Could It Happen Again?

In the aftermath of the deaths at Jonestown, the General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Kenneth L. Teegarden, announced to the news media that in response, the Administrative Committee (the highest governing body in the denomination) would soon take up the issue of instituting a process for “disfellowshipping” a congregation. The reason Teegarden was approached by the media was that Peoples Temple was a congregation in good standing, and Jim Jones a minister in good standing, of the Disciples. But four months later, in a meeting prior to the Administrative Committee meeting, Teegarden told Committee leaders that such a change was not on the agenda. Instead, the denomination would increase the rigor with which it examined candidates for ministry. This change of focus – from the congregation to the minister – implied something about the cause of the disaster in Guyana: If the minister were the problem, then there was no chance anything like Jonestown could happen again. After all, Jim Jones was gone.

Unfortunately, these decisions were made quietly, behind the scenes. They were not publicized in a press release, and the only reason we know about them today is that the Disciples of Christ Historical Society, near Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee holds materials connected to Jonestown, including press releases and Teegarden’s   handwritten notes from meetings about Jonestown.

There were also weighty political reasons for moving in the direction the Committee did. The Disciples were recovering from their most recent denominational split, and many of the issues that tore the group apart were based on which faction had the correct interpretation of the teaching of the founders, Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell. While the two men had disagreed on many things, both were adamant that affiliation with the “brotherhood” was the choice of the congregation, period. There would be no “test of faith,” no measurement of worthiness for membership. The Disciples who remained after the split – the most liberal in the denomination – were reticent to discard any aspect of the founders’ vision, and both the non-creedal stance and ultimate authority at the congregational level were central to that vision.

The denomination has always been proud of its non-creedal stance. Disciples are fond of saying they have “No creed but Christ,” and that the only “test of faith” that could be demanded of a Christian or congregation is belief that “Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God.” The founders were anxious to eliminate all possible causes for division among Christians, and from their perspective, minor issues such as doctrine were chief among those issues. This stance has had both good and bad effects. On the good side, no individual, and no congregation, can be told they are not Christian, or not Disciple, as long as they make the basic affirmation that “Jesus is the Christ.” There is a lot of wiggle room in that statement, and over the years, members have offered many different interpretations of just what exactly the words mean. On the down side, there is no standard against which the theology of a member, a minister, or a congregation can be measured. So a minister can conceivably preach every Sunday that, say, the best form of government is socialism, that he is God, and that “revolutionary suicide” is a valid way to make a statement about one’s faith – as long as the congregation agrees.

Another central point for the founders was that the congregation is the basic unit of church, and that there is no higher human authority by which Christians and congregations can be judged. This belief allows their congregations to avoid what they saw in the 19 th century as the dangers of “Romanism,” and their perception that in an episcopal polity, Christians at the local level could be judged unchristian by a powerful bishop or – worse for them – the pope. The only authority to which a Christian should be subject is the people in the congregation to which he belongs. Those people are the ones, after all, who see that individual in day-to-day life; they are the ones who know him, nurture him, and if necessary, bring him back into the fold if he strays too far from accepted belief and practice. The problem with this perspective is that if a Christian or congregation as a whole colors outside the lines, there is no person or body outside the local congregation that has the authority to do anything about it.

Had Peoples Temple been a congregation of an episcopal denomination – such as the United Methodists, the Presbyterian Church (USA), or the Episcopal Church – then a bishop or the presbytery would have had the authority to investigate any reports of strange goings-on in the congregation. Had Peoples Temple been affiliated with a denomination that adhered to a creed, formal or otherwise – such as Southern Baptist, Church of God, and Catholic Church – then there would be a standard by which to measure the beliefs and actions of individuals and congregations. Someone who did not agree with Jones or with the direction the church was taking could have registered complaints with whatever governing body there was. That body could have investigated and people with authority sent in to try to bring the congregation back to something that more closely resembled traditional Christianity.

It is important to remember that Peoples Temple was a congregation in good standing with the Disciples. In fact, it was more than that: the Northern California/Nevada region was proud of Peoples Temple and featured it in newsletters and at regional meetings. The work the congregation did with the poor, the homeless, the addicted, and others was exactly what a “good” congregation of Disciples would look like in the late 1960s and 1970s. The focus for the liberal remnant left after the denominational split was heavily skewed to social ministries.

Jim Jones, too, was well received. He held elected office and conferred with some very powerful people in the years that the Temple was in the United States. According to notes in the Historical Society files, Jones greatly impressed the men who had to decide whether to ordain him. With the denomination headquartered in Indianapolis, the Temple’s history – especially Jones’ stance on racial equality – was well known to them from the newspaper, if not from ministerial collegiality. No one raised a single objection to Jones’ ordination. On the contrary. His ordination program shows it was a time of great joy for Peoples Temple and the other Disciples of that time and area.

Could it happen again? Unfortunately, it could. The factors that allowed Jim Jones and Peoples Temple to stray from the central revelations of Christianity are still at play. The Disciples are still vehemently non-creedal, and congregational polity is still their standard.

Of course these were not the only factors at play in the Temple’s movement toward being the kind of congregation where White Nights became accepted practice. No other Disciples congregation has gone the direction of Peoples Temple. Nor is it the case that something like Jonestown could only happen in the Disciples. Any denomination/church/sect/cult that has no creed and no one in authority over the local group can produce a group very much like Peoples Temple.

A phenomenon like Peoples Temple is very complex, and the reasons it existed are probably as numerous as the number of people who belonged to it. But a non-creedal posture and congregational polity can remove the safeguards that churches over millennia have imposed in order to keep safe the souls of its members.

(Karen Stroup, Ph.D. was an ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) – serving on the board of trustees of the Disciples Historical Society for six years – and was a professor in religion and psychology. She was also a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her complete collection of articles appear here.

(Dr. Stroup died on January 21, 2012 at the age of 54.)