February of 1978. 17 of the 55 references made by members that were indicative of a bond of obligation were made during this meeting. This White Night meeting was called in response to a perceived immediate threat of a fascist takeover, a type of threat that was considered deadly in this time period. In this meeting, Jones talks at a sufficient length about the protection that the members of Jonestown receive (as a benefit of his embodiment of socialism). Jones’ statements are relevant in this context due to the understanding of his powers in this period as protecting members from death and emanating only from himself. In one such statement, Jones reminded his audience that he has power to protect them from physical ailments:

Farene Douglas just had a stroke, you know, back there and I said it’ll be all right, and take care of it…You got to believe in it, for revolutionary purposes, because it is real. But she’s all right now, but she was in terrible, hellish shape, and I said, don’t worry about it, she’ll be all…okay” (Q643).

In this meeting, when discussing plans to deal with effects of what was perceived as a fascist takeover by the Guyanese Government, members began making statements of commitment to revolutionary suicide. Although the concept of revolutionary suicide was mentioned by Jones in meetings that predated this meeting, this White Night crisis meeting was the first meeting in which there exists evidence of members making commitments to commit revolutionary suicide. By making the commitments, members were accepting revolutionary suicide as a viable strategy for action. As will be seen below, members would later elaborate and embellish this plan. By being based in the understanding of Jones as the only solution to deadly threats and external events being affected by those same threats, the context of the White Night in this case could be determined to enable the emergence of a bond of obligation.

The next example where evidence of a bond of obligation appears is during a non-crisis meeting in October of 1978. Thirty-eight of the 55 references that are indicative of a bond of obligation are made during this meeting. This meeting was not called in response to threatening external events but was held for the purpose of discussing revolutionary suicide as a tactic for resisting the deadly threats that were allegedly facing the Temple. Unlike the White Night meeting described above, which was largely dominated by Jones, this meeting was led primarily by the members. In this meeting Jones interjected only occasionally to press a member on a certain point. This meeting is indicative of the growing acceptance of revolutionary suicide as a viable strategy by the members.

In the White Night meeting that took place in February of 1978, members’ commitments to revolutionary suicide were short and rushed. In the second meeting in October of 1978, where a bond of obligation became evident, members fully explained why they believed that revolutionary suicide was the only viable option available to them For example, Temple member Helen Swinney stated:

I am Helen Swinney…We’ve debated this…suicide for many, many hours here tonight and I have made up my mind that this is the way I prefer going, because I have been in this group for uh, almost twenty years now and I have never…and we finally came to this country, hoping that…we’d have a beautiful life for our children…and our seniors, and our relatives will not leave us alone, and I am sick and tired of it. I just…I think this is the best way to go (Q245).

Temple member Marthea Hicks stated:

It’s remarkable to see…people of all colors and people from all walks of life who have come together for one purpose, and this damned society won’t allow us to do what we want to do, and that is to live and to express what is right,communalism, to share together, and they have followed us all the way over here to Guyana to destroy our lives, so tonight we say, and I say, just damn the whole thing and I will commit suicide tonight (Q245).

Each of these explanations represents the interests of the member delivering them. That is to say, while one member stated that revolutionary suicide was the only way to avoid persecution by the Concerned Relatives, another stated that revolutionary suicide was the only way to avoid the Temple’s values from being compromised. It is also crucial to note here that the members are not simply reacting to desperation felt due to the perception of deadly threats threatening their lives. In the above examples, the members are clearly also reacting to the perception of deadly threats threatening theirbeliefs. Although this meeting is not held as a response to the perceived imminent danger posed by deadly threats, the actions of the members still reflect the idea of Jones as the only solution to deadly threats based on their belief and commitment to revolutionary suicide.

The Effect of an Increase in the Amount of Threats and External Events Perceived to be Caused by Threats on the Amount of Evidence of a Bond of Obligation

The fourth relationship will enable the researcher to determine if the amount of references to threats and external events believed to be caused by threats is related to the amount of evidence of a bond of obligation between the leader and the led. As mentioned above, the greatest amount of references to threats and the greatest amount of evidence of external events being perceived to be caused by threats occurred in the Guyana period of Temple history. In the Guyana period, in comparison to the California and Indiana periods, there can be seen a dramatic increase in evidence of a bond of obligation. However, it bears noting that a potentially better assessment of the effects of increases in both of the categories mentioned above on the evidence of a charismatic bond could be obtained if there was a larger sample of meetings in the Guyana period that contained such evidence. A creation of a sample of this nature is frustrated by the limited amount of tapes from this period, which was cut short by the mass suicides and murder that occurred in November of 1978.


A review of the relationships shows that Philip Smith’s framework for charismatic authority is supported by these associations. In Guyana, where there is evidence of a bond of obligation, Jones is perceived to be the only solution to the type of threats facing the Temple. In addition, Jones is perceived to be the only solution to the type of threats that were perceived to cause external events. A direct link between these factors and the formation of a bond of obligation was established through these relationships. Specifically, the first evidence of such a bond was found in a White Night meeting of 1978 which incorporated the perception of Jones being the only solution to threats as well as external events being caused by those same threats. Furthermore, a tentative connection has been made between the increase of the amount of threats referenced as well as the amount of external events being perceived as affected by those threats and the amount of evidence of a bond of obligation between Jones and his followers.

Finding evidence that the framework for charismatic leadership created by Smith is represented in the findings is important. However, focusing solely on the last period of the Temple’s existence excludes necessary information which can only be discovered through a review of the Temple’s history in its entirety. The following question still begs answering: under what conditions did what happened in Guyana become possible? This question requires a further review of the history of Peoples Temple, one that includes Guyana as well as Indiana and California.

Different Time Periods, Different Beliefs

Some of the more striking differences between Peoples Temple as it existed in Indiana and California and as it ended in Guyana was the presence of and the role that Pentecostal practices played in the Temple as well as changes in the role that the Temple played in the members lives. Specifically, the Temple changed from a church with Pentecostal practices, to a socialist collective devoid of any allegiance to Pentecostal ideology. Also, the Temple changed from a urban ministry with limited services to an all encompassing, isolated mission based on communal living. These changes can be seen represented in the behavior of Jones, the members of the Temple and the meaning of the rituals enacted in the Temple. As seen above, the emergence of a charismatic bond of obligation was reliant on the behavior of Jones, the behavior of members, and certain rituals that occurred in the Temple. It is important to view how these three elements changed throughout Temple history in order to better understand how Jones emerged as a charismatic leader in Guyana.


[Editor’s note: See introductory note] In Indiana, Jones first found his calling with a certain denomination of Pentecostalism, the Assemblies of God. The Assemblies of God is the largest Pentecostal denomination in the world. The primary beliefs of the Assemblies of God include four doctrines. The Assemblies of God denomination regards the Bible as the word of God. This denomination also believes in water baptism by immersion and divine healings. Divine healings in the Pentecostal faith represents a distinct departure from Christian doctrine. The Assemblies of God believe that Christ’s atonement on the cross provided healing not just for the soul, as most Christian doctrine holds, but also for physical ailments of the body. Another distinctive doctrine of the denomination is the belief in an additional baptism that follows the first baptism by immersion in water. The second baptism is a baptism in the Holy Spirit. This baptism is evidenced by the members gaining the ability to speak in tongues, or “glossolalia” as it is properly known. Glossolalia is indicative of the speaker being possessed by the Holy Spirit. In order for this speaker to be possessed, he/she must believe in the concept of baptism in the Holy Spirit and accept Jesus Christ as a personal savior. The possession occurs suddenly, without warning and is characterized by intense physical sensations. Speaking in tongues had great significance in the Assemblies of God denomination as well. In the formative years of Pentecostalism, speaking in tongues became the defining element of the movement. Speaking in tongues provided a way by which Pentecostals distinguished themselves from non-Pentecostals. In the Assemblies of God denomination, the ability to speak in tongues is a prerequisite for preaching to Assemblies of God congregations.

During the latter period of the time the Temple spent in Indiana, Peoples Temple changed religious affiliations, leaving the Assemblies of God and joining the ecumenical denomination of Christian Protestantism known as the Disciples of Christ in 1960. As an ecumenical movement, the Disciples of Christ only requires member churches to hold one central tenet: the belief in Jesus Christ as the Lord and Savior. Because Disciples churches are not required to share more than this common belief, the practices of Peoples Temple still resembled the practices of the Assemblies of God. Some changes were evident, however. In 1961, Jones hired Disciples minister Ross Cass who projected a more reserved manner in the expressive atmosphere of Temple services (Hall). Joining the Disciples in 1960 marked the beginning of Peoples Temple slowly restraining the more expressive behavior that characterized its earlier sermons.

Behavior of Jones

Jim Jones followed the traditional practices of the Assemblies of God as a preacher in the Indiana time period of the Temple’s history, even when the Temple was affiliated with the Disciples of Christ. Jones supported the use of the Bible during this period and regarded it as God’s word. Jones also often utilized his power of healing to attract large crowds for healing ceremonies. Jones attributed the source of his power to the “gifts of the spirit.” Jones did not claim to possess control or a deep understanding of his gift of healing. This can be seen in a statement made by Jones during this period: “But shit, there are people with me right now who got healed fifteen, twenty years ago, and are still O.K. So, I can’t explain it. I can heal, I know that. But how it works, shit, I don’t know (Jones as quoted in Chidester).” The primary form of interaction that Jones had with his congregation at this time was through the sermons that he delivered.

Behavior of Members

The behavior of members in sermons during the Indiana time period was comparative to behavior typical of Pentecostal congregations. The Indiana period of Jones sermons are marked by a method of constructing a certain type of worship typical of the more expressive Pentecostal tradition known as “call and response” (Harrison). During the sermons, members of the Temple collectively inserted remarks at specific points in Jones speech, remarks that either encouraged Jones or expressed “outrage” at Jones’ claims. During sermons, Pentecostals are also known to commit acts in spurts of uncontrollable energy. These acts are thought to be manifestations of the Holy Spirit. The members of Peoples Temple mirrored this behavior. At moments in the sermons marked by increased intensity of music and clapping, members would run quickly around the inside of the church, speak in tongues or dance in a stylish manner (Harrison).

Meaning of Rituals

Rituals conducted during this time period were also typical of Pentecostal rituals. There is evidence that suggests Peoples Temple conducted full water immersion baptisms in their church in Indianapolis. The significance of water baptisms in the Assemblies of God denomination is that it indicates that the member has accepted Christ as a personal savior. During Peoples Temple sermons in Indiana Jones spoke glossolalia more than he did during any other period. Jones encouraged his followers to do the same, correcting them when they made errors. As Peoples Temple followed the practices of the Assemblies of God in this time period, speaking in tongues was indicative of members’ baptism in the Holy Spirit and their belief in Jesus Christ as a savior. The healing rituals that Jones led during this time period were also traditional. Jones would engage with certain parishioners during faith healings, for example, by laying his hands on them, or would “extract” objects that he would define as “cancers” from their mouths. (Jones acknowledged later that these cancers were in fact chicken gizzards concealed by sleight of hand). As stated above, Jones attributed these powers to his “gifts of the spirit” (meaning God). Healings therefore were a venue through which Jones was able to showcase these gifts, the source of which placed the true praise for the healings to not fall on Jones but onto God.

The way that Peoples Temple dealt with confessions and discipline may have deviated from the norm of the practices of the Assemblies of God. In the Assemblies of God, sin is confessed without the use of a human mediator. Sinners pray directly to Jesus Christ to seek forgiveness. In addition, sins committed against another may also be confessed by the injurer to the injured party. Transgressions made by believers are dealt with in a private, not public, manner in the Assemblies of God. However, during the Indiana period, Peoples Temple employed “corrective fellowship,” a practice which ran contrary to the Assemblies of God (Hall). This practice entailed members of the Temple being confronted about their transgressions by groups of their peers. The transgressions of the members were made a public affair, rather than a private affair. Corrective fellowship occurred outside of the context of sermons. Jones’ role in corrective fellowship at this point was minimal; members were confronted by their peers rather than Jones, although Jones may have encouraged the peers to confront the transgressing member.


In the California time period, Jones’ ideology, the behavior of the members and the rituals that were utilized by the Temple changed in some regards and stayed the same in others. While there is evidence of the Temple changing during this period, the change was not rapid and the Temple still retained some of the traditions it upheld in the Indiana period when it was associated with the Assemblies of God.

Behavior of Jones

During this period, Jones began to depart from the Pentecostal denomination in which he began his career. One of the most noticeable and important shifts in Jones’ ideology in the California period was that he no longer regarded the Bible as the word of God. This was a result of a noticeable increase in Jones’ critiques of organized religion. Jones’ ideology in this period was growing more openly socialistic, and he argued often that religion was a mechanism that existed to continue the oppression of the dispossessed in society. To do so, Jones made a point to attribute the Bible not as the word of God, but to King James whom he accused of starting the slave trade:

[You] Said, the Bible’s the word of truth. I’ve already showed to you, the Bible’s not the word of truth. In the first place, King James was the king of England who took the first ship— Good Ship Jesus, brought back blacks in chains, and he murdered people all over the whole world. He was a drunk. History supports me in that, and he had 80 more people like him that wrote the Bible (Q1035).

Despite his critique of organized religion and the origins of the Bible, Jones did not fully abandon the Bible. Jones often still used the book to legitimize his sermons. During this period, Jones still used sermons as a primary way of interacting with his congregation. Due to the increasing bureaucracy of Peoples Temple as a result of its expanded operations, Jones also began interacting with elite members of the Temple in the form of closed meetings.

Jones departed from traditional Pentecostalism in how he defined his powers as well. In the California period, Jones began claiming to have power over death (Q932). Although Pentecostal preachers have been known to make this claim before, it is not common (Hall). The way in which Jones described the source of his powers changed as well. Instead of attributing his powers to God by defining them as “gifts of the spirit,” Jones made a slight variation. No longer did he directly attribute his powers to God, rather, Jones began to state that his powers rose from the true essence of God. In California, Jones began distinguishing between multiple forms of God (Q1032). These forms were the “Sky God,” which was representative of the Christian concept of God, and the essence of God. This concept differs from the belief in the Trinity, which involves God and the Holy Spirit (an essence of God). In the Assemblies of God, it is believed that the Holy Spirit has the power to directly interact with believers. As stated above, it is possession by the Holy Spirit that leads to the uncontrolled behavior of members. In California, when he began referencing the “essence of God,” Jones was not referencing the Holy Spirit. Rather, Jones was describing a formula that was unique to his ideology at the time. This formula was known as Principle. It was described by Jones as follows: Principle=God=Love=Socialism (Chidester). The introduction of the term Principle into the Temple vocabulary was indicative of Jones becoming more openly socialistic and yet still legitimizing himself with biblical imagery.

By describing his powers as emanating from his embodiment of Principle, Jones was able to also claim that his powers emanated from the essence of God, the embodiment of socialism, or both, without appearing contradictory. For example, in 1973, Jones claimed to be the “actual, personal, present-tense of God in a body (Chidester).” In 1974, while admonishing those who believed in God, Jones implied that he was the embodiment of socialism: “You believe in any god other than what you can see in the spirit of socialism, that I happen to be at this moment in time and space incarnated, you must be an idiot” (Q952). In 1973, Jones made another reference to the source of his powers that appeared to attribute his powers to the embodiment of Principle by both referring to an essence of God and socialism: “I’ve been crucified with the revolution…The life that I now live, I live through this great Principle, the Christ, the socialist Principle that was on the day of Pentecost when it said ‘God is love, and love means they have everything in common’” (Q1059 part 1).

The use of the concept of “Principle” in California represents the transition that Jones’ behavior went through in this time period. While Jones can be seen holding onto old vestiges of his identity by still legitimizing himself with biblical references, he also developed new ways to define himself by claiming that his powers emanated from Principle. The concept of Jones’ powers resulting from his embodiment of Principle was different from the concept of “gifts of the spirit.” The “gifts of the spirit” refer to the Pentecostal belief of the Holy Spirit speaking through a person, or briefly inhabiting the body of a believer. Jones, on the other hand, claimed to be constantly embodying Principle. By claiming he was the embodiment of the essence of God and socialism (instead of claiming that he was merely the passive receiver of gifts from God that he did not fully understand, as he did in Indiana), Jones was portraying himself as a more active wielder of power that was not entirely his own. In other words, although Jones was infused with Principle, and could wield the powers that resulted from it, Principle could also exist outside of Jones.

Behavior of Members

During sermons, the behavior of members in the Temple in California was similar to the behavior of members in Indiana. In California, members had the same type of relationship with Jones as had members in Indiana, at least during sermons. Evidence of a “call and response” style of preaching, members’ speaking in tongues and demonstrating the presence of the Holy Spirit through energetic acts continued (Q1016).

At the same time that some of the members’ behavior was similar, their experiences outside of sermons differed from member experiences in Indiana. This was a result of the expanding scope of Peoples Temple operations during this time period. The increased services, fundraising schemes, and possession of real estate allowed members to become far more immersed in the church. For example, the increased amount of real estate belonging to the Temple allowed the members to live communally. Peoples Temple was able to raise a considerable amount of money while in California through a variety of operations, one of them being donation from members. Dedicated members were encouraged to “go communal.” This process would entail members giving all of their possessions to the Temple. In an effort to redistribute wealth, the Temple would then pool such donations in a treasury available to members by request. Afterwards, these members would live in Temple homes with other members (Weightman). In addition, members moving from Indiana who were having difficulty locating their own homes often moved in with other Temple members. It is estimated that there were between 20 and 70 communal homes in San Francisco (Hall).

In addition to communal housing, the expanding services and opportunities offered by the Temple insulated dedicated members from the outside world. Committed members became increasingly isolated from the outside world. Activities such as taking part in traveling between the three Temple churches in San Francisco, L.A. and Redwood Valley or working in care homes or in other Temple business ventures also contributed to this isolation. Even students who belonged to the Temple were able to limit their contact with the outside world (if they chose to) by living in Temple-owned dormitories. This level of isolation did not exist in Indianapolis, where the Temple had a limited range of operations. The effect of the isolation of dedicated members may be best illustrated by examples: when the first negative expose on Peoples Temple hit the press in California, very few dedicated members were even aware of it (Hall).

Meaning of Rituals

The rituals that were conducted in California were similar to the rituals conducted in Indiana, but also represented changes that had been occurring in both Jones’ and the members’ behavior. Although the Temple still operated a baptismal pool underneath the Redwood Valley church, the meaning of water baptisms changed in the Temple during this period. Instead of indicating the acceptance of Christ as a savior, which was in line with a fundamental doctrine of the Assemblies of God, water baptisms came to indicate the acceptance of Principle (which was not necessarily Jones) as the savior (Chidester). The significance of speaking in tongues also changed during the California period. In Indiana, speaking in tongues was indicative of a member being possessed by the Holy Spirit and the acceptance of that member of Christ as a savior. In California, the change in the significance of speaking in tongues reflected the changes wrought by the introduction of the concept of Principle. While Jones and members still spoke in tongues in this period, the ritual was indicative of the acceptance of Christ as a savior as well as socialism. For example, one member speaking in tongues during this period would speak in tongues, end by praising God and state that: “Jim Jones has come to bring socialism to the United States of America. Hallelujah, hallelujah hallelujah!” (Q1016). The concept of Principle replaced the concept of Christ as savior in the Temple vocabulary, and reflecting this, speaking in tongues became indicative of accepting Principle as the savior instead of Christ.

Healings continued to be utilized by Jones as way to draw large crowds to Temple services. Changes in the healings are apparent in the way Jones defined the cancers and in the meaning that the healings were infused with. The “cancers” that Jones “extracted” from the members still appeared to be tumors or bile; however the cause of the cancer was now attributed to the effects of living in a capitalist system rather than mere physical illness. When discussing the new meanings of the healings he had completed, Jones stated: “We’ve delivered those that were crippled from the paralysis of capitalism, we’ve lifted those that were bound by the capitalist, and we’ve set them free to be healed. We can unseat the oppressors” (Q1053 Part 1). The act of the healing also changed, reflecting the way that Jones now defined himself as deriving his powers of healing from the embodiment of Principle. Healings changed to reflect the solution that the formula of Principle represented through its socialist attributes.

Discipline for transgressions of members in California remained at odds with Assembly of God practices. The “corrective fellowship” that was employed in Peoples Temple in Indiana changed in nature in California. In addition, the nature of the discipline for transgressions became more extreme. In California, punishment for transgressions was limited to the members of the Planning Commission, the punishment received by these members was not representative of the punishment that the “rank and file” of the Temple received.

In the Planning Commission, the member’s transgressions were punished more seriously. Beatings and forced sexual intercourse were some of the more extreme measures used against members of the Planning Commission. These punishments were employed in closed meetings of the Planning Commission, outside of the regular sermons. Jones’ role in the punishment in the California period was markedly greater. Rather than encourage members to confront other members on their own initiative, Jones actively presided over the punishment. In California, amongst the Planning Commission, Jones determined which of the transgressions of members were to be discussed, as well as selected the punishment that they deserved (Weightman). Jones taking a more active role in punishment rituals during the California period corresponds with his portrayal of himself as the embodiment of Principle.


Unlike the transition between Indiana and California, the Temple became a radically different organization in Guyana. Rather than the gradual change in behaviors and rituals that characterized the Indiana and California eras, the Guyana period was marked by rapid change and drastically altered ideology.

Behavior of Jones

During this period, Jones made a complete break with his Pentecostal roots. In California, Jones had used the Bible to justify his logic. Although he discredited the Bible as an invention of a slave trader, King James, Jones stopped using the Bible to legitimize himself and ceased referring to the Bible completely in Jonestown. Jones also ceased interacting with his followers through sermons, and in the Guyana period large meetings known as “People’s Rallies” replaced the use of sermons. The role of the People’s Rallies was broad, and often the rallies would serve multiple purposes. Administrative planning, public chastisement of members, and quizzes on the daily news are some examples of what could occur in such a meeting. In Indiana, Jones attributed the source of his powers to the gifts of the spirit, and then later, in California, to his embodiment of Principle. In Guyana, Jones eliminated the essence of God from the formula that represented Principle. In Guyana, Jones referred to his powers as a result of his embodiment of socialism alone. In this time period Jones also ceased to be a conduit to a greater power. By eliminating God from the Principle formula, the source of his power that existed outside of himself, Jones asserted that the powers he possessed came from inside of himself. This made Jones the only source available to his members regarding the type of powers that he possessed.

Behavior of Members

The behavior of the members of Peoples Temple in the Guyana period began to change and while the “call and response” relationship existed between Jones and his followers during meetings, member participation in meetings increased significantly. The members were no longer confined to only responding at specific times or expressing signs of the spirit. Instead, members in Guyana were called upon to ask questions, make statements, and even co-facilitate some of the meetings of the People’s Rallies. These meetings were far more reliant on the contribution of members than the sermons that Jones preached in Indiana and California.

Another significant alteration in member behavior during this period was the result of the isolation and total communal living that the Temple came to represent. In California, only the most dedicated members lived communally in the Temple and isolated themselves from the outside world through constant participation in the Temple’s operations. In Guyana, all of the members of the Temple who chose to migrate south chose to live communally and in total isolation from the outside world. Once a distinguishing feature of the elite members, this lifestyle became the norm for the entire community. One effect of this isolation was the impact it had on the way that members interpreted information about the outside world. While back in the United States, where most members had connections with the outside world that would supplement information they received in the Temple, there was no such balance in Guyana. This gave the information that Jones and the administrative staff passed down to the members of the Temple significantly more weight than before. With no other information to contradict them, Jones and staff were able to increase exponentially the references to threats that faced the Temple, and having no other source of information made members more inclined to believe in the threats that were stated to face them. Only in Jonestown did members believe so strongly in the threats that they interpreted their surroundings and external events in response to these perceptions.

Meaning of Rituals

Rituals also changed significantly once the Temple moved to Guyana. Healings during this time period ceased to exist. In Jonestown, Jones made references to his powers that kept the members of Jonestown safe from harm without former healing rituals.

Rituals also changed as a result of the change in how Jones and the members interacted with each other. As stated above, large group meetings came to replace sermons as the primary means by which Jones and the members interacted with each other. Two types of meetings emerged in Jonestown. One type was the People’s Rally, large meetings that possessed diverse agendas; the other type was the White Night emergency meeting, which centered on incidents that were perceived to be an imminent threat to Jonestown.

Public confessions for transgressions and the resulting disciplinary actions still took place during the Guyana period and were doled out during both types of meetings. Although members’ punishments were public in Indiana and California, they were kept out of the context of the large group gatherings of the Temple. In Guyana, punishments for transgressions were a common feature of the large group meetings of the Temple. The punishments themselves were still as extreme as they were in California, and involved even more measures such as forcing members to keep themselves in protracted positions for long periods of time in front of the entire group. As in California, Jones still led the disciplinary measures in Guyana and pronounced the punishments. However, these procedures changed in character with the incorporation into the large group meetings of the entire Temple. The role of members in the punishments grew significantly. Members would denounce the member being punished, participate in their punishment and bring potential accomplices of the transgressor to the attention of Jones. Just as in the case with the large meetings in general, the punishment of transgressors during this period became far more reliant on the “rank and file” members of Peoples Temple.

A ritual appeared out of White Night meetings that was unique to the Guyana period. These meetings occurred in a context where Jones was believed to be the only solution to deadly threats, and were held due to the perception of those threats as imminent. The ritual that appeared was called “revolutionary suicide.” Revolutionary suicide was introduced by Jones in White Night rituals as a way for members to save themselves from the threats that faced them. In the White Night of 1978 where members first discussed revolutionary suicide, Jones encouraged members to develop a plan for action if fascist forces began to invade Jonestown. Jones did so by suggesting several options (such as fleeing to the Soviet Union or disappearing into the Guyanese jungle), and asking different members to choose one of them. When members selected an option, Jones would criticize and discount the merits of the decision that they chose. Eventually in this meeting, Jones dismissed all options except one: revolutionary suicide. As the meeting wore on, members begin to suggest revolutionary suicide as a reasonable option in response to Jones’ questioning. After a member would make this suggestion, they would have to defend their choice through a rational argument.

Male 15: …I think revolutionary suicide right here would be the answer. I don’t think going into the jungle is the answer, because too many people…I don’t think …would make it, so I think if…the few people…who…would have to be put to sleep, I think…we all should go together…If we do revolutionary suicide right here, our faithful members that’re in the States…I’m sure would take care of our enemies.

Male 16: That’s because…we aren’t going to make no stand, we’re just gone have revolutionary suicide right here and now?

Male 15: No,…I think we should make our demands be known–

Jones: Don’t be intimidated. He does not necessarily disagree with you, he’s… trying to, well, whatever, I don’t want to spoil it. Go ahead.

Male 15: I think we should make our demands be known,…I would think we should, you know, try to stall for time and see if we could…have some…agreement can be made. If…not…then…I don’t think we should back off, but you know, just take our stand [commit revolutionary suicide] right here (Q 643).

In the example from this White Night, Male 15 can be seen having to defend his decision to commit revolutionary suicide under questioning from his peer, Male 16. These members used the meeting as an opportunity where they could make a rational choice to accept Jones’ solution through debate and discussion.

The act of members pledging to commit revolutionary suicide was similar in function to an earlier ritual of Peoples Temple, speaking in tongues. Speaking in tongues in Indiana was initially considered evidence of a member’s baptism in the Holy Spirit, and served to distinguish Assemblies of God Pentecostals from “second class” Christians not baptized as such. Later in California, speaking in tongues came to represent the member’s acceptance of Principle as their savior. Speaking in tongues in California still allowed for the member to think of himself/herself as possessing a greater degree of dedication. In Guyana, the fact that members were making the pledge to commit revolutionary suicide served to distinguish them from other socialists who would be more inclined to compromise their values in the face of adversity. For example, when pledging to commit revolutionary suicide, Temple member Sharon Amos stated:

We are in a socialist country and we found inconsistencies where we are told to compromise our principles, not to feed people, not to advertise or in some… instances give medical care and so…the only way we felt that we could…live as…in practicing our Marxist-Leninist views…was to take our own lives (Q245).

Amos uses revolutionary suicide as a way to distinguish between the level of commitment of the Temple members to practicing socialism and the level of commitment of other socialists. Namely, she implicates the socialist government in Guyana that, in contradiction to its own professed political ideology, during this period allegedly pressured the Temple to abandon some of its practices. The pledge of revolutionary suicide was similar in function to speaking in tongues as a way to distinguish between the dedicated and the less dedicated.

Both practices mentioned above served to make distinctions between members and outsiders, while affording the members an air of moral superiority. At the same time, the greatly different significance of speaking in tongues and revolutionary suicide underscores the shift in Temple ideology that resulted in the dismissal of Pentecostal practices and the assumption of a more secular movement based around Jones’ powers derived from socialism. The practice of speaking in tongues in Indiana showed evidence of the member’s belief in the concept of Holy Spirit baptism, Jesus Christ as their savior and the member’s temporary possession by the Holy Spirit. Ultimately this served to identify them as more dedicated in their acceptance of Jesus Christ as their savior, a fundamental doctrine of the Assemblies of God. Later, speaking in tongues in California showed evidence of a member’s belief in the concept of Principle, a formula that still incorporated Christ, as their savior. In Guyana, the pledge to commit revolutionary suicide first occurred during White Night emergency meetings, which were called in response to the imminent danger perceived to be posed by deadly threats. In the context of these meetings, Jones was seen as the only solution to those deadly threats. When members accepted Jones’ strategy by which to face these threats, through pledging to commit revolutionary suicide, they accepted Jones as a savior from those threats. Both speaking in tongues and revolutionary suicide served to demonstrate the member’s faith in a savior. The replacing of Christ as a savior with Jones in the history of Peoples Temple is apparent in the difference between the significance of these two rituals. This difference is representative of the overall change in the Temple’s ideology over the course of its history.


The question that initiated this examination of Temple history focused on the conditions under which the elements of charismatic authority can coalesce to create a charismatic leader. A review of the history of Peoples Temple shows how these conditions became clearer. As was stated earlier, the main changes in the Temple were the shift of the Temple away from Pentecostal practices and the isolation of the organization that occurred over the years. The review of Peoples Temple history shows the effects that these two changes had on the congregation.

The Temple’s move away from Pentecostalism and religion in general allowed Jones to supplant God, or the essence of God, as the true source of power available to the members of the Temple. Rituals were affected by Jones, and by the growing secular nature of the Temple. Temple rituals in Indiana and California were used to highlight the powers of God and to signify members’ acceptance of God. In Guyana they served to highlight the powers of Jones and members acceptance of Jones’ powers. The absence of religion was also reflected in the ways Jones interacted with his followers. Sermons were replaced with meetings, and these meetings allowed followers more ability to undertake rituals that indicated a bond of obligation between themselves and Jones.

The eventual isolation of Peoples Temple also created important results. While isolation was non-existent in Indiana, and only the truly dedicated members were isolated in California, it was the norm for all members in Jonestown. Isolation from the outside world had the effect of eliminating sources of information that might contradict the belief in threats facing them. This isolation influenced members’ perceptions of the outside world. It distorted the members’ understandings by making them believe that the threats that faced the Temple were behind most external events that affected Jonestown.


The theory of charismatic leadership developed by Philip Smith departs from the majority of the literature regarding charisma. This is due to Smith’s dual focus on both the importance of external and internal social interactions and on the role of symbols, especially threatening symbols. As can be seen from the research conducted above, both social interactions and the use of symbols were important in determining the fate of Peoples Temple.

The use of symbols in Peoples Temple clearly influenced the fate of the organization. In particular, threatening symbols were instrumental in Jones’ rise to charismatic authority. Over the history of the Temple, the importance of threats is apparent. In Indiana and California, during periods that were lacking both threatening symbols and the understanding of Jones as the only solution to those threatening symbols, there was no evidence of a bond of obligation. In Guyana, the period when threatening symbols were a part of the Temple vocabulary and when Jones was able to associate himself with threats in a manner that made him appear to be the only solution to those threats, the evidence of a bond of obligation emerged. Members of the Temple believed in the perceived threats so strongly as to interpret their surroundings as affected by them. Ultimately, this belief led them to accept Jones as a solution to the threats in a manner that was indicative of charismatic leadership.

It is also necessary to recognize that external and internal social interactions shaped the fate of the Temple. With the emergence of threatening symbols and the understanding of Jones as the only solution to those threats, internal and external social interactions took on greater importance. Indeed, the demise of Peoples Temple might have been avoided if there had not been real pressure being exerted upon the Temple from external forces. Factors such as the Concerned Relatives and the congressional delegation led by Representative Ryan were understood as extensions of the threatening symbols that existed within the Temple vocabulary. In this way, external social interactions played a significant role in the fate of the Temple due to their association with threats.

Internal social interactions were equally significant to Peoples Temple. When examining the history of Peoples Temple, the researcher cannot ignore the active participation of members. The increased references to symbolic threats and understanding of Jones as the only solution coincided with the transition in Temple practices from sermons dominated by Jones to meetings that required more member participation. Members played an important role in the Temple by using these meetings to develop a strategy to deal with the threats that they perceived. Members used these meetings to engage in interpersonal interactions that led to the adoption of Jones’ concept of revolutionary suicide. In this way, members greatly affected the Temple through internal social interactions. The evidence of members playing an active role in the outcome of the group through internal social interactions allows for a critique of theories about Jonestown that attempt to discount the agency of the members of the Temple. In fact, as the Temple moved to Guyana and as the mass suicides grew closer, there is evidence of member participation and agency increasing.

The measures for charismatic leadership developed by Smith proved to be applicable to Peoples Temple. This research supports Smith’s theory of charismatic leadership. The use of threatening symbols by Jones and the combination of this use with internal and external social interactions allowed evidence of charismatic authority to emerge.


The limitations of this research stem from the fact that very few members survived the apocalypse at Jonestown. Research conducted about Peoples Temple must be pieced together from primary sources such as recovered Temple property, tapes of the proceedings of some of the Temple’s functions, and firsthand accounts from survivors or defectors.

A significant amount of recovered Temple property, such as internal documents and bulletins, is held by the California Historical Society. For several reasons, these materials were not available for this project. A review of these materials could have made the outcomes of this research more clear.

Transcriptions of tapes recovered from Jonestown played a significant role in this body of work. However, the picture that these tapes paint is not complete. Due to time constraints, this researcher was limited to using tapes that had already been obtained from the FBI through a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Jonestown Institute. More tapes will be transcribed and made publicly available by the Jonestown Institute. In addition, the total amount of tapes available from the FBI may not completely cover the Temple history. Earlier tapes from the Indiana period of the Temple’s existence have aged to the extent that they are inaudible. The limited availability of tapes led to gaps in the sample created by the researcher.

The gaps in available information led to discrepancies between what is shown in the findings and what has been established in firsthand accounts and secondary sources. This inconsistency is most apparent in the results from the Indiana period. In the results gleaned from the sample, while in Indiana, there is no evidence that Jones attributed his powers to a religious being. However, firsthand and secondary sources detailing the life of Peoples Temple all indicate that this was most likely the time when Jones attributed his powers to this source the most.

The limited amount of tapes also made the research less specific than originally desired. The California period of Peoples Temple in this sample is the best example of the effects of this limitation. The more significant shifts away from Pentecostal practices in California began in the 1970’s. In California in the 1960’s, the Temple was, for the most part, still faithful to the Pentecostal beliefs it practiced in Indiana. It would have been more accurate to classify California as two different periods in the Temple’s history; however, splitting the California period into two parts would have required more information from that time. This additional information was not available.

The lack of survivors from the Temple limits the amount of firsthand accounts of life in the Temple. In addition, some memoirs published by defectors must also be carefully weighed. As others have noted, defectors and survivors from the Temple may have felt compelled to revise their experiences in the Temple (Weightman). This may be done through exaggerating the amount of coercion present in the Temple in order to explain why they willingly broke off relations with relatives and friends. In addition, high ranking defectors may revise the story they tell to obscure the role that they played in a group that is now stigmatized by the events of November 18th, 1978.

Areas for Further Research

During the course of this research, the researcher was unable to analyze all aspects of Temple life. Certain phenomena present in Peoples Temple have been left aside, and the questions that an analysis of these phenomena could answer are left unanswered. One intriguing element of Peoples Temple that has been largely ignored in this research is the meetings of the Planning Commission in the California period of the Temple’s existence. The researcher was unable to scrutinize these meetings due to general time constraints; the lack of primary sources detailing the meetings; and the researcher’s reluctance to take firsthand defector accounts of these meetings at face value (due to the fact mentioned above that defectors could potentially change the details to serve their own interests). The Planning Commission meetings were significant in the history of Peoples Temple due to the fact that Jones often introduced concepts or behaviors to this inner circle before they became a part of larger Temple life. In these meetings, Jones behaved quite differently than he behaved in front of the larger congregation. Jones had far greater power in these meetings than he possessed in the larger congregation. It would be interesting to conduct an in-depth examination of these Planning Commission meetings, and determine the root of Jones’ power in this context.

Another interesting question that has been left largely unanswered by this research is the effect that the relationship between Jim Jones and Father Divine had on the fate of Peoples Temple. As was briefly mentioned in the descriptive history of Peoples Temple, Jones and Father Divine had a series of meetings in the late 1950s while the Temple was still located in Indiana. Father Divine, a self-proclaimed black messiah, led an organization known as the Peace Mission. According to second-hand sources, after their meetings Jones began modeling the organizational structure of the Temple and interpersonal interactions inside the Temple on what he had witnessed in the Peace Mission. It would be useful to determine the influence Father Divine had on the major events of the Temple during this period, such as the move to California and Jones’ shift away from Pentecostal ideology.

In addition, research regarding the communal Temple life experienced in California would strengthen this study. As mentioned earlier, Temple members began living communally in California for multiple reasons. It would be worthwhile to ascertain the impact that this method of living had on their lives, and the potential impact it had on their interpretation of the Temple and the outside world. It would be especially valuable if evidence of how these specific members interpreted external events that impacted the Temple existed. This could serve to strengthen the finding in this research, that isolation from the outside world played a key role in modifying the way members perceived their surroundings.

Additional work is required to properly apply Smith’s theory. As stated earlier, Smith’s theory not only represents a new way by which to understand Peoples Temple, but also a means to develop general measures for charismatic leadership. A problem identified earlier was the overuse of the term “charismatic” to such an extent as to render the term meaningless. With the creation of this theory, Smith hoped to restore clarity to the concept of charisma by creating measures that could be used to determine if a leader was truly charismatic.

While Smith’s framework is supported by the history of Peoples Temple, this finding cannot be general without applying this framework to similar cases of leadership to see if the same results appear. In addition, while examining other leaders, it would be useful to examine the differences or similarities in the conditions that are necessary for charismatic authority to appear. The conditions found to lead to the emergence of charismatic leadership in Peoples Temple were isolation and the elimination of any other solutions to perceived threats. By examining the conditions that brought about charismatic leadership in other cases, a researcher could determine if the conditions that allowed charismatic authority to emerge in Peoples Temple are the same conditions that allow charismatic authority to appear in other examples. By applying this theory to other leaders, general measures for charismatic leadership may finally emerge.

Appendix A

Sample of Primary Documents by Year and Tape


Q1058 part 2 and 4





Q1057 part 3









1977 (Fall)



1978 (Spring)





1978 (Fall)




Bibliography Part 1: Literature

Bendix, Reinhard. Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait. London: Methuen, 1966.

Chidester, David. Salvation and Suicide. Indianapolis, Indiana: University of Indiana Press, 1988.

Concerned Relatives. Accusation of Human Rights Violations by Rev. James Warren Jones. 1978. Accessed March 19, 2007.

Conger, Jay. The Charismatic Leader. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass Inc., Publishers, 1989.

Dow, Thomas E. “The Role of Charisma in Modern African Development.” Social Forces 46 (1968): 328-338.

Durkheim, Emile and Mauss, Marcel. Primitive Classification. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press. 1963.

Feinsod, Ethan. Awake in a Nightmare: Jonestown the Only Eyewitness Account. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1981.

Friedland, William.” For a Sociological Concept of Charisma.” Social Forces, 43 (1963): 18-26.

Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, Inc, 1973.

Grunnet, Pat. “Letters From Pat Grunnet.”, 1978. Accessed January, 2007.

Hall, John R. Gone from the Promised Land. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction, Inc, 1987.

Harrison, Milmon. “Jim Jones and Black Worship Traditions.” Peoples Temple and Black Religion in America, ed. Rebecca Moore, Anthony Pinn and Mary R. Sawyer. Indianapolis, Indiana: University of Indiana Press, 2004.

Hoffer, Eric. The True Believer. Harper and Brothers: New York, 1951.

Hoffman, Inge & Hoffman Stanley. “The Will to Grandeur: de Gaulle as Political Artist.” in Philosophers and Kings: Studies in Leadership, ed. Dankwart A Rustow. New York: Braziller, 1970.

Hunt, Lynn. Politics, Culture and Class in the French Revolution. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984.

Kane, Anne. Cultural Analysis in Historical Sociology: The Analytic and Concrete Forms of the Autonomy of Culture.Sociological Theory, 9 (1991): 54-69.

Kilduff, Marshall (1978, June 15). Grim Report. San Francisco Chronicle.

Lewis, I.M. Religion in Context. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Lindholm, Charles. Charisma. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1990.

McClelland, David C. Power: The Inner Experience. New York: Irvington, 1975.

McGehee, Fielding III. Editors Note, 1999. Accessed March 2007.

Melton, J. Gordon. The Peoples Temple and Jim Jones: Broadening our Perspectives. New York: Garland Publishing, 1990.

Mills, C. Wright. Situated Actions and Vocabularies of Motives. American Journal of Sociology, 5 (1940): 904-913.

Moore, Rebecca. “Demographics and the Black Religious Culture of Peoples Temple.” In Peoples Temple and Black Religion in America, eds. Rebecca Moore, Anthony Pinn and Mary R. Sawyer. Indianapolis, Indiana: University of Indiana Press, 2004.

Moore, Rebecca. The Jonestown Letters: Correspondence of the Moore Family 1970-1985. Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1986.

Naipaul, Shiva. Journey to Nowhere: A New World Tragedy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981.

Reiterman, Tim. Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People. New York: E.P. Dutton Inc, 1982.

Schlucter, Wolfgang. Rationalism, Religion and Domination. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

Singer, Margaret. “Coming Out of the Cults.” (1979). Accessed March 1, 2007.

Smith, Philip. “Culture and Charisma: Outline of a Theory.” Acta Sociologica, 43 (2000): 102-11.

Tiryakian, Edward. “Collective Effervescence, Social Change and Charisma.” International Sociology, 10 (1995): 269-281

Towne, Marian. The Oneliest One Alive: Surviving Jonestown, Guyana. Indianapolis, Indiana: M. Towne, 1995.

Weber, Max. On Charisma and Institution Building. Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 1968.

Weightman, Judith. Making Sense of the Jonestown Suicides: A Sociological History of Peoples Temple. Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1983.

Whittle, Thomas & Jan Thorpe. “Revisiting the Jonestown Tragedy.” Freedom Magazine, 29 (2004). Accessed March 19, 2007.

Willner, Ann Ruth. The Spellbinders. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1965.

Bibliography Part 2: Tape Transcripts

Q042, Transcript, ‘Death Tape’ (November 1978), Accessed January 2007

Q050. Transcript, Jonestown meeting (November 1978), Accessed January 2007

Q051 Transcript, Jonestown Meeting (1977-1978), Accessed January 2007

Q135 Transcript, Jonestown Meeting (1977), Accessed February 2007

Q242 Transcript, Jonestown Meeting (1978), Accessed February 2007

Q245, Transcript, Jonestown meeting (October 1978), Accessed January 2007

Q313, Transcript, Jonestown meeting (November 1978), Accessed January 2007

Q323. Transcript, Jonestown meeting (November 1978), Accessed January 2007

Q589 Transcript, Jonestown meeting (April 1978), Accessed February 2007

Q594, Transcript, Jonestown meeting (April 1978), Accessed February 2007

Q612, Transcript, Sermon (1974), Accessed January 2007

Q635, Transcript, Jonestown meeting (1978), Accessed January 2007

Q641-644 Transcript, Jonestown meeting (February 1978), Accessed February 2007

Q757. Transcript, Jonestown meeting (1978), Accessed January 2007

Q833 Transcript, Jonestown meeting (Undated), Accessed February 2007

Q932 Transcript, Sermon (1972), Accessed February 2007

Q952, Transcript, Lecture (November 1974), Accessed January 2007

Q953 Transcript, Sermon (1974), January 2007

Q956 Transcript, Sermon (1973), January 2007

Q965 Transcript, Sermon (1976), Accessed January 2007

Q974 Transcript, Sermon (1973), Accessed January 2007

Q1016 Transcript, Sermon (1972), Accessed January 2007

Q1032, Transcript, Sermon (1972), Accessed January 2007

Q1053 Part 1. Transcript, Sermon (1973), Accessed January 2007

Q1057 part 3 Transcript, Sermon (1973), Accessed January 2007

Q1058 Part 2. Transcript, Sermons (Date Unknown), Accessed January 2007

Q1059 Part 1. Transcript, Sermon (1973), Accessed January 2007.


[1] The defection of eight Temple members in 1973 had more significance than other defections. These eight Temple members desired a more militant approach than Peoples Temple was taking. Jones feared that the eight defectors would commit a violent act that would be attributed back to the Temple. Such a connection would have damaged the Temples reputation, especially in light of the growing hostility of the press that was occurring in the same time period.

[2] The concept of Principle can be understood as a formula. In California, Jones described this formula as: Principle = God = Love = Socialism. In Guyana, Jones modified the formula by removing the reference to God.