Why did Peoples Temple alter the words in some of the hymns they sang?

There are a number of examples of songs that Peoples Temple changed, many of them documented in the article “Music as an Expression of Freedom in the Political Theology of Jim Jones and Peoples Temple” by John Brackett on this site. Whether for religious or political purposes – and the mushy boundary between them –  alterations of a song’s words and underlying message was a common practice that was always encouraged and well-received.

While in the States, the reasons were often found in the evolving theology of the Temple: as the congregation came to see Jim Jones as their true Father – rather than  a Christian God – people modified the words of traditional church hymns accordingly. There were other reasons as well, though, as when Jim Jones modifies the second verse in the hymn, “O, the Blood of Jesus” from “Oh, the word of Jesus, it cleanses white as snow” to “black to glow.” “We’re changing it because black isn’t bad, darling,” Jones exclaims. “Black is beautiful!”

There are several tapes in which Jones himself suggests alternate lyrics to a hymn, even as they’re starting to sing it, although oftentimes other members of the Temple – notably Dianne Wilkinson and Loretta Cordell, but also Jack Arnold, Marceline Jones, Anita Kelley, Debbie Evans, Joyce Beam, Melvin Johnson, and Shirley Hicks – made the alterations. “There was no official group to [rework] lyrics,” Don Beck, a former Temple member writes. “Whoever had an idea would work it out alone or others to change words to a song.”

Changed lyrics appear on the Temple’s only recorded album, He’s Able, as well. As Brackett writes, “A seemingly innocuous alteration to the text of ‘Simple Song of Freedom’ is present as the singer changes the line ‘Hey there, mister black man, can you hear me?’ to ‘Hey there, mister rich man, can you hear me?’ (emphasis added by Brackett). This single change … is filled with meaning, as it reflects a desire on the part of Jones and Peoples Temple to rise above divisions based on skin color and focus instead on overcoming divisions based on socio-economic factors.”

After the Temple had relocated most of its members to Guyana, there was no more need for changing religious hymns – since religion was no longer part of daily life – but the musical performances shows that the practice of changing lyrics continued. Joe Cocker’s song, “You Are So Beautiful To Me” became “Guyana Is So Beautiful To Me” to reflect their loyalty to their new home. The song by Dion, “Abraham, Martin and John,” which mourns the assassinations of three American political leaders, also undergoes a transformation to lament the deaths of slain black and foreign leaders – Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Steven Biko – as well as of Guyana’s national hero, Cuffy. Marthea Hicks sings the song on several occasions and may have been the one to change the lyrics.