Was Peoples Temple a church?

Peoples Temple functioned as a church in the early stages of its existence, but it was much more than a religious organization. In San Francisco, it was clearly a social welfare advocacy group and a political organization, and after its members migrated to Jonestown, it was a communal utopian experiment.

In 1954, Jim Jones established the church that would become Peoples Temple. Even though Jones eventually turned against a traditional understanding of a Christian God, the church never lost the denominational affiliation with the Disciples of Christ it acquired in 1960.

Yet even from its earliest days, the Temple championed the plight of the poor, the disadvantaged, and especially racial minorities. Jones’ outreach to Indianapolis’ black population, his church’s efforts to desegregate local hospitals, restaurants, and other public facilities, and even his family’s composition of multiple races led to his appointment to the city’s Human Rights Commission in 1960.

That ministry expanded and became more activist with the Temple’s move to California. A number of Temple members worked for the welfare department of Mendocino County, where Redwood Valley was located. Members also advocated for the poor in San Francisco, appearing alongside them in court hearings, helping them navigate the bureaucracy of city and state welfare offices, accompanying them to doctor and hospital visits, and providing both food and shelter to a number of the urban poor. Time and again, Jones described his work as that of the true Christian church – declaring in one sermon, “We’re the only Christians there are, really” – based upon Jesus’ Parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25 to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the prisoner.

The Temple’s work in the community eventually took on political overtones. Jones opened his pulpit to Chilean refugees, to Native American activists, to pan-Africanist and anti-colonial leaders, and to candidates for public office. Temple members rallied against landlord evictions, canvassed neighborhoods on behalf both of causes and of candidates, and showed up at political demonstrations by the hundreds. Most of the causes were progressive, and most of the candidates were Democratic. George Moscone, who was elected as San Francisco mayor with the help of Peoples Temple, later appointed Jim Jones to head the city’s Housing Authority in October 1976, although the Temple leader held the position for less than a year before his emigration to Guyana.

Most of these characteristics – religious services, social advocacy, political action – fell by the wayside once the bulk of Temple membership had left for Jonestown. Repudiating American society and all of the ills associated with it, the Temple turned inward and concentrated on making the communal experiment work. Indeed, it could be argued that its complete and self-imposed isolation – hundreds of miles from Guyana’s only large population center, thousands of miles away from home – and its mounting struggles to survive as a self-sufficient community contributed to the psychological factors at work on the final day.